River of the Carolinas

This week, drought and high August temperatures pushed my chance to paddle to the sea from the upcountry back into the planning stages. I’d planned to leave this week my borrowed boat from a put-in at Cliffside, N.C., and arrive 14 days later in the Santee delta.

But checking the Broad River gauge on the internet told me in no uncertain terms that the river’s flow is down to one third of its usual level. The Weather Channel’s 10-day forecast has the temperatures often well over 100 and the humidity not far behind. The paper says the “real feel” will be 112.

I want to write a book, so I’ve always imagined the story that will come out of my two-week trip to the ocean to be more float trip than ordeal.

Patience is one of the virtues being a 50-something adventurer has taught me to work on, so instead of dropping my boat on the water, I read about someone else’s river. I finally took down Henry Savage’s “The Santee: River of the Carolinas” and consumed the book in a few air-conditioned sessions.

Henry Savage’s book, released in 1956, is part of the famous “Rivers of America” series that published 65 volumes between 1937 and 1974. The popular series was conceived as a way to tell America about its history through river drainages. Written often by poets and novelists, “River of America” proved enduring and instructive. Famous volumes include EVERGLADES, RIVER OF GRASS by Marjorie Stoneman Douglas and THE FRENCH BROAD by Wilma Dykeman. Andrew Wyeth’s first book illustrations appeared in THE BRANDYWINE.

Though I have read several of the Rivers of America volumes, I was drawn to Henry Savage’s book because it is about where I live, my watershed, the river system that includes the Lawson’s Fork and the Pacolet. I was hopeful that by reading THE SANTEE I would find a map for my own trip that I could update from 1956 until 2007. Surely Henry would stitch together the real-time natural history legacies of the Broad and Saluda, the Catawba and Wateree, the Congaree, and finally the Santee.

A few chapters into Savage’s book I realized the river I was looking for would not be there. Conway lawyer Henry Savage managed to write 400 fascinating pages and never approach the real river I was searching for. Savage sketched out bold, vivid scenes of South Carolina history–the plantation farmers, the frontier trappers, the canal builders, the war heroes like the Swamp Fox, and the politicians like John C. Calhoun–but the type of river lore I loved remained minimal. There was no first person account of a single mile of the Santee River system. There was little talk of pollution or recovery of natural systems, no first-person prose rhapsody about a single specific spot on the river. After a brief chapter on the geography and geology of the river system Savage says,
” the story with which we are concerned, that of man and the river, has yet to begin.”

How different we are, river writer Henry Savage and me. We are separated in time by half a century. Savage was given his voice by the period he wrote within. Did it ever occur to him to write a first-person narrative about his beloved Santee River system? Did it ever cross his mind to get a canoe, drive it to the headwaters of the Broad, Catawba, or Saluda and drop it in the water of a living flowing stream? I’ll never know the answers to these questions. I’ll just let the river flow and take me where it will when I finally get on it.

Maybe I was looking for the wrong river when I opened up THE SANTEE. Maybe Henry Savage’s mythic narrative about the human history that a watershed can hold is instructive for my twenty-first century nature writer’s voice. “The river remembers!” Savage says in his last paragraph. “But life, like the river, flows on and man, obsessed with immortality, looks forward into an uncertain future.”

We are that future, and the river is still here. I’ll paddle Henry’s river and update it when the drought lifts. Maybe some day my book will take its place alongside Henry’s on a dusty library shelf to be picked up in 50 years by another generation’s river voyager.

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