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Unique Outdoor Experiences with the Catawba Riverkeeper

Updated: Apr 23


Photo courtesy of Catawba Riverkeeper

An Interview with John Searby, the Executive Director of Catawba Riverkeeper

Meet John Searby, the Executive Director of Catawba Riverkeeper. As a lifelong outdoor enthusiast, he uses his passion for nature in his position at this North Carolina non-profit. We chatted with Searby about the importance of the Catawba River and Catawba Riverkeeper, the best Catawba River experiences, and the non-profit’s future.

Photo courtesy of Catawba Riverkeeper

The Catawba River


What makes this river unique?

The Catawba River is widely considered the “Hardest Working River in America,” because there is more electricity generated per mile by the Catawba River than any other river in the United States. With 14 hydroelectric power plants, two nuclear power plants, and three coal-fired power plants, our 225-mile river provides electricity for more than three million residents and drinking water for nearly 2.5 million residents.


Photo credit Nancy Pierce (courtesy of Catawba Riverkeeper)

Preserve, Protect, and Restore


What is the Catawba Riverkeeper’s mission?

Our mission is to educate and advocate to preserve, protect, and restore the waters of the Catawba-Wateree River Basin for all those who rely on and enjoy them.


What work does Catawba Riverkeeper do to fulfill this mission?

We execute our mission through 3 pillars: education, engagement, and protection. We believe that when people engage with their waters, they will want to be educated about them. And when they know more, they are more inclined to work to protect their waters. We use engagement WITH the water to fund protection OF the water, which means we have developed [fun, educational] programs like summer camps, adult education programs, kayak rentals, youth kayaking programs, EcoTours, and retail experiences that generate revenue for the organization.


When combined with the donations of our more than 6,800 members and dozens of corporate partners, these funds are used to conduct water quality monitoring and sampling programs, public health awareness programs, local, county, and state advocacy programs to improve water quality protections, invasive species mitigation programs, restoration programs, and litter abatement and clean-up programs.


Photo credit Melissa Key, Charlotte Business Journal

Meet John


Tell us about your background. How did you get involved with Catawba Riverkeeper?

I first became aware of Catawba Riverkeeper in 2006 when our family purchased a home on the South Fork River in Gaston County and wanted to learn more about the water quality and recreational access. As a lifelong outdoor enthusiast and passionate environmentalist, I wanted to make sure I was doing my part.


When the Executive Director position opened up in spring 2019, I saw it as a way to align my personal passions with my professional experiences, so I applied even though I had no non-profit or environmental advocacy experience on my professional resume. What I HAD done was work as a college basketball coach and as a leader in several corporate sponsorship and marketing sales organizations. My background had given me the experience of building teams, developing strategies, executing business plans, and generating revenue through creative approaches to business. [This Executive Director position at Catawba Riverkeeper] has been the hardest and best job I’ve ever had.


What do you love most about your job at Catawba Riverkeeper?

The short answer is that I love being able to work every day to protect something that is so important to me and my family – our rivers. But on a day-to-day basis, I enjoy that every day I am able to find new and interesting ways to accomplish that work.


Photo courtesy of Gaston County Tourism Development

Fun On The River


What sorts of things can visitors hope to see and experience on the Catawba River?

One of the cool things about the Catawba River is that there is really something for everyone. [If] you are into whitewater kayaking or fly fishing…head up to the mountain portions of the river. [If] you love skiing, boating, bass fishing, or other lake sports…hang out [at] one of our 11 lakes. If you are a kayaker, canoer, SUP boarder, or shoreline fisherman…hang out on the South Fork, Congaree National Park, or other free-flowing parts of our river. Or if you just love hiking, [tackle one of the] many…waterside trails.


When it comes to engaging with us on the river, we offer half-day guided tours that include class I & II rapids from our Boathouse in McAdenville,…a slow flow kayaking experience in both McAdenville and Cramerton, and…a flatwater paddling experience in Belmont. On top of all of that, we routinely take trips both on and near the water to unique places around the basin to learn the history of the area, learn about plants and animals, or just explore a special place.


Photo courtesy of Catawba Riverkeeper

The Boathouse


Speaking of The Boathouse, it’s going into its second year! How was the first year and how do you plan to grow?

We had a great first year that exceeded our expectations! We opened to the public in June of last year, so we are looking forward to having a full season being open in 2022. We’re planning to open The Boathouse the first weekend in April and, weather permitting, have some fun things over the first couple of weekends to get people out and…on the water. In 2021, even with a shortened year, we were able to put over 1,600 people on the water in Gaston County, and we are excited to grow that number this year!


Photo credit Nelson Stegall (courtesy of Catawba Riverkeeper)

Can’t Miss Events


What were the most popular events this past year?

Last year, our most popular events were our Jam at the Dam Friday night concert series that included discounted happy hour kayaking, our Paddle, Bike, Run Series, and our Christmas Market. All of those are on the calendar for 2022…and will include food trucks, games, and family events.

What events are you looking forward to in 2022?

In addition to continuing and expanding those popular events from last year, we’re looking forward to adding a summer camp this year that combines kayaking and environmental education, plus several new kayaking classes and clinics. We are also expanding our EcoTours program all around the basin.


Illustration courtesy of Catawba Riverkeeper

We’re Growing


I heard that you’re expanding into McAdenville. What can you tell us about that?

We are super excited about the opening of our headquarters…in downtown McAdenville and the public-facing portion of that building that we call The River Room. The River Room will feature a taproom that serves beer from Catawba River Basin breweries, ciders, and wines.


Additionally, the River Room includes a 1,000-square-foot meeting and events room…that walks out to a 1,000-square-foot patio [overlooking] the McAdenville Pond. It is going to be a great spot for folks from Gaston County and surrounding areas to come out and enjoy a drink with friends and family, host a corporate event or party, or relax after a paddle on the river.


Photo credit Wes Maxwell (courtesy of Catawba Riverkeeper)

Best Place to Paddle


What’s a gem along the Catawba River that most people don’t know about?

To me, the best paddle in the entire basin is in Gaston County on the South Fork River section from Spencer Mountain to McAdenville. This 5.5-mile section is preserved on both sides of the river almost the entire way, so you feel like you’re up in the mountains somewhere and not 15 miles from Charlotte. The paddling experience on this section has six different shoals that include Class I & II rapids that are a great and safe way for folks to get an authentic river experience without feeling out of control. We offer guided trips down this section from April to October on the weekends. For most people, this three-hour paddle blows their minds with the beauty, the rare species of plants, and the abundance of wildlife.