Blackwater Paddling

November’s a good month to head east to the lowcountry to paddle. This time of year the leaves have dropped, the bugs have mostly died off, and the snakes have found shelter from the chilly nights and cool days. There’s usually good water.
All this said, last Friday I drove down to Dillon, SC, for a 20-mile float on an upper stretch of the Little Pee Dee with two friends, Venable Vermont and Steve Patton, both men as fond of moving water as I am. Steve lives down the creek from me, so we often team up for day trips and multi-day floats on our “home water,” the Pacolet and Lawson’s Fork. He likes to get away too, so anytime there’s a river trip further afield, he’s game.

Venable’s spent the last 23 years lawyering in Alaska and usually comes “outside” (as the Alaskans call travel out of their state) twice a year to visit his mother Martha, hunt turkey and deer with his brother John, and rope friends like us in his hometown of Spartanburg into two of his two favorite past times, eating and paddling. His beard is big and wild and gray, an outward signal that his migration to Alaska in ’83 took, and he’s not coming back permanently to clipped South Carolina any time soon.

The Little Pee Dee is a legendary blackwater river with its headwaters just across the border of North Carolina near Laurinburg and its confluence 70 miles east where the Great Pee Dee River Swamp is so thick and mysterious that the Swamp Fox hid there during the Revolution. The State of South Carolina knows it’s special and designated a long stretch of it a State Scenic River.

When Venable got to town we made our Little Pee Dee plans over dinner. He brought out salmon from the wild rivers of Alaska he’d caught and smoked himself. The meat fortified us for meeting a new river.

We scouted the Little Pee Dee by book and map, and on Friday morning we loaded two vehicles with all the essentials for camping and a float trip and headed downstate to find our put-in on the Little Pee Dee.

It was a three and a half hour drive from Spartanburg to Dillon, and I followed V’s Suburban borrowed from his brother all the way. There’s something magic about seeing a vehicle with boats tied to the top. The profile of canoes and kayaks tied to racks is unmistakable. It says self-reliant, fume-free, self-propelled adventure. You could almost make a religion out of it. When I worked for the Nantahala Outdoor Center in the 1980s I paddled 200 days a year and we tried our best to sanctify the practice of canoeing and kayaking. We made a bumper sticker for our vehicles that said, “By their boats Ye Shall Know Them.”

Our trip wasn’t entirely pleasure. My Wofford connections had secured us a put-in 15 miles north of Dillon. A Wofford alumnus living in Florida owned property up near the North Carolina-South Carolina border and he’d kindly offered for the college use it for outings and possible research. This was a chance to scout it out and float downstream to Dillon. We camped Friday night on his property right next to the river.

We slept in a little gazebo someone had built near the river in the 1930s and the Wofford alum and his partners in a bird hunting operation had recently renovated. The shelter was a welcome anachronism amid the wild country around it. We left our tents in the truck.

You can’t get much further from Wal-mart, cell phones, and video games than when you’re camped in a gazebo next to a wild little river on the South Carolina coastal plain. What makes it wild down on the Little Pee Dee? There’s no dam upstream and the water, stained black by acids in the decaying vegetation, flows naturally toward the sea. It a river, free and clear. Its natural power is not being harnessed for any purpose conceived by man. At night the owls call, and the river moves silently in the deep surrounding dark. The autumn array of stars is the only light you see.

On Saturday morning we ran a shuttle downstream to the Highway 9 Bridge at Dillon, returned to our put-in, and put our boats on black water to float all day through cypress, bay, and holly. We negotiated the cypress-lined switchbacks of the upper Little Pee Dee, and our lives slipped past us a boat-length at a time.

There was so much more to report-dozens of wood ducks hiding in the swamp’s margins, great blue herons, two deer bedded down on dry hummocks near the river’s edge spooked into sprints through the cypress as we passed, the ominous sound of a four-wheeler approaching in the deep brush, the excitement and sadness when the first bridge finally appeared out of the forest and we returned to “civilization” four hours after we put our boats on the water.

A river’s always been a fit metaphor for life and paddling, and the Little Pee Dee felt a little more like life than life itself. The river was high enough so that the black water slipped out of the banks anywhere the banks were low. It spread out through the swamp in both directions. Watching the sun didn’t do much good. Sometimes the channel put it behind us and other times in front. The only way to chart the channel was to look for the flow, the current lines where the river takes the easiest route to sea-downstream. We never lost track of it. “Reading the water,” it’s called in the language of boating. As an English professor I’m all for reading anywhere I can get it.

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