Paddling in Berkeley County, SC
May 24, 2008
by Bo Petersen, The Post and Courier (Photos by Jim Huff)
Deer spook out of the rice, plunge into the creek and paddle off. The kayaks slip quietly after.
For Archie Thompson of the Carolina Gypsy Paddlers it’s one of those spontaneous encounters, one of the reasons he and others pushed to open a water trail some seven miles from the Cooper River headwaters up Wadboo Swamp to a cypress pool footbridge along the Palmetto Trail.
The push of his volunteer efforts helped launch Berkeley County Blueways, a collection of nearly two dozen paddles covering 175 miles of miles of live oak, blackwater swamps, reedy streams or cypress lakes. They skim through a history that includes rice plantations and Revolutionary War battles.
The streams have names like Wadboo, Wambaw and Chicken Creek. (Native American tribal names for waterways often carry a “bo,” “boo” or “baw” sound that translates as “water.” )
On a mossy November morning, a ride on Wadboo travels in with the cypress knees and dwarf palmetto then down to the flooded old rice fields finds hawk and heron, anhingas and otter, wood ducks and the cackling pileated woodpecker. The variety of scenery and critters is staggering.
The trail is one in a stream through Berkeley County that range from the remote, owl and feral pig-haunted Wambaw Creek wilderness to cypress stands in open water on Lake Marion.
Berkeley County is just inland from historic Charleston in South Carolina, in an eye-catching region of wilds and wildlife called the Lowcountry. There’s a mesmeric pull to its tidal waters — remote swamps back in the dwarf palmetto and alligator-thrashed reeds, live-oak rivers where eagles spook, osprey-nested lakes, wide-open bays and ocean.
Its familiars say the riverlands offer more variety than maybe anywhere else. And kayaking in the Lowcountry is year-round.
The Blueways trail system has been a joint effort among the Berkeley County Soil and Water Conservation District, Berkeley County government, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Forest Service, the S.C. Office of Coastal Resource Management, and Santee Cooper.
Wadboo is one of the Lowcountry’s obscure estuarine nooks — known mostly by fishermen or boaters who ride Tailrace Canal and cruise the creek’s rice-field maze mouth. Few go upstream past the marl and limestone bluff beyond Rembert C. Dennis Landing, where the creek closes into hardwood swamp, and a paddler glides under the tree canopy through the dwarf palmetto. The sudden change from grackle-swarmed rice delta to secluded bottomland makes the creek one of the Lowcountry’s unique float experiences.
Then there’s the gators, prehistoric reptiles skulking in the blackwater and reeds, with a call that rumbles like a lion. Sometimes they are nearly as big as the boat.
Unlike their fierce crocodile cousins, American alligators tend to be shy, as wild creatures go. When approached, they usually jump from the bank and go under a little bit at a time until only the eyes show. Unless it’s mating season. Or they’ve been fed.
They can and do make what biologists call a false charge — springing forward with a menacing display of the teeth.
More than 100,000 alligators now crawl around the Lowcountry and South Carolina coast. There have been no reported fatalities and fewer than a dozen attacks on people in three decades of record-keeping. Dogs and other small pets in or near the water are attacked more often.
Like any large critter, the gator must be given room.
Thompson spooked an alligator off the bank in Wadboo as he paddled upstream in the spring of 2007. When he returned he could see it in the middle of the creek.
"All of a sudden, it opens up its mouth, reared its head up out of the water and starts swimming right at me," Thompson said. In 10 years of regular paddling through the Lowcountry and countless alligator encounters, he had never come across anything like it. He paddled away, fast.
For more information on Berkeley County paddles, go to www.berkeleyblueways.com.
© 2008, Wesley Kisting