Finding peace and quiet in an Edisto River treehouse 

Blackwater Zen

This is an occasion when a bridge to nowhere is just what's called for

Mike Ledford

This is an occasion when a bridge to nowhere is just what's called for

You can get a great deal on cypress mulch at a Folly Road gas station. For under $3, you can snag a bag that's big enough to fill a small garden.

Sixty miles up the road, Scott Kennedy, of Carolina Heritage Outfitters, walks a path to the Edisto River on his 150-acre tract. Looking out across the perimeter of his property line, he surveys a devastating scene. Hundreds of grand cypress trees have been cut down, stretching across a plot over half a mile long. The forest was cut to make mulch. Nothing was spared. A mother egret and her fledglings search for fish in a pool of water at the clear-cut's edge. If they find anything today, they probably won't tomorrow.

This forest is dead.

"I've never heard so many birds in all my life," my girlfriend says after I finally roll out of bed. We're staying in one of Kennedy's riverfront treehouses on the Edisto. After a week of late nights and busy days, I've slept soundly. There is no noise here, save for the flow of the river 30 feet below and a symphony of songbirds singing their early summer love songs.

We wander the trails that work their way through the natural sand hills of the island, stopping to admire a particularly giant cypress and its protruding roots. Neon green lizards zip up tree trunks when we pass. We find a small sandy beach, strip down, and go swimming in the cool, black water.

The night before, I walked down to the riverbank to fetch a bottle of wine from our canoe, and a giant bullfrog leapt from under the boat's bow, over my foot and into the water. I watched the river where it splashed, and then looked up to see a staggering light show of fireflies.

That afternoon, before sending us down the river to the treehouses he originally built 17 years ago, Kennedy asked us when we had last seen a firefly. Although I camp often, I couldn't remember.

Staring up at the floating flickers of bioluminescence, I recall Kennedy mentioning that seven different subspecies of firefly exist here, each with their own pattern. One of them is not a true firefly — it's a beetle. When he flickers, he's not saying, "Come over here and let's make a family." He's saying, "Come over here and I'll eat you."

I try to watch for the carnivorous trickster, but there's no way to tell. There are just so many.

Kennedy laments the fireflies' suburban demise. When we kill mosquitoes, we kill fireflies, he explains.

He walks into the woods for a moment, returning with a small green leaf and stem.

"Bite off a piece."

It's wild ginger — delicious — and it's one of a handful of edible plants Kennedy can quickly find in these woods. Huckleberries, smilax — there's a bounty to be had.

"People ask if you can live off the land here," Kennedy says. "Not anymore. Not if you sit still. But you can, if you keep moving."

For a world constantly on the move, river travel may be the finest mode of relaxation available. The mystery of what lies beyond the next bend satisfies our appetite for stimulation, while the lack of obligations, beyond the occasional paddle stroke, allows us to slow down and enjoy the passing scenery.

Clear-cuts like the one bordering Kennedy's property are abundant in the woodlands around the Edisto, but you can hardly see them from the river. Only the most irresponsible landowners fail to leave at least a row of trees between the devastation and the water. Still, maintaining a healthy riparian habitat and wildlife corridor requires a far greater buffer than a row of trees can provide.

Kennedy sees the subtle changes on the river. He laments that a wetland cannot legally be filled, but it can be completely cut down. The piles of scrap trees and shrubs left behind decompose and fill in the wetland. Red maple will start to grow, then be overtaken by birch. Left alone for decades, a forest may re-emerge. But it won't be a soggy cypress and tupelo swamp. You can't replace them.

In the now-destroyed wetland woods by his property, Kennedy has watched mother alligators raise 15 broods over the years. He discovered that the baby gators like the tone of a low G played on the flute. It mimics their mother's call, he explains.

Suddenly, Kennedy tears up. He's spent 17 years on this land. It's a wildlife sanctuary, a designation Kennedy gave it. This forest is allowed to breathe, grow, and die on its own time.

But its arm has just been cut off. One hundred-fifty-acre plots of forest don't preserve habitat. They can't support large animals and predators like the black bear and the puma, now almost completely gone from the Lowcountry. The forest needs to connect to other forests, allowing animals to move. Interstates, clear-cuts, subdivisions — they all block this flow.

On the river, I look up to see a swallow-tailed kite soar across the opening in the sky. We don't know how many of these birds exist. They're just too fast, too mobile, too unpredictable to count.

A few used to nest in the forest beside Kennedy's land, but they won't be back. Little blue herons and American egrets used the rookery as well.

Fortunately, there are more freshwater wetlands in the Lowcountry. The kites are still here. But not forever. Not on the course we're taking.

"We really have to start looking at these pockets of land that need protection," says Kennedy. "You can regrow trees in a sustainable nature, but a gator brood and a kite rookery? We can't replace that."

Kennedy's sentiments aren't foreign to me. This isn't my first time on the Edisto. Five years ago, I floated down the river for 11 days, taking the GPS coordinates of clear-cuts along the river for the Department of Natural Resources. Along the way, I talked to fishermen about the mercury levels in the river. Despite the government warnings not to consume the fish here, no one showed much concern. That adventure became a cover story for the City Paper in July 2006.

As a slightly more-seasoned journalist, witnessing an ever-growing amount of cleared forest along the river, I suppose I could write both sides of the coin. Perhaps I ought to talk about the growing difficulty of paying taxes on large tracts of land within an hour of Charleston and how cutting down a forest and turning it into bags of mulch pays the bills.

Still, I can't help but think of the farmer's son who applies for a job with the oil company who took his father's land — sometimes we get screwed, and we run out of options. It's easy to get angry.

But then you see a sturgeon. The Edisto still has them. As long as these ancient fish still find their way up the river, it's a sign that the spawn area is still viable. Like salmon, they return to their birthplace to do it all over again.

Kennedy recounts stories from before his time of sturgeon so giant they had to be lassoed and dragged out of the river by six men. He knows the river is hurting, but he takes pride in its status as the healthiest blackwater river in the state.

"I'm just as adamant about keeping the river experience nice for people who aren't our customers as for those who are," he says.

It's a good thing, because not everyone can afford to be his customer, at least overnight. Kennedy's company, Carolina Heritage Outfitters, rents canoes from an outpost along Highway 61 in Canadys, S.C. For $30, they provide a canoe, paddles, life jackets, and a shuttle to the drop point on the river. In addition, paddlers can camp on his land for $10 a night, enjoying the security of a legal, private site for their tent.

But if you want to stay in one of his three treehouses, the fee increases to $150 a person on weekends, with a $25 discount on weekdays. Because of the price, I've never stayed there, but when I was invited to spend the night in one of them for this story, I was quick to accept.

Our treehouse is carpeted, with a cozy futon couch, a raised deck with a picnic table, a propane stove, and Yahtzee. There is no A/C, fans, or electricity, but really, it's spectacular. We lie in the rope hammock by the river, wasting time and watching the birds and lizards.

Of course, minus the lofty perch and the convenience, I could recreate this experience on any sandbar in the river. In the treehouses, you can feel the love and methodical considerations that Kennedy put into their construction. There's a mystical, peaceful vibe in the air. But for a young couple on a budget, it's prohibitively expensive. We could stay in a Hilton for the same price.

Kennedy doesn't disagree. He says that he and his wife, Anne, couldn't afford to stay here themselves. But he also breaks it down by the hour, pointing out that a second night is half-price, "but worth twice as much."

"The more time you spend out there, the more you see," says Kennedy. "It's a magical place. Time at the treehouses — it's precious."

The guest book in ours is full of honeymooning and anniversary-celebrating couples, with a few birthdays and family trips mixed in. There are even solo guests. Kennedy says that some visitors even rent out all three treehouses, just to have the island to themselves. "Big bucks," he says, almost appearing hesitant about the bill he must hand those folks.

But Kennedy's not living the high life. When his '92 Isuzu Trooper blew up last year, he bought himself a used '99 Range Rover, but that's the only hint of luxury about him. Their house is an exercise in Zen, with a living room that features nothing but a couch, a fireplace, and a lamp made out of a hollowed-out log.

"We charge what it costs to be able to offer them," says Kennedy of the treehouses. "It's what it costs to keep the business going."

There are Chevrolets and Cadillacs, Kennedy explains, and consumers have a choice. The treehouses are his Cadillac. From the house where we stay, it takes about 30 minutes to float in a tube around the peninsula to the third treehouse. It's a fantastically beautiful tract, tucked into the tightest curve on the entire Edisto. From any of the treehouses, it's impossible to see the others. There's plenty of room for a dozen more, but Kennedy pains over the decision to build another one.

"We don't want it crowded. By design, it's very non-obtrusive," he says. "When people come out here, I want them to get an experience."

In the remaining wetlands around the Edisto, there is a spider of the genus Dolomedes. Commonly known as "fishing spiders," the arachnids literally catch small fish in the swamp, deflating them as they're devoured.

"It's a wonder of nature," says Kennedy. "There is so much that we don't think we need to protect."

Later that night while lying in bed, I flick on my headlamp and notice a spider, at least four inches from foot to foot, in the rafters just above us.

My instinct says wolf spider. Their bite hurts. I reach for my sandal.

But it's just a spider. They're afraid of me. And if I attack it, it will attack back. So I let it be.

When I get home, I look up the Dolomedes that Kennedy talked about. Indeed, our visitor was his beloved fishing spider.

Back home and back at my desk, 60 miles from the Edisto River, I like to think the spider is still sitting in the rafters. I envy him, and I'm glad he's still alive.

On the way out to the river, Kennedy talks to a group of Air Force soldiers preparing for a float on their day off. He tells them to look out for wasp nests in the willow branches on the river's inside curves and warns them about poison ivy. Fears about snakes and alligators are overblown, he says.

"What about on the banks?" I ask. I've seen a fair share of snakes along the Edisto, and I'm careful walking in these swampy woods.

"I don't step in dog shit, either," says Kennedy.

For this tried-and-true river man, there's not an animal in these woods that doesn't deserve all of our efforts to preserve them. Kennedy's business model utilizes the land without depleting it, and his prices reflect that. Anyone can get on the river. And if you're willing to pay for it, he'll share a heavenly slice of it with you.

In one treehouse, there's a flute that doubles as a walking stick. Across the creek, a small Buddha sits holding a candle. Outside another, a bench is carved into a pine stump, with the wedge that was removed serving as an ottoman.

This treehouse island was designed to flow with nature. As his wife, Anne, puts it, "Scott sees things." She recalls bringing her teenage daughter here when Anne and her were frequently fighting. It didn't solve all their problems, but for a few days, without distractions, they enjoyed life with each other and lived in the present.

If you want it, Kennedy will take you as deep into his wooded river world as you let him. He's motivated by the notion that, "If you don't know about a fish, how can you care about a fish?" Clear-cuts, rather than selective logging, are a product of ignorance, he believes.

"I love nature, I love the land, and I love the river," says Kennedy. "It'll blow you away. If it doesn't, you shouldn't be here."

Immersed in bird songs and paddling through cool, tea-tinged water on a steamy summer day, one would have to be an urban-addicted animal not to find respite in the Edisto's charms. The stretch between the treehouses and the Carolina Heritage outpost is both a natural wonderland and a Koyaanisqatsi-esque dichotomy; the section of river crosses under I-95 (audible from a mile away on the water) and goes past SCE&G's power plant, a coal-burning facility with machinery so loud that you have to raise your voice to talk. Even along those boisterous banks, where pollutants are constantly puffing into the atmosphere from a giant smokestack over the river, egrets wade on sandbars searching for dinner, ignoring the commotion.

Just past the plant, we pull up at the Outfitters. Scott and Anne are there to greet us, and we're immediately back amidst like minds, recounting the wonders of our journey. Scott Kennedy strokes the two long, white dreadlocks his beard has shaped itself into and asks about the kites that we saw.

Even if you bring your own boat and don't pay a dime to enjoy the Edisto, stop at Carolina Heritage and talk to Kennedy. He wants you to love the river, and to help him save it.

And the next time you mulch your yard, he begs you, please, use pine straw.

Carolina Heritage Outfitters. U.S. 15, Canadys, S.C. (843) 563-5051. canoesc.com


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