Second Saturday, and time for a Lowcountry Unfiltered expedition. We had missed March because of conflicts throughout our group, and our group leader, Matt, wouldn’t be available for April. Somehow that fell to me to put together a trek. I decided that it would be a good time to head back to one of my favorites, Sparkleberry Swamp.
The weather was chilly, but otherwise ideal. Jim Leavell and I left Greenville VERY early and began the drive southward. The roads were quiet, and I was glad Jim was driving this time. His wife had loaned us her nice, comfortable truck.
The first stop was Battens in Wedgefield. This has gotten to be a regular breakfast stop for this particular trip. We were the first of our group to arrive, but we weren’t the only ones there this time. A large group in woodland camouflage got there just as we did. We listened to them talk about hunting turkeys and water levels in the swamp. With the recent storms the levels were high, and currents in the upper reaches of the swamp were fairly strong.
Jerry and Craig arrived shortly and we continued our meal. The rest of our group would be at the landing.
Sparkleberry Landing traffic was about normal for a nice spring day. There were already several boats launched, but the landing was clear when we got there. We got our gear together, and were soon joined by John and Sean. A newcomer also joined us. Dave Shackleton brought a rather fancy Hobie Mirage with a superstructure and pedal drive. It was rigged for fishing. That brought our paddling group up to seven.
Water levels were quite high, and a current was noticeable even here at the landing. We got launched and made our way out of the landing area. It always amazes me that the boat channel is almost invisible from the boat ramp.
There is another channel that leads to the landing. Usually this is separated from the open Sparkleberry Flats by a small ridge. With the water levels as high as they were we could scoot right across through a smaller opening and get right out onto the open water, which we did. The skies opened up for an incredible vista.
Our route would be similar to one we had followed on previous trips. We would cross Sparkleberry Flats then paddle into what I’ve come to call “The Cathedral.” From there
we head south to Otter Flats, where we turn west. Our furthest point would be Risers Lake, whose banks offer the only high and dry ground for lunch. However, we the waters as high as they were on this day we could go just about anywhere. I wanted to keep our options open. Sadly, that wasn’t going to happen.
We entered the Cathedral. Several in our group had never been to Sparkleberry. Jim had only come on that rather unpleasant low water trip in fall of 2015. Conditions would be perfect in just a couple of weeks, when the canopy would leaf out a bit more and prothonotary warblers would provide flashes of yellow. But, with the water levels as high as they were this wasn’t too bad.
Then there was the sound. Everything echoes in the Cathedral, as if you really are in a large enclosed space. I would love to put up a floating platform here and record a choral concert. I bet Gregorian Chant would sound amazing. We lingered, paddling in and amongst the large trees as if we were strolling between the columns of a Gothic structure.
In reality the Cathedral stretches all of the way over to Fifty Fools Creek and beyond, but you can only paddle all of it at the right water levels. It is VERY easy to wander off the path and get completely lost. This is my favorite section. There is enough space between the trees to create the echo effect, while still maintaining a close canopy.
The current was definitely strong. As we made the southward turn toward Otter Flats it actually pushed our boats in that direction. It was easy to ride along for a bit.
The skies opened and we headed west on Otter Flats. This time we were paddling against the current, which wasn’t fun, but wasn’t too bad. Any moment’s pause to take a photo, etc., meant recovering the 30-50 feet we lost.
This is where I ran into some major frustrations. I’m going into rant mode for a bit, so bear with me. One member of our group likes to plow ahead of everyone, and he did it this time. The problem is that I was the only one who really knew the way through the swamp. It was dangerous. This guy could have made a misstep and easily gotten lost. The danger aside, it also limited our options. Since we had perfect paddling conditions I thought we might be able to do a side trip up to Fifty Fools Cabin or one of the other interesting places in the swamp. However, this guy had blasted past the entrance to Fifty Fools and was a half mile down the creek before the rest of us got to it. So much for any exploration.
I was stuck. Normally I just ignore this person and let him go on and do his own thing. This time I was the one who planned the trip and felt responsible for everyone. I couldn’t just plow ahead too. Our new guy was having trouble keeping up, so I had to linger back so that I could keep an eye on him. Our group was getting strung out. It was NOT a good situation. I was tempted to let the impatient ones plow ahead and get lost just to teach them a lesson, but I couldn’t do that.
The point is that when you’re in an unknown situation you ALWAYS stay within sight of your paddling partners. I really don’t give a rat’s ass if you’ve got a faster boat, etc., etc., etc. You stay with the group. Period. And in the confines of Sparkleberry those sight lines are very close. It was so frustrating that this will probably be the last time I lead this group into Sparkleberry.
OK, enough rant. Let’s just say I didn’t take as many photos as I would have liked along Otter Flats.
Eventually we made it to Riser’s Lake. I missed the main turn off so we had to plow through some underbrush to reach the lake. Dave discovered that his boat wasn’t ideal for this setting. The pedal mechanisms would hang on submerged cypress crowns, and the superstructure snagged when we did have to push through brush. But, we made it through.
Riser’s Lake is an old oxbow of the Santee River. Lunch was on the south bank, which is the only high and dry spot for miles around. Last time we were here the water was so low that we didn’t have anywhere to land the boats. The steep climb up the bank would have been too much. This time we could pull right up to our stop.
Since Matt wasn’t with us we didn’t have his stove to cook our traditional brats and kraut.
It was still a good stop, and this time I didn’t overeat. Also, now that we had regrouped we talked about next steps. Our plan from this point was to head to the eastern end of the lake where there was a narrow channel leading back out to Otter Flats. From there we would just ride the current back. Before we could get underway, though. One of our group took a tumble as he tried to launch his boat. We had to pull him out and bail the boat before we could go further.
The lower channel was easy to find, and there was a good current pushing us along. Things were cruising along easy…
…for a bit. Somehow we missed the turn to the flats and wound up running parallel to the main stream. This was easy enough with high water, but there was still some bushwhacking to do. Dave’s boat was taking a beating the process.
Finally I pushed on through until I saw the green blazes indicating that we were back on the right track. We had come out further east than I planned, but it worked. The current was still strong, so we made good time. I was even able to pull out my harmonica and play a couple of tunes as we floated.
There is an easy-to-miss turn from Otter Flats back through the Cathedral. I’ve missed it before and it’s a pain to get back. Our runaway paddler missed it. Once again I was tempted to let him get lost, but the rest of our group waited while someone retrieved him. It would have been easy for the runaway and the person sent after him to get lost, so I was uneasy about that. However, we got the group back together and headed along the correct path.
Through the Cathedral, then back out onto Sparkleberry Flats.
Motor boat traffic had been picking up throughout the afternoon, and we had to deal with the wakes from several as we made our way back. I noticed that my old sign landmark had deteriorated even more, with more spray paint and more bullet holes. I was just glad I wasn’t around when whatever idiots decided to take pot shots at the sign. As we were crossing the flats I heard gunshots and wondered which poor sign was once again being punched through with lead.
Back at the landing there were a couple of guys just getting started. One had a Tsunami just like mine (I was in the Pungo today.) They were new to the swamp and asked for the best place to go. Since it was later afternoon I suggested the Cathedral. I just hope they didn’t get lost.
We did have one last casualty. Dave took a tumble getting out of his boat at the landing. He wasn’t hurt, but I hopped back in my kayak and helped him gather gear that was trying to float off with the current. His boat had sustained some damage points from the swamp, though, and he was going to have to do some repair work.
In all we paddled 8.65 miles, which is a respectable distance. Despite the frustrations with my fellow paddlers it was a good trip, and we couldn’t have asked for better weather. Everyone made it back safely, which is the important thing.
One of these days I’d like to explore more of the swamp. I would love to get up into some of the upper reaches of the swamp. I’d like to try to make it out to the Santee River. I think it might be possible to do a point-to-point paddle launching from Sparkleberry Landing and taking out at either Pack’s Landing or Low Falls Landing. While the distances wouldn’t be too far to paddle, the shuttle would be crazy, as you would have to drive all the way around the huge Lake Marion. Those trips would have to be done with only a couple of us, though.
Jim and I headed on back toward home. As we hit bad traffic coming out of Columbia I was glad he was driving. My weekend of paddling was just getting started and I’d have to be back down this way first thing in the morning. It gave me a chance to regroup after the day’s exploration and mentally prepare for the next launch. More on that in the next post.