Adventurous paddle down Edisto River a relaxing escape
Few outings epitomize the old "Porgy and Bess" line "Summertime and the livin' is easy" more than a lazy paddle down the winding Edisto River, the world's longest free-flowing "blackwater" stream.
The Edisto, one of South Carolina's natural gems, snakes through 12 counties from its headwaters in the Midlands, past state parks and historic sites, to Edisto Island and the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Its characteristics change along the way as the swifter, more narrow north and south forks feed into the calm main stem and then divide again to form the North and South Edisto rivers.
From the main stem down, you can take an easy paddle through deep forests, see wildlife (including the human variety), and stop on sandbars for a dip, a drink or a meal, or even to set up camp. While it has sections of river shacks, shoreline riprap and occasional recreation debris, it is mostly unspoiled.
In midsummer, the river offers a perfect opportunity for Charleston area residents to escape the city for an adventurous daytrip of paddling.
Last Thursday, we did just that with Ken Driggers and Steve Collum of the Palmetto Conservation Foundation. Driggers, the foundation's executive director, recently co-authored the "Edisto River Companion." Collum, a cartographer, created the maps for the book.
Driggers says the 67-page book fills a void as a guide that is intended for the person who has little to no knowledge of the Edisto and needs a user-friendly, how-to manual with suggested daytrips and sites to see on or near the river. The book, which was underwritten by MeadWestvaco, sells for $12.95 at www.palmetto conservation.org.
"The Edisto is such a great natural and cultural resource for South Carolina that it was just irresistible not to work on the book," says Driggers.
For the trip, Driggers and Collum chose a five-mile section of the Edisto that starts at Sullivan's Ferry, about 15 minutes west of Summerville, and ends at Lowndes Landing. The boat landings we used were public but remote and would be a challenge to find for those unfamiliar with them. The one at Sullivan's Ferry was on Stump Knocker Road and appeared as if it were a shared driveway.
While we waited 15 minutes for Collum to drop off his truck at Lowndes, an osprey took several dives into the river hunting for fish. Not one boat passed during the wait.
"It's more busy on the weekends," Driggers noted.
We shoved off — Driggers, my girlfriend, Rives Poe, and myself in kayaks and Collum and Post and Courier photographer/videographer Sarah Bates in a canoe — and passed by what would be the biggest sandbar of the two-hour paddle. The massive mound of sand almost begged you to stop and bask in the midday sun for a few hours.
But we had to get going. On the second turn of the river, however, we came to a scene that reminded me of the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" because it seemed so Southern-backwoods surreal.
Two scuba divers, Joey Gunnells and Tim Zissett of Barnwell, were pulling their gear together. They both held bags and proceeded to show us, in hands pruned by nearly four hours of diving, fossilized shark teeth, horse ribs, part of a stingray jaw known as "pavement" and turtle shell.
They not only impressed with their knowledge of fossils and prehistoric animals — a spooky reminder that the Earth we stand on now was vastly different millions of years ago — but with their generosity. They gave us probably a dozen of the fossils to take home with us.
With that stop, I wondered what else awaited us on this short paddle. Frankly, nothing else that memorable happened.
As for other wildlife, a great blue heron flew out of the woods, and we unintentionally disturbed a small gathering of black vultures on a beach. I expected to see some alligators, and while I'm sure we passed some, none were spotted by our group. We also didn't see any snakes.
With our comfort level up, we stopped at a sandbar to cool off (and I longed for a frosty something else).
Quiet was the theme of the trip. Besides our voices and the dip of paddles into the river, the only noise came from planes overhead and distant thunder. Besides the fossil hunters, the only other people we saw were a couple fishing from a canoe and a group of teenagers swimming in the river in front of Lowndes Landing.
I wasn't ready to stop paddling, but we had reached Lowndes and that was it.
A short trip on the Edisto will leave you wanting more. One recommended route is the estimated 15-hour trip on the 57-mile Edisto River Canoe and Kayak Trail, or a planned, multiday trip.
Driggers says those are very doable because of the available camping at three state parks — Aiken, Colleton and Givhans Ferry — and on sandbars or beaches. Another consideration for a day or multiday trip is the north fork of the river that runs through the middle of Orangeburg, where paddlers can find a hotel and take in the city's 110-acre Edisto Memorial Gardens.
Driggers recommends at least one thing not to do on the Edisto and that's to try to put in and take out at the same boat landing, requiring a paddle upstream. He tried it once near Colleton State Park and won't do it again.
"The Edisto, in places, has a very strong current, and in those places, you'd have to be both an experienced and fit paddler to do that," he says.
Of course, one-way paddle trips require the logistics of leaving a car or truck for your kayaks and/or canoes at the downstream landing, a detail that makes paddling a social endeavor of at least two people.
Driggers strongly recommends that inexperienced paddlers hire an outfitter near the part of the Edisto where the trip will take place. He suggests calling the state parks along the Edisto for recommendations. His book lists several outfitters.
Among the most heralded is Canadys-based Carolina Heritage Outfitters, which has treehouses and primitive campsites for paddlers wishing to spend the night on the river. The sites are on the 150-acre wildlife refuge.
Whether you want a short escape or a long one, whether you are paddler, camper or wildlife watcher or combination of all three, and whether you are fit or not-so-fit, the Edisto has something for you.
"The important thing is to choose a piece of the river that's right for you," says Driggers.