Columbia is Hot, Hot, Hot
But cooling off is easy and fun on Midlands lakes and rivers
Kevin Geddings of Adventure Carolina paddles on the Congaree River with Sauyer, his 5-year-old son.
Photography by Jeff Amberg
The intensity of Columbia’s summer heat is no secret. In fact, most people from outside of the state who have heard of or visited our Capital City know that it is famously hot. Fortunately, there is an alternative to suffering those sweltering July and August temperatures. Between the rivers and Lake Murray, Columbia practically has unlimited access to water sports for cooling off.
Kevin Geddings with Adventure Carolina notes that although Columbians have easy access to the water, it remains one of the city’s best-kept secrets. “People drive over the river every day, but such a small percentage actually take advantage of it. Hanging out on the river is the cheapest entertainment in town.”
Adventure Carolina, started in 1987, offers the opportunity to explore many different activities on the river, from tubing, kayaking and canoeing to rafting when the water occasionally reaches higher levels. “My favorite part about what we do is seeing the reaction of guests who have grown up in Columbia and have never recreated on the river before,” Kevin says. “It is just an incredible way to relax in nature, get some exercise and spend time outside while avoiding the heat. The Saluda River water is between 52 to 54 degrees year round as it comes out of the bottom of Lake Murray, and the Congaree is between 60 to 66 degrees year round. On a day that’s around 100 degrees in Columbia, it is usually in the 80s on the river. It resets your week.”
Adventure Carolina offers all the essentials for enjoying the river, including trips, guided tours, classes, rentals and retail. There is something for users of every level, and people from surrounding states visit Columbia for the sole purpose of enjoying the river. All Adventure Carolina trips are guided, so an instructor is always on hand if guests need any sort of assistance or want to hone their skills.
“Anyone can paddle,” says Kevin. “We’ve had paraplegics come and paddle with us — no one had to convince them; they knew they could do it. Our focus is reaching out and making people aware this is something for everyone. We love sharing Columbia’s nature with her community.”
Children as young as six are welcome on guided trips, and Adventure Camp starts for children age nine and older. “We educate them not just on how to paddle but also on how to be good stewards of the environment. The river is cleaner than ever now, and guides always demonstrate that if there is trash in the river to paddle over and pick it up.”
Another way to escape the hot air is to, well, escape it. Wateree Dive Center, a family owned and operated business, has been putting people under the water for 35 years. Andy Ogburn, son of founders Larry and Serena Ogburn, notes, “Everyone wants to go diving in the Caribbean or the Keys, but Lake Murray is right here in our own back yard.” The lake is a wonderful place to train and learn, and it offers opportunities to explore, work on navigation and reach new levels.
“There is no excuse not to dive,” says Andy. “It is convenient, and you can go spearfishing or night diving. There are some great ruins to see under the lake, such as the graveyard and the Wyse Ferry Bridge. There is always a mysterious allure to diving a lake.”
Before SCE&G created Lake Murray by damming the Saluda River, The Wyse Ferry Bridge connected Chapin Highway over the original riverbed. Completed in 1911, it is a twin span steel structure that is 180 feet long. Now completely underwater, the top is at a depth of 70 feet, the road is at 110 feet and the riverbed is at about 150 feet. It is an interesting and historical dive site, says Andy, but its depth and limited visibility make it a suitable only for advanced and experienced divers.
Another interesting dive site was a B-25 bomber submerged in the lake. Due to its many deserted islands, Lake Murray was a popular location to train pilots and bombardiers during World War II. A total of five B-25s crashed into the lake; four of them were retrieved soon after impact, but this particular plane, which went down on April 4, 1943, was not salvaged at the time due to the depth to which it had sunk. Located by Dr. Bob Seigler in 1993 through surface sonar investigations, it rested at a depth of 150 feet. Andy and Mike Phipps were the very first to dive and explore it. The plane was finally recovered in September 2005 and removed to the Southern Museum of Flight in Birmingham, Ala. Its unique history was chronicled in the History Channel’s “Mega Movers” series.
Other popular dive sites include the SCE&G park on the Lexington side of the Dreher Shoals dam, as it has easy beach access for entering the water. Other divers prefer searching for ruins of old buildings and foundations. Andy says there are also a lot of sunken boats around Goat Island.
Wateree Dive Center offers lessons, certification classes and retail sales, as well as local and international trips. “We typically do between four and five international trips per year, as well as river diving near the coast, like searching the Cooper River for old four- to six-inch shark teeth and diving in Lake Jocasee in the Upstate. We also offer wreck diving trips in North Carolina and South Carolina,” says Andy. Their most popular trip is only offered once every two or three years and is called the “Mystery Trip.”
“Mom is the only one who knows where it is going to be, and she drops 10 clues over 12 months to us and those signed up. No one finds out the exact location until the pre-trip orientation party where all the guests meet each other and receive their itineraries.”
Scuba diving is a family sport. Children can enter certification classes as early as the age of 10. Certification involves three class and pool sessions, plus a trip to the lake for a check-out dive, all of which is usually spread over a month.
Lake Murray offers thrill-seekers plenty of opportunities to enjoy the water from above as well. Chris Farr, a native of Union, S.C., grew up enjoying sports behind the boat on Lake Murray. His father was a talented skier and built a house on the lake in the 80s. One of Chris’s earliest memories is of skiing on his father’s shoulders. A child of the times, Chris soon turned his attention to wakeboarding.
Shaun Murray, a professional wakeboarder, shows his skills during the Lake Murray Rough Riders Weekend with the Pros.
“I remember being about 13 and seeing someone do a flip for the first time,” he says. “That was it for me — I knew I just had to do that. I tried for a solid year and then the whole next season before I was finally able pull it off. I will never forget the feeling of accomplishment when I got it, and the rush of doing it has never worn off.”
When Chris moved to Columbia to attend U.S.C. as an undergraduate, he and some friends formed the Lake Murray Rough Riders. They all were serious about competing and would practice together for amateur wakeboarding competitions as well as promote the sport in the community by giving lessons.
“We then had the idea of bringing a pro rider into town and selling lessons. This summer will mark our eighth year of putting on Weekend with the Pros, and it has always been a huge success. It is the largest annual gathering of wakeboarders and spectators in the state, and it now includes professional lessons, a locals-only tournament and riding exhibitions by pros, including this year’s guests Shaun Murray and Josh Palma,” says Chris. “This event is a great way to get introduced to the sport.”
Wakesurfing is popular among wakeboarders but requires an inboard boat in order for it not to be dangerous. These athletes use a short, 10-foot rope for getting up only — after that they ditch the rope and continue to surf the wave behind the slow moving boat.
Chris says that the Rough Riders have coached kids who have gone to higher levels of competition than they had ever reached themselves. While most of the original Rough Riders are still into wakeboarding to some extent, Chris says that they are now more of a resource for promoting the sport and helping people get connected with local businesses.
“Columbia really has a great scene of wakeboarding and waterskiing devotees, and now there are the local businesses to support it. Carolina Inboard is a high quality shop that Columbia is lucky to have — it carries many different brands and is a great way for beginners to get outfitted or for more experienced wakeboarders to find the equipment to move to the next level. The Lake Murray Boat Club and Better Boat Rental both offer great options for renting boats and equipment for a day on the lake.”
For a wide range of passions, Columbia has something to offer for any outdoor and water enthusiast. So get on out there and enjoy cooling off in the Midlands’ famously fabulous water.