Ashepoo River: Paddling through history

Special to The Bluffton PacketOctober 24, 2011 

An alligator peers from the waters of the Ashepoo River.


  • The Ashepoo River is about an hour and a half from Bluffton and may be accessed at several points. For a good introduction, take U.S. 17 to S.C. 303 toward Walterboro for the throw-in at the bridge. Parking is on the shoulder of the highway, as all the surrounding land is private. The paddle is 6 miles one way; it is best to put in at high tide. The recommended take out is at Joe's Fish Camp on U.S. 17. There is a small fee to launch or land. Contact one of many local outfitters to schedule a kayak trip or for more information.

    Rice Plantations along the Ashepoo River

    "Gone With the Wind" and other popular images of the Old South often leave the impression that cotton was king. In the South Carolina Lowcountry, rice became a roaring success beginning in colonial days, and the wealth it generated created an empire of its own. Tended and harvested by West African slaves, rice became such a commodity that South Carolinians boasted even the emperor of China preferred Carolina rice. Many of these luxurious plantations were wrecked and ruined in the Civil War, but a number survive and can still be seen watching over their once-proud fields.

Moss-laden branches hang like a curtain over the stream. A snake darts from the bank and disappears between the trees. Warm sunlight beckons as the canopy widens and soon you are paddling in the midst of open grassy marshland stretching as far as the eye can see. Birds rise noisily from the edge of the stream and the water churns with the tail of a large reptile, making his presence known to those who have entered his territory uninvited.

Is this the Amazon? Have you stumbled into an actual living Jurassic Park? No -- this is still South Carolina, and you are simply enjoying a day on the Ashepoo River.

Rising from the web of swamps near Walterboro, the Ashepoo River unites into a definable stream and slowly makes its way to the sea. Along the way, the waters move from sluggish floodplain to where the tides of the Atlantic begin to pull the stream to far horizons.

The Ashepoo is the A in the ACE Basin, and since the formation of this coastal conservation area it has enjoyed special preservation efforts. Entirely non-industrial, the river is a remote yet accessible body of water, if you are willing to make the effort to get there and take the time to enjoy the visit.

One of the best ways to enjoy the Ashepoo is in a kayak, canoe or small boat. It offers tremendous fishing opportunities and is a fascinating waterway to explore and enjoy. There are few public boat landings, but some rustic "throw-ins" and private landings make for suitable entry and exit. A recommended path for kayaking is to throw in at the S.C. 303 bridge and paddle six miles downstream to take out at the U.S. 17 bridge. It is best to put in at high tide, remembering that the area is five hours behind the coastal tide levels, and enjoy a leisurely float to the landing. From the start, you will enjoy the thick-shadowed solitude of the swamp where your boat will bump cypress knees and scare turtles from logs. Beware the denizen of the deep swamp, however. A very large alligator may greet you, and visions of the Lost World will certainly cross your mind.

From here the landscape of the Ashepoo changes and you enter ancient rice fields. The once-vibrant plantation culture dominated the Lowcountry until the Civil War and now is home to waterfowl conservation. You can still glimpse old rice field "trunk gates" and even a stately mansion or two across the flooded fields -- reminders of a time gone by.

Be it a fascination for history, a fishing expedition or to paddle quietly through pristine Lowcountry landscape, the Ashepoo River is well worth the effort.

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