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My Paddle to the Sea

My Paddle to the Sea: Eleven Days on the River of the Carolinas

John Lane
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    My Paddle to the Sea
    Book Description:

    Three months after a family vacation in Costa Rica ends in tragedy when two fellow rafters die on the flooded Rio Reventazón, John Lane sets out with friends from his own backyard in upcountry South Carolina to calm his nerves and to paddle to the sea. Like Huck Finn, Lane sees a river journey as a portal to change, but unlike Twain's character, Lane isn't escaping. He's getting intimate with the river that flows right past his home in the Spartanburg suburbs. Lane's three­hundred-mile float trip takes him down the Broad River and into Lake Marion before continuing down the Santee River. Along the way Lane recounts local history and spars with streamside literary presences such as Mind of the South author W. J. Cash; Henry Savage, author of the Rivers of America Series volume on the Santee; novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Julia Peterkin; early explorer John Lawson; and poet and outdoor writer Archibald Rutledge. Lane ponders the sites of old cotton mills; abandoned locks, canals, and bridges; ghost towns fallen into decay a century before; Indian mounds; American Revolutionary and Civil War battle sites; nuclear power plants; and boat landings. Along the way he encounters a cast of characters Twain himself would envy-perplexed fishermen, catfish clean­ers, river rats, and a trio of drug-addled drifters on a lonely boat dock a day's paddle from the sea. By the time Lane and his companions finally approach the ocean about forty miles north of Charleston they have to fight the tide and set a furious pace. Through it all, paddle stroke by paddle stroke, Lane is reminded why life and rivers have always been wedded together.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-4131-6
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-[ix])
  3. [Maps]
    (pp. [x]-[xiv])
  4. The Blessing
    (pp. 1-6)

    From his spot at the top of the hill, Venable Vermont, with his long, salt-and-pepper beard, looked like John Brown or John Muir back from the dead. The late March air was crisp but not cold. “Fifty-five degrees with a forecast of rain,” Venable called to me in the yard below, where I had gathered my paddling gear. The long-term weather report looked ominous as well. showed cold fronts stacked up like green blobs one after another all the way west from South Carolina to California. Years had passed since I’d seen such a wet forecast. I watched as...

  5. Rio Reventazón
    (pp. 7-15)

    This was the first major paddling trip for me since a vacation with Betsy and our sons, Rob and Russell, had gone horribly wrong. Looking for a change of pace for Christmas vacation we had set up a weeklong paddling adventure to Costa Rica with a fairly new outfitter we found on the Internet.

    The trip had started out simply enough. Jeremy Garcia, the outfitter and a world-class kayaker himself, picked us up in San José. He was maybe thirty years old, short, dark haired, and curiously dressed more like a golfer than a whitewater guide—bright orange Izod shirt,...

  6. Glendale and Little Five Falls
    (pp. 16-21)

    Now I was on a river again. About a half-mile downstream from our house a sheet of current slipped over the top of the Glendale dam. A flotsam of logs and beer cans was lodged at the brink. The rising water had made the flow turn muddy and thick. Behind the dam there was once a large pond, where picnicking locals from Spartanburg had paddled pleasure boats on Sunday afternoons, but it had silted up almost to the lip. Venable’s father used to ride the trolley out from Spartanburg and fish in the pond when he was a student at...

  7. Pacolet Portages
    (pp. 22-31)

    Our boat carefully approached the first dam at the old mill village of Pacolet. From upstream on the Pacolet River all I could see was the dark horizon line from shore to shore, like a knife edge on the surface of the calm piedmont river. The stream was dead in the backwater, but I could hear the full force of the river crashing below my line of sight. The dam itself straddles impressive granite shoals, which were known in the days of the first settlers as “the trough”; the village Pacolet was known until 1930 as Trough Shoals.

    I knew...

  8. Overnight at Louie’s
    (pp. 32-36)

    Venable and I arrived at Louie’s land around six at the end of the first day. We pulled our boat out of the current and stashed it above the high water line. When we’d left my backyard that morning, Lawson’s Fork wasn’t dangerously swollen, but the Pacolet had been rising all afternoon. I looked out at the river, then up at the cloudy late afternoon sky, and thought how it must have been raining harder in the headwaters. All day it had drizzled, and even with a few heavy showers it really wasn’t enough to swell the river this much....

  9. Grindal Shoals
    (pp. 37-42)

    Once I went with my friend Terry Ferguson to a history outing dedicated to Grindal Shoals and Morgan’s Revolutionary sojourn on the Pacolet River. The event was held across from Louie’s homestead at a two-hundred-year-old farm on a ridge above the river, land Daniel Morgan’s troops had passed through on the way to Cowpens. As we walked into the yard, I noticed that there were three dozen cars lined up in the circular drive for the caravan that morning three miles down to Grindal Shoals. The Revolution certainly still had its fans. There were license plates from Vermont, Virginia, Georgia,...

  10. The Wild Pacolet
    (pp. 43-52)

    In The Things They Carried author Tim O’Brien tells the story of a platoon in Vietnam. In this collection of stories, the items that the soldiers carry in their backpacks become metaphors of the emotional burdens and hopes that the soldiers bear—some carry love letters, and almost everyone carries photographs, and all carry ammo. “The things they carried were largely determined by necessity,” O’Brien writes. “To carry something was to hump it. . . . In its intransitive form, to hump meant to walk, or to march, but it implied burdens far beyond the intransitive.”

    Paddling trips are not...

  11. Confluence
    (pp. 53-57)

    Five hours below Louie’s we left the Pacolet River behind and floated into the Broad. The larger river’s expanse surprised me a little. After two days of paddling I was used to the intimate confines of another order of stream. At the confluence of Lawson’s Fork and the Pacolet the width of the stream had tripled from thirty to ninety feet. At the confluence of the Pacolet and the Broad it tripled again. We were now looking at a truly broad river. “It’s definitely wider than forty yards, the maximum distance I’d shoot a turkey,” Venable said when I asked...

  12. Night on Goat Island
    (pp. 58-60)

    After we paddled another half-mile, Goat Island rose up in the middle of the river. The island was bigger than a cabin cruiser but smaller than a yacht. On the upriver end the island’s sand prow is a dozen feet high and thick with river birch and sycamore. On the downriver end a thin line of sycamores had taken root on a low sandbar. Farther down the river, deposits of white sand had built up and spread out in flats and fleecy dunes.

    A hard and steady rain fell as we pulled ashore on the sandbar. Venable and I set...

  13. Lockhart Portage
    (pp. 61-66)

    The morning of the third day we paddled three slack water miles from Goat Island to Lockhart. We left the island at eleven, and it had rained the entire morning without ceasing. The weather had tamped down our spirits.

    Just downstream from the island at the remote, former cotton mill town of Lockhart the Broad River falls forty-seven feet in two miles. We approached the dam and took out at a landing Lockhart Power had provided on river right. After we landed I looked downstream. Half the gradient was covered up under the impoundment behind the dam, but downstream what...

  14. Wood’s Ferry Campground
    (pp. 67-76)

    We left Lockhart and the postindustrial world farther and farther behind. What used to be “a good little town” was now a place slowly disappearing from the map. Contemporary economics was rewilding the piedmont. Lockhart was far from the interstate, far from anything resembling a city. As we paddled in driving rain I wondered whether the town would exist as something other than a power station in a hundred years. The river below Lockhart had the real feel of the wild South returning. We paddled through thick bottomland forest and the current picked up.

    Early in the afternoon it felt...

  15. Riding the Flood
    (pp. 77-84)

    On the morning of the fourth day, I stood by the river and watched debris come downstream from the upcountry—tree trunks, waterlogged lumber, oil drums, plastic bags, single shoes, beer coolers, and even a few basketballs. The river had risen two feet overnight, but the day dawned partly cloudy and breezy. Looking out across the muddy flow, I saw a chocolate-brown monster. The high water brought back the morning in Costa Rica three months earlier when Jeremy died. I felt a little fear. Venable walked up behind me and checked out the rising river. He sensed my apprehension and...

  16. Parr Shoals Reservoir
    (pp. 85-92)

    In 1969 the Wofford College River Voyageurs paddled across placid Parr Shoals Reservoir for what seemed, they wrote in their journal, “an eternity.” Rather than eternity it sounded a little more like Hades. They described “paddling through an underwater forest of stumps,” reporting that one canoe even hit a stump and nearly capsized.

    Because of the high water level on our trip, Venable and I had an easier time of it on our fifth morning. There was little wind, and we set a relaxed pace in the slow backwater. Where a set of high-tension lines crossed the reservoir hundreds of...

  17. Haltiwanger Island
    (pp. 93-98)

    Our long portage at the Parr Shoals Reservoir dam had slowed us down. By the time we landed on Haltiwanger Island it was early evening and we were racing to make camp in the remaining light. We unloaded the canoe and set up quickly on a little saddle of sandy soil mostly clear of saplings. The river was still high and made a whooshing sound as it rushed through the narrow channel between the island and mainland. As we pitched the tent I could see feeding squads of dark swallows out over the river, and I could hear pulsing calls...

  18. Approaching the Fall Line
    (pp. 99-103)

    The sixth day dawned clear and chilly. The water level had dropped two feet and the river had lost that deep mocha color of two days earlier. As Venable and I tied our gear in the canoe we talked about what has been neglected as people live their lives in modernity. Venable pulled the knot tight on the rope and said, “The modern digital generation might think nothing of value has been lost. Absolutely nothing. But think how many people have never heard a turkey gobble. That’s what they’re missing. Is it really important? I don’t know how you can...

  19. Columbia Layover
    (pp. 104-112)

    The arrival in Columbia marked a transition in the trip, as it had for some of the travelers I’d studied before departure. In 1880 Spartanburg’s Garner brothers spent two or three days in Columbia on their paddle to the sea. Upstream, the waters of the Broad River had been familiar territory to them. They’d made several trips to Columbia in cotton boats. They rested in the capital city before continuing down the Congaree, which was agua incognito for them.

    The Wofford River Voyageurs arrived in Columbia about two p.m. on January 12, 1969, with much fanfare. The State newspaper and...

  20. Green Diamond
    (pp. 113-121)

    The morning of the seventh day, I showered once more for good measure. I helped Venable pack our clean and dry gear in the minivan, and we ate pancakes Zubie had filled with leftover sweet potatoes from the night before. Margie checked the Internet to see what weather was in store for us. She said we could expect two more days of showers, so there would be no respite from the rain. There were flood warnings for both the Congaree and Santee rivers. Our gear was finally dry, but I knew it would be wet again by nightfall.

    After we...

  21. Congaree
    (pp. 122-134)

    We stopped for lunch on a rare Congaree River sandbar and ate summer sausage and crackers. Thirty years earlier when Venable was in law school at the University of South Carolina, he had paddled this very stretch of river on a difficult two-day solo trip when the river was much lower and speckled with sandbars. His father, Bunn, had paddled the Congaree in flood as a young man in the 1940s and often had told Venable the story of escaping the river before nightfall and spending the night in a local bootlegger’s shack.

    As we ate lunch, Venable and I...

  22. 601 Rendezvous
    (pp. 135-142)

    The morning of the eighth day rain fell even harder, and the Congaree was out of its banks. Hadn’t we paid our outdoor adventure dues? We’d weathered rain for five of the eight days. Overnight the current had risen an inch or two on Venable’s stick, but not enough to reach us and flood the tent. After breakfast we crawled back in the tent and rolled our sleeping bags and pads, then we took off our dry camp clothes and changed into our damp river gear.

    Breaking camp was an exercise in patience. With the pounding rain everything had to...

  23. Lake Marion Portage
    (pp. 143-150)

    We took back roads east from U.S. Highway 601. As I drove my truck for the first time in eight days it felt strange to be behind the wheel. I’d been holding a paddle in my hands for so long. As we drove along the ridge to the south of the lake, I told Chris and Steve about finding the canoe, millions of toads calling out from the flooded swamp, the search for a dry place to sleep, and the four-wheelers in the woods. The stories were even richer telling them to others.

    We were cruising along at an ungodly...

  24. Hill’s Landing
    (pp. 151-157)

    Besides a concrete boat ramp at Hill’s Landing there’s a restaurant, a ten-room motel, and a small concrete building for cleaning fish. Some might call it a fishing resort, but Steve took one look at the complex of buildings and christened it the “bo-tel,” as in boat hotel.

    We parked the truck in the gravel parking lot and bolted through the continuing downpour for the restaurant door to rent a room. A TV sat on an old table in a corner; it was tuned to the Weather Channel. The front was moving fast. “Clear skies by tomorrow,” I told Steve....

  25. Our Bridge Too Far
    (pp. 158-173)

    The morning of the ninth day, Steve and I walked over to the restaurant for an early breakfast. The sky overhead was clear to the west. Inside the dining room there was sportfishing frenzy in the air. Large men filled the tables. They had a defined mission for the day: Catch fish. Two waitresses rushed by with platters of eggs, sausage, and gravy biscuits. The air smelled like weak coffee and boxes of loam in the worm cooler. Lacy condensation fogged the windows facing out on the diversion canal.

    The TV on the old table in the corner was still...

  26. The Lower Santee
    (pp. 174-178)

    I woke to a mix of train sounds and coyote howls. The coyote chatter, familiar sounds from behind my house in the piedmont, made me homesick, made me miss Betsy and our morning rituals. I wanted to rise early and sit alone at my desk and write, drink coffee, and read the local paper. I’d woken up in a tent in a different place every morning for ten days, and I was ready to be grounded again. I was ready to leave my J-stroke behind and make a beeline for home. I’d had a boat under me for 10 days,...

  27. Jamestown Landing
    (pp. 179-187)

    The lower Santee is still sometimes called the French Santee. Resilient French Huguenots with names such as Huger, Gervais, Poinsett, and Mannigalt settled it in the seventeenth century, and for almost a hundred years they had their own peaceable kingdom up the Santee River. In the 1800s they spread throughout the society of early South Carolina, taking part in public office, and civic and economic affairs. Arthur H. Hirsch in The Huguenots of Colonial South Carolina claims that by late 1777 when the French adventurer and soldier Marquis de Lafayette visited the state, the Huguenots as a cultural group had...

  28. Aiming for Hampton Plantation
    (pp. 188-193)

    On the final morning, Steve did some more calculations. He laid the floss along the river one more time. “Twenty miles to go.” Then he added up the mileage from the day before—“33.6 river miles,” the longest river day of the trip. With the water from the rediversion canal pushing us along we’d averaged over five miles an hour. Steve walked down to the river and checked a stick he’d placed in the ground at the high water line. “The river is up this morning,” he called back to me. “We’ll still have the advantage of the release through...

  29. Atonement
    (pp. 194-204)

    By 8:30 a.m. on the eleventh day we’d struck camp, packed the canoe for what I hoped was a final time, and entered the swift current at the outside of the bend in the river. From the stern Steve powered us out from shore but in the process lost his straw hat on the rough branch of a willow. We watched as the hat hit the water, swirled once, and disappeared. Good omen, or bad—Steve wasn’t interested in superstitions. He just wanted his hat back. For a hundred yards he guided us through a game of hide-and-seek as he...

  30. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 205-208)