Canoeing the Edisto River

South Carolina in the summer: Crazy, or crazy good?

Summer canoeing on the Edisto River, South Carolina. Photo by Burt Kornegay

Summer canoeing on the Edisto River, South Carolina. Photo by Burt Kornegay

By Burt Kornegay

Last week, in the middle of a typically hot-and-sticky July, some friends and I made a 4-day canoe trip on the Edisto River, in South Carolina.

You may think, "You went canoe camping in South Carolina's low country in July?" The weather was hot. Our high was 94, the low 76, and the first day was particularly humid. But the river was right there for jumping into, and often we could paddle under shady trees. Because the river was shallow, we could easily see its bottom, which is normally hidden beneath deep blackwater. The white sand was "blown" into small beautiful dunes by the tea-colored current, and I watched them passing beneath my boat for miles.

We put in at Kill Kare Landing on the North Fork and took out at Givhans State Park, on the main stem, 60 miles downstream. I paddled with Paul Ferguson, who has written about the Edisto in his excellent guidebook Canoe Kayak South Carolina, and Bobby Simpson. I’d led a few trips on the Edisto, the last one probably a dozen years ago. It was Bobby’s first time.

Bugs? What bugs? Our camp on the Edisto River, South Carolina. Photo by Burt Kornegay

Bugs? What bugs? Our camp on the Edisto River, South Carolina. Photo by Burt Kornegay

The trip was almost bug-less. Yes, bug-less. As in no ticks, deer flies, or no-see-ums, and just a few mosquitoes. I went unmolested in camp each night, though wearing nothing but shorts. This was my fourth warm-weather trip in the past year on South Carolina rivers, and each time it’s been the same.

The three of us formed a kind of canoe-slinky as we went down the river: sometimes spread far out from each other, other times bunched up, still others with two together and a third either out in front or trailing behind. It was a very fluid and pleasant way for a group to paddle.

The Edisto is not what I'd call remote. There were many stretches with houses on the banks. But we found isolated, pleasant campsites. (If you want to paddle a river that's houseless, try out the South Fork of the Edisto. Canoeing it will take you 5 days.)

I was looking forward to seeing alligators but we saw none—live, that is. The third day we did come on a big male gator bloated and floating upside down. His dark, clawed, scaly feet stuck up out of the water and looked dinosaurian. The Edisto ought to be full of these reptiles, but my hunch is that the local folk shoot them on sight, in part to protect their dogs, which 'gators eat, and maybe to make themselves feel safer, but also probably for the fun of it. The few that manage to stay alive must be extremely wary. (If you want to see 'gators, go to the remote South Fork.)

Long live the analog paddler. Photo by Burt Kornegay.

Long live the analog paddler. Photo by Burt Kornegay.

Our third evening, a swallowtail kite wheeled gracefully above camp. It was a large bird with long, slender wings and elegantly forked tail. Later, as night was coming on, the kite was chased away by a loud, condor-sized thunderstorm. We could see its lightning-lit clouds above the trees. They were sailing past in a straight line on the opposite side of the river. Luckily, the storm stayed over there, extending just one wing in passing to brush us with a feather—a few rain drops and some welcome winds that made the tree tops sway.

Late that night a barred owl began to wail and cry from a tree in the middle of our campsite. It was so close I could hear the little hisses and gurgles and throaty flutterings these birds make privately to themselves between their loud public exhortations.

When we reached Givhans State Park around noon the last day, I think half the population of rural South Carolina was there crowding into the river to escape the heat. I don't think I've ever seen so many inner tubes bikinis, and young bucks flexing muscles in one spot.

Yes, it was hot. But we paddled in the shade. Photo by Burt Kornegay

Yes, it was hot. But we paddled in the shade. Photo by Burt Kornegay