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South Carolina’s Edisto River

Not much company along this stretch of Deep South blackwater -- and that's just fine.

Little-Known Fact: Edisto River’s “black water” comes from tannin-rich spring water.

Mention kayaks, canoes, and South Carolina and a skinny minute later most people are thinking about the Chattooga River, site of dueling banjos and raucous whitewater. To some of us, that’s just fine. Let the rest of ’em keep focusing on the wild Chattooga. That’ll protect the big secret: that the Edisto River is too different, too subtle, too serene, too beautiful.

Like many others who have paddled the Edisto, I am truly in a quandary. Simply put, I can’t decide which season is best here on South Carolina’s longest blackwater river. Every month is a gracious host, each trying to give so much to those who cruise its tannin-rich waters.

In October, early, early in the morning with the mist rising from the still, warm water, I have seen migrating Canada geese explode off the water, the atomized spray caught and held for an instant in angled sunlight, the cacophonous honking, then the silence and tranquillity returning to the Edisto.

Or is it June that strikes a stronger image? Then, the Edisto is a green-on-green world of willow, bald cypress, water tupelo, and alligator weed, punctuated by orange trumpet vine snaking over a downed tree, the whistle of the wood duck, and the crescendo call of the pileated woodpecker. The river winds back and forth, steadily changing direction — once narrow and restrictive, then broad and slow. Bright-white sandbars. A red canoe. A yellow kayak. Children swoop out over the channel on Tarzan swings tied to overhanging oaks; great peals of laughter as they drop.

Each month earns an apt specificity in description. The Edisto’s course runs rich in color, past changing topography and wildlife, too infrequently paddled by the hordes that usually swarm to a river of this dimension. Noted landscape architect Robert Marvin, who knows every Edisto bend and oxbow, answers the question of which month is best with the staccato, “January, February, March, April . . .”

In June 1988, in celebration of National Rivers Month, the state of South Carolina opened the 58.6-mile Edisto River Canoe and Kayak Trail. With my son Bainon as a trusty bowman, we ease our canoe into the dark waters at Whetstone Crossroad, the trail’s beginning. The early quiet of an April morning gives way to a songbird and the rhythmic swishing of paddles in unison. The river flows 40 yards wide with green willows pushing into the main channel.

Occasional river cottages dot the west bank, but farther downstream, we sweep past long, wild, undeveloped sections. Shad fishermen have tacked their names and license numbers to cypress trees, staking out their spots to net the shad that ascend to spawning tributaries in late winter. We sense a historical significance to this river as we pass the decaying, moss-covered pylons of old bridges that once connected high bluffs, but now connect sections of raw, overgrown forest.

In late afternoon, after passing below I-95 and its 70-mph din, we stop above Colleton State Park to camp on a sand beach, hemmed in by cypress knees jutting from the forest floor. At dusk we fish for redbreast and at night for catfish. Our second day will carry us 20-odd miles to Givhans Ferry State Park. The river runs strong past an island at Sandy Landing. We pass beneath another bridge at Highway 29 and enter a swamp forest. By choice we turn east and enter Indian Field Swamp in a surprisingly deep, sun-dappled channel that meanders through water tupelo beneath a canopy of enormous cypress, pine, and oak.

Indian Field is but one of many swamps feeding the Edisto. Just north of Givhans Ferry, Four Hole Swamp spreads to the east and Maple Caine Swamp to the west. Downstream, you can penetrate Drayton, Tupelo, and Snuggedy Swamps. In each of these slow-moving tributaries, tannin leaching from the bark of a million trees turns the once-clear rainwater into the “tea” that gives the Edisto its blackwater status.

Our two-day paddle stands in stark contrast to any two days we could spend bouncing down the Chattooga. Here, we rest in the tranquillity, the serene, subtle mix of deep-South flora and blackwater river. Here, we measure our fun by marveling at the abundant wildlife and the scarcity of other paddlers. We can take stock of life at a slower pace, and try to keep the Edisto River secret just a little longer.

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