Destination – Waccamaw River, S.C.

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Hop in the dinghy and explore a placewhere three worlds meet — just watch out for ‘gators

Hop in the dinghy and explore a placewhere three worlds meet — just watch out for ‘gators

 

Several years ago, heading north in early May after a winter in the Bahamas, we anchored in Bull Creek one evening. This creek stretches away from the Intracoastal Waterway channel, where it follows the great WaccamawRiver in South Carolina, and seductively disappears from view around a bend of dense trees.

It was wide enough to anchor, but we could see old trees along the shore, their carcasses extending far out into the water. Occasionally a snag drifted down on the current, protruding from the water, giving a telltale sign of a large log or even an entire tree underneath. We’d heard there were logs on the bottom that could trap anchors, but we stopped anyway.

The skipper of a Canadian sailboat, anchored just up the creek from us, lazily flicked a fly rod, hoping to bring in supper. I watched his art as the twilight deepened and the eerie night sounds of the swamp began to fill the air. A few seconds after his third cast the still surface of the creek erupted just where his cast hit the water. A huge ’gator launched upward as if it wanted to fly. I couldn’t see well because of all the splashing, but I think its entire body cleared the surface. The fisherman sat stunned for a moment, staring at the receding ripples. Finally, he hastily reeled in what was left of his line and slunk below — I guess for another can of Dinty Moore.

We’d been traveling hard, and the WaccamawRiver has always been one of our favorite parts of the ICW. So the next day we decided to lay over. This often means dinghy exploring, and what a perfect place. We started up the Bull and carefully ducked into one of the many creeks branching off. The tall trees overhead made a darkened tunnel between the close shores. Vines reached down for us menacingly. We watched for snakes in the trees and low branches, and along the banks of the swamp. They were there, blending into the background, enjoying the new warmth. In the spring turtles and snakes like to come out and lie in the rare patches of sun that filter through the canopy. You watch carefully here.

A log slid into the water and swam away, sinking beneath the surface until only two knobs were above water — each with eyes that slowly gazed. It was then that we noticed other knobs with eyes. The place was full of ’gators. As we’d seen the evening before, they were still hungry from a long winter. We were glad we were in our beamy, tough aluminum dinghy.

We continued cautiously on into the gloom, thinking that the creek would finally narrow and clog, forcing us to turn around. I didn’t want to get trapped in a channel so narrow or shallow that I’d have to put the bow into the shore. Suddenly, we saw bright light ahead. A moment later we were out in a broad, wide river — a totally different world had emerged. A fisherman in a small skiff was staring at us as though we’d materialized from thin air.

“Where are we?” I asked.

He looked at us as though his suspicions had just been confirmed. “Why man, don’cha know? You’re in the Great Pee DeeRiver,” he said stretching out the “great” slowly and impressively. “If you don’t know where you are, how come you’re here?”

I pointed to where we’d just exited. “We just came through that creek from the Waccamaw.”

“Hell, man, that ain’t no creek. It’s a canal,” he said. “They dug thousands of miles of those in this swamp back in the old days when they was planting rice. That’s all that’s left of those days. That and the ’gators. The swamp took it all back.”

We went back into the canal — which we later learned had been for drainage and irrigation purposes — and headed for Chez Nous, very glad that there weren’t any side branches of the creek to confuse and lure us deeper into the swamp.

Worlds collide

If you travel the ICW, or you’re lucky enough to be a local in this area, the WaccamawRiver section of the waterway should become a favorite destination — a mixture of different worlds. To us, our experience above epitomizes this fascinating place.

The river begins around 140 miles inland, in North Carolina, and drains an area of about 1,110 square miles. There are approximately 784 stream miles in this watershed, with some 2,370 acres of lake waters. It comprises a mighty swamp, and you feel like you’re in the middle of prehistoric wilderness, even though you’re in the ICW channel.

In the upper stretches of the river you can pass only by canoe or kayak. In the ICW area large yachts pass regularly. They seem like strange creatures ghosting in from another world, surrounded by Atlantic white cedar and live oaks, Spanish moss, cypress trees, laurel and loblolly pine. The forests have bobcat, river otter and neotropical migratory songbirds. The Carolina pygmy sunfish, rarely found anywhere else in the world, lives in the upper river. Other rare plant species grow in the surrounding swamps.

There are ICW aids to navigation to help you find your way, but so wild is the terrain that one aid is actually nailed to an ancient tree at the water’s edge. To the west, separated by swamp and forest, is the Great Pee DeeRiver, with a drainage basin of 4.8 million acres. To the east of the river is the narrow Waccamaw Neck, which runs between that river and the Atlantic.

Along the Neck, marsh and creek blend through the dunes with the ocean. Murrells Inlet is a village among a series of creeks with one just deep enough for commercial fishing boats, making up the inlet by that name. For more than two centuries they’ve been going to the Atlantic from here, bringing home fish and tales of the sea.

These stories tell much of the civilization that’s eked out its existence. One is the story of DrunkenJackIsland, named for a seaman who was left ashore with cases and cases of rum. When the ship returned, only empty bottles remained, scattered around his bleached bones. My favorite is one that I’ve heard for years traveling along this section of coast. It’s the story of the Gray Man of PawleysIsland. Many say they have seen him walking the beach alone before the onset of huge storms. There apparently are several versions of this story, but all say that the Gray Man appears prior to major storms to warn islanders of imminent danger.

That “creek” we explored also tells of the past. This was once part of the rice plantations of the Old South. Before the War Between the States, almost 47 million pounds of rice were produced on the Waccamaw Neck alone. South Carolina rice planters were far wealthier and more powerful than many of the tobacco, sugar and cotton plantation owners of the South.

Steamboats traveled the river carrying cargo and passengers, many of whom were families and guests of the plantation owners. The steamboats were known for excellent food and, as the era ended, many of the cooks settled in Murrells Inlet and opened restaurants. Thus began a lasting reputation in the area for excellent lowcountry cuisine, which still exists today. It’s reported that the area, just a few miles back from the swamp, has more restaurants per square mile than San Francisco.

And the South Carolina tourist center of Myrtle Beach lies a short distance up the coast as the crow flies. Live entertainment, restaurants and extensive golfing opportunities are available there. You’ll pass through the Myrtle Beach area by boat, with its many marinas on the ICW, to the north.

When you visit

With this and other attractions waiting just beyond the swamp, it’s good that there’s a place to bail out of the waterway for a while. In this area we stop at Wacca Wache Marina — (800) 395-6694, www.waccawachemarina.com . We were told by marina personnel that “wacca wache” meant “happy waters” to the American Indians who lived here long ago. It’s near an old landing that is believed to have been near the site of an ancient village and burial area. Now there’s a large public launching ramp called Wachesaw Landing. “Wachesaw meant,” we’re told, “place of great weeping.”

The marina has been there, on the eastern bank of the river, for around 40 years but it boasts recently rebuilt floating docks, a restaurant, ship’s store and snack bar, and competitively priced fuel, as well as a large dry-storage operation. It can accommodate boats to 120 feet, with up to 240-volt 100-amp electric service. Wi-Fi is reported to be available at the transient docks.

There is dockage on the river where you can still be surrounded by the Waccamaw mystique, but there’s also a huge, protected basin behind the office/restaurant building. At the marina you can take a kayaking trip with Black River Tours — (843) 546-4840, www.blackriveroutdoors.com — or take a sightseeing cruise of the Waccamaw and connecting creeks and rivers on the 60-foot pontoon boat Waccamaw Lady — (843) 651-2994, www.plantationrivertours.com .

The water is fresh here, and the temperature seldom dips below freezing in the winter. The marina is right on ICW marker 57 at Mile 383.5. It’s also about 18 miles from the Route 17 Bridge, which is, in turn, around 20 miles from the sea buoy at Winyah Bay Inlet. This inlet is deep and marked, serving large freighters that come up to the small historical seaport of Georgetown, S.C., downstream from Wachesaw. Skippers choosing to continue south on the ICW can leave Winyah Bay about 27 miles from the marina, enter Estherville Mimim Creek Canal (also known as Estherville-Mimim Cut), and proceed south toward Charleston.

From the marina it’s only a few miles to West Marine, Boaters World, The Home Depot, a Piggly Wiggly grocery store, a Food Lion, a shopping mall, hospital and a Holiday Inn. The village of Murrells Inlet is about four miles away. Sometimes the marina will help with transportation if personnel and vehicles are available, but Enterprise will bring a rental car to the marina. Some of the nearby restaurants offer shuttle service to their facilities.

Just a few miles from the marina is the world-renowned collection of American figurative statuary at BrookgreenGardens (www.brookgreen.org ). Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington purchased several area plantation sites and developed a private estate of more than 9,000 acres to be used as their home and, more importantly, for Anna’s sculpture studio and display of her widely recognized work. This self-supporting non-profit cultural center opened in 1931 and is described as the oldest significant sculpture garden in the world. The collection includes more than 1,200 works by American sculptors displayed in 50-plus acres of garden and landscape that uniquely enhance the artwork. There’s also a zoo and miles of nature walks so you can experience the country as it used to exist in the South’s early days and before. Guided tours help you fully appreciate the grounds and some of the subtleties. For example, as you walk among the art and foliage, you might miss the fact that you’re walking in a garden that is in the shape of butterfly, with wings, body and antenna.

Also in the vicinity on the Murrells Inlet side of the ICW are Reserve Harbor Marina — (843) 235-8262, www.reserveharbor.com — and Heritage Plantation Marina — (843) 237-3650. Plan to stop in one of the anchorages on the Waccamaw; there are several good ones, more snug than Bull Creek. Be sure you’re clear of ICW traffic and keep properly lit at night. Also, stop at Wacca Wache Marina as you head north or south. Spend some time in three worlds woven together: one primeval, one from our country’s Colonial days, and one of today.