Shhh, do you hear that?
Our paddles go still. We drift in silence, sleuths on the inky river. It’s easy to sink into the quiet out here, tucked into a kayak and enveloped in the vast wonder of the ACE Basin, with nothing but yawning sky above us and sweeping marsh and meandering waterways all around. The morning breeze whispers in the spartina, but we tune our ears beyond it.
There, listen!—he’s singing again. And we catch it this time—the high-pitched, lilting tsip-tsip-tsip-tsip of the prothonotary warbler. It’s a rapid-fire song, loud and quick like the winged soprano of the swamp himself, who, after announcing his elusive presence, flits by—a flash of yellow brilliance.
“Wow, did you see that? It’s like someone turned on a light switch,” says Chris Crolley of Coastal Expeditions, birder and naturalist extraordinaire and our guide along the blackwater rivers and creeks of the Lowcountry. He’s speaking of the fluorescent glory of the prothonotary’s bright breast, but it could be a million other things. Crolley’s passion is turning on light switches, pointing out hidden treasures of the Lowcountry landscape and bringing the marvels of nature into full view.
Turning the lights on, so to speak, along our blackwater rivers is like peeking into the dark hole of a kaleidoscope. Squint your eyes, recalibrate your focus, and wonders reveal themselves: shifting and enchanting. These slowly rolling ribbons of water are ever-changing. They slink and curl around bends and oxbows at an ancient pace, unlike their friskier whitewater counterparts that begin in the Appalachian escarpments and tumble on down. A blackwater river, by contrast, begins and ends in the Coastal Plain, trickling up from springs in the Sandhills and taking sweet time to thread through sloughs and riffles in the wooded floodplains, where leaves and detritus from deciduous bottomland forests stain the water, giving these rivers their namesake tannin-steeped blackness.
“The same thing that makes your iced tea the color that it is gives blackwater its color,” explains Crolley. Though freshwater, these rivers and creeks fluctuate with the tides. And though dark, they are no less luminous, as a day of paddling in the ACE Basin and in the Francis Marion National Forest proves.
From the put-in at Willtown Bluff along the South Edisto, one of the three rivers (Ashepoo, Combahee, Edisto) that create the pristine ACE Basin south of Kiawah, we make our way up to Penny Creek. “Welcome to pristine wilderness—some 217,000 acres of protected lands with no cell towers, no electrical lines, no jet trails overhead, no evidence of humankind except for the remnants of rice cultivation,” says Crolley. Paddling along Penny Creek’s blackwater is like gliding through a green wonderland, with water oaks hugging the riverbank and a fringe of marsh grasses outlining the edges. Above is absolute blueness and clouds so puffy they seem cartoonish. Red-winged blackbirds play hide-and-seek and elegant egrets stand and stare. A wood stork glides by. “Would you look at that green heron! Dressed for the prom!” Crolley points out.
In the upper reaches of Penny Creek, “remote” begins to take on a new meaning. You realize that while you are far, far from any urban hustle and bustle, you don’t feel distant and isolated as much as up close and ensconced in raw beauty and natural majesty. This remoteness feels more like connection; it sounds like a deep sigh signaling that this is the real world.
“The botanical diversity here operates at a very high frequency,” says Crolley. Indeed the freshwater ecosystem along Penny Creek is abundant with tag alder and Southern wild rice, native wisteria and swamp dogwood, Cherokee rose vines and the vivid blue iris. As Penny Creek meets the South Edisto and crawls closer to the sea, spartina and other salt-tolerant species become more prevalent, and one ecosystem blends in to the next. “It’s all connected, all corridors,” Crolley remarks.
Francis Marion’s Black Magic
While the ACE Basin is the protected land creating the southern boundary of Charleston’s Greenbelt, the Francis Marion National Forest is the natural buffer along the metro-region’s northeastern edge. Here blackwater tributaries wind through oak and hickory stands and tupelo and bald cypress swamps nestled deep within a surrounding longleaf pine forest that stretches across a quarter of a million acres of federally protected land.
“These longleaf pines are like staccato stripes along the landscape. Their rhythms leave such a large-scale vertical impression,” notes Crolley. This is home of the pileated woodpecker and carnivorous flora native to Carolina bays. And on the sandy plains of the pine forest understory live a multitude of seed-bearing grasses and ephemeral flowers—“one of the most biodiverse plant communities we have.”
At the end of a long, straight gravel road, Pitch Landing is our put-in for Echaw Creek. Unlike Penny Creek and the South Edisto, the banks here are indistinct; the edges of Echaw and Wambaw Creek (a similar blackwater tributary in the Francis Marion) just seem to morph and disappear into a tangle of cypress knees and tree trunks. Every now and then a majestic one-thousand-year-old bald cypress stands firm in a bold, sculptural statement. “It looks like hobbits would live here; it’s totally a ‘Lord of the Rings’ fantasy land,” Crolley laughs. “I love that sun dance of light off the trees that’s then reflected into the ripples of water. And on blackwater you get twice as much tree—you get the real thing and then its reflection.”
This mirrored world offers a constantly rotating gallery; every paddle stroke creates a new swirling watercolor, every breeze a different dapple of light. “At dawn the river steams like a cup of coffee,” Crolley says, “and at dusk, it’s a whole other muted effect.” And as the planet spins in between dawn and dusk, the Echaw and Wambaw Creeks go about their mellow business: feeding yellow-bellied sliders, harboring alligators, offering up landing pads and mosquito snacks for whirling dragonflies, going with the flow until they spill into the Santee River, then ultimately into the Atlantic Ocean.
Ashepoo, Edisto, Combahee, Echaw, Wambaw—their names evoke a litany, a poem of remembrance of those who once fished their shallow depths, navigated their waters, saw their own reflection in the rivers’ dark surface. Long before cart paths and railroads and interstates, “rivers were our roadways,” our native infrastructure, Crolley notes. A day spent paddling the rivers in Kiawah’s backyard demonstrates that blackwater can still transport us—back to awakened senses, to appreciation of nature’s mystery and marvels, and perhaps even to a reflection of our truest selves. One in which water gently ripples and sunlight dances and a warbler’s call sings, Hey, listen. Pay attention. — S.H.