Sandlapper Society

Bill Stokes - Catawba River Ball Retriever

by Dan Huntley • photos courtesy KVLT

Bill Stokes is a bird dog on the water.

But it’s not waterfowl he’s retrieving.

It’s balls— basketballs, volleyballs, baseballs, beach balls, even bowling balls. He’s recovered more than 15,000 from the Catawba River along the Lancaster and Chester County border.

Besides cleaning up the river, this waterborne Johnny Appleseed repairs the deflated balls and gives them to local churches, elementary schools and orphanages.

“The first time I found one, I was as surprised as anyone,” said the 61-year-old electrical engineer and kayaker extraordinaire from Lancaster County. “People have a hard time believing it until they see it for themselves... When I look back over the last 12 years, sometimes it’s hard for me to believe it too.”

What Stokes stumbled onto in the summer of 1998 while paddling south of the Lake Wylie Dam is a peculiar phenomenon that occurs on rivers downstream from large urban areas.
Families who have backyards that slope to flood plains and creeks often have kids who play with balls. And they sometimes leave the balls outside or they kick them into the woods. Water seeks its own level. Eventually, those balls make their way to the creeks.

Rains come and the balls are nudged or float— following the downward path of the water. In south Charlotte neighborhoods those balls float down McAlpine and Sugar creeks, emptying into the Catawba River near the community of Indian Land.

How does Stokes know that’s how the balls end up in the Catawba?

Because he has found balls with Charlotte addresses written on them and he’s returned them to their owners.

Along the 30-mile section south of the Lake Wylie Dam there are less than a dozen waterfront homes and dam operators say it would be practically impossible for balls to make it through the turbines, or even float over the spillway.

“Unfortunately, balls are not the only things that float down the river,” said Stokes “Soft drink bottles, plastic detergent bottles— just about anything that can float, and is near a creek in south Charlotte will eventually end up on the banks of the Catawba.”

“There’s no one else quite like Bill Stokes. He’s one of the best things that has ever happened to the Catawba,” said Austin Jenkins, executive director of the Katawba Valley Land Trust, a group that has helped preserve more than 5,000 acres along the Catawba and its tributaries. Stokes is also a board member of the Trust ( “He has not only single-handedly removed a mountain of trash out of the river, but he’s also helped us publicize the need to keep the river clean. And that helps local kids learn more about their river when he gives them the balls.”

Al James manages the Landsford Canal State Park on the banks of the Catawba about 25 miles south of Charlotte. James is also an active paddler and says the balls hang up in eddies and sand bars just south of the convergence of Sugar Creek. He’s witnessed Stokes retrieve more than 50 balls in a single afternoon outing.

“If there’s anybody who spends more time on that river year-round than Bill, I sure don’t know who it is,” said James. “Around here, he’s just known as “Bill the Ball Guy.” He’s amazing. If there’s a ball in the river, he knows where it’s hiding. He’s a hunter and he’s highly skilled.”

Stokes usually puts in at Landsford and paddles upstream in a 12-foot heavily battered and patched sit-on-top kayak. He often paddles solo and goes at least once a week, year-round.

The best time to go is just after several days of rain when the river rides high on the banks, dislodging the balls. Stokes uses a handmade extendable bamboo pole attached to a bent metal rod to pull the balls out from under overhanging limbs. He collects the balls into large net laundry bags that he stacks on the bow and stern of his boat.

Stokes is an amateur wildlife photographer who once spotted and photographed a Limpkin on Cane Creek, a Catawba tributary. The Limpkin is exceedingly rare in South Carolina and preys on tiny shellfish such as mussels and clams.

He also regularly spots ospreys, eagles, hawks, kingfishers and woodpeckers— as well as beavers, otters, wild turkey, raccoons, possums and deer.

“I’d like to say I go out there just to pick up trash, but the truth is that I enjoy the serenity and love to watch the wildlife, particularly the birds. It’s another world out there,” Stokes said.

He keeps meticulous records of his weekly forays on the water, noting how many balls he recovered and their location.

His best day? March 6, 2010, near Cane Creek— 245 balls including 42 basketballs,11 soccer balls, nine volleyballs, 10 footballs, and 29 baseballs and softballs.

The variety of balls that Stokes has recovered is across the board, with the most common being basketballs. He has collected glow-in-the-dark balls and balls from 37 universities along with hockey pucks, which aren’t really balls, but they float. One of the more surprising finds are bowling balls— 14 of them. And yes, some do float!

On a recent afternoon, Stokes led a flotilla of paddlers down the Catawba from the Duke Energy boat landing below Duke’s Lake Wylie Hydroelectric Dam to the Rock Hill River Park boat launch— about a 5-mile float trip. There was a good flow with a 2- to 3-knot current. It was an easy float through occasional riffles over shallow beds of rock. On this day, no one had to drag their boats over the rocks, but before traveling this stretch, check with Duke’s website about the release of water through the dam.

Accompanying the group was Catherine Heigel, president of Duke Energy South Carolina.

“I was really impressed with the pristine nature of the water and the banks of the Catawba above Sugar Creek,” said the Darlington native who now lives in Greenville with her husband, Jonathan, and their three children. “And I think that the work Bill Stokes is doing to help clean up the river downstream is an inspiration to all of us.”

During the 3-hour paddle, paddlers saw dozens of herons stalking the shallows, plus three osprey (one had a fish in its talons) and two bald eagles.

“This paddling trip today has really reinforced to me the increasing importance of rivers such as the Catawba,” Heigel said. “Duke has been involved with our rivers here in the Carolinas for more than a century. We like to say we were ‘doing hydro-electric power before it was cool to do so.’ Waterways such as the Catawba are truly a shared resource.”

“And the fact that Bill not only retrieves these balls from the river, but then gives them to the children in the community, is truly a win-win situation.” 

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This article is sponsored by Duke Energy and Katawba Valley Land Trust, Lancaster, SC. 


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