Columbia’s Millrace Massacre

By:Marie McAden

Date:9/16/2014

Columbia’s Millrace Massacre — a wild winter kayaking event on the Lower Saluda River — lives up to its ominous name, delivering plenty of carnage on the famed Millrace rapids, a double-barreled shot of fast-moving water created by the river running over the remains of a twice-dynamited coffer dam.

Held in the frigid month of January, the timed race 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.

Each year, a large crowd of spectators gathers to watch the fun from the dry perch atop boulders near Riverbanks Zoo. The Annual Millrace Massacre is 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, dozens of fearless competitors set out one at a time through the series of rapids.

“What makes Millrace unique is that it’s in a metropolitan area,” said Michael Mayo, who has 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 is increased, turning the usually playful Millrace into Class III and IV whitewater. To raise the bar even further, the course is set through the most difficult line, requiring paddlers to navigate past one gnarly hole. It's not enough to get through the churning water without spilling. Competitors have to hit three difficult eddies along the way or lose points.

Undoubtedly, the sticky hole will ensnare several kayakers and dump some of them out of their boats. Safety boaters are strategically positioned on top of rocks to respond quickly, fishing them out of the water with ropes or pulling them onto rescue rafts.

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 that can hover around freezing and then purposefully dump into 53-degree water.

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.

To learn more about the Lower Saluda or check the current water level, click here.

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