Wild adventures: Paddling the remote lower Santee River

greenkayak73@gmail.comJuly 1, 2014 

Archibald Rutledge, poet laureate of South Carolina, described the river that flowed lazily past his door at Hampton Plantation as "the lonely delta of the Santee." When he returned to his family home of Hampton Plantation in 1934 after a 40-year absence, he began the work to restore the then-200-year-old mansion and reclaim it from the wilderness.

Save for the old house and surrounding land, most of the region he described in 1934 is unchanged. Wild. Remote. Beautiful. Along the lower Santee River and the delta region just north of Charleston lies the promise of lush beauty and an escape to solitude. This sylvan paradise is accessible mostly by boat or an enjoyable ride down fire roads and plantation lanes, and all the while just a little more than two hours from home.

The Santee is truly the "River of the Carolinas" as it rises from the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, forming the Broad River, which then becomes the muddy Catawba and Wateree as it dives into South Carolina. In the west, the Saluda River and its tributaries rise from the foothills and cut through the farmlands to a rocky confluence in the midlands. In between the Tyger, the Enoree, Reedy and other Upstate streams bring their life into the arterial flow and together form the mighty heart of the river at the Congaree -- nearly the dead-center of the state. From there, the Santee is cut and persuaded by vast lakes and locks to re-form 50 miles above the ocean, once again unfettered to the sea.

This lower region is where we visit today. Far from the angry whisper of interstate traffic and glittering inland cities the Santee re-enters its primal state. Once the thriving land of rice plantations, it is now mostly wild, preserved and often impenetrable.

Recently, a group of friends and I paddled the lower Santee into the delta region. A day on the water is unmistakably solitary, as very few boats will pass you, and no river homes will be encountered. Along the way you can see the scars of the past.

Here, Battery Warren, a massive earthwork fort of Civil War vintage looms above the river and there a ruler-straight canal cuts the jungle bank and reminds you of a rice kingdom in days gone by. Above it all, the birds loop and sing. Prothenotary warblers bring fiery color to cypress trees, barred owls ask, "Who-cooks-for-you?" Alligators slip from muddy roosts while mullet and rare Atlantic sturgeon leap from the water ahead of you. A day on the lower Santee is a million-year visit to the past, and it will be an unforgettable trip.

GETTING THERE

The lower Santee is formed at the foot of Lakes Marion and Moultrie near Charleston, and is about a two and a half hour ride from Bluffton. There are several landings along the river, but stretches between them are lengthy and very tidal near the mouth.

A kayak or canoe trip on the lower Santee is pleasant, but may not be for beginners. I recently put in at McConnels Landing in Berkeley County and paddled down to Wambaw Creek above Hampton Plantation State Historic Site. McConnells Landing is in Berkeley County off U.S. forest road 204F. The Wambaw Creek takeout is the bridge landing at Echaw Road. To get there, take U.S. 17 through Charleston and McLellanville. Nine miles past McLellanville, turn left onto Rutledge Road/South Santee Road/S-10-857. You will pass Hampton Plantation State Historic Site. Continue after pavement ends and the takeout is at the bridge over Wambaw Creek. McConnells Landing is 3 miles farther.

Bring water, food and bug repellent. A GPS is helpful, and a good map is a must. Battery Warren Heritage Preserve is nearby, and an interpretive trail makes the fort easily accessible. This area is indeed remote, so for more information and conditions call the Francis Marion Ranger District at 843-336-3248.

HAMPTON PLANTATION STATE HISTORIC SITE

A short detour off U.S. 17 near McClellanville at 1950 Rutledge Road is the ancient seat of the Rutledge family of South Carolina. Home to governors, statesmen and a poet, this majestic plantation house still stands and is a reminder of times when living off the land meant more than self-sufficiency -- but the hallmark of an agricultural kingdom.

Built in 1735 on the very edge of the Santee River, this house has survived war, economic ruin and shifting cultural tides that leave it an island of historic interest amid a sea of forest and marshland. Reclaimed from the wilderness in 1934 by Archibald Rutledge it was lovingly restored by him and the very descendants of the slaves who still lived and worked the surrounding land. Today it is a state historic site, and tours are given of its rooms and grounds.

Unique architectural features, storied history and the gifts of the bounty of nature surround this place and make it a destination all its own. Admission is free, and tours of the house start at $7.50. It is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily April through October; and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily November through March. Guided tours are at noon and 2 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays, and 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. There are special events and tours throughout the year.

Details: 843-546-9361

Bluffton resident Matt Richardson enjoys taking day trips with his family and exploring the Lowcountry. To see more pictures from his adventures, go to his profile on www.Flickr.com. He can be reached at greenkayak73@yahoo.com.

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