Who says you have to go to the Upstate to experience the thrill of paddling a whitewater river? The Midlands is giving the mountains a run for its money with the Lower Saluda, a 10-mile stretch of cool, clear water offering a number of Class I to V rapids.
You'll find the wildest whitewater in the shadow of Columbia's downtown. The big guns here are 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. At the usual 350 cubic feet per second - blue on the water-level color bar - it's graded as a high Class II to III.
But look out when the water flow tops 10,000 cfs! At this point, the playful Millrace turns into a menacing Class IV-V, kayaker-churning machine. Only the most experienced paddlers should attempt the rapids at the red level.
Last weekend, I joined an intrepid group of beginner and advanced paddlers running 6.5 miles of the Saluda from the Gardendale/SCE&G Landing to the Gervais Street Bridge in the Capital City. The put-in is located on Garden Valley Lane off Bush River Road near Interstate 20.
The river was running about 600 cfs, well within the lower level blue range. It was easy paddling as we cruised the refreshing 50-degree waters, released from deep within Lake Murray through the Saluda Shoals Dam. With very little development along its shores, this section of the peaceful piedmont tributary has been designated a State Scenic River.
Just when we were nearly lulled into a state of complete serenity, we were brought back to reality by "Oh, Brother," a humorously named Class I rapid. A short while later we came to Stacy's Ledge, more Class I whitewater, but with a bit more wallop. The one-two punch made for a good warm-up for what awaited us downriver.
We could hear it before we could see it. The sound of rushing water was a clear warning of the looming Millrace. We stopped upriver near Riverbanks Zoo and Garden to assess the multi-tiered Class II-plus rapids. After determining the best line to follow, the more experienced kayakers paddled ahead, positioning themselves in eddies to rescue anyone dumped from their boat by the powerful torrent of water.
Paddle the Lower Saluda River
The plan was to take the rapids in two bites, stopping at an eddy between the two drops to regroup and reevaluate our next move. Wasting no time, the rapids took its first victims on the top half, piling several kayakers onto rocks just above the falls.
But the real carnage came in the second, more treacherous half. Several in the group were tossed upside down or pushed onto rocks, requiring assistance from the safety kayakers. One paddler came out of his boat and rode the rapids in the swimmers position - floating on his back with his feet downstream, toes out of the water and arms out. He reunited with his boat in the eddy below the rapid, wet, but unharmed.
Although I have paddled through Millrace several times in the last year, I was still a little nervous when it was my turn to make the run. I picked my line and paddled like the devil, avoiding all the rocky obstacles and watery traps. It was 10 seconds of pure exhilaration!
Up ahead was the always-fun pop-up hole. A lot of kayakers like to roll through the drop to add excitement to the Class I-II rapids. I was happy to "woohoo" my way through it. A few of us stayed behind, paddling upstream to surf the hole. The idea is to paddle your kayak straight into the foam and keep the water from pushing your nose one side or the other and off the rapid.
We had a chance to catch our breath for a half-mile or so before reaching Shandon rapids, also rated Class II whitewater. My favorite rapids in the course, it bounces you around, dropping you in and out of the whitewater with reckless abandon.
A wave train and several shoals later, we were at the Gervais Street Bridge, tired but elated with the day's adventure.
Paddlers interested in kayaking or canoeing the Lower Saluda should be aware that water-flow conditions can change dramatically when water is released by the hydroelectric power facility at Lake Murray. SCE&G provides updates on the river conditions at its website. To check the water level and learn more about the Lower Saluda, click here.