Marie McAden



Outdoor Adventures with a Park Ranger: Canoeing the Edisto River

Posted 3/27/2013 4:31:00 PM

If you’ve never canoed a blackwater river, you owe it to yourself to experience the dark side of paddling. Floating through desolate swampland under a thick canopy of moss-covered cypress and tupelo trees, you’ll feel like you’ve ventured into primordial grounds light years from civilization. 

Earlier this fall, I took such a trip with Aiken State Park Ranger David Finney on the Edisto River — the longest free-flowing blackwater stream in North America.

The South Fork of the Edisto runs along the northeastern edge of the 1,067-acre state park. Twice a year in the spring and fall, rangers offer guided paddling trips along the park’s 1.7-mile canoe and kayak trail.

If you float the entire route, it will take you three hours to make it from put-in to take-out. Paddling at a leisurely pace cuts the trip time in half.

The morning we set out, the river level was at 6.5 feet — the low end of navigable waters. On this narrow, twisty section of the South Fork, that means you’ll be dodging strainers and downed trees somewhere along the way.

As soon as we launched from the bank of the river, the slow-moving current took us lazily through the wetlands, parading us past beautiful bald cypress and big-bottomed tupelos. Because this area floods, Finney told us, the buttressed lower trunks grow wide offering the tree stability in standing water.

It’s the tannin released by decomposing plant matter from the trees that gives the river its reddish-brown hue. Despite its blackwater designation, the water is actually quite clear, just tinted the color of tea.

We weren’t long into the trip before we came across the predicted obstacles. Along with fallen tree limbs hanging over the river, we encountered several submerged trunks stealthily hidden just beneath the surface. When the river level is higher, you’d float right over the logs without so much as a bump. But at low water, it’s easy to get stuck on the debris.

Intimately familiar with the canoe trail, Finney directed us away from the obstructions. As we quietly went on our way, he told us how the Edisto flows 250 miles from its beginnings in Saluda and Edgefield counties to the Atlantic Ocean at Edisto Beach. The longest and largest river system completely contained by the borders of South Carolina, it rises in two main tributaries — the North Fork and the South Fork—from springs under the state’s Sandhills region just to the south of the Piedmont fall line.

Flowing mostly through rural areas, it provides paddlers with an escape from reality. I don’t think we saw one manmade structure until we reached the take-out.

In addition to the guided trips, the park offers kayak and canoe rentals at 10 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. Thursdays, Sundays and Mondays and 10 a.m., noon, 2 and 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Cost for the rental is $15 and includes shuttle service.

In an upcoming blog, I’ll tell you more about Aiken State Park and its other amenities. For additional information on the canoe trips and rentals, click here or call (803) 649-2857.