Clarks Hill / J. Strom Thurmond Lake

A lake too big for just one name

Follow the road up 28W along the western edge of South Carolina and you'll see signs for J. Strom Thurmond Lake as well as its corresponding recreation areas. But if you ask about the lake just across the border in Georgia, you're likely to hear it called by another name: Clarks Hill Lake. That's because many Georgia residents refuse to call the lake by the name of another state's politician, especially after South Carolina abruptly changed the name to J. Strom Thurmond in 1988 without consulting Georgia residents. (Georgia legislators tried to change the name back to Clarks Hill Lake, but the bill failed.)

Fortunately, Clarks Hill/Strom Thurmond Lake is big enough for two names. At 71,000 acres, the lake boasts more than 21,000 miles of irregular shoreline and over 250 islands. Built between 1946 and 1954, it is the largest U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project east of the Mississippi River, stretching 39 miles up the Savannah River, 26 miles up the Little River in Georgia, and 10 miles up the Little River in South Carolina. From what I've seen in and around the Thurmond Dam area, it is also immaculately kept, with pristine picnicking and camping areas and staggeringly little trash along its shores or in its waters.

My wife and I paddled the lake on a Saturday to see what the weekend boat traffic would be like. Just as I was told to expect, the lake is large enough to diffuse powerboat and sailboat traffic down to an always-manageable, often unnoticeable level. With the exception of the Great Lakes, this is the first powerboat-accessible lake I've paddled in which I didn't feel like the powerboat and PWC traffic was blatantly disrespectful to paddlecraft. Boaters and PWCs consistently gave paddlers a wide berth, and the lake is large enough that much of the traffic simply disappeared (yes, even on a Saturday). There were a few pontoon boats (a.k.a. "party barges") and house boats anchored in the area—some filled with as many as 20 people—but none screaming or blaring their radios or tossing trash over the sides of the boat. Frankly, I was impressed. Most of the power-boat accessible lakes I've paddled are less than a tenth the size of this lake, but will contain three to four times the amount of traffic we encountered, and much of that traffic will consist of peceptibly intoxicated boaters who show no regard whatsoever for the fact that other boaters and paddlers may be trying to enjoy the tranquility of the lake.

On Clarks Hill/Strom Thurmond Lake, we encountered a very different sort of powerboater that has become a rarity on Iowa lakes and on the Mississippi river where I grew up. Here, the people were sober, friendly, and polite. My wife and I have already been enjoying the delights of "Southern hospitality" around our new home in Augusta, Georgia but we were especially pleased to see that such hospitality also extends to the water. When, for example, we pulled our kayaks ashore at an island occupied by only one other craft—a powerboat—the four boaters on board instantly lowered their voices and restrained their dog to respect the fact that we were coming ashore to enjoy the island. Half an hour later, when we returned to our kayaks, their nine-year-old daughter Mikaela came over to introduce herself and her new dog Riley. She didn't come right up to us because she had obviously been raised to know that it isn't polite to bother strangers unless they are willing to talk. Of course, when we noticed her enthusiasm to meet us and motioned her over, she came skipping energetically to say hello. She told us all about her new dog and his first time at the lake, she noted that my wife and I have matching shades of blue eyes, and she answered all my questions with "yes sir" and "no sir". She was one of the friendliest, most courteous, and most delightful kids I've met.

Honestly, I don't spend my days complaining about "those damn disrespectful powerboaters with their damn loud radios" like an old curmudgeon. But it is exceedlingly rare to share a lake with respectful powerboaters, and it was a terrific surprise to find that on Clarks Hill/Strom Thurmond Lake, respectful boating seems to be the rule, not the exception. I hope my future experiences on the lake will continue to bear that out. Before you ask: Yes, the lake did contain a few powerboats pulling water skiiers or inflatable tubes, swerving swiftly back and forth while their drivers spent way too much time looking behind them and not enough time looking ahead. But in over three hours on a gorgeous Saturday, I saw only three such boats, and the lake afforded plenty of room for them to maneuver safely out of the way. Even my wife, still a fairly novice kayaker, felt perfectly safe around them, partly because the dam area affords so many beaches and swim zones that one can very easily "hop" from beach to beach to avoid such traffic.

As for other potential dangers, alligators are not unheard of on Clarks Hill/Strom Thurmond Lake, but according to the park rangers, they are rare. Venemous water moccasins (a.k.a. "cottonmouths") are a much more likely threat, but the water of the lake is fairly clear along most of the beaches so it is not hard to watch out for them. You're more likely to encounter them if you venture into tall weeds and brush along the shore or on one of the islands.

If you live in the area and plan to visit the lake often, purchase a $30 season pass at the Lake Visitor's Center located just above Thurmond Dam on the South Carolina side. The pass is good for a year from the date of purchase, and it grants you access to any of the six Corps recreation areas along the lake; otherwise, each area costs $4/day to use. All of the recreational areas are close enough to the shore to permit easy launching for kayaks and canoes and some, such as Clarks Hill Park, include boat ramps as well.

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© 2007, Wesley Kisting


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