Edisto Paddle

The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. – John Muir

Float down South Carolina’s blackwater beauty, the Edisto River, in this chronicle of an October 2019 paddle by Linda C. Shaw.

The weather threatened our plans, so we came prepared, but we came. From every direction of the county we drove to Good Hope Landing, near Cottageville and began a day that would calm, excite, challenge and unite us as we paddled this peaceful waterway.

Edisto Paddle - Linda C. Shaw
Photo by Linda C. Shaw

All of us had paddled the Ashley to Jessen’s landing and most of us had been on the Stono River near Limehouse Bridge, so we welcomed one another as fellow paddlers, master naturalists, water keepers, and friends. Each brought tools to gather the trash: paper, aluminum cans, fishing line, Styrofoam cups and various other threats to our water world. And each of us hoped to preserve its beauty and leave it in a healthier and happier state.

I myself was in need of a day on the water. It always amazes me how nature, once I’m there, wraps her arms around me and calmly caresses me, like the wind favors a leaf floating lightly atop the water. Sometimes when the current slows, I drop my paddle and welcome all she has to share. I am reminded that the river is like a forever friend that I have too long ignored.

Oh black water keep on rolling, keep on smiling on me – Doobie Brothers.

As we pushed off and trailed behind one another on the water, the willow and cypress tree-lined banks shared their majesty, and the river’s delight captured me. The black waters of the Edisto River reach from Edgefield and Saluda counties to the Atlantic Ocean, some 310 miles. Because it is one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the nation, it invites fishermen, boaters, rafters, and paddlers alike to enjoy its slow-moving magic. Blackwater rivers flow slowly through forested swamps and wetlands. Tannins from the forests’ decaying vegetation leach in the water making it the color of dark tea. As I took in the river’s expanse, I was glad I had come. I was glad I had arisen at 6:45 am and braved the early morning near hour drive. Its dark tea stained water mysteriously comforted me.

Belted Kingfisher by Linda C. Shaw
Photo by Linda C. Shaw

Our paddle took us only four miles, but those four miles carried us past the Edisto Wildlife Management area, where depending on the season and the time of day you might see a plethora of wildlife. The first song I recognized came from the chatter of a kingfisher that followed us down the river, stopping on each dead tree to scope us out. Before we took the first curve, I turned and watched him tack back upstream. We also saw osprey, heron, egret, turtle, sparrow, wren, and Blue Jay to name but a few.

Above us grey clouds kept parting, letting in streaks of sunshine while the temperature gradually rose. At one point pinpricks of rain fell. I watched as the droplets dimpled the blackness that we slipped over. Only once did we all feel the need to port and don our rain jackets, but as the weather moved north, we paddled southeast and soon were out of the storms range.

There were plenty of other obstacles that challenged us. Floating limbs, submerged trunks, and low hanging branches meant we needed to paddle with care. Also the weather previous to our paddle had brought several days of rain – upstream. This meant that the river’s depth was above normal, but nothing that brought concern. Until, that is, we passed round a bend and beheld the large trees that had fallen and blocked our path. The narrowing of the river at this point and the straining of the downed trees turned our slow moving river into gushing waters that piqued our skills. With the water pushing up against the trees and passages for our escape narrow, it required some shrewd maneuvering to keep dry. The water was between three and four feet deep.

I paddled a canoe with a friend, whom I was introducing to paddling. Her twenty-year old son, an experienced and trained Special Olympic paddler paddled my K-4 boat. Though none of the trees completely blocked our passage and created a logjam, many were three quarters of the way across the river and jig jagged with trees from the opposite side of the bank.

My friend’s son became entangled first as the water pushed him along side a fallen tree and threatened to topple him. Seeing his predicament, his mother and I moored atop a fallen tree further down stream and talked him through it, as did Ed who was nearby. Marshall kept his cool and paddled like a pro to the main current and past us. Meanwhile we precariously balanced and shifted our weight and worked with the wake that pushed up against our boat, but we too soon also found the main flow again. After rounding the S curve we beached and waited to make sure all made it through our “rapid water.” No true rapids can be found anywhere on the Edisto, but felled trees from the hardwood forest will always present challenges and give cause for paddling with caution.

The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare to let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure. – from Illusions by Richard Bach

After pushing off from the beach we were once again moseying carefree down the river, enjoying the river’s tranquility. We saw no other boater that morning. I don’t mean to sound selfish, but not seeing others on the river is what makes this stretch of the Edisto so perfect. The swamplands and wetlands that feed the Edisto keep development at bay, making the section we paddled somewhat remote. As we neared our exit landing, very few cottages and docks dotted the banks, so most of our trip was for our small group only. Not even a fisherman was seen.

When we arrived at Long Creek, we sat and visited, ate lunch and cast our eyes upon the waters. I was amazed to see the water rising as we watched. I felt as if I was back on my tidal creek and the tide was coming in, but this was just rainfall from upstream making its way toward the ocean. And it was a reminder that the river is ever changing its journey to the sea.

I saw many beautiful vistas that morning. One of my favorites was the underwater sand sculpture that the river created near the Black Willow Beaches. It was like I was looking at some miniature model of the wind-sculptured Sahara Desert. Another was the stoic bald cypress stand that stretched tall toward a grey-blue sky or the massive oaks that framed the backwaters of tributaries. Nature always causes me to marvel with wonder.

We tried to help the Edisto with a gift of cleanliness and health. She thanked us by sharing her serenity and rest with us. Her gifts – a lazy lolling adventure marked by moments of discovery and awe and a place where mind and friendship take on a slower pace creating forever memories – will help me cherish the importance of all of my friendships – especially this forever one.