Launching our canoes just south of Orangeburg on a bright Monday morning in May, David Betenbaugh and I had a lot of expectations, but little real idea of what lay ahead over the next 120 miles of our lives. Our idea to float the iced tea-hued Edisto River out to the Atlantic began in 2003 when we both lived and worked at its mouth, Botany Bay, on Seabrook Island.
Three years later there we were — two canoes loaded with supplies and two weeks to reach the ocean. Along the way, we planned to photograph and take GPS coordinates of the clear-cuts rumored to be wiping out the woods along the banks and seriously endangering the health of the river. Brad Floyd of Carolina Heritage Outfitters, who helped plan our expedition, had expressed concern about several new cuts that occurred over the winter.
I also hoped to speak with locals about the hazards of high mercury levels in the river, imperiling those who regularly fish the Edisto's waters. Our primary goal, if there was one, was to relax and enjoy floating down South Carolina's premier river.
Like most Southern waterways flowing through flat land, the Edisto is a "blackwater" river due to the tannic acid in the leaves of the cypress and riverside trees that break down and dye the water an amber brown. Because there is no dam anywhere on the 250 or so miles the Edisto river system encompasses, it has the distinction of being America's, if not the world's, longest free-flowing blackwater river.
Water levels were slightly lower than usual this year, so we began about 20 miles up the North Fork, leaving roughly 120 miles to the ocean. In the weeks before the trip, I heard a frightening number of warnings about the upper reaches of the river. I expected swarms of mosquitoes that could carry me away and cottonmouths dangling from every overhanging limb. The "snakiest river in the U.S." was apparently also home to king-size gators, poison ivy by the bundle, and nests of hornets and red wasps that attack en masse when the Edisto's swift currents swing you into bushes at tight turns. I was even told to carry a gun, due to the outlaw river folk who prowl on hapless passersby.
Of course, in reality, the river is a tranquil and benign place. People along the river proved to be some of the friendliest, kindest folks I've ever encountered. At times the mosquitoes were vicious, and snakes were a frequent sight, but we were never in danger. I narrowly avoided disaster when I grasped a root along a bank less than a foot from a juvenile cottonmouth, then pulled away to find a much larger adult in striking distance of my canoe. I was lucky to avoid a bite, but the incident was a result of my own carelessness. For nearly all of the distance we traveled, the Edisto River was wild yet peaceful. Our nights were spent camped on sandy banks at curves in the river, our days floating the gentle blackwater, eyes peeled for the next rope swing around the corner.
Manmade Cacophonies and Bare Banks
With its proximity to our booming city, the Edisto is an easily accessible escape from the city hustle, but it is also acutely at risk of over-development as we grow onward and outward. MeadWestvaco is rapidly selling off land in the Edisto basin, and riverfront real estate in close proximity to ballooning Summerville is obviously attractive to developers. On the second day of our trip, paddling the narrows of the North Fork near Rowesville, we saw just five other people, but never went longer than two minutes without the intrusion of a manmade noise on the soundscape. Woodpeckers and songbirds were constant aural companions, but the noise of passing cars would announce the coming of a bridge from a mile away. That evening, camped on a sandbar far from any house or road, we heard a passing motor off in the distance. After a few days in the woods, the sound of an engine jumps out like a mosquito in your ear. Dave said, "It's hard to find wilderness now in the Southeast," and I agreed. Still, as we passed under I-95 days later, the loudest and most obtrusive of roads to cross and divide the Edisto basin's habitat, hundreds of swallows flew from their nests below the overpass. Nature along the Edisto, as in all places, finds a way to flourish wherever it can.
The value of lumber following Hurricane Katrina, in conjunction with large-scale sell-offs of land by MeadWestvaco in recent years, has influenced new landowners to seize the market opportunity and cut their timber for a quick return on their investment. Clear-cutting is a forestry alternative to a selective harvest and allows new growth to receive full sunlight. Clear-cutting is not the same as deforestation. Few would argue a clear-cut's unsightliness, but it's a viable method of cutting second or third growth, and with buffers a clear-cut needn't be overly detrimental to larger ecosystems.
Unfortunately, private landowners are often not privy to methods and practices of responsible cutting. Corporations like MeadWestvaco are signed on with the Sustainable Forest Initiative and apparently take that accreditation seriously, leaving a buffer between cuts and flowing bodies of water.
Without healthy forests along them, banks erode and add sediment to the river, dirtying and filling it in. Trees then fall across the river and impede boaters. Hurricanes put this process in hyper speed. If there's a big one this year, after these post-Katrina cuts, the Edisto may be an unnavigable, muddy mess. Buffers also act as corridors for animals to travel.
Thirty-five feet is DHEC's (Department of Health and Environmental Control) suggested minimum buffer, enough to control erosion but far too small to allow significant animal travel. Birds are hit hard by forests disappearing as well, and with songbirds already on the decline, our third and fourth growth forests of tomorrow may be eerily quiet places. Finally, buffers serve as protection from wind. Leaving only a row or two of trees is essentially nothing, as they will soon fall during storms without the protection of a forest around them. Ideally, every clear-cut would leave a buffer of around 300 yards. At worst, 35 feet is needed to keep the river's water clean. Several of the cuts we found left little to no buffer, often with cypress trees lopped off, leaving their knees and roots exposed in the water.
We encountered our first major clear-cut late on the second day of our trip. Thus far we'd been kicking back, stopping for rope swings or a mid-afternoon Pabst Blue Ribbon, relaxed as one should be on a Lowcountry river. We snapped from our trance as we turned a corner to discover blue sky shining through a single line of trees, barely masking a vast field of fallen branches rather than dense woods. MeadWestvaco signs were nailed intermittently along the next mile of river; surprising, because the folks I'd spoken with at Friends of the Edisto (FRED) and the Edisto River Canoe and Kayak Trail Commission (ERC) had all said the problem was with small, private landowners and not the lumber giants. This was a whole forest annihilated — it hardly looked compatible with a Sustainable Forest Initiative. We took pictures and GPS coordinates, and quickly realized how short a span 35 feet actually is. We passed a house with a man sitting along the bank, and he said they'd cut it last year.
After returning from the trip, I spoke with Bob Fledderman, the manager of environment and regulatory assurance for MeadWestvaco. He reviewed our maps and found that both of the sites with their signs posted had been sold in 2002, reiterating that the corporation generally leaves a 300-foot buffer on navigable water for aesthetic purposes. As a career forester, he stressed the virtues of a clear-cut.
"The idea is to get all the shade off the forest floor so the next generation has all the light and can grow faster. Some people have this idea that it's devastation, but the best mixed forests come from those that were clear-cut. In a selective cut, the fast-growing, sun-loving trees are suppressed and the crooked ones remain."
From an economic standpoint, this makes sense, and a crooked tree is a bad tree if you're a logger trying to get bang for your buck. Fledderman, a boardmember of the conservation group FRED, continued his defense of clear-cuts and modern forestry techniques. "The best way to regenerate a bottomland hardwood forest is to clear-cut. We then plant genetically improved seeds that grow faster and straighter than normal trees."
The most important reason for leaving a buffer, and the only way to be fined for not doing so, is to control erosion and sediment levels in the water. Fledderman said clear-cuts actually clean up the water. "When the river floods in the spring of the year, the young growth that comes up has a whole lot more roughage, so any silt going across the floodplain gets caught, where if it was in an older forest it would keep on going."
Finally, I asked about the loss of habitat, and how large clear-cuts might effect animal populations and species diversification. He replied, "Big trees are good for some critters and little trees are good for others."
The majority of clear-cuts we found occurred on the Edisto proper, between where the north and south forks come together and where the north and south Edisto again split after Highway 17. Two of the worst were around our campsite on the third night, about five miles upstream from I-95. Just before pulling off onto a limestone, mossy bank for the night, we passed a small landing next to a high bank and a single row of trees that opened up behind it.
Climbing up to ground level, we saw that a solid square mile of woods had been leveled, leaving piles of brush and turned up earth, a literal wasteland. About 10 feet from the bank was a sandy road, with the cut on the other side, 20 feet from water. Logging roads are the biggest threat of erosion to the river, and this one ran directly into the water. Dave ran out and stood on a stump, a tiny figure surrounded by nothing. Out in the middle stood one tall, lone tree, a phenomenon I'd noticed at two other cuts. I wondered if this was a logger superstition — bad things happen if you cut down a whole forest, so leave one big, lonely tree.
Guy Sabin, the environmental program manager for the South Carolina Foresty Commission, filled me in on the state's policy and stance on the cuts. Failure to leave a 35-foot buffer is not an actual violation in itself. Loggers and landowners are only at fault when their practices result in degradation of water quality. DHEC maintains several water quality monitoring sites along the river, but it seems nearly impossible to measure an amount of sediment eroding away in a particular area, and rainfall would be an easy defense for perpetrators. The fines levied for such violations can reach tens of thousands of dollars.
"Our number one goal is to prevent any kind of problems with water quality beforehand," said Sabin. "Most loggers in the state have been through a course to learn about timber operations and buffers. We're trying to make sure it's done right."
On Thursday morning, our fourth day on the river, signs on the north bank identified the land as a wildlife refuge. Scott Kennedy, who founded Carolina Heritage Outfitters, owns and protects the land. Almost immediately after reaching this sanctuary, a clear-cut began on the south bank that continued for nearly a mile, at one point directly across the river from the treehouses the outfitter rents out to groups and families seeking a quiet retreat.
Kennedy spoke of how the blow-downs that result from inadequate buffers can even result in the river being diverted as trees fall and block the main channel. "They're shooting themselves in the foot. If a tree falls that effects the hydraulics of the river and changes the course, they're going to lose land." As lumber companies continue to sell off their property, rivers like the Edisto could easily fall victim to new owners of smaller tracts simply hoping to turn a profit on their investment.
Mad-Hatter's Disease and Coal Power
Dave and I had hoped to eat fish for dinner frequently during our journey, but were discouraged days before when I checked DHEC's fish consumption advisories. Not a single normally edible fish on the Edisto did not carry some sort of warning, ranging from "Do not eat" to "Limit consumption to eight ounces per week." Base levels of mercury naturally exist in a blackwater river, but coal-burning power plants have significantly increased these levels throughout the coastal South.
On the first day of our trip, we passed a family fishing on the bank and asked what they were hoping for. They answered, "Anything!", a consistent sign on the river of folks totally unconcerned with the advisory. I talked for a while with a man named Robert who had six redbreast sunfish in his bucket, ready to take home for dinner. After casual small talk, I asked him if he ever worried about mercury contamination.
"I eat fish from here every week, and I'm healthy. You'd probably have to eat a lot to get sick." Bubbles began to rise from the water next to his line as we spoke, and he explained, "That's just a pipe from in town. Branchville gets their water from the Edisto."
After people "use" water, the sewage treatment plant "cleans" it and pumps it back into the river. A modern-day water cycle. After the trip I related this story to Scott Kennedy, who said that this pipe was overflow for the waste treatment plant. When it's bubbling, something's gone wrong in town. Apparently the fish love this, because Robert's bucket was full.
Late on the afternoon of our fourth day, we heard a booming rumble ahead on the river. Around a bend I saw two massive smokestacks and a ramp that appeared designed to release water from somewhere above. Several signs indicated "Danger" and forbade trespassing. I tied off and scrambled up the bank. Across a large retention pond was a massive pile of coal and a complex of gargantuan industrial buildings. A conveyor emerged from an opening in a large, waterfront structure and crossed the river, evidently transporting something into the wood.
This was the Colleton SCE&G power plant, definitely the scenic low point of the journey. The people I spoke with prior to the trip hesitated to place any blame on the power plant for high mercury levels in the water. Norman Brunswig, the director of Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest and a FRED board member, spoke of the natural baseload of mercury in blackwater rivers and of our inability to determine the impact human activity has had. Mark Giffin at DHEC alleged that most mercury comes from atmospheric deposition, when coal-fired plants release soot into the air that falls later as acid rain, and blamed our high levels here on plants in other states beyond our control in South Carolina.
Scott Kennedy pinpointed a different source. He explained that "fly ash" enters the air through chimneys, causing acid rain. "Drop ash," however, settles and is then mixed with water and moved hydraulically to an ash pond (the conveyor over the river). The ash settles to the bottom of the pond, and the water is then treated for pH and returned to the river. The problem is that arsenic, mercury, and other harmful chemicals remain suspended in the treated water, entering the Edisto, the fish, and then us.
"The old adage that the solution to pollution is dilution doesn't work," said Kennedy. "Look at the contamination in our offshore fisheries. I can show you where the pollution is going into the water, and one-eighth of a mile downstream there's kids swimming in it."
If a woman passes high mercury concentrations on to her child, it is at significant risks for cognitive and learning disabilities. People still fish and eat from the Edisto every day. It looks, sounds, and feels healthy and natural, but it's poisoned with heavy metal contaminants.
The noise from the plant was loud enough that I didn't stay to check out the ash pond, and instead paddled on past the quarter mile of river dominated by the energy complex. Carolina Heritage outfitters is located just past the plant, where we had our food stash for the next week. Brad Floyd, who lent us the canoes and helped with our planning, came out with his dog Martin and we chatted by the water, the plant still booming around the corner. I told him I understood why Scott Kennedy hated the plant. "I hate the plant," said Brad. Just across the river is Colleton State Park, and I wondered how anyone would want to camp with this noise so close by.
That night we decided to get as far as we could before dark. The river looked the same, but felt somehow different knowing what lied upstream. About a mile and half past Canadys we found a nice bluff with a raised bank to camp on, and gorged ourselves on Brunswick stew and Budweisers in the dark, talking about the day.
For the next few days I continued to ask people if they were concerned about any pollution from the plant upstream. One woman told me that the Vietnamese actually seek out the warm water by the plant and get a ton of fish, and that if you slow-poach them for hours it cooks out some of the pollutants. She was unconcerned about mercury herself.
"I don't worry about it. I'm going to die of something."
Floating down a serene river, past moss-draped cypress trees with woodpeckers and songbirds constantly crossing your path, it's impossible not to relax and bask in the beauty. Most of our time on the river was spent blissfully soaking up the abundant scenery and wildlife that the Edisto still harbors. There were times when I wished I didn't know what pollutants were in the water, and others when I was grateful for the opportunity to spread awareness and hopefully, eventually preserve and make it healthier.
Back in the familiar water of Botany Bay on the final morning of our trip, looking out to the ocean, I now know what lies up river, and it is all worthy of the grandeur that spills out into this spot.
Also: Read "Water Log", the full account of Dave and Stratton's trip, complete with colorful river characters, more wildlife encounters, and beer-influenced mishaps.
Thanks to Brad Floyd and Carolina Heritage Outfitters, Newman, Andy, Zach, Kim, and Al for their help with supplies and transport. Without them the trip would not have been possible. We are also immensely grateful for the kindness of Billy Stallings and Carolyn Godley, who displayed the finest Southern hospitality when we found ourselves out on open water in a thunderstorm.