Chrissy Harper, who guides paddling tours down the Saluda River with River Runner Outdoor Center, says Columbians are often surprised to hear that whitewater exists in the city.
Matt Bowman prepares to ascend a route at Blood Mountain, Ga. on a USC Mountaineering and Whitewater Club trip. Photo by Erin Burke.
By Katie West
Some are South Carolina natives, and some are transplants. Some paddle, some climb and some prefer flying down a snow-covered mountainside on skis. What unites outdoors enthusiasts in this state is a love for sports that can be a little difficult to get to – and an appreciation for what they can find in their own front yards.
Quest for Climbing
Chip Crane works at a climbing gym, but according to him, there are really only three reasons to use it.
“Climate, you know, if it’s too hot or too cold or raining all the time; convenience, so you don’t have to carry all your gear for miles; and conditioning, to practice your technique and stay in shape,” the manager of Spartanburg’s Climb Upstate gym lists off. “Other than that, we really recommend climbing on real rock outdoors.”
An indoor environment, he says, simply can’t compare to the experience of scaling a cliff face with the sun warming your back and the rough texture of sandstone or granite beneath your fingertips.
The problem for South Carolina climbers? Finding a place to have that authentic climbing experience.
The majority of the state is too flat or simply too rockless to accommodate climbers. Much of what does exist is on privately owned land or can only be found by asking around, according to the Southeastern Climbers Coalition. An exception is Table Rock State Park, but climbing there is prohibited January through early August for peregrine falcon nesting season.
“Ideally, we’d be more central to a lot of good climbing, but people here do what they need to do to get outside,” says Cam Hill, manager of The Mountain Goat climbing gym in Greenville.
“It’s definitely a little bit frustrating for everyone.”
In most cases, what the climbers need to do is leave the state. Neighboring North Carolina and Georgia offer more options, from bouldering fields like Rumbling Bald (just south of Asheville) to high cliffs like northeast Georgia’s Currahee Mountain.
These locations require a drive of anywhere from half an hour to half a day for South Carolinians, but climbers say the effort is worth it. Crane and Hill say their gym members organize their own trips nearly every weekend – to places as far away as Alabama and Virginia.
But despite the lack of instate rocks, Crane says South Carolina has some distinct outdoor advantages.
“Any time of year, you can do almost anything you want to because the climate is great, and there’s some really unique geography in the state,” he says. “We’ve got whitewater around Charlotte, the mountains in the Upstate and North Carolina, rivers and lakes everywhere.
“Actually, the frustrating part is getting people to come outside. So many people are still stuck in the Southern ‘sit-in-front-of-the-TV’ culture, you know?”
Urban water opportunities
Blain Foley lived near Linville Falls in the mountains of western North Carolina before moving to Columbia just over two years ago. The difference in lifestyle is definitely there, he says, but urban areas aren’t necessarily a bad thing for outdoor lovers.
“It was convenient to have access to all the climbing, all that paddling, endless cycling kind of in your backyard, but at the same time, you tend to be more isolated from the rest of society,” says Foley, coordinator of Outdoor Recreation at the University of South Carolina. “You end up living in these small mountain towns, so it’s a really small, tight-knit community to some extent, whereas if you’re living in a city, for the most part, you’re going to have to travel.
“So I don’t mind driving two to three hours. It just makes for a little bit longer of a weekend, I guess.”
Between his job and his personal trips, he says he leaves the city upwards of 20 times a year to kayak, backpack and climb. But fortunately for Foley, who would rather be playing in rapids than doing anything else, Columbia is home to a surprising resource: whitewater. Parts of the Saluda and Congaree rivers are prime locations for beginners and more advanced paddlers to spend an afternoon or all day splashing around, he says. In fact, the stretch of the Saluda between Lake Murray and downtown Columbia contains everything from flatwater to class V rapids, defined as “expert” on the International Scale of River Difficulty.
Matt Bowman, a USC student from Lexington, can attest to the rivers’ appeal. He worked as a river guide at Adventure Carolina during high school, and he remembers being worried about staying active in college – until he discovered the Mountaineering and Whitewater Club, which offers trips every weekend.
Now, he’s the club’s president, and he’s quick to point out that while some activities, like caving and skiing, require leaving the state, he also makes an effort to introduce members to local spots.
“We don’t want to forget about our local community here. There’s still a rich array of outdoor activities to do here in South Carolina as well,” he says. “I don’t want to seem like we have to get out of the state in order to enjoy the outdoors, because that’s not true.”
Billy Brown, who works at The Backpacker in Columbia, says Columbia strikes a good balance.
“You can look at it bad, like we’re two hours from the beach and two hours from the mountains,” he says. “Or you can look at it good, that we’re in the middle of it all. It’s not a horrible location.”
South Carolina transplant finds his calling
Scott Szczepaniak first saw the signs in 1991.
He was doing work for the Coast Guard in Washington D.C. when someone mentioned kayaking to him. He flipped open a magazine on the plane ride home to Plymouth, Mass., and landed on an article about sea kayaking – a niche activity that he didn’t even know existed. The next Sunday, he read an article about the water sport in Plymouth’s paper.
“I figured someone was trying to tell me something,” Szczepaniak says. “I went to a shop the following weekend and left with a 17-foot kayak.”
A kayaking festival on James Island introduced him to the South Carolina coast, and he moved there on a whim less than a year later. He opened Sea Kayak Carolina in Charleston in 2008, and now he spends his days selling kayaking, giving lessons and leading tours around the islands – which is how he met his wife.
Szczepaniak is a self-proclaimed Yankee, and he sees South Carolina from an outsider’s perspective. Obviously a sea kayaking community existed here before he arrived on the scene, and he’s seen it grow even since 2008. His business attracts both locals and tourists, he says.
But he thinks other aspects of the state’s outdoors scene go unnoticed by locals.
“My wife and I hiked on the Palmetto Trail on Sunday through the Francis Marion Forest. It was a beautiful day. In 10 miles, we only happened to pass four other hikers on this beautiful trail. The message I took away from that is that folks obviously don’t know what they’re missing,” he says.
And this is where his outsider’s eye comes in handy.
“When I moved here in 2002, I had the professional opportunity to move to any coastal environment in the country, and I chose Charleston,” he says. “I’ve never regretted it.”