Paddlin’ Up Memories – Part I

24 Jul

By Brian M. Howle

A week or so back, everyone in America needed a break. We desperately sought some kind of release, relief, refuge, acceptance, whatever … because the events of September 11 are that deeply burned into our frontal consciousness. It has been the single most draining experience – physically as well as emotionally – of my entire life. I can’t fathom what it must be like for those who lived through Pearl Harbor, or the German V-1 bombings of London, or D-Day, Pork Chop Hill or Khe San – only to go through this, yet again.

My sweetie belongs to a Canoeing & Rafting club through her work, and has been attending various excursions around the waterways of our gorgeous state. As after every issue, I head inland for some serious R&R. Somehow, it seems to end up as slave labor a lot of the time – but it keeps me off the street, and I’m not complaining. After the last issue (which was in the final two days of pre-press deadline when the terrorists’ attacks occurred ), I just wanted to disappear. Fortunately, my prayers were answered.

Her group had a scheduled trip that following Saturday, information which I had lost in the shuffle of thinking two weeks ahead (a little impairment shared by others in my business). On her previous trip, they had ventured out onto the Congaree River outside of Columbia, where it’s more swamp than river. I had heard the tales of picking up canoes and walking over rocks; of the insects and scratches from low-hanging branches; of deep-woods-induced, each-paddling-against-the-other bouts of arguments and fights. This was not a canoeing trip, thankfully. This half-day sojourn would be conducted in the comfy confines of sea kayaks.

We hit the road bright and early – and amazingly, on time. We arrived at the gathering spot, a convenience store/gas station just off of I-95 on Exit 68 (for access to St. George or Branchville). The leader of her group turned out to be Lou, an old post-college friend of mine from the mid-‘70s. Lou was the college roommate of one of my old lifeguarding compadres; when I lived in the Columbia area, they were frequent running mates of mine on the social treadmill of mid-‘70s Columbia. We caught up on who’s where and who’s gone and who’s got kids in college as we waited for the outfitter to arrive, and I couldn’t stop thinking to myself how nice it is to see old friends, even those who were in our lives but for a brief time. But in light of the past weeks’ horrors, it’s the sort of thing that a lot of folks may find themselves thinking these days:

“Thank you, God, for each and every day, and the many daily miracles that pass before our eyes and through our very souls – if only we take the time to see them.”

The outfitter showed up and introduced himself as Zack. The remainder of the group had arrived, so Zack instructed us to follow him to the landing where we would put in. His compact pickup carried several different personal vessels on top, and a customized trailer held about a dozen sea kayaks. We rolled through the early morning mist, turning down a winding, sandy lane that melted into the sandy expanses of the Edisto Rivers banks, passing several deer hunters on their stands – poised atop hunting-accessory-festooned pickups with bright, chrome dog boxes hanging over the tailgates. As we pulled into the landing area, there were several more hunters gathered there as well, listening for the bays of the hounds to give them direction in the hunt.

We unloaded the kayaks and our personal gear, and then the group partially split up as vehicles were transferred to the finishing point downriver. And yes, the usual complement of Deliverance references were made throughout the day, but the vehicle transfer always makes me hear banjos in the background.

When they returned, Zack reviewed kayaking etiquette and safety information, and began loading the individual members of our group into size/weight/experience-matched kayaks.

Note to novice kayakers: When you first sit in your kayak, make sure those little foot pegs inside the bow – that you absolutely must have in order to brace yourself for paddling, and also for keeping your balance in the kayak before you ever dip the paddle – are tightly secured. Oh yeah. Zack came over and set the pegs, or so I thought, and I happily signaled for him to push me off the bank. As he did so, I swung the double-bladed paddle over to begin my initial stroke, and pushed hard with my feet to get that leverage and balance thing going.

For about 1.3 seconds, I resembled a Road Runner cartoon – except, in my scene, the dang kayak didn’t capsize, but it flirted with inundation on each side about 6 times before I managed to steady it. I immediately yelled out, “Did anybody see that? Did you see how close I came to losing it?” Of course, they all did. Once again, I provided the comic relief at the very outset of a trip on the waters. (See, I was the first – and only – person thrown out of the raft when we did a white-water rafting trip up in Nantahala National Forest a few years back). I know at least one little girl who enjoyed the moment, if no one else. Zack pulled my kayak back up on the bank and made the necessary adjustments to my pegs, making sure they were locked in this time. I should have taken a moment and drained the small amount of water that had spilled in during my haywire-gyro-imitation, but I didn’t realize it was in there at the time. I think the adrenaline rush of impending cold-water dousing made me impervious to it for the first 15 minutes or so.

Well, everyone had done their little practice paddling routines, so Zack gave us the signal to begin. It turned out Zack had presented me with his old kayak, and it was a stiletto on the smooth river. Zack had a beautiful fiberglass kayak, but he couldn’t “open it up” because he had to watch over the entire group, usually holding back at the rear to assist those in distress. Overall, the group did well; there was the occasional, momentary encounter with a low limb on a bend in the river, where the currents run faster – but besides that, we made good time.

As the kayaks glided across the glass surface of the Edisto River, we marveled at the glorious beauty that surrounded us. Massive live oaks and towering cypress trees line the white, sandy banks, with various pines weaving themselves throughout the tapestry of foliage. The banks undulate from sweeping, low beaches to shear-faced bluffs that rise over 50 feet from the river. Groups of docks and boardwalks announce the homes of those who live on this magnificent waterway – from the simplest old pre-mobile home trailers with their big ol’ Confederate flags on display, to Taraesque landscapes that encompass white-columned southern mansions with flowing concrete abutments that front wrought-iron, bannistered steps that wind downward to the softly lapping black water.

But for the majority of the trip, there is no sign of civilization as you drift down the dark ribbon of water. Birds dive across the vistas, flitting about the lower limbs – and now and then, a deer hound or two happen upon us, as they determinedly scour the ground, searching for the scent of that trophy buck. They glance at us, momentarily, then swing the wagging tails back into action as they scurry off into the underbrush, never giving us another thought as they disappeared into the silence of the woods.

After setting a rapid pace and leading the way, Lou dropped back during one of the “wait-up” moments (where the group has to “wait-up” for a slow poke to catch up, with Zack’s accommodating experience) and we chatted some more. As the group restarted, I found myself out front. Good ol’ Zack, bless his little heart. He gave me a rocket, and once you’re out front – with no obstructions to your view (like the other folks in the group) – then you begin to get a sense of what it must have been like for those early explorers in coastal South Carolina. Because, for all of our technology and advances; for all of our social and spiritual growth; for all we have devised to entertain and self-medicate ourselves in the name of progress – this view has not changed in centuries. It is far removed, untouched from or by time, protected by the children of nature and the ravages of elements that man generally avoids.

And it was just the thing I needed.

We stopped around the halfway point and beached our kayaks on a landing for a lunch break. This was where I discovered the extent of my water intake during the spin cycle on takeoff. I had been sitting in about 3 inches of water the entire time, oblivious to it as I drank in the beauty around us. The group exchanged choices of lunch, and it appears that your basic peanut butter & jelly sandwich escapes the trauma of soft-sided personal coolers stuffed in the bow of a kayak much better than any other sandwich or food item.

We re-embarked on our journey, and everyone had pretty much mastered the art of kayaking at this point. Zack cruised up front with me, as we cut quietly through the swirling currents ahead of the group. Suddenly, a large fish – either a catfish or a carp – shot up from the surface of the river, hanging mid-air a la Michael Jordan, snapping a dragonfly out of mid-flight, then plunging loudly back into the murky deep. Zack and I gave each other that “Whoa!” look, and immediately looked back to ask if the others had caught the sight. We were about 100 yards ahead of the rest of the group – I can’t stress how nice it was to have the thoroughbred kayak – so we “waited up””, debating whether it was catfish or carp. Either way, that sucker was big.

With nature all around us, the call of nature finally got the better of the group by the time we made the landing at Colleton State Park. I bolted for the facilities, which were on the other side of the park from the landing – a trip made all the more challenging with the stiffness my knees had developed after being stuffed inside the kayak for three hours. By the time I made it back out, members of the group were heading for their cars. Most had decided to call it a day, but three others wanted to go the remaining leg, so we helped Zack load up our kayaks and bid our friends goodbye. We caught a ride back to our car with a young couple from Orangeburg. They were students at Auburn; she was from Orangeburg, and he moved here from Alabama after they began dating.

Now, my mother is from this area, from the nearby town of Branchville. During the course of our conversation, the girl mentioned that we should try to catch “Railroad Daze” in Branchville. It’s a festival that commemorates the fact that Branchville, S.C. is the world’s oldest railroad junction. The Best Friend chugged up from Charleston, and Branchville was were you either went to Columbia, or took the split to Orangeburg and then later, to Augusta. I hadn’t been to Branchville in around 15 years, and I somehow always managed to miss the festival. I then told her how much I wanted to catch it, because my sweetie has never been there, and the whole family-roots thing.

“Well,” she turned and chirped, “today’s your lucky day, then. It’s going on this weekend.”

– Next Issue –
Branchville Bound

The previous column originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, October 11, 2001.

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Posted by on July 24, 2009 in Along The Watchtower


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