Living off the Lowcountry: 'Goin' Down the River' tells tales of fish camps

Gibbes McDowell, a third generation Beaufortonian, will always remember his father taking him down the river to their fish camp, where he learned to fish, shrimp and hunt.

On a remote island, the camp was where McDowell learned to live off the Lowcountry -- sometimes for up to 20 days at a time, a practice referred to as "marooning."

"It is at the end of the Earth -- on the pointy end of the stick -- with access to the best fishing, the best sunrises and the best sunsets," McDowell said.

McDowell, now 58, and others have shared stories and photos of their fish camp experiences in Janet Garrity's recently released book, "Goin' Down the River, Fish Camps of the Sea Islands."

The book offers a view of island camps, where for 250 years people have gone to escape insects and extreme weather, and experience the bounty of hunting and fishing.

"It was a lifestyle passed down from generation to generation, predominately a male-dominated tradition," Garrity said.

McDowell said his father regularly took him, and later his mother and two sisters, to the camp.

"The fish camp is a magical place between reality and imagination where you can be the best that you are, get away from reality, leave it all behind and just let it go," McDowell said.

When he was 2, he learned to swim at the water's edge at the camp. By age 4, McDowell had caught a 400-pound sea turtle with a pole and a hook and had learned how to head shrimp. And the Atlantic was the perfect spot for daily saltwater baths.

Three-hundred-pound blocks of ice were buried in the sand to preserve foods, like bacon and eggs. And they brought pantry items with them, such as cooking grease, flour, salt and pepper.

In the early days, fishing was done with a roll of line outfitted with a hook and a sinker. The fish were dragged out of the water onto the beach.

"You were on the edge of the world all by yourself," McDowell said. "You would cook and eat what you caught or killed, tell stories and get down to good root values. Experiences down the river are real. If you don't catch it, you don't eat, and you eat what you kill."

While the buildings at a fish camp might seem to be ramshackled, it could take several years for them to be put together.

When the tides were right they would fish, and when they weren't, "you drive nails," McDowell said

Most fish camps are only accessible by boat, which means the process of bringing in building materials was a slow one.

"Most people have no concept of how long it takes to build one," McDowell said. "But it is our little piece of paradise."

In the early days, there were outhouses, but today most modern fish camps use 12-volt pumps to provide running water for sinks and bathrooms. Batteries are used for power. Rain barrels continue to provide non-drinking water, and drinking water must be hauled to the islands.

McDowell continues to go to his fish camp near Beaufort at least once a month.

Historically, trips to the camps date back to before the Civil War, when plantation owners used to go out on boats and spend a week on the islands to hunt and fish, according to Garrity.

After the Civil War, people continued their trips to the outer islands.

A New York marketing and advertising executive who moved to Lady's Island four years ago, Garrity, 52, was asked by her friend, Alex Spencer to help him shoot photos of the fish camps. Spencer died before the project was completed.

"Before he died he said he would be honored if I continued the project," Garrity said.


"Goin' Down the River"