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Boozin’ on a Budget: Rules of the Catawba River Float

How not to ruin it for everyone else

Our series of articles about getting outside in the Charlotte area to be active on the Carolina Thread Trail network and Catawba River is presented in partnership with local orthopedic-care provider OrthoCarolina.


Boozin’ on a Budget is a series of articles in which we hit different parts of town drinking cheap booze and usually follow some sort of theme (game bars, nice patios, etc.). In light of our recent partnership with OrthCarolina, for which we focus on the history, impacts and opportunities of the Catawba River and Carolina Thread Trail, we thought it would be fun to bring some folks onto the river in a special edition of Boozin’ on a Budget: Rules of the River Float. 

Six of us got together to float down the Catawba from Fort Mill to Rock Hill in South Carolina, just a 30-minute drive from Charlotte. Our team consisted of the following: Ryan Pitkin and Justin LaFrancois with Queen City Nerve; John Searby with Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation; Adam Bratton with MJ Bratton and Human Powered Movement; and Lillian Parker and Amanda Bishop with OrthoCarolina.

We took to the tubes, boozed it up a bit and discussed what you should know before you take a river float, among other things. After inflating our floats in the parking lot, we prepared for departure.

At the Fort Mill access point, located just below the Lake Wylie Hydro Dam, 2541 New Gray Rock Road, Fort Mill. It is 3:22 p.m. 

John: They’re going to do a scheduled release at 4 p.m., which means we got a rain storm coming, so they have to let water out of the lake. So at 4 o’clock they’re going to start releasing water out of the lake and this is going to go from kind of calmly moving to not calmly moving. 

Lillian: Is there somewhere we can find information about the releases and currents?


John: Before I would even leave my house, there would be two things I would do. I would download Duke Energy’s app. They have a link you can click on there that says “Release schedule,” and it will tell you the release schedule for whatever day you’re about to go float. The other one would be, I would download the Catawba Riverkeeper app and download the Swim Guide. We sample every week from Memorial Day to Labor Day. We’re testing for bacteria, and if it’s elevated levels of bacteria, we’re going to mark it red on the Swim Guide, and when it’s red, it is not a good idea to be jumping into the water. You can kayak here, but you shouldn’t be getting into the water if you have open wounds or to get it in your mouth or nose, because the bacterial levels are dangerous. 

Ryan: OK, so we’re getting ready to take off. Right now we have eight tubes for six people. Two of them look like pigs with wings; those are the ones Justin and I bought last year and they got us lots of attention on the river. My friend and expert at boozin’ on a budget Eric Lindberg lent us three River Run tubes, and John and Adam brought two very comfortable and professional-looking tubes and one plain black tube for a cooler. Me and Justin alone have 18 beers and four waters in the cooler. 

Lillian: We have six seltzers. 

John: We’ve got a 15-pack of beer. 

Ryan: We also have sunscreen, which is a must. Hats. I brought my non-favorite sunglasses because they can easily get gone. Ropes to attach the floats. 

Adam: Carabiners are always good, too, because those are kind of a great resource for a worst-case scenario to link stuff up. I’ve got my water bottle and I’m just attaching it to this float [with a carabiner]. 

Ryan: I’ve got my river shoes.  We have two dry bags for phones and whatnot. 

John: There’s no power up here, nor bathrooms. That’s good to know.

Ryan: If you want to rent a tube, it’s been about a year and a half since they’ve been open, but usually Rockin’ River Adventures, they do 10 and 11:30 a.m. takeoffs on weekends.  So what are we looking at, pre-release? What do the water levels look like now? 

John: So we judge things in the water by cubic feet per second, how fast it’s moving, so it’s probably around 2,000 cubic feet per second right now. That will move us along fairly smoothly. When they do this release, it’s going to take it up over 6,000. So we’re going to feel a push. When it gets from here to wherever we are at the time, we’ll feel that.

What to bring: The necessities
Tubes for the people and tubes for the supplies, sunscreen, carabiners, rope to secure tubes together, river shoes, dry bag, handheld, battery-powered air pump, Catawba Riverkeeper and Duke Energy apps.

What to bring: The accessories
Bluetooth speaker, beer, water, seltzers, insulated cooler, ice, short-handled paddle, PFD, sunglasses.

The crew gets into the river, and before the release, it’s pretty slow-moving. We turn on the recorder again at 4:23 p.m. to discuss rules of the river.


Ryan: Usually the river is full of folks floating, if you come on a weekend. We’re here at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday, so we are really out here all by ourselves. Justin and I had a crazy experience last year; we left the sunscreen in the car and because it was so crowded and we didn’t want to walk back, we went without it. We ended up so sunburnt we literally couldn’t move without ridiculous pain for more than a week. I 100% do not recommend that. Always wear sunscreen.


Lillian: I’ve done this river float four times. There’s one experience in particular that I think takes the cake for all the crazy. I had recently relocated to Charlotte, had only been living in my apartment for a few weeks and I met some neighbors at the pool who invited me to float the river the next day … People have different ideas of what casual day-drinking looks like, and the neighbors who I was with drank way too much. We almost lost our car keys because the float holding the bag with the car keys in it detached and no one really responded to that for a little while. So I rescued the keys … A thing about floating the river is you’re not really using your body, so you may not realize that you’ve had too much until you have to stand up and carry things and put on your shoes and all that jazz. So long story short, everybody drank too much and it ruined the trip. 

Ryan: So your Rule of the River is don’t overdo it on the alcohol. 

Lillian: Enjoy yourself but not at the expense of the people you’re with. That’s my rule for everything. And you’ve got to give yourself permission to unplug. Leading up to this, it was like, “How long is this going to take? Does everyone have what they need? Where are we going to blah blah blah,” and then you get here and it’s like, “It’s a river float, man. Just sit down.” And then you sit down and you’re like, “This is lovely.” 

river float
There’s no stressin’ on a river float. (Photo by Lillian Parker)

Amanda: I have never floated this part of the river, but I do paddle the Catawba often — standup paddle board. Growing up in Texas I was very used to flatwater paddling on lakes, and I will say my Rule of the River is to pay attention to dam releases. I typically put in at the Mount Holly boat landing and you really have to plan your direction leaving where you put in very carefully because you don’t want to come back to your put-in spot against the current. 

Ryan: I have done that one time, standup paddle boarding from the Whitewater Center, and we came back against the current. I can confirm it is hell. 

Lillian: Do you also follow the apps? 

Amanda: I don’t. I just pay attention to when it’s going to rain, and when it has recently rained. I don’t do my due diligence as much as I should. This is just a tip that I myself don’t follow.

Adam gets out to pull the floats toward the middle of the river, as the current is moving very slowly.


Amanda: We should have brought a paddle. For the record. Bring a paddle. 

Adam: I’ve only paddled this section of the river one time, and it was not a float, but it was a paddle [kayaking]. It was last summer when I was doing the Carolina Thread Trail. So this is also part of the Carolina Thread Trail blueway. I set a goal of doing the entirety of it [the CTT greenways and blueways] in two months, which is a bit of an outrageous goal without really knowing the full extent of driving around 3,000 miles. So my Rule of the River is to stay within your means. Understand your abilities. 

Ryan: How are we looking on weather ‘cause it looks iffy.  

Justin: We’ve got a 60% chance in 30 minutes. It’s only supposed to go for about 10 minutes.

Amanda: I was on the French Broad [River] in Asheville with all of my in-laws, the entire Bishop clan; there were three teenagers, three preteens, and it rained on us the entire way. Everybody was freezing, people were climbing into each other’s floats and putting them on top of each other. Teenagers were crying. I was just passing a flask around. 

Adam: That was a good day on the river. 

Ryan: So John, at the Catawba Riverkeeper, do you get calls when there’s floaters or paddle-boarders doing dumb shit? People getting stranded and whatnot? I feel like you would know the best rules of the river. 


John: The no. 1 complaint we get is that floaters trash the river. So I think that would be my biggest pro tip is pack out what you pack in, same thing you would do on a hike. Bring a cooler, throw your empties back in the cooler, make sure that whatever you bring on those tubes gets in the trash cans on the take-out. Probably the most impactful moment of my time at CRK was paddling this section and coming to where Sugar Creek comes into the Catawba River, which is basically the entire drainage of the city of Charlotte coming into the river, and you go from having fish swim under your boat and visibly seeing the bottom, and then all of a sudden it’s nasty with sentiment and trash and tires and plastic bottles everywhere. 

There’s a huge trash pile right there that we have to clean up every single year and that really was impactful because it made me think about how interconnected this waterway is, that if you drop a plastic bottle in Charlotte, anywhere in Charlotte, in a parking lot at a Circle K in Charlotte, it will be in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, and in the ocean in about 14 days. So I hear people all the time in Charlotte talk about that ocean plastic like it’s not their problem, well it kind of is. If you aren’t picking up plastic bottles that you see when you’re walking down the street, then you’re missing an opportunity to keep plastics out of our river and out of the ocean. 

Lillian: Was there an epiphanous moment before then that made you want to do this work? 

John: I took this job because I live on this river and I had this personal connection. I wanted to make it the same river as when I bought a house on it that my kids could enjoy. It wasn’t until that paddle that I really understood how everybody’s actions impact everybody else in a very personal way. It’s easy when you live in a big city for it to be kind of out of sight, out of mind, and you think, “Oh I run along the greenway, that’s nice,” but you don’t think where the water in that creek goes. It goes here. So if you want to continue to have a nice, enjoyable experience on a float like this, and you don’t want to have a bunch of plastic bottles floating along here, too, then just do a little bit. That’s really what changed my mind. Any little thing I could do would matter after that. I think I took this job thinking I was going to make these big huge brushstrokes and change everything overnight, and after that day I realized, all it takes is one little thing every day, and be intentional about doing something good for the water, and those will pile up. A lifetime of good things for the river will pile up to positive outcomes for everybody.

We have these things called Litter Gitters on Little Sugar Creek and Irwin Creek and they basically are floating trash traps and we took 6,000 pounds of trash out of them last year. So that was 6,000 pounds of trash that somebody didn’t pick up off the sidewalk or the curb or their neighbor’s yard. People ask us all the time, Water issues are big issues, how can I get involved? Well, pick up the trash in your neighborhood. That’s the way you get involved. 

It begins to rain. 

Justin: This isn’t the first time it’s rained on me on this river. The first time Ryan and I came out here, we had a whole lightning storm form over top of us, and I had a broken hand in a cast, so he had to get out and paddle us almost a quarter-mile to a bridge where there were like 30 people waiting out the rain. That sucked. Anyway, my no. 1 rule is don’t forget your sunscreen. 

It stops raining. It is 5:12 p.m. Adam and Lillian get out and pull the tubes closer to the center. We are two miles from where we began.

Ryan: We’re looking good now and moving pretty fast. A lot quicker than normal, thanks to the release.


It is 5:29 p.m. and we approach some rocks. 

Lillian: Rule of the River: Lift your butts. 

Ryan: Yeah, when you see a rapid or a ripple in the river, that might be a rock not too far from the surface. You need to lift your butts. 

Lillian: Work your pelvic core.

Justin: We are to the point now where we’re about to go underneath the first bridge and we’re moving about as fast as we can. Earlier, I was chill about how fast we were moving because I kind of just wanted to get done and go clean the house and eat some food and go to bed, but now that I can see where we are going to get out I kind of wish that we were going slower and that this was going to take longer because this is super chill. 

Ryan: We are flippin’ moving.

Justin: This is the fastest I’ve ever gone on this river. 

We go under the first bridge. Then Justin scrapes up against a grate and puts a hole in one of Eric’s floats. Justin holds his finger in the hole as we approach our take-out spot, then we pack up all of our belongings into a Catawba Riverkeeper shuttle bus just as a torrential downpour begins. It is 6:23 p.m.


John: We made it out just in time. 

Lillian: I think floating the river is a bonding experience. 

Ryan: Just as long as it’s not with your neighbors.

Lillian: Right. Hang out with your neighbors on land first then decide if you want to go on the river with them. 

Ryan: I’ve been out here about a dozen times and that was the fastest I’ve ever gone down the river. It usually takes between three and four hours. 

John: I’m just glad we beat the rain. That would not have been fun. It started to get colder towards the end. It didn’t feel like August at all.

Ryan: It’s also an entirely different experience when there’s no one else out there. Being out there when nobody else is, you don’t have to worry about the volume of your music or being awkwardly close to some other group that you don’t want to be close to. 

John: Yeah, you’re not listening to everyone else screaming and playing music like on a Saturday.

Adam: It’s the natural river vs. the shitshow of everybody. I’ve never floated that before, though. That was a different experience. That was fun.

Visit the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation website to learn how you can help keep it a clean space for floating, paddling and boozing.

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