Columbia kayaker revels in fun while getting things done

jholleman@thestate.comJuly 27, 2013 

— Andy Grizzell stands in the back of a pickup truck in the Riverbanks Zoo parking lot and has the rapt attention of a bunch of shivering kayakers as he barks out race rules on a freezing January morning.

Grizzell puts out an online call for help during a sweaty summer project, and people actually show up.

And he patiently encourages a youngster through her first kayak roll class, teaching and charming her at the same time.

This 32-year-old with a bushy beard exudes a confident competency that gives strangers faith in him on land and friends confidence to follow him through churning whitewater.

Without seeming to try to be a leader, he is.

“He is really our pied piper of fun,” says Karen Kustafik, a longtime Columbia area paddler.

“He is somewhat of a social butterfly that people gravitate to and confide in him on many levels,” says Emilie Jeffries, Grizzell’s sister.

“You spend five minutes with the guy and you trust him,” says paddling friend Sean McGreevey.

Adrenaline junkie from the start

Grizzell, 32, dreamed of rock climbing while growing up near a mountainous area in California. When his family moved to South Carolina, the 9-year-old turned his attention to fishing, dropping a line in every farm pond or river spot he could.

He was 12 or 13 when his dad brought home a kayak. It didn’t take him long to fall in love with another outdoor activity. That winter he bought his first boat, a 15-foot Hydra Taurus. He spent his life savings on it, and his parents still had to pitch in so he could afford it.

“I always wanted to do anything that has to do with the outdoors,” says Grizzell, an Eagle Scout. “I played baseball and soccer. I did all right, but team sports weren’t for me.

“I fell into place in kayaking. It’s a solo sport, but eventually you have a group you can count on to save your life.”

He started with a roll class on Lake Murray. Learning to roll is crucial to whitewater kayaking. The lake water was cold, and it took him awhile to get the hang of flipping an upside down boat back upright. Once he had that skill down, Grizzell wanted to be on the water every day.

“My parents were always supportive,” Grizzell says. “They thought it was another fad. First I wanted to be a professional rock climber. Then I wanted to be a professional bass fisherman. My dad to this day jokes that (kayaking) is just a fad I’ll get over. Unless my arms fall off, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Those first few summers, his mom would drop off Grizzell and his buddy Curtis McDonald at the Saluda River rapids near Riverbanks Zoo early in the morning and pick them up late in the afternoon. “We were 14 years old, and it was like our day job,” Grizzell says.

Back then, there were fewer people than today hanging out on the Saluda River rocks near the zoo. Out in the water was a small group of hard-core kayakers with the unofficial name “The Saluda Rangers” – good ol’ boys who played hard, took care of each other and picked up after themselves.

They welcomed the kids, though Grizzell hardly looked like a youngster. He already was 6-feet tall and strong. The older guys gave him a double-take the first time he told them he couldn’t stick around later in the day because his mom was coming to pick him up.

They stuck him with the nickname BDK, which stands for big, dumb kid. The dumb part refers to his willingness to try crazy things in those early years. That had been a trait nearly since birth.

“He’s an adrenaline junkie,” says his father, Ken Grizzell. “One time when he was small, his mom heard a strange noise from his room and went up to check on him. He was 4 years old, and he’d found a way to get up on the roof.”

Another time, little Andy was walking out the door in the heat of summer in a heavy winter coat. “I thought, ‘Uh oh!’” his father recalled. Turned out the coat was padding for some dangerous bike tricks he and some friends had in mind.

At 16, Grizzell finally was allowed to drive his mom’s Suburban to the river himself. One day, he and friends had paddled to a spot where they liked to jump from a high tree into the river. Grizzell hit the wrong spot, smashing his leg onto a rock and breaking it in two places.

He got back into his kayak, paddled across the river and limped to his mom’s car. His buddies begged him to let them take him to the hospital. He drove himself.

“I told them if I leave my mom’s car down here, she’ll kill me,” he says. “I was out of boating for four or five months. It was the longest four or five months of my life. I would drive down to the rapids and watch.”

A kayaking ambassador

As the big kid matured – or at least grew older – he earned a measure of respect among local paddlers on and off the water. He’s still big and has a childlike love for the sport, but the D in his nickname doesn’t seem fitting.

“He’s really lost the BDK title growing up,” says Curt Davis, one of that original group that welcomed Grizzell. “But you never really lose the nickname.”

In fact, some kayakers who have shared whitewater adventures with Grizzell throughout the Southeast don’t know him any other way.

“If you boat somewhere else and say you’re from Columbia, they ask if you know Andy, or if you know BDK,” McGreevey says. “He’s an ambassador for Columbia.”

Grizzell honed his skills on daily trips to the Saluda and weekend jaunts to the multitude of whitewater streams in the Appalachians. While attending Lexington High School, he skipped the prom to paddle. He decided to attend Brevard College based on its location near the top kayaking rivers in North Carolina, and he graduated with a degree in wilderness leadership. He worked as a whitewater raft guide throughout college, gaining an unofficial degree in reading river currents.

“Anyone with eyes can tell that Andy knows what he is doing,” Kustafik says. “His boat is always on line, always in control. Lines that others struggle or thrash through look fluid when he runs them.”

Grizzell landed a job with Columbia’s new park ranger program in 2005. The job involves everything from cleaning restrooms to trimming bushes to making security patrols. The best part is that working on the riverfront trail system keeps him in his element. He has been known to hop on a kayak during his lunch break to paddle a lap of the Columbia Canal.

“I’m told I want to have my cake and eat it, too,” he says. “You know, that happens.”

Grizzell quit the job in March 2008 seeking a new adventure – a hike from one end of the Appalachian Trail to the other. But his Boy Scout sensible side told him to make it more than a challenging hike with a friend.

“On your resume, you’ll have this six-month gap,” he told himself. “You want to have something to show for it.”

So he and his friend turned the trip into a fund-raising effort. They solicited family, friends and businesses to donate a penny, quarter or dollar per mile they hiked. The money would be donated to the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, a nonprofit that helps maintain 240 miles of the Appalachian Trail. They raised between $4,000 and $5,000.

“While we were doing something for ourselves, we were doing something for a charity. It was tough to quit my job and spend my life savings just walking through the woods,” he says. “But it’s amazing the things you see out there. I still see some of those people I met on the trail. It was a crazy trip but very rewarding.”

His family supported the trip. His father, who is not a risk-taker, admits to being envious of his son’s confidence to quit his job to take on such an adventure. After the 5½-month walk, Grizzell reapplied for his park ranger job, and the city took him back.

Five years later, Grizzell jokes that his body is breaking down. He did something to his shoulder last year, but he put off having it examined until after his last planned paddling trip of the fall. “I didn’t want to go to the doctor because if the doctor tells me I can’t paddle, then I can’t paddle,” he says.

It ended up being a chronic problem that requires rest not surgery, but it’s hard for Grizzell to take the recommended rest time. After work most days, he heads to the river. All of his vacation days involve paddling.

“It’s what drives me,” he says. “Every Monday, I’m thinking about what I’m going to do the next weekend.”

‘He is such a giver’

Considering his nickname and his Duck Commander-esque beard, Grizzell might come across at first impression as a wild man. But when Grizzell sits down and talks with people, something about his demeanor breeds confidence.

“He’s a very measured kayaker,” Davis says. “He has very smooth and deliberate strokes. He’s a lot like that in life.”

Grizzell is among a group of local paddlers who routinely conduct training sessions in pools for newcomers. Kustafik marveled at Grizzell’s rapport with the youngest students during a recent session. He was “patiently teaching a friend’s little girl her first steps to wet exiting and rolling a kayak,” she says. “Her eyes said it all: She adores him. So does another friend’s little girl, who is sure that when she grows up she will marry Andy.”

Grizzell’s sister is a school teacher who takes advantage of her brother’s kid-friendly side. “I have invited him in to talk to my students about water safety, being a park ranger, hiking, and kayaking,” Jeffries says. “He is such a giver when it comes to informing others about the outdoors.”

Davis thinks that connection to youngsters is linked to the “K” for kid part in the BDK nickname. “Maybe you could say kayakers are a lot like children,” he said.

But Grizzell also has the ability to build trust with adults, which shined through this spring. With the Riverbanks Zoo parking area closed off to kayakers for the first time and a new section of the Three Rivers Greenway in the area at least a year away, paddlers faced a summer of parking hassles. Some kayakers had approached attorney Ben Mabry about using an empty lot next to his office on Candi Lane for parking. Mabry had rebuffed those efforts for months. He gave in and agreed to meet with Grizzell, who offered a detailed plan and safety assurances.

“I was not interested in allowing public parking in the lot even if it were profitable for me,” Mabry says. “The liability and hassle was not worth it.

“My wife and I went into the original meeting with Andy with great skepticism. It was his strength of personality, background and quiet charisma that got us interested.”

When they decided to give Grizzell’s plan a chance, he posted a message looking for help on a local kayaking message board. Many posters on the site had been complaining about the lack of parking. A few had been trying to do something about it, with no progress.

They jumped aboard with Grizzell, volunteering their time, skills, funds and equipment to clear the lot and install a substantial gate at the entrance. There’s a minimal fee for keys to the lock, and key holders agree to forfeit their keys if they don’t abide by safety rules, including carrying their kayaks a long way to avoid an illegal railroad crossing.

The end result isn’t just a parking lot. It’s a gathering spot for kayakers when the sun sets on their evening play sessions on the Saluda. Grizzell jokes that the electronic, changing billboard towering over the property gives off the perfect glow. It’s like sitting around a campfire, if you can ignore the sounds of the vehicles zipping past on I-126.

Organizational skills, winter chills

When the weather gets cold in Columbia in early December, many local kayakers pack up their gear until the first warm days of spring. Grizzell and a few friends talked during one kayak road trip years ago about how much they missed the local camaraderie in the winter. Thus was born the “Iceman Challenge and Millrace Massacre,” which now draws scores of paddlers to Columbia on the first Saturday of January.

“I was 19 and didn’t know any better,” Grizzell says. “We made up fliers. We went to stores and restaurants and gathered prizes. For some reason, people went along.

“The next year, we did it again. We figured if you do it two years, it’s legit. Thirteen years later, it’s still going.”

Back in the early days, the tradition was for the winner of the race to spend all of the prize money on beer for the after-party. The craziness has been toned down a little in recent years. The after-party is bring-your-own-beverage. The event even took out an insurance policy two years ago, but it hasn’t lost the slightly crazed vibe that made it popular. After all, the Iceman race involves ditching boats and swimming the final 30 yards in the nearly freezing water.

“I love putting it on,” Grizzell says. “I love pulling into the zoo parking lot like the old days and seeing everybody.”

Grizzell helped put together a summer racing series on the Saluda for a couple of years, but that wasn’t as big a hit as the winter race. He lost his will to take on the struggling project after his mother died in 2011.

“When I lost my mom, it was the most devastating thing I’ve ever been through,” Grizzell says. “She was my biggest cheerleader. Her death left me trying to figure life out.”

Jeffries saw the struggle and how her brother dealt with it.

“When we lost her, it was extremely hard on us all,” Jeffries says. “Everyone seeks healing in their own way. ... Andrew found it in the outdoors.”

Paddling, and paddling friends, kept him going. This summer, he has revived the summer races, and he’s talked with others about staging a local film festival of videos compiled by local paddlers.

“All of (the plans for events) stem from wanting to bring people together and have fun,” he says. “I try to have fun. That’s my No. 1 goal in life.”


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