Grab a paddle and prepare to shove off—kayaking as a leisure sport is on the rise nationwide, and the Upstate offers prime action
Centuries before Conestoga wagons ferried adventurous frontiersmen like Lewis and Clark three-quarters of the way across our country, the early canoe opened the door to some of North America’s most unexplored reaches. Because when seventeenth-century European explorers and Native tribes before them went in search of new land, it was the canoe, even in its most primitive form, that made discovery possible in all corners of our great continent.
It was the original vessel of exploration, which is, perhaps, why its design survives to this day.
Modern kayaks, with their ultra-light, plastic polyethylene frames and sophisticated designs, are a far cry from the original hollowed-out trees that carried our country’s earliest descendants and settlers down raging rivers and across tranquil streams. And yet they are, in some ways, not so different from the rowing vessels of our ancestors. Drawing heavily on a “heritage of exploration,” modern hulls are designed to carry a maximum amount of gear, emphasize speed, and maximize seaworthiness.
Unlike our descendants who relied on boats for many of their everyday tasks, such as transporting people and food, modern-day paddling is all about fun and leisure. One of the fastest-growing, outdoor-adventure sports in the country, kayaking appeals to a wide range of individuals and includes all ages, interests, skill levels, and abilities. Some kayak in search of solitude; others get into kayaking to spend quality time with friends and family. And still others are thrill-seekers, in hot pursuit of an adrenaline rush or just the liberating feeling of being in moving water.
But no matter how intense the ride, one thing always remains true when traveling by kayak: You escape our everyday cacophony and hear Mother Nature instead. And her voice, melodic and intoxicating, is what brings us back to the water again and again.
Tour of the South
Touring the wilderness by water is much like breeching a secret passage into an undiscovered hideout, which is perhaps why Wildwater Adventure Centers, founded in the Upstate more than 40 years ago, has been so popular with kayakers and rafters. Shooting rapids has been a way of life for Jeff Greiner, whose parents, Jim and Jeanette Greiner, founded Wildwater Adventure Centers as a rafting company in 1971 in the Upstate’s Long Creek community. Today, the company is the oldest outfitter in the Southeast, and now Jeff is helping to run it. He oversees all sales and marketing, as well as expansion into new activities such as zipline canopy tours, but Jeff never misses a chance to explore the Upstate, Western North Carolina, Tennessee, and beyond by water. Sea kayaking in Charleston is another favorite for the long-time paddler.
“The Chattooga River in particular has an easier section, along with a more adventurous section, and it offers a longer trip than most other rivers in the Southeast—between five and seven hours,” says Greiner. “It’s well worth the time invested. You’re seeing something that there’s really very little of in the Southern U.S.—a perfect mixture of great whitewater and scenic wilderness.”
It takes only a modest amount of instruction to attain basic skills and to experience a high degree of success for calm-water kayaking. Unlike so many other outdoor sports (snowboarding and waterskiing, for example) that have a difficult learning curve, paddling comes more naturally. And yet it still offers a tremendous core and upper-body workout, burning up to 400 calories or more per hour and fitting seamlessly into any fitness-training regimen. Whitewater kayaking takes a little more time to perfect but is time well spent to access even more water resources.
The Upstate is reeling with opportunities for those wishing to try out their lake, pond, and river legs (and it’s only a short drive to the coast to test out those sea legs). Because of its central location between the mountains and the beach, not to mention all the lakes and ponds in between, this is a prime location for paddling. Wildwater’s Chattooga Adventure Center offers kayak tours on nearby Lake Tugaloo—an easy, guided, four-hour paddle for ages five and up that highlights waterfalls, wildlife, and beautiful scenery. Whitewater instruction is also available for those looking for more action. In order to be safe and proficient, you will need at least a basic foundation of skills before you get out on the water. Lessons from a certified instructor are a perfect way to start. They are fun and informative, and they can be completed in a remarkably short amount of time.
Many retailers, including Sunrift Adventures in Travelers Rest, also rent equipment, so you can try out different types of kayaks before making an investment. The Upstate’s Foothills Paddling Club is another great way to meet kayakers, learn of the region’s different bodies of water, and get involved in clinics, demos, and festivals. With the entire summer to brush up on your strokes, what are you waiting for? The water’s fine, and the kayaks are local. It’s a match made in boating heaven, for sure.
Kayaks on the Homefront
The Upstate is home to dozens of distinctive places to kayak or canoe—from the boiling rapids of the Chattooga River to the placid and scenic waters of Lake Jocassee. Less known, perhaps, is that the Upstate is also home to one of the world’s most distinguished makers of kayaks and canoes: Confluence Watersports.
Confluence’s kayaks, canoes, and whitewater boats can be found from Alaska’s Matanuska River to the mangroves of Grand Bahama and everywhere in between. Unbeknownst to many, the company is headquartered in Easley, where it also manufactures world-respected brands such as Dagger and Mad River Canoe. The kayaks and canoes produced locally range from recreational kayaks to high-performance whitewater boats.
“When it comes to kayak design, the most basic concept to understand is this: the longer the kayak, the faster; the wider the kayak, the more stable,” explains Sue Rechner, chief executive officer of Confluence.
Stability is less an issue for recreational kayaks, she says. These are designed for use on ponds, small lakes, and water with little to no flowing current. Sit-on-top and stable sit-inside designs make these boats appealing to novice paddlers, although they’re also an ideal option for families and those who routinely take to calmer waters. With molded-in seat and footbrace systems but no actual cockpit to get down inside of, sit-on-top kayaks are also widely used by kayak fishermen who prefer the freedom of not being confined to a cockpit and yet have the stability of recreational-style boats.
Confluence’s touring and sea kayaks are more performance-minded and are generally intended for use in larger bodies of water with the potential for challenging conditions like wind and waves. These boats tend to be longer, sleeker, and narrower than recreational kayaks, making them move faster, track truer, and paddle more efficiently through the water. They are meant for paddling longer distances and offer more storage space than traditional kayaks.
For those in search of less serenity and more thrill, there’s no shortage of whitewater kayaking options in the Upstate and just beyond in Western North Carolina. From roaring class IV rapids to lazier, more scenic rivers, whitewater kayaking offers a wide range of on-water experiences. Whitewater paddlers are most likely to spend their time doing one of three things: creeking, river running, and playboating.
Creeking involves technical paddling of “steep creeks” and is likely to include scaling ledges, slides, and waterfalls by kayak on tight rivers. Whitewater kayaks like the Dagger Nomad, are designed with extra volume for added buoyancy and to maximize safety. They are maneuverable, forgiving, and stable, even in the gnarliest whitewater. River running is, as the name implies, getting from point A to point B on a river and experiencing everything in between. Less technical and probably more appealing to those wishing to ease into whitewater kayaking, it can be thought of as a tour downriver to enjoy the scenery, as well as the challenge of whitewater.
The Upcountry’s best spots for kayaking
The idea of an ideal paddling spot is as subjective as a great kayak itself. One man’s junky piece of plastic is often another man’s glorious creation of sculpted polyethylene. Similarly, paddlers tend to develop their own preferences in kayaking style and location. Whether seeking an adrenaline rush, a fun outing with the family, or an opportunity for solitude, here are a few of the more popular spots to shove in around the Upcountry.
Stretching through Oconee and Pickens counties, this 7,500-acre, crystal-clear mountain reservoir is fed by four clean, cold Appalachian rivers, offering lush inlets and cascading waterfalls. Home to Devils Fork State Park, development is scarce around and on the lake, so if you’re hoping to get away from the crowds, you’re in luck.
Arguably one of the top ten rivers for whitewater kayaking in the country, the Chattooga River is a designated National Wild and Scenic River and serves as the border between Georgia and South Carolina for 40 miles along the western Oconee County line. Yes, it was featured in the 1972 thriller, Deliverance. But don’t be deterred. This river is ideal for all levels and types of whitewater kayaking (including for playboating—to practice “tricks” and skills). Separated into four sections, it offers the gamut in classes of rapids.
Don’t underestimate the water flowing through your backyard. The Reedy River, a tributary of the Saluda River, flows through the Upstate including downtown Greenville, creating class I to III river-running and even some creeking opportunities. (While not condoned, you can spot the occasional kayaker running the falls in Falls Park after a decent rain). The Reedy and Saluda rivers also offer an interesting marsh-like inlet where they feed into Lake Greenwood in Laurens County, easily explored in recreational or touring kayaks but not accessible by motor-powered boats.
Winding through Spartanburg and Union counties, the south end of the Tyger River offers moving flat water scattered with scenic class I and II rapids—perfect for beginner whitewater paddlers—while the north end offers class II and III rapids. Great for day trips, the Tyger also offers camping areas scattered along the banks if you want to make an overnighter of your paddling excursion.
Rock the Boat
British expat and kayak designer Mark Robertson has turned his passion for paddling into a wicked vocation with Easley-based Confluence Watersports
Mark “Snowy” Robertson designs more than just kayaks—he crafts experiences. And for Greenville rapids-junkie Ben Peters, the sport isn’t just about taking a casual trip downstream. “From appreciating the beauty and awe of being on the water, to the enjoyment of paddling with friends, the concentration required of the challenges ahead on the river, and the pure exhilaration of completing those challenges, kayaking gives me the opportunity to let go and block out all of my outside worries and concerns,” Peters says.
Peters is just the kind of enthusiast that Robertson (who was christened “Snowy” as a child à la the fox terrier of the French cartoon The Adventures of Tintin) has in mind as he designs each new boat for the Dagger brand of kayaks at Confluence Watersports, based in Easley (located on Kayaker Way, naturally). The company employs more than 500 people in the U.S. and Canada and includes Dagger, Wilderness Systems, Perception, Wave Sport, Mad River Canoe, Adventure Technology, Bomber Gear, and Harmony brands. Robertson moved to Greenville from England nearly nine years ago to work as the chief boat and product designer for Dagger, and he says this area is “world-class for kayaking,” noting that the Nantahala Outdoor Center in nearby Bryson City, NC, is a world-renowned instructional school.
The avid paddler, 33, has kayaked for the past 24 years. His father introduced Mark and his older brother, Paul (a professional two-time World Champion freestyle kayaker), to the sport early on—and Mark rocketed, representing Britain in 2002 at the Freestyle Kayak World Championships in Austria, and then Wales in 2005 at the Surf Kayak World Championships in Costa Rica. His design work is on par with a class-VI rapid (or the pinnacle to die-hards). He led the design team for the award-winning Dagger Green boat, which took tops in 2009 at the Green River Narrows Race. “We were also able to make it a commercial reality, so it was gratifying to see not only its successes in the hands of our athletes but also to the mass market,” he says.
It’s not surprising that the question he gets most is “what happens if I flip over?” (It happens.) “We try to mitigate those preconceived fears and make you understand that it is a safe sport and it’s very approachable,” he says. “The feeling I get from the freedom of flowing down a river and just being able to glide fairly effortlessly—whether that is on flat water or even turbulent whitewater—when you’re in control of your kayak and kind of at one with the water, it’s pretty exceptional.” No wonder they call it the great outdoors. —Jac Chebatoris