The forecast for Saturday calls for clear skies and temperatures in the 50s, ideal weather for getting out on the local trails, but you still should avoid the Saluda Riverwalk. For one day under these unusual circumstances, walkers and cyclists should give the kayak community precedence on that section of the Three Rivers Greenway.
The Millrace Massacre and Iceman Championships began in 2001 as an excuse to bring local kayakers together during their typical winter down time. Now, the annual event draws paddlers from throughout the Southeast on the Saturday of the first full week in January. That’s Jan. 9 this year. Event organizers considered canceling this year, wary of bringing large groups of people together even in an outdoor setting. But past participants pleaded for an excuse to get out on the water with friends.
The event usually is a fun excuse for spectators to flock to the river. But this year, with parking challenges and a Covid 19 surge, people with no active connection to the event should stay away to prevent overcrowding. Early morning exercisers probably can be out of the area before kayakers begin showing up in mid-morning. Later in the day, though, please head to Columbia’s Riverfront Park or the West Columbia or Cayce riverwalks instead.
During early Millrace Massacres, family and friends staked out prime viewing spots on the large boulders on the bank of the river below the rapids. Last year, many spectators moved to the Saluda Riverwalk boardwalk. The open area just below the then-unfinished parking lot had a festival atmosphere, with tables set up for vendors of food and crafts, as well as information booths for local river-related groups. Covid 19 restrictions this year limit vendors, putting the focus solely on the races.
The on-the-water portion of the event is ideal for showing off the Saluda River’s kayaking possibilities. The power company — SCE&G in the past, and now Dominion Energy — releases enough water from the Lake Murray dam to ensure prime whitewater flow downstream. Based on the flow level, event organizers set up a course through the Millrace rapids. Participants work their way through the course one at a time, with the fastest time winning. That’s the Millrace Massacre.
Then the bravest/craziest of the paddlers head back upstream of the rapids for the Iceman. From a mass start at what used to be called the red pier (the metal structure was cut down a few years ago for safety reasons), the racers pick their routes through the rapids, continue to the zoo pedestrian bridge, then churn back upstream to the small sandy beach on river right (the botanical garden side). There they leave the water and carry their boats up a portage trail to the top of Millrace for a second trip through the rapids. And this time, as they leave the rapids they slide out of their boats and swim the final 100 feet back to the beach while dragging their kayaks.
It’s a blast to watch, especially if you know some of the characters involved. It will be great to see a big crowd at the event … in 2022 when Covid 19 will be less of a concern. As for 2021, it would be best to leave the trail to the kayakers and their support teams Saturday afternoon.