Trekking after Lawson; adventurer trails 1700 explorer's route from Lowcountry

Raleigh, N.C., writer Scott Huler paddles his way through the marsh from the Intracoastal Waterway to the dock at Sewee Shell Ring Wednesday afternoon. Huler is recreating the 600-mile wilderness journey of John Lawson through the Carolinas back in the 1700s.

AWENDAW - The long, lanky man kayak-paddling the packed canoe didn't look like a Colonial explorer. He looked like a big kid, grinning ear to ear.

Scott Huler had just spent the night on remote Capers Island, the wind pulling out the stakes holding his tent, the rain pounding hard enough that it soaked clothes inside the tent near the wall. He had spent the day before battling a tide so strong coming into Price's Inlet that, after paddling as hard as he could, he hadn't gotten any farther than his campsite launch.

So, how has Huler's recreation of explorer John Lawson's 600-mile wilderness trip in 1700 from Charleston into present-day North Carolina gone so far?

Just awesome," he said, stepping out of the boat at the prehistoric Sewee Shell Ring near Awendaw, stretching in his tie-dyed shirt. "It's almost sinful how much fun I'm having."

Lawson, as he recounted in his 1711 A New Voyage to Carolina, wasn't as thrilled:

"On December the 28th, 1700, I began my Voyage (for North Carolina) from Charles-Town, being six English-men in Company, with three Indian-men, and one Woman, Wife to our Indian-Guide, having five Miles from the Town to the Breach we went down in a large Canoe, that we had provided for our Voyage thither, having the Tide of Ebb along with us; which was so far spent by that Time we got down, that we had not Water enough for our Craft to go over, although we drew but two Foot, or thereabouts. ... North East Winds bringing great Fogs, Mists, and Rains ..."

Huler, 55, is a Raleigh, N.C., journalist and author recreating the 57-day exploration under a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship. He plans to paddle up the Santee River as far as Hampton Plantation north of U.S. 17, then trek overland, using paths when he can, roads when he can't.

He never had paddled before in tides when he launched Sunday from the Charleston Maritime Center into the flush of the harbor currents. He got an instant jolt of what Lawson might have felt.

"Fear," Huler said, "what I would call very healthy and smart fear." By evening, Huler was struggling down the Intracoastal Waterway, trying to make headway toward Goat Island in 10 to 20 mph headwinds.

Lawson made a huge loop, traveling the interior as far as the foothills near Charlotte, then turning back to the Pamlico River on the North Carolina coast. Somewhat overshadowed in the Lowcountry by later wunderkinds such as John Bartram, Lawson compiled the first detailed account of just what it was like In There, the lives of the Native Americans he encountered, as well as an exhaustive compilation of the plants and animals he found.

Huler doesn't expect to trace Lawson's route exactly, much less find what the explorer did:

"At Our Return to our Quarters, the Indians had kill'd two more Deer, two wild Hogs, and three Racoons, all very lean, except the Racoons. We had great Store of Oysters, Conks, and Clanns, a large Sort of Cockles. These Parts being very well furnish'd with Shell-Fish, Turtle of several Sorts, but few or none of the green, with other Sorts of Salt-water Fish, and in the Season, good Plenty of Fowl, as Curleus, Gulls, Gannets, and Pellicans, besides Duck and Mallard, Geese, Swans, Teal, Widgeon ..."

In fact, Huler's meal the night of the storm was foil-wrapped tuna on pita bread, cheese, candy bars and a few handfuls of trail mix.

Guides from Nature Adventure Outfitters are helping him fend his way for the first leg, and when Elizabeth Anderegg, of the outfitters, told him at the morning meet-up his next stop would have showers, he hugged her.

Guide Eddie Stroman, who accompanied Huler paddling to the shell ring, was a little skeptical at first, Huler said, eyeing him closely to see how he handled the boat, to see if Huler would face what Anderegg told him he didn't want to face - a yard sale (for his gear) in the middle of a creek. But Stroman gave a single nod when asked.

"Yeah, he'll make it. He's very good."

Huler has been absorbing close up the Lowcountry's reams of spartina and cordgrass, eying the stark white egrets sweeping from the marsh. Like Lawson he wandered amazed around now uninhabited Bulls Island in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. He can't get enough of the local tales. He knows the wide open coast might be as close as he gets to experiencing the primitive as Lawson did.

"What I'm trying to do is look at the world the way Lawson would have looked at it," he said. He's already learned one salient truth - you sometimes glean more from what Lawson didn't say than what he did. Lawson barely mentions tides in his journal. It's been all Huler thinks about.

"What I conclude from that is Lawson never paddled his canoe," Huler said. "Not once."

OK, 550 or so miles to go. Job No. 1, Huler repeats, is not to die. Lawson didn't, barely:

"We were forced to march, this day, for Want of Provisions. About 10 a Clock, we met an Indian that had got a parcel of Shad-Fish ready barbaku'd. We bought 24 of them, for a dress'd Doe-Skin, and so went on, through many Swamps... We lay, that Night, under two or three Pieces of Bark, at the Foot of a large Oak. There fell abundance of Snow and Rain in the Night, with much Thunder and Lightning.

Next Day, it clear'd up, and it being about 12 Miles to the English, about half-way we passed over a deep Creek, and came safe to Mr. Richard Smith's, of Pampticough-River, in North-Carolina."

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