The Catawba River has been recognized as one of the most endangered rivers in the U.S. like a rivers surface everyone sees the overhangs and sweepers. unfortunately so many overlook the rocks and submerged logs that lie beneath. I just recently returned from a trip in that area and from what I saw it is fighting a war on two fronts.
Rafting down a river is something that has always been on my to do list. For me, the bug bit me early in life. it was 1978. well it was seventy something anyway. I saw my first raft, in a sears catalog and had to have it. it was a small blue and white two "man"/ person inflatable. in those days you could use that term without sending an entire gender through the roof of the astrodome. I saved my allowance and picked up bottles on the side of the road, returning them to the local wooden general store at 8 cents a piece until, I had the $19.99 to give to my parents to order the raft. It was not manufactured from the durable PVC you find on todays market. there were no swivel oar locks, aluminum oars, gear pouches, oar clips or thwarts, and a motor mount on a raft back then was unheard of. it did come with a set of two piece plastic oars that screwed together with a pvc coupling. its oar locks were rubber, welded to the tube. it had a wrap around rope, braided nylon the best I can recall. one air chamber filled the floor, one filled the tube. no air pump, so the only way to fill it was by lung power! it didn't take long before I was lightheaded trying to force the air into those tubes, age 8, my first buzz without a beer, imagine that. stored inflated on my Grandmothers screened in porch, I got three years of three seasons on Core Sound out of that raft before the seams finally wore out. I remember hauling the boat on my back down to the beach barefoot tip toeing through sand spurs. you may be wondering why I didn't just put on a pair of tennis shoes? maybe, its because I only had two pair. my school shoes, and my church shoes. and if I had ruined either one of them I would probably have been facing a fear far worse than any sand spur, Parapad, or red ant hill. or maybe, it was for the same reason I never wore a life preserver, or a bicycle helmet, or a seatbelt for that matter. the same reason why I skateboarded with no knee and elbow pads, climbed trees without a safety harness, built a tree house without a permit. after all, it was again 1970 something. the passion I had for the sport fell into a remission with the passing of the Maui Hawaii.
When my parents moved into their new house I was twelve, and no longer allowed to enjoy my summer break from school. I had to work on my fathers commercial fishing vessel. We would leave the dock around 4:00 pm and not return until around 8:00 am the next morning. Sun-Fri. although I tried like hell to aggravate my father so bad he would fire me, he never did. I guess there just ain't no rest for the wicked. Life took off from there, like an Osprey after a trout.
It wasn't until years later when I was surfing the internet that I saw a raft that caught my eye. I was amazed at the quality of materials and craftsmanship that went into these modern boats. Of course, I know, about NRS, Solar, Hyside, etc. I even know that Avon makes a raft that is considered by many to be one of the best in the world. provided you can get your hands on one. even still I know your going to pay five to twenty thousand dollars on one of these rafts and a setup. like most people I can not see my self spending that kind of money for one or two trips a year in this economy.
I purchased the Intex Seahawk II (Mariner III version) a few years ago. after much research, guide books and a national geographic map of the river, I was originally going to run the south fork of the New River on a multi day. that didn't quite pan out. I got together with some friends of mine who happen to be from western N.C. I told them that I had been planning a trip to the mountains and what I wanted to do. my wife had no interest in that venture. she was however worried about me going by myself. a few weeks later my friends ask me if I wanted to go up to spend the weekend at lake james, where I could run the Catawba river. at first I was reluctant. after all there are parts of that river I do not want to run in my model of boat. He grew up in that neck of the woods and assured me the stretch he was going to put me in was no more than swift water and a few ripples.
There at the campground I got to spend some time with his circle of family and friends and listened to their stories of life in the cradle of the mighty Blue Ridge mountains. I discovered that these people were not so much different than me. They were intelligent, hard working, polite, humorous with a zest for life that I had lost a long time ago. They have a sense of self reliance, yet are not so self centered that they won't extend a hand to someone in need. people waved wether they knew us or not. the people in the town that I grew up in was like that once. it was just before the local fish market crashed and not long after the wealthy sports fisherman lobbied in congress to shut us down. with the fishing many small businesses went under. Mom and Pop stores, some people call them.
Saturday came and it was time. we loaded my Seahawk in the back of my friends truck. I removed the plastic oar towers and built an aluminum frame for the raft with NRS towers. it will hold a 32 quart cooler and of course my seat. next I purchased a good set of oars. on this trip I even carried a canoe paddle for backup. in the bow was a dry bag secured with a cargo net hung from bungie cords that contained a fresh change of clothes, just in case. I carried a dry box in the stern along with some other dry storage containers clipped to the eyebolts that are welded to the inside of the tubes. I even brought and wore my life jacket. I was ready for this adventure.
They took me to a small restaurant called Dolphin Fish Camp off US 221. just off the parking lot, across a small clearing is a not so beaten path to the river. maybe fifty feet and not a high drop at all.
The river water was cool and clear and according to my friend it was running a little higher and swifter than usual but nothing to be alarmed about. I set out alone, which I have done many times before. aahh. peace and quiet all to myself, I took a deep breath and smiled as I drifted the first 100 yards of the river. on the river right you will see riverbreeze campground and RV. a little development on the river left not much. peaceful though. for me no sooner than I get past the first set of ripples, my cell phone rings. I opened my dry box, and answered. it was a friend who I hadn't heard from in awhile. I told him, man your not going to believe where I'm at. I told him I'm on the Catawba river getting ready to line up on a rapid, I had to go and that I would call him back. I did later. This stretch of river is extremely shoaly. with a rock bottom. I've been watching out for shoals my entire life when on boats. reading water depth in this river wasn't much different. I did manage to scrape across a shoal on the first rapid. I'll blame that on the distraction of the cell phone. there are a few obstacles, large rocks, a large fallen tree across half the river containing a broken off limb just below the waterline halfway down the trunk. a rock shoal is in the center of the river where the top of the tree lays. a narrow channel is to river left with some low sweepers. I drifted over the tree trunk on river right, a swift drop follows. there are two twin hydraulic holes side by side. they are not large enough to be a keeper but definitely a staller. Sweepers are all over the banks of this river. did I mention that the river is shoaly, well times that by two. follow the deep water and you'll be fine. the stretches of rapids are often separated by swift flat water. the banks are high and there are few places to eddy. not that your going to need to. there is some development along the banks in the first stage but not a lot. the river meanders quite a bit nothing out of the norm a few horseshoes bends. there is a hard dog leg to the right your going to have to dig a little to stay off the far side bank. the river continues swift water and ripples followed by an occasional flat keeping the float lively until you reach on your river left a small set of landing docks. the first possible take out at DeerField Lake and campground. the float took me two hours and ten minutes. I did not make prior arrangements with the campground. so, I paddled on to my preset destination in Lake James. there is one stretch of swift water after Deerfield after that it is all flat water where paddling is desired and according to the wind direction may be a neccesity.
This is where you head off into a shallow abis. if you look at the satellite photos you will see nothing by trees for the next few miles that drape over the river creating a canopy where the temperature drops five to ten degrees. it feels like your stepping into your air conditioned home on a hot summer day. its a refreshing break. My friend calls this the Anaconda, it reminds him of the movie, it is beautiful and full of wildlife. there are a few small caves. I would not suggest exploring. very few people you'll see on this stretch the ones that you do wave and smile. there are few places to beach here that do not have no trespassing signs. I was lucky to find one. I needed to stretch my legs, as I felt them falling asleep. the next sign of civilization you will see is a few homes just before the Yancey Road Bridge. I am not sure you can take out here. the bank looked steep and well wooded. There is a canal that serves as a shortcut you can take just before the last horseshoe bend in this section. it really doesn't matter your going to end up in the same place. just around the bend you will see a railroad bridge. listen for the whistle it would be unwise to be under that bridge when the train comes through. it jettisons gravel rock. quickly paddle past it. I took river left here around the upcoming island at the south forks mouth. I saw a huge walleye just swimming in about six inches of water. Part of me wanted to catch him, but I was so relaxed from this trip, my mind at ease. I remember a charlomy. "Live and Let Live" as I watched him gracefully swim away. he was beautiful. from there I paddled to Burnettes Landing and Campground where I took out. the whole trip took me four and a half hours. keep in mind that I was in a raft, Kayaks and canoes are faster, and I was paddling for two hours in slow current, and into the wind.
This was my first white water experience with a mountain fed river. It was everything I hoped it could be. I would say the first stretch I described was a class I+. the second would be Class A. difficulty: easy money.
There are a few other RV sites around the lake. my source tells me that tent camping is no longer allowed. I did see one beach that had two tents pitched. million dollar homes surround the lake. the housing communities are doing everything they can to stop primitive camping and shut down the RV parks. to them, its an eyesore. Buisiness and private land owners are reluctant to allow launching and recovery of boats. my fear is that continued development will lead to an atmosphere where there will be no place for the average wage earning citizen to breath in this area. Why should there be only a select few to enjoy this beautiful river and lake? Live and Let Live.
The campgrounds and RV parks are friendly with clean bathhouses. I saw the guy cleaning ours at least twice a day. in town there motels that appeared well kept up.
Put in: Dolphin Fish Camp 2334 US 221 Marion N.C. Or 221 Bridge Take out: Deerfield Lake and Campground Marion N.C. Take out: Burnettes landing and Campground Marion N.C. be sure to ask permission prior to put in and take out.