I had been wanting to paddle Sparkleberry Swamp for quite awhile, but always seemed to miss opportunities. I had a solo trip planned for a couple of months ago, but had to cancel when my cat suddenly got ill. I did Jocassee instead. Another trip was planned for a month later, but we canceled because one of our paddlers got ill (we did Jocassee instead.) Several of the Greenville group were staying over after the Pinopolis Lock paddle and heading up on Sunday to paddle Sparkleberry, and this time it didn’t look like anyone was going to get ill, and we were nowhere near Jocassee, so I finally got my chance.
Sparkleberry Swamp, also known as Rimini Swamp, isn’t a natural swamp. It was formed when Lake Marion was created and the forests of the upper Santee River were flooded. Its boundaries are nebulous, depending on water levels and who you ask. Even though it’s not a natural swamp, it has all the characteristics of one. If you picture in your mind what a southern swamp is supposed to be, it probably looks a lot like Sparkleberry.
I spent the night in the town of Santee in a dumpy little motel that deserves its own blog post. Maybe, after therapy, I’ll write that one up. Our group met at the local Bojangles for breakfast, then crossed Lake Marion on I-95, then headed north along the east shore.
This part of the state is about as desolate as it gets. It’s on the lower edge of the Carolina sand hill region, so pine forests and sandy soil are the norm until you reach the actual swamp. We passed through the towns of Summerton and Rimini, which I didn’t even know existed.
When we got to Sparkleberry Landing it was already sweltering. The water was high, and even at the landing the scenery was fantastic. We unloaded the boats and were soon underway.
One of our group of seven had been to the swamp several times before, and served as our guide. It was a good thing. I would have followed the more open channels either north or south, and would have missed the real path through a narrow stand of trees. I was glad I had a functioning GPS and spare batteries.
As we launched and got out of the way one john boat pulled up to the ramp. We had to laugh. The boat and its motor were painted in camoflauge, the two guys on the boat were wearing camoflauge hats and T-shirts, but the girl that was with them had on the skimpiest bright silver string bikini. Bait, perhaps? But what for?
We passed four other john boats on their way in, either from a camping area, or just to restock their coolers. One of the boats shouted over to me.
Redneck – Hey, Boss Man! Where you keep yo beer in that thing!
Me – I got a special refrigerated compartment right here behind me!
Of course, I had no beer, but with the heat was thankful for the several water bottles I had with me.
Our path took us into a couple of wide open channels. The depth varied, but cypress and tupelo lined all of the waterways. Fortunately, the main route was fairly clearly marked with orange paint splashes.
We reached a crossroads, of sorts. Continuing south would eventually take us out onto the main body of the lake. Westward would take us deeper into the swamp. We chose west.
At this point the channel narrowed significantly. We paddled into a huge stand of cypress that blocked out the sun overhead. Being in the cool shade was quite pleasant, compared to the blazing open water. There was a mystical feel, and an acoustical quality that is hard to describe. Even the sounds made you think you were in an enclosed space, almost like a cathedral.
Our route alternated between more cathedrals and some open spaces. We passed another huge osprey nest, and saw several prothonotary warblers. Woodpeckers hammered the trees all around us. We saw turtles, but no gators.
Having paddled in the heat all day Saturday, we were all pretty much beat. We decided to head on back after only a short paddle into the swamp. A taste would be enough for today. Finding the route back, though, proved to be tricky, even with GPS and an experienced guide. There were multiple braided channels, and it was easy to get turned around.
We arrived back at the landing after being out on the water for only a couple of hours. We were exhausted, but we also had a long drive back to the Upstate. It was enough of an appetizer, though, and I’m ready to come back. This may turn out to be one of my favorite paddling destinations. Truth be told, I like it even better than Cedar Creek through the Congaree Swamp or any of the side channels of the Edisto that we have explored.