Some paddlers on the Saluda River are pushing back against a plan to build a boardwalk along the Millrace Rapids, one of the most popular destinations for Midlands paddlers.
Richland County is building a 3-mile long, $7.9-million riverwalk along the lower Saluda River east of Riverbanks Zoo that will open up to the public one of the most beautiful stretches of the waterway. When completed, the privately owned area – for decades a draw for sunbathers, paddlers and partiers who accessed it without explicit permission from the zoo or SCE&G – would operate as a Columbia city park.
But a plan to build a boardwalk along the rapids as part of the riverwalk has some paddlers up in arms. They think it might block their access to a favorite launching spot and mar the views from the bank.
Much of the discord is caused by the lack of an artist’s rendering or other more specific design of the proposed boardwalk, said paddler Fred Every.
“There are many people talking about it, but nobody is willing to divulge the plan,” said Every, one of a number of paddlers who have been expressing their opinions for and against the structure on the Facebook page Columbia Whitewater Paddlers. “I’m not against the project. I just want to see the plan.”
The proposal has also drawn the attention of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, who penned a letter to the River Alliance – the entity tasked by the county with building the greenway – that questioned the project on three fronts. It wrote:
▪ The boardwalk will be unnecessarily intrusive to the natural character of the Saluda Scenic River at Millrace Rapids.
▪ It will become a barrier to accessing the shoreline and river.
▪ It will isolate and disconnect riverwalk uses from riverbank uses.
“The proposed boardwalk alignment seems poorly thought out because it appears to ignore existing and traditional patterns of use in the area,” writes Bill Marshall of the department’s Rivers Program.
And therein lays the rub, said River Alliance Executive Director Mike Dawson. The traditional and existing uses exclude a vast segment of the public
The riverwalk as a whole and the boardwalk in particular have to strike a balance between anglers, paddlers and others who want to keep the wild stretch wild and those who want to open up the scenic section to everyone from moms with strollers to veterans in wheelchairs.
Dawson said the greater public good should prevail.
“The basic question here is, where is the public access?” he said. “The answer is, right now there isn’t any.”
And there is a broader disagreement in the mix.
For decades, paddlers, anglers, partiers and others accessed the rapids, commonly referred to as “the rocks,” by parking in the east parking lot of Riverbanks Zoo. But partiers often outnumbered more restrained users, causing myriad problems with alcohol and drug use, rowdy and illicit behavior and litter. So in 2013, the zoo fenced off the area, eliminating access from that direction.
The paddlers “felt betrayed when the zoo locked them out, and now that feeling is translating onto the greenway project,” said paddler Steve Crabb, also a member of the Facebook group. The greenway “is getting that anger thrown on top of it.”
Crabb added that because of the existing animosity, the River Alliance should go the extra mile to include the disgruntled paddlers in the overall design of the boardwalk.
“If they would throw a bone to the paddling community, it would go a long way,” he said.
However, Dawson noted the engineering drawings have been available for years, although hard to interpret by a layman. And the boardwalk is similar to several others along the Three River Greenway system on the Broad, Saluda and Congaree rivers.
Also, the Richland County penny tax program, which is funding the project, hasn’t authorized any renderings of that particular feature.
“The county could authorize a rendering tomorrow,” Dawson said. “But why would they?”
Dawson said the boardwalk will have a 14-by-12-foot spread between the boardwalk’s vertical supports. That gives adequate room for the paddlers to launch their boats. And the route, height and width of the boardwalk has been laid out with paint and string markers.
Mike Mayo, owner of Palmetto Outdoor, which operates tubing excursions down the river, tested the access point for The State newspaper on Thursday.
“I’ve been a boater for 30 years and I am completely confident” that the boardwalk would not limit access, he said. “I wouldn’t have an issue putting a 15-foot canoe in there.”
Dawson noted paddlers today are parking illegally on nearby Candi Lane and trespassing on zoo and SCE&G land to get to the launch. Construction of the greenway would give them legitimate access, along with a paved path to the launch site, restrooms, a ranger station and 40 free parking spaces.
“Nobody has ever said ‘no trespassing,’ ” Dawson said. “And the paddlers will not lose access.”
Mayo said the disgruntled paddlers would prefer no development on that stretch of river.
“They are trespassing as far as I am concerned,” he said. “And now they are going pitchforks and torches over some boulders. But they are all my friends, and (the controversy) breaks my heart.”
Paddler Fred Every said paddlers don’t oppose the riverwalk as a whole.
“I think the walkways along the river are very nice,” he said. “I just want to see the plans.”