Rest easy, no paddlers were harmed during the competition, a timed race that starts at the top of Millrace and ends about a quarter mile downriver near Fisherman’s Rock (aptly named for the anglers often seen fishing from it).
I was among a large crowd of spectators that gathered Saturday afternoon to watch the fun from the dry perch atop boulders near Riverbanks Zoo. The 13th Annual Millrace Massacre was followed by the even crazier Iceman Championships, a paddling race that has contestants swimming with their boats to the finish.
Decked out in dry suits, wet suits and assorted other cold-weather gear, some 60 fearless competitors set out one at a time through the series of rapids known as Millrace, a double-barreled shot of fast-moving water created by the river running over the remains of a twice-dynamited coffer dam.
“What makes Millrace unique is that it’s in a metropolitan area,” said Michael Mayo, who served as the announcer for the event. “There aren’t a whole lot of cities that have whitewater rapids in the middle of their downtown.”
For this event, the river flow was increased to 4,300 cubic feet per second, turning the usually playful Millrace into Class III and IV whitewater. To raise the bar even further, the course was set through the most difficult line, requiring paddlers to navigate past one gnarly hole. It wasn’t enough to get through the churning water without spilling. Competitors had to hit three difficult eddies along the way or lose points.
As expected, the sticky hole ensnared several kayakers and dumped at least six paddlers out of their boats. Safety boaters strategically positioned on top of rocks quickly responded, fishing them out of the water with ropes or pulling them onto rescue rafts.
The top finishers earned the chance to participate in the half-time event, affectionately known as the Redneck Tubing Competition. In this contest, kayakers take to tubes, paddling as quickly as they can through the rapids as the crowd hoots and hollers from the sidelines.
But it’s the Iceman that draws the biggest cheers — and the one that sets apart the men from the boys (girls included). It takes a brave soul to paddle in temperatures hovering below 50 degrees and then purposefully dump into 53-degree water. I was shivering in my long johns and thermal jacket just watching!
Unlike the Millrace Massacre, the Iceman features a mass start with all of the competitors dashing off from the starting line and getting through the rapids anyway they can. Then it’s a hard paddle to the pedestrian bridge at Riverbanks Zoo, circling back to a sandy beach below the rapids to portage to the top for a second run through Millrace.
At this point, the kayakers have to abandon ship and swim with boat and paddle back to the beach. Remember, they are wearing all manner of rubberized suits and booties, making every stroke an Olympic feat.
As they stood on the shore, wet and freezing, they reveled with abandon at their triumph. Indeed!
To learn more about the Lower Saluda or check the current water level, click here.