By Burt Kornegay
South Carolina’s free-flowing Lynches River enters the state from North Carolina as a creek, quickly grows to be a small river, then flows southeast for 170 miles to join the Great Pee Dee not far from the Atlantic. Starting at a public boat landing at the US15 bridge, the lower 110-mile stretch of the Lynches is a State Scenic River and it's frequently paddled. There are numerous accesses, a waterproof guide produced by the state, and detailed descriptions in river guidebooks.
But what about the Lynches River’s upper 60 miles, above the scenic part?
I thought about this one morning last May when I launched on the lower Lynches for the very first time. Pushing off from the US15 boat ramp and turning downstream, with a week of canoeing in front of me, I suddenly wondered what the river behind me was like. Glancing back, I saw black water flowing invitingly out of a deep-green forest. Later, still intrigued by that glimpse, I searched for information about the upper river and was surprised to find no descriptions of it, no public accesses shown on maps, and no online reports of others having been down it. As far as I could tell, for paddlers the upper Lynches was Rio Unknown.
Paul called to say he was standing at the SC9 bridge. “The river's completely flooded. 600 feet wide, full of logs and surging current!”
The May trip had not been easy. The Lynches, though beautiful, was low, and I had to pull my canoe over fallen trees and finesse it through tight, twisting passages. So I figured the upper Lynches would be even more challenging. It’s here that the river, flowing through forest, drops off the Piedmont into the Coastal Plains, with fast current, narrow channels, and probable rapids at the Fall Line, all of which make it likely to be clogged by strainers and log jams.
One day while in the area, I stopped at the SC9 bridge over the Lynches, where the waterway first becomes something more than a creek. The channel looked clear as far as I could see. But it was mid-summer, hot and dry, and the “river” itself was no more than an ankle-deep rivulet glittering over a bed of sand-and-gravel. The only way to take a canoe down that would be by dragging it. With cooler, wetter weather in late fall, however, the upper Lynches might rise enough to paddle. I noted a tractor path leading down to the bank from the road.
Over the next few months I kept checking online the USGS Bishopville gauge at the US15 bridge, and during October, which was unusually rainy, the Lynches revived. Thinking that possible misery might like company, I asked my friend and river-guide writer, Paul Ferguson, to explore the upper 60 miles with me. If the reach proved to be runnable, he could add it to his already extensive and excellent guidebook, Canoe Kayak South Carolina
Knowing there might be sane reasons why no one paddles the upper Lynches, Paul wrote back: “I’m as dumb as a brick. I’ll go.” Since I’m 65 and Paul’s in his 70s, we hoped that our years of river-running experience would trump youthful physique.
Paul did unearth a short article about the upper Lynches titled "Unexplained Events," published in 2011 in a local newspaper. The article reported that while night-fishing beneath the abandoned 601 bridge across the river, people claimed they had seen “glowing orbs” hovering in the blackness–“the ghosts,” they said, "of people who were brutally murdered" there. The article didn’t give details about the murders; and for all Paul and I knew, the fishermen who saw the glowing orbs might have been in the presence of more than one kind of “spirits.” But we made a mental note not to camp anywhere near that spooky old bridge. And it did turn out to be a danger spot.
We decided to launch on November 3. Then, on November 2, the upper watershed had its biggest recorded rainfall for the date--5 inches. Planning to spend the night nearby, I was driving there through a downpour when Paul called to say he was standing at the SC9 bridge: “The river's completely flooded. 600 feet wide, full of logs and surging current.” The rain was forecast to end that night, and since this was the river’s headwaters, we figured its level might drop dramatically. But would the Lynches calm down enough for us to get on it?
Next morning we saw that, though still brown and pushy, the Lynches was back within its banks. We decided to go. In essence, we’d be riding the tail end of a massive slug of water shouldering its way down the channel. Since the tractor path was a mud hole, we lowered our canoes and gear over the guardrail where a county road bridge spans Hills Creek, just upstream of the SC9 bridge.
The plan was to float the tributary to the Lynches, a mere 1/4 mile away. The “float” took almost an hour, as we sawed and chopped our way through vine-wrapped trees toppled across the channel. By the time we reached the river, we were sweat-soaked and briar-scratched, with rubbery arms. Paul renamed the tributary “Hell’s Creek.” But the Lynches revived our spirits when a white-tail buck with a full rack leaped off the bank and swam across to the opposite shore.
I’m not going to give a stroke-by-stroke account of the next 4 days. If you want to paddle the upper Lynches, wait for rain then explore your own Rio Unknown. But here are some highlights and a caution.
Based on what it left in its wake, we could see that the river had raged the day before. We passed uprooted trees packed together in piles up to 30 feet high. We followed new, deep channels that had been bored overnight straight through river bends. And several times we came to log jams that blocked the flow, forcing us to pull our loaded boats around. But for the most part, the Lynches had simply bulldozed its way along, shoving wood to either side, leaving debris caught in branches overhead. Though having to keep a close eye out for strainers, we paddled unhindered for delightful miles.
That was in the Piedmont half of the trip. There the river is confined to a narrow valley, and when it floods, it has nowhere to go but up. But when the Lynches descended into the low-lying Coastal Plains, its waters spread out far and wide, inundating a bottomland hardwood forest. In places we had to engineer the boats through the crowns of newly fallen giants. In others, the water whisked us into the canopies of small trees like water elm, river birch, and possum haw holly. I'd see Paul disappear into foliage and follow.
Paul stuck to the main channel as much as possible to plot distances for his book. But I liked to cut through the numerous bends or simply canoe along in the woods. It was open, tranquil, and beautiful in there. Acorns dropped from big oaks, landing in the water with kerplunks. Wood ducks took off with high-pitched whinnies. I wrote on my topo map, “Bonafide Swamp.”
Since it was hunting season, Paul and I wore blaze-orange caps for safety. Our heads may not have been as strikingly beautiful as the iridescent wood duck's, but they were even more visible. The caps, looking like glowing orbs, helped us stay in contact with each other as we parted and merged then parted again in the dimly lit swamp forest.
For a couple of miles above the Old Jefferson Hwy bridge we ran easy Class I-II rapids where the river descended through the Fall Line. But beneath the abandoned 601 bridge, we back-paddled above a dangerous drop. On river right the current plunged 3-4 feet over a ledge, creating a keeper hydraulic. On river left, it swept down a smooth rock ramp into another powerful reversal. And the banks on either side were tangled and sheer. Luckily, I spotted a rock ledge barely showing above the water next to the right bank. We could skirt the rapid if, one at a time, we ran our canoes up onto that little shelf then lowered them into the eddy beyond. On the other hand, if a canoe stalled only part way up, the current would sweep the stern around and suck the boat backwards over the drop. Our years of river-running experience paid off with good speed and a sure aim: we both slid up safely on the rock.
Here's how uninhabited the Lynches was: in 4 days we passed 1 house standing on a bluff and we circled 1 trailer that was perched on stilts in a flooded forest clearing. Paddling out the trailer’s driveway, I came to a homemade sign on a post in waist-deep water. It said, "River Road." We also sidled up to a rusty First Baptist Church activity bus that had been hauled to the riverbank and converted to a fishing shack, now abandoned.
Here's one thing we didn't see: sunlight. For 4 days the temps hovered around 70, with mist, drizzle, high humidity, low clouds, an occasional shower. By the end, we canoed along in limp clothing and rain gear, leaving a mildew smell in our wake.
As if to give us a congratulatory "thumbs up," while we were emptying the leaves and branches out of our boats at the US15 take-out, the overcast sky thinned just enough to briefly reveal another kind of “glowing orb.”
Paddling the Edisto River in South Carolina’s Low Country.
Backwater Bliss: Paddling the Mississippi’s Flood of the Century.