The idea to float the Edisto River first came to my friend Dave and I three years ago, when we both lived and worked at its mouth on Seabrook Island. We spent most weekends that year paddling across Botany Bay to Edisto Island, or back into the tidal creeks and marshes that abound there.
This year, when we realized we both had two weeks free for exploring in May, the decision of where to go was easy. Brad Floyd, the one-man staff at Carolina Heritage Outfitters in Canadys, offered to help us plan and lend us canoes. He also told me about a number of clear-cuts along the river that have occurred since Hurricane Katrina, a likely result of high lumber values as people rebuild.
A buffer of a few hundred yards is needed between a cut and the river to allow for animal corridors and erosion control, but the states suggested minimum is only 35 feet. Apparently even that small, inadequate buffer was being ignored by some. We decided to GPS and photograph the clear-cuts we passed on the way, perhaps at least doing some much needed detective work for the Forestry Commission.
We recruited a few of our friends to join us for a night and help with resupplying and sat down with Brad to work out details. Because the Edisto forms from the confluence of a North and South Fork, then splits again into the North and South Edisto, it would take two trips to cover the whole river. He recommended we start on the North Fork with both a tandem and a solo canoe, and change over to kayaks when we reached tidal water. On May 15th he drove us to Rowesville Bridge, just south of Orangeburg, and we began our journey. What follows are excerpts from my journals, supplemented with conversations Ive had with foresters, government officials, and locals before and after the trip.
Monday night Somewhere on the North Fork
On our sandbar campsite at a sharp bend in the river, a barred owl stopped in the tree just above us and hooted ten times before flying on. These woods are full of owls we can hear the call and response cacophony extending off for miles.
Dave and I paddled all day and stopped here to camp just before dusk. There are bobcat tracks by the water. They can have this spot back in the morning.
Along with the excited approvals many friends gave as we planned this trip, I heard a frightening amount of warnings from folks who seemed to know. I expected mosquitoes that would 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 Edistos 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 passerbys. One day into what is arguably the most wild section of river well be traveling through, any apprehension I had developed proved unwarranted.
I did see three water moccasins today, and we navigated through plenty of low-hanging poison ivy, but I dont itch yet. Near the end of the day a gator plopped into the water in front of me, the only one Ive seen yet. There were lots of fallen logs, but we only had to portage twice, and neither was a real inconvenience.
Early on we passed two fishermen on a jonboat, then a family of three fishing on the bank for catfish, anything, whatever we can get! We tied up to explore the beautiful cypress and tupelo forests several times, and didnt see any of the scarring clear-cuts wed heard about.
It took about an hour today to sink in that this was real. We were floating the Edisto 140 miles from the ocean and no day-to-day responsibilities for almost two weeks. After lunch we never saw another person and by sunset wed been blissfully sipping Pabst Blue Ribbon for hours.
Late in the day we passed under a state road and had to paddle hard to get away from car noise for the night. Here on our sandbar, the North Fork is peacefully wild blackwater, as it should be.
This morning on our perfect sandbar, I woke up to the sound of heavy machinery, just across the river. When we went to check it out we found a farm with some kind of lumber operation going on in the woods. Nothing illegal, but enough ruckus to taint a quiet first morning waking up on the river.
Dave introduced me to his power breakfast of instant coffee, oatmeal, cocoa powder, and peanut butter all stirred together, and we escaped the sounds of the saw onto the river. I decided to see how long we could go without hearing any manmade noise. By lunch, the longest Id gone was two minutes. Bird calls and woodpeckers dominate, but always perceptible was the distant roar of an airplane, a saw, or a car on a far off road.
Can we still find true silence in South Carolina? Im spoiled in the wilderness Ive experienced, but I want to believe its still here close to home as well. Most folks on a weekend trip to the woods wouldnt even notice minor motor noise. I wish I didnt. Its like a mosquito in my ear.
By midday we came to the junction of the North and South Forks of the Edisto. Right at the confluence is a rustic cottage with a big water wheel operating on a floating dock. We couldnt find any lines to carry generated power, but it was an impressive sight. We paused to drink a PBR in the sun while I strummed the guitar and Dave jerry-rigged a fishing pole with tackle tangled in a tree.
After the fork, the river widened. Suddenly we could float down the middle, even get out and swim. The risk of being pushed into hornet and snake-filled bushes along the banks was gone. Most likely we wouldnt have to portage over any more fallen logs. Id been prepared for swarms of stinging insects and snakes dropping onto us. Realizing that after 24 hours we were now on a river and no longer a creek, part of me wished wed had some frightening adventure in the narrows. Being able to kick my legs up and just float when I tired of paddling was nice though, and I got over my yearning for deadly animals quickly.
Houses became more common, and twice today fishermen passed us on jon boats. One engine seemed to not get any closer, and we realized after 20 minutes it was a lawnmower. Thats the problem with noise on water loud ones carry a long way. We could hear Highway 78 for a good mile before passing under it, and I found myself paddling hard to get past it.
Still, not 15 minutes ever passed without a wildlife encounter. Turtles have either incredible ears or eyes. Even when were silently floating, far ahead I hear the constant plop of sunning sliders abandoning their log perches. Occasionally a gator plunges off the bank, and Ive gotten better at spotting the snakes that curl around the willow branches dominating the shores. I even flushed a yellow warbler from its nest in a cypress tree, then peered in to discover a nest of hatchlings, eyes still shut.
After lunch we passed a rope swing with a ladder and platform to leap from 15 feet up a tree. A German Shepherd we dubbed The Sentinel came down to greet us, and jumped in every time wed hit the water. Never mind the false anticipation of a buggy, reptilian jungle adventure. The beers were going down easy and this was going to be fun. I was doubting the truth of the clear-cut stories by now we hadnt seen one.
Another couple miles down the river we passed a man fishing on the bank. I figured Id better start talking to folks City Paper wasnt expecting a story about getting buzzed and suntanned. He had six redbreast sunfish in his bucket, ready to take home for dinner. I knew that DHEC recommends people only eat eight ounces of sunfish (and nearly every edible fish species on the Edisto) per month due to mercury contamination. His comment on this was what I expected from any fisherman on the Edisto. I eat fish from here every week, and Im healthy. Youd probably have to eat a lot to get sick.
Mercury doesnt really make you sick, but I chose not to get into details. As we talked, bubbles began to rise next to his line. They continued to get bigger, along with my eyes. Thats jut a pipe from in town, he said, smiling. I was still aghast, so he explained further that the town of Branchville got their water from the Edisto. After people used it, the sewage treatment plant cleaned it and pumped it back into the river. A modern day water cycle fair enough.
Before I paddled off, we introduced ourselves. His name was Robert, and he grew up in Branchville. For 20 years he worked at a textile dying plant in Orangeburg that dumped their runoff straight into the river. The plant closed and they obviously dont do that anymore, which he was happy about. Now he works at the Savannah River Site. I chose not to mention the Stronium-90 and other radioisotopes found in the tissue of fish over there.
Floating down a gorgeous river with hawks, woodpeckers, and songbirds constantly crossing your path, its impossible not to relax and bask in the beauty. I wish I didnt know what pollutants are in the water. Itd be a lot easier to be ignorant of those things and just enjoy every moment without any negativity.
Not five minutes after I paddled off from Robert, I caught up with Daves canoe pulled off to the left bank. Through one row of cypress trees was what looked like a field. Climbing up the small bluff, I peered out at a vast, empty wasteland of stumps and small scrubs. The clear-cuts were real. MeadWestvaco signs were nailed intermittently along the next mile of river, and on the left, blue sky always showed through a single line of trees. I was shocked. This was huge, and it just kept on going and cut inland at least half a mile.
The folks Id spoken to with Friends of the Edisto and the Edisto Canoe and Kayak Trail Commission had all said the problem was with small, private landowners unaware of the law and the potentially disastrous effects on the river of clear-cutting to its banks. MeadWestvaco is signed on with the Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI) and apparently takes that accreditation seriously. This was a whole forest annihilated it hardly looked sustainable. We took pictures and GPS coordinates, and realized then and there that 35 feet, the required buffer between water and clear-cut, is not very far.
To cut into this meager, already inadequate buffer zone is irresponsible. In my environmentalist dreamer heart, it was morally reprehensible. We passed a house and a man sitting along the bank, and he said theyd cut it last year. It was obviously recent.
Our campsite tonight is the picture of irony. We again found the perfect sandbar home. I hung my hammock and Dave is fixing burritos while I write. Behind us is a dense, green forest. Across the river is a row of trees, then a field of grass and stumps as far as I can see.
We paddled an hour from where we first came to the clear-cut and still havent left it behind. All over the sand are mussels whose outer layer of shell has worn away near the hinge. The living mussels in the water show the same phenomenon. Well have to ask someone at DNR if theyve seen this. Far off, an engines roar comes drifting across the water. It just goes to show hard to find wilderness now in the Southeast, said Dave. I didnt mention that Id been feeling this heavily all day.
The Edisto is not conducive to melancholy, though. Dusk settled and the birds took over the soundscape. The smell of peppers, squash, and onion in the pan, ready to be wrapped in warm tortillas, engulfed all my senses. Maybe well play some music tonight before lapsing into the deep peaceful sleep that only the sound of flowing water in a forest can provide.
This morning at dawn the black water steamed like hot tea. In the first light it rose thick, 10 feet over the water. I walked into the grassy, cypress woods and realized we were on a peninsula between turns in the river. The open space behind the row of trees across the water was sunny and looked inviting and warm. I paddled over and walked into the expanse.
Standing high on a cypress stump, the vast clear-cut went further than I could see. Around the stump, dozens of cypress knees jutted up from the ground. Even after three days, the float and camp river life was my reality. Cypress knees with no tree depressed me.
After oatmeal, we packed up and got on the river. Paralleling Highway 61, we paddled quickly except for a quick stop at another inviting rope swing. At the intersection of the river and highways 21 and 61, our friends Al and Kim had tentatively arranged to meet us for about 20 miles of river. They werent there and cell phones didnt work, so we walked up to the Rivers Run gas station and campground. We left Al a message, bought ice and ice creams, and got back on the water.
After 21, the river widened out for a while with lots of houses, but after a turn headed into a densely forested section. Finally we were floating without road noise through thick woods that looked old. A massive gator sauntered down the bank through lily pads as we pulled off on a beach for leftover dirty rice, peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and a PBR.
Just as we finished up, Al and Kim came cruising around the corner in their kayaks. Excited to see friends, our new entourage continued merrily down the river. I propped my feet up and leaned way back, just floating. This section was quiet. Finally there were no engines in the distance, no houses, and the woods were thick. All afternoon the river was gorgeous and unspoiled, and when we noticed a clear area behind the bank late in the day, I felt a disheartening back to work sensation.
What I saw upon exiting my canoe was enough to make me sick. A solid square mile of woods had been leveled, leaving piles of brush and turned up earth, a literal wasteland. Without a burn it didnt even look replantable, and I doubted the perpetrators had even considered planting.
A sandy road ran about 10 feet from the bank, with the cut on the other side, twenty feet from water. Dave ran out and stood on a stump, a tiny figure surrounded by nothing. I tried to imagine what the woods had looked like. All I could do was compare across the river where visibility into the trees was about 20 feet less than the corridor this clear-cut had left. Out in the middle stood one tall, lone tree, a phenomenon Id noticed at two other cuts. I wondered if this was a logger superstition bad things happen if you cut down a whole forest. Of course they do. So leave one lonely tree.
The beauty of a winding river is that around the next curve past a horrible cut, you can be back in paradise, spotting three bright blue birds, with blue beaks and blue feet, resting on a fallen branch. Dave identified them as Little Blue Herons. The banks soon changed from sand to limestone, moss-covered ledges, and bluffs up to 80 feet high. Around sunset we found a big level spot and set up camp. Dinner was broccoli alfredo, and Kim made a jug of Bacardi and Gatorade that we sipped on all night around a fire. Guitars came out, Beam and cocoa nightcaps went around, and we stayed up late playing music.
Both nights before wed had a chorus of owls in the evening. Sitting on our sandbar on night two, we heard a rustle in the trees behind us something was coming out of the woods 10 feet away. I looked at Dave just as a huge owl swooped two feet above his head and across the river. Owls must appreciate the open range of clear-cuts. Tonight, camped with thick woods all around us, theyre all off somewhere else.
Its fascinating to see the change on this river as we move along. On the North Fork, the river was narrow with tight turns and abundant cypress and tupelo trees growing out of the water. Willows have dominated the banks for two days now, and where were camped tonight just south of Canadys, towering pines line the shore, along with water oaks and beech. No more gators here, but Ive still seen at least one cottonmouth a day, and the turtle plop is the characteristic sound of rounding a curve in the Edisto.
Natural changes in the rivers flora, fauna, and geology occur gradually Im excited to see how this blackwater melts into the brackish, pluff mud Edisto. The manmade changes are far more striking.
This morning we got a late start. Just across from our campsite was a rope swing that required our attention, featuring natural cavities in the tree as a ladder up to the platform. An early morning plunge is better than coffee.
The first several hours were like the last few of yesterday unspoiled, majestic Lowcountry blackwater. No jon boats passed us, and for hours no manmade noise was detectable, save an occasional airplane. It was a blissful morning float.
Around lunch (tuna and tortillas), we came to the treehouses that Carolina Heritage rents out. The largest, called UpDaCreek, had a washtub bass, dulcimer, and flutes. We explored their amazing property, all on a creek-cut island peninsula at a bend in the river, and decided to bring friends and family back some day for a long weekend here. The houses were rustic, unobtrusive, and in harmony with the setting good development.
Here, at one of the most impressive stretches of river so far, a clear-cut had ravaged the opposite bank. Scott Kennedy, the former owner of Carolina Heritage, maintains a sizable property on the north bank as a wildlife refuge. Almost as soon as signs appeared denoting the refuge, the clear-cut began across the river.
Whoever was responsible used two blue lines to mark their buffer, the symbol used at the awful cut the night before. The minimum of 35 feet was blatantly ignored here. In one place, the lines were on a tree to mark the buffer, yet others had been cut in between it and the river.
Its a harsh blow to Carolina Heritages ecotourism business at the treehouses, and worse for the health of the river. Without healthy forests along them, banks erode and add sediment to the river, dirtying it and filling it in. Trees then fall across the river and impede boaters. Hurricanes put this process in hyper-speed. If theres a big one this year, after these massive post-Katrina cuts, the Edisto will be an unnavigable, muddy mess.
Thats not to mention the wildlife. Buffers act as corridors for animals to travel. Thirty-five feet is not enough to allow this. Less than that means small animals are left moving across open spaces, vulnerable to predators, and many species decline. Birds are hard-hit by forests disappearing as well, and with songbirds already on the decline, our third and fourth growth forests of tomorrow may be monogamous, quiet places.
The real wonder of the Edisto is that even around a clear-cut, its still a beautiful place. The obstructions humans build around rivers are the more difficult changes to cope with. Past the treehouses, the river widened and the current slowed. I struggled to keep up with the kayaks in the small canoe. With the current at this pace we had to work to move. Our days of idle floating were done.
Pretty soon we could hear the roar of traffic on I-95. For an hour the low rumble grew louder, giving me plenty of time to snap out of my nature-induced trance and reconnect with the real world weve built. By the time we paddled under the overpass the sound was deafening.
If my old attitude towards the interstate was a strong dislike or bad taste in my mouth, now it was pure revulsion. Multi-lane highways are an impenetrable ribbon of noise and death through the woods. Habitat is split, and those animals foolish enough to attempt a crossing generally end up with their hair plastered to a bumper.
To halve the number of large predator animals in an area, just build a freeway down the middle. Carolina panthers and I-95 dont mix.
A Pan-American Highway from the U.S. to the bottom of South America is in the works, straight through thousands of miles of rainforest. But itll be so nice to take the RV to Peru, not to mention the booms in commerce.
In the time it took us to pass the interstate, at least 200 motorists drove over. Many probably saw us out the window and thought, How nice or I bet thats fun. It is, but not for another mile when I get out of earshot of your car.
Despite my stereotyping the robots moving along at 80 miles per hour over the Edisto, I drove over the same spot four days ago to visit the store in St. George for last minute supplies. I am a guilty victim of a system I perpetuate. Its just like the mercury thats in the Edistos fish because of the electricity we use to cook it. Yet even in these places nature finds a way to flourish. Underneath the overpass, hundreds of swallows flew from their nests as we paddled below. Somehow tolerant to the constant rumble above, two silent boats were enough to disturb them.
Not minutes after we escaped the dull hum of cars, a louder, even more obtrusive growl came from ahead. I expected a clear-cut in progress and was ready with my camera and some questions for loggers.
The noise kept getting louder and bigger until I realized this was no lumber operation. Around a bend I saw two massive smokestacks and a ramp that appeared to be designed to release water from somewhere above. Several signs indicated Danger and forbade us from 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. This was the Colleton SCE&G power plant. Years ago, when I first learned of mercury contamination in the Edisto, I wrote a letter petitioning the company to curtail its ash pit discharge into the river. Of course, nothing came of it and I received no response. Originally, Id though to base this story and trip on that issue, but most consider it a lost cause because the state needs more power already.
Mercury builds up in our bodies and makes us dumber. If a woman passes high mercury concentrations onto her child, it is at significant risks for cognitive and learning disabilities. People still fish and eat from the Edisto everyday. It looks, sounds, and feels healthy and natural, but a killer lurks in the water, and here was the most probable source.
A conveyor crossed the river, carrying ash-contaminated water to another retention pond, which some locals claim leeches into the soil. The noise from the plant was loud enough that I didnt stay to check out the second pond. About a quarter mile of the river was dominated by this filthy complex.
I wanted to talk to some employees, but it was getting late, so I paddled around the bend to Carolina Heritage. Al and Kim had been there awhile. They restocked us with beer (Busch this time) and camera batteries and we parted ways.
Brad came out with his dog Martin and we chatted by the river. The plant still boomed around the corner. I told him I understood why Scott Kennedy hated the plant. I hate the plant, said Brad. Colleton State Park is just across the river as well. I cant imagine camping with the noise so close by.
We decided to get as far as we could before dark. The river looked the same, but felt somehow different knowing what lay upstream. About a mile and half past Canadys we found a nice bluff with a raised bank that looked good for camping. We gorged ourselves on Brunswick stew and sipped beers in the dark, talking about the day. Thunder boomed in the distance so I set up my tent.
Even inside it with light rain pattering down, I could hear the low snarl of the power plant far away. It destroys the peace, pollutes the water, and inadvertently makes our children dumb. I hate it. When I get home I will flip on a light switch. Im grateful for that, but maybe Ill feel some guilt knowing where it comes from.
My tent is a glorified mosquito net. It rained heavily last night, and during every brief downpour my little home became a mist tent. Everything was soaked this morning, so the big canoe, heavy as a cement truck and dubbed The Barge, is now a floating laundry line with tents and sleeping bags spread out over the load. After yesterdays hard paddling, we took it easy. After passing three fishermen early, we didnt see people again until dusk. The current picked up and Dave cracked a beer at 10:30. We sat back and enjoyed the ride.
The stretch after Colleton State Park is surprisingly undeveloped, with no major clear-cuts visible from the river. Such a large stretch would typically be owned by a timber company. With the closer proximity to Charleston and the mass sell-offs of timber land in the past year, Im grateful for the chance to float such a tranquil stretch. One of the few houses we passed today featured a platform built high in a tree over the river, with a rickety ladder propped up to reach it. I was glad it was Daves turn to be the guinea pig. We estimated it was a 25-foot jump, and the free fall was well worth the shaky nerves.
The current kept up and there were no clear-cuts to stop for, so when we reached a good sandbank in the afternoon we pulled over to properly dry out. After peanut butter, banana, and honey sandwiches we pulled out the guitars and picked some old bluegrass tunes. By late afternoon I was floating by the Barge in the water, lazy river style. I saw Dave reach for his flask and suggested we break into the Beam as well.
One bourbon, one scotch, and one beer later we rounded the corner to Mars Oldfield Landing. Music was blaring and several groups of people were partying and watching the sunset on the beach. I heard a lady say He looks like an Indian. Im sure I looked pretty haggard after five days in the sun on a blackwater river.
Two women called me over and offered me vodka. I was already into the sauce too deep to refuse, so I sat and pulled on Heaven Hill and learned about their house on the river with no power or water. I was hoping for insight on the river, but the first woman just wanted to talk about gators. Watch out for red eyes at night! she kept saying.
I turned my attention to the other lady, who told me the bass were biting beetle spinners on the surface. I asked if folks around here were concerned about any pollution from the plant upstream.
She said the Vietnamese actually fish 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 contaminants. I asked about mercury and got the typical response. I dont worry about it. Im going to die of something.
I wonder if canned tuna sales have declined in recent years with the press attention to mercury, but I doubt it. Whether you live by a river or not, mercury seems like one of those things weve accepted as unavoidable and decided not to worry about. Just give a heavily mercury poisoned child Adderall and they ought to stay on pace.
Id have talked longer but it was dusk and Dave had gone ahead.
Around the bend I saw him on the bank with our GPS notes spread out on the ground. Mimicking George Thorogood had overly raised our confidence in our balance on a canoe, and Dave had become a victim of canoe tip.
Unfortunately, his dry box was unlatched and our GPS coordinates, map, and his cellphone were soaked. Potentially tragic, he quickly transferred the notes to dry paper and averted disaster. The phone was ruined, but the map was readable. Good thing, because Id soaked our original map in a rain shower on the first day.
After we emptied, dried, and reloaded the boat it was near dark. Ironically, the next bend featured our first rope swing of the day (wed have killed for one hours earlier) and behind it the first clear-cut wed seen, complete with MeadWestvaco signs. The swing was too good to pass up and on my second ride I lost my grip and tore the skin off my finger.
Both of us feeling pretty dumb, we cruised around a few more turns to a prominent sandbar. I made a teriyaki stir fry with broccoli, carrots, onion, and squash while Dave set about hanging and drying his gear. After dinner I laid my sleeping bag out on the beach and for the first time had mosquitoes buzzing my head all night.
It looked like rain at dawn, so we got moving quickly. We had made tentative plans to meet my brother Newman and our friends Zach and Andy at Givhans Ferry State Park, about five more miles downstream. Paddling hard in a light drizzle, we soon passed an official MeadWestvaco primitive campsite. Id heard about and expected lots of these, but this was the first Id seen.
A white-haired old man dressed in camouflage waved and called me to shore. His name was Wade Quattlebaum and I accepted his invitation to come sit, although I declined the lone hot dog lying on the grill over the fire.
He and his wife had been in this spot for two months, and had a small settlement of room-sized tents scattered around. His eight children and their families come to visit the seasonal retirement home on the weekends.
Mr. Quattlebaum explained that he was a writer, with a book on survival and living off the land in the Lowcountry set to be published in August.
Walking around the site, he introduced me to the delicious huckleberry, and warned me about the rattlesnake who lived down in the run just the week before his son was struck an inch below his snake boot. He told me where I could find piles of sharks teeth in the river, and where hed found mastadon teeth and native relics.
I hadnt seen Dave pass by in his boat, so I sat down to hear Mr. Quattlebaums stories. The Friday before, he had motored to the entrance of Four Holes Swamp, and in the middle of the night a huge sturgeon had leaped into his jon boat, probably attracted by the glowing gas lantern. Shaken, he wrestled the pointy nosed fish back into the water.
The following night, he went farther up into the swamp. Far away through the darkness he heard people singing Shall We Go Down to the River, and he sang along, which he kindly intoned for me as well.
After the song stopped, he heard a female yell, Save me, save me! A bit shaken, he gathered his shotgun as the voice repeated, Save me, save me! Not certain that this was a genuine call for help, he slowly maneuvered towards the voice through the swamp. Finally a group of people appeared standing on an abandoned old bridge. The woman cried, Save me, save me! again as they appeared to release ashes into the river. Evidently, life in the Edistos swamps is prime for storytelling.
When I got home, I searched for Mr. Quattlebaums books, but only found references to his history as the lucrative inventor of the Quadro Tracker, a device sold to police all over the country that claimed to locate hidden objects. Sandia Lab in New Mexico investigated and found it to be an empty plastic box with a radio antenna. Quattlebaum was acquitted of wrongdoing, but the Harleyville company was shut down. If the contraption worked, Gullah voodoo is clearly not a patentable concept.
After half an hour of fascinating stories, I realized Id missed Dave, bade farewell, and paddled hard to catch up.
Just north of Jacksonboro on Highway 17, the Edisto runs through thick swamp on either side. Somewhere on the edge of Snuggedy Swamp we are camped on a tiny spit of dry land, awaiting the mosquitoes to come carry us away. Last night at dusk they appeared, and remained unrelentingly hungry until dawn.
I slept out in the open, as I have most every night, and sometime in the wee hours I had to get up and spread out my tent. I crawled inside without setting it up like an oversized sleeping bag and denied them any more blood. Tonight Ive got my brothers far more adequate tent, and its set up, ready for the assault.
We met Newman, Zach, and Andy yesterday morning at Givhans. All afternoon we floated, fished, and dehydrated ourselves with Budweiser in the hot sun. Being Saturday and far downstream, we saw more people, boats, and houses than the rest of the trip before combined, but there were no clear-cuts.
Theres obviously a lot more eyes watching down here. Folks waved and chatted about the fishing, or asked us where we put in. This far down no one recognized Rowesville, and when we clarified just south of Orangeburg everyone was surprised. Next time Ill start farther up. I could float this river for the rest of my life.
Except for a little excitement when Andy fell out of his kayak, the day was lazy and uneventful. With thunder in the distance, we found a perfect sandbar campsite with a small shelter and a picnic bench. We enjoyed a chili feast around a fire and stayed up until the beer was gone.
This morning we realized we had some ground to cover to get them back to their car by late afternoon. We paddled hard, but stopped at an enormous sandbar to throw the Frisbee and swim.
After lunch we came to our first clear-cut in two days. The cut was vast, and all the way to the water in several places. I pulled up to the steep bank to get a level view, and grabbed ahold of a root about a foot from a baby cottonmouth. Backing the canoe away but still tied on at the bow, I saw a healthy-sized adult within a yard of my boat.
This was not the place to get out. Andy helped untie me and I luckily escaped without a bite. Everyone was sure to examine the banks more clearly thereafter. We took GPS coordinates of the cut and continued on.
I was the last to reach Lowndes Ferry landing, exhausted from trying to keep up in the Barge. Newman, Zach, and Andy had offered to drop our canoes back at Givhans Ferry, where Brad from Carolina Heritage would pick them up.
Without his and our friends help, the logistics of this trip would have been far more difficult, and Im immensely grateful. Andy left me his camera so wed have more pictures, as Al had done four days before when my memory card first ran out of its 200 images. He also lent me his hat, as Id left mine at Wade Quattlebaums campsite.
After a day of sipping beer and then a day of hard paddling under a hot, cloudless sky, Id had moments where I felt totally exhausted from the exposure. Sunscreen and a hat are crucial when the river widens and shade becomes scarce.
We said goodbye and got a laugh as they drove away in Newmans Wagoneer with a canoe and kayak on top and another canoe hanging out the trunk. Somehow, in the 20 miles they covered with us we never passed a good, functional rope swing.
One hundred yards down the river we came to one. An hour later, wed passed three, and came to a landing with a swing that featured a thick rope with multiple platforms and limbs to jump from. Two local guys came over and showed us how they do flips off the rope, but Dave and I still opted to just swing out and let go.
Finally able to cruise in kayaks, we covered nearly as many miles in an hour and a half as we had all day. At our swamp-side home, we ate falafel with hot diced tomatoes, cucumber, and pita and got the dishes done just before the swarms arrived. Outside the mesh tent walls I could hear them like an angry mob. Id never heard mosquitoes like this before and Ive been in some terrible spots for them.
A boy called to us from the bank today, Are you headed to the brackish? Ill be ready for that first whiff of pluff mud.
One week Monday
Last night was trouble in paradise, and today we paddled upstream all day. Sometime in the night I heard a buzzing in my ear. I woke repeatedly and swatted at my head seemingly normal after the last two nights, until I awakened enough to realize I was in my tent. As dawns light slowly approached I began to see the thousands of gnats that had engulfed the tent.
Far too small for mosquitoes, the tents mesh was just the right size for tiny no-see-ums to crawl in and out at will. If you make your home in a swamp, youd better expect company. Exposed spots on my arm and shoulder both welcomed at least 100 uncomfortable tiny bites each.
Before setting down the river, Dave and I decided to explore the swamp as far in as we could with the kayaks. Gliding through eerily still water and cypress stumps of a Lowcountry swamp is a surreal experience. The water below is murky and seems dead, but life abounds, mainly in the form of millions of insects and spiders slowly moving about.
The swamp opened up into the river. We didnt remember a turn the night before, but knew there were some islands nearby, so we headed in the direction wed have gone from our campsite.
Two old ladies were sitting on the far bank. They saw our fishing rods and one yelled Dont worry, theyll start biting soon. Low tides at 12:30.
I was surprised to hear that the tide affected fish this far upriver, and wondered how late the tide would come here comparatively to the ocean. We paddled, obviously without thinking, against the current with the sun to our right for half an hour.
Finally, frustrated and hungry (we were out of oatmeal and hadnt eaten breakfast), I stopped and realized we were headed north. I almost stopped at a dock and knocked on a door just to see faces when I asked Excuse me, which way is the ocean?
We turned around, following a 180-degree bend in the river and found ourselves back at the campsite. The next sections were gorgeous, and owned by MeadWestvaco.
Timber companies dont do much with their land but occasionally cut it, so the stands of forest owned by MeadWestvaco and left alone are some of the nicest parts of the Edisto. After an hour of floating and watching swallow-tailed kites dive to catch dragonflies off the surface of the water, we reached Highway 17.
Down to less than a gallon of drinking water, we pulled under the bridge and trudged through the mud up to the highway. It was half a mile to Jacksonboro, straight down the road. Reading the historic marker on the way, I learned that Jacksonborough was the temporary capital of South Carolina while Charleston was under siege during the American Revolution. Now its little more than a strip of gas stations, gift shops, and billboards along a major highway.
We heard there was a Churchs Chicken at the Citgo station, and we walked an extra half a mile for it. As a recovering vegetarian and health-conscious consumer, I eat fast food about once a year, giving myself time to forget the previous experience.
After only a week on the river, and eating well at that, I was beginning to understand how Appalachian Trail hikers so commonly gorge themselves when they reach towns. Knowing you cant soon thereafter is incentive to fill up.
Between the two of us, we downed half a chicken, a sandwich, fries, jalapeno poppers, biscuits, an Icee, Snickers ice cream bars, and two Yuengling tall boys. With our bellies and water bottle full, we contentedly hiked back down the highway.
If there is a line where the Edistos surrounding ecosystem changes from blackwater to coastal, it is Highway 17. Within a mile the birches, pines, oaks, maples and cypress of the swamp were giving way to tall grass and muddy banks lined with gorgeous blooming spider lilies.
The scenery was fantastic, but difficult to enjoy because the water soon began to flow upriver. We had reached the brackish, and at the start of an incoming tide.
The wind blew into our faces from the south, rare enough in these parts to frustrate us and complicate the situation. Within an hour we were desperately searching for dry land to rest on.
We had passed West Bank Landing, but wanted somewhere we could make home until the tide shifted. My arms were jelly by the time I spotted a small inlet across the river that appeared to get fairly close to a stand of pine trees dry land. We pulled our kayaks onto the grassy bank and collapsed.
A storm began to roll in, and we lied there on siesta for at least an hour enjoying it. There is no better place in the world to feel the approach of a thunderstorm than on a South Carolina salt marsh. Just have cover ready when needed.
We didnt, so we pulled the tarp over our boats, got out our raincoats, and hiked into the interior of the island. The grass gave way to a dirt road, lined by tall live oak trees. There was a No Trespassing sign, but we figured it was more timber land and decided to ignore it and find cover.
We soon came to one of the most impressive stands of live oaks Ive ever seen. Each tree had its own personality defined by thick, flowing limbs. Blown away by the grandeur of the storm and the live oaks, we stood dumbstruck and grinning.
Walking farther down the road, a dike began alongside us. This seemed like a plantation, but second-growth stands of pines all around seemed more like timber land. There were no signs of a structure or house, so we were startled to hear a car approach behind us.
Can I help yall with something? asked the lady at the wheel. We were definitely trespassing, so when she told us the land was private we smiled and headed back toward the boats.
The tide was still against us and the storm was picking up. As we weighed our options, a truck pulled up by the boats. It was the womans uncle coming to tell us there was hail five miles north and a major thunderstorm on the way. Half of Jacksonboro had already lost power.
We obviously couldnt get back on the water, and tents here in the open didnt sound too good either. The man thought for a minute and suggested driving us upriver back to West Bank Landing, which had a covered picnic area.
Unenthusiastic about losing ground wed paddled hard to gain, but aware of the danger in staying, we loaded up the boats. I sat in the back and held them in place, enjoying the last brownie Id packed as consolation for the driving rain I was sitting in.
Underneath the sign for West Bank Landing is a newer, bigger sign that says No Camping. I laughed out loud when we pulled in. The man introduced himself as Billy Stallings before he left, and we thanked him for his kindness.
While in the cab, Dave had gathered that we had pulled up at Hope Plantation, owned by Ted Turner, although he allows a few families to still live there.
Dave and I walked down to the dock and cast our lines in the misty river. Large sturgeon surfaced all around. As one approached the dock it seemed abnormally large. We realized it was three swimming together, literally touching. Dave was trying to catch them with a cast net when a truck pulled down to the landing.
A friendly-looking man ambled down to the dock and said his wife had sent him to check on our supplies. We had two more dinners for as many days, so we thanked him and said we were fine. He waved and drove off.
Five minutes later Billy came back with two beers and two Pepsis in a bag of ice. These were the kindest folks in the world wed been trespassing and now the whole community was abuzz about our well-being. We had a cookout this weekend and my sisters heating yall up a plate, he said and headed back off.
When he returned, no amount of gratitude was enough. I could tell that whatever lied beneath the foil on these plates was going to be good. Then he handed us a bag for tomorrow grapes, apples, and four candy bars. We thanked Billy as best we could and excitedly sat down to this feast. The plates were stuffed with pork tenderloin, rice and gravy, corn pudding, green bean and pea casserole, corn on the cob, biscuits, black-eyed peas, and the best sweet potatoes Ive ever had.
Dave said he had some asparagus too, but in the dark it was hard to identify everything. It was Thanksgiving though, and a damn fine one at that. They even wrapped up two pieces of cake for dessert.
We camped under the cover at the landing and the storm never came, but it wouldnt have been smart to get back on the water. The mosquitoes were thick, but inside my tent with a warm, full belly I slept the best I had in nights.
The sequence of events is still shocking in retrospect. From paddling like the devil to trespassing through ancient trees to an unbelievable feast by the river. Billy Stallings, his sister Carolyn Golding, and their whole family were incredibly kind to two filthy strangers.
South Carolinas greatest natural resource is undoubtedly its people. Thank God for Southern hospitality.
We covered nearly 20 miles today. The first few were recovering lost ground, but just past Hope Plantation I saw 15 anhingas flying together in the sky striking and rare for this normally solitary bird. The marsh scenery of the ACE Basin National Wildlife Reserve is incredible. Dave got far ahead while I stopped to explore an abandoned house on a tiny island. Later on we passed an ancient brick chimney rising alone from another island.
A man came to the landing this morning who collected and searched for artifacts in the river with his waterproof metal detector. His stories of the Yemassee Indians and the colonies on the Edisto stirred my interest in the abundant history of the river.
Not long after I caught up with Dave we came to the Dawho River, the small cut that would lead us over seven miles to the Intracoastal Waterway and then the North Edisto River.
Not even 100 yards into the narrow passage, a massive gator emerged in the mud a boats length from my bow. It stared me down in the water. Im not afraid of alligators and never have been, but this one seemed malicious and unafraid, and he caught me off-guard.
I backpaddled and waited for Dave to catch up. Moments later, a motorboat pulled up. Two men yelled a warning to watch out for gators on the banks around here. No kidding. Wed seen three in the last two days, and none in the two days before that. In the two hours it took us to paddle the Dawho, we saw no less than 30. Theyd stand their ground until just before we reached them, then slink into the water and slowly swim toward us.
Halfway through the cut, the tide shifted and we paddled hard against a strong current for half an hour before pulling off at a side channel labeled Fishing Creek on the map.
We tried our luck at fishing, but didnt do any catching. Against a heavy tide, it took around an hour to paddle out of the Dawho to the bridge that crosses the Intracoastal to Edisto Island.
We found a shady spot at the landing and attracted stares as we cooked a sweet and sour stir-fry with carrots and onions, our last hot meal. The tide was supposed to change here at 5:30, but at 6:30 it just seemed to be slacking, so we finally put in.
The Intracoastal Waterway is big not the friendly Edisto River wed gotten used to. With night looming and big swells rocking our kayaks, we made the less adventurous decision of pulling over at the next dry spot to wait for morning. Sharing the open, windy waterway with ships and tankers in the pitch black of a nearly new moon would not have been wise.
About half a mile ahead we steered towards a row of trees jutting out into the river. Fighting our way through heavy vegetation, we discovered the interior of the small island to be a lagoon.
This was a circular spit of land that seemed to have been created by a dredge. A metal structure rose 20 feet above a pipe that allowed water to flow between the river and the lagoon. We quickly spotted two tent-sized dry spots in the mud and set up camp.
Just as the sun set, we crawled to the top of the metal tower with our backpacker guitars, and enjoyed a 360-degree view of the North Edisto, Wadmalaw Sound, the Intracoastal, and Edisto Island.
Dozens of birds combed the banks of the lagoon, and right at dark a flock of wood storks flew overhead. The night was starry and cool, and I slept well.
We awoke before dawn, hoping to catch a full outgoing tide to cover the last 15-odd miles to the ocean in one rigorous push. Breakfast was Twix bars and Pepsi, leftover from Billy, which we mixed with the last few inches of Jim Beam in lieu of coffee. As the sun loomed on the horizon, we hit the water.
In a kayak, the Intracoastal Waterway is especially huge. Five-foot swells often lifted and dropped us as we battled strong winds from the south for hours. Even with the tide, I was pushed backwards if I took a moments break. Still, there is nothing like being on wide open salt water in the early morning. My arms were as fit as ever, showing veins around muscles sore from repeated exertion.
Fighting the tide after the change is even tougher, so we pressed on, reaching Botany Bay just before noon. Not 50 feet before we rounded the northernmost point on Edisto Island, putting us out into the Atlantic, a whiting bit onto the line Dave had been trailing behind him for days.
The fishless spell was broken. Seconds later we reached our Mount Katahdin, paddling out into the open ocean. We made it.
Back in familiar water at the mouth of Botany Bay, looking out to Devaux Bank and the ocean, I now know what lies upriver, and it is all worthy of the grandeur that spills out into this spot.
The world of automobiles and flush toilets awaits, and I cant say Im excited. Its easier for me to go out than to go back in. But theres work to be done and questions to be answered. I want to paddle this river again and again. Maybe with my future wife, maybe my child. I hope they experience a river as profoundly beautiful as the Edisto remains today, and not a waterway lined with Edisto Plantation subdivisions. If thats unavoidable, Ill still fight it.
After all, this is the longest free-flowing blackwater river in the world, and its in our backyard. Were the stewards.