At some point after joining the plastic armada, every Palmetto Paddler casts an eye toward the map and dreams of an excursion that dates back to the time when the Cherokee Indians ruled this part of the country. The state of South Carolina is traversed by numerous rivers and creeks, and it doesn’t take much imagination to string two or three systems together so, in theory, a paddler could put in somewhere in the Upstate and eventually make his way to the coast.
In August, Matthew Bradfield and Lonny Clark of Easley set out to see if they could make just such a trip. Outfitted with a pair of cockpit-style kayaks with a finite amount of storage capacity, they planned and packed for a trip that would take them from the Dolly Cooper Landing on the Saluda River in Anderson County to Charleston Harbor. Although it didn’t work out exactly as planned, it was an experience neither will soon forget.
“We spent the better part of a year and probably $2,000 each planning and gearing up for the trip,” Bradfield said. “We both have wives and jobs and families, so it wasn’t like we just took off one day. We each budgeted two weeks off from work and figured out the best ways to get from the Upstate to the coast would be to run the Saluda River to Lake Murray, then the Congaree to Lake Marion, and finish up heading down the Cooper River to Charleston.”
By water, they estimated the trip to be approximately 258 miles, which left no time for stopping and enjoying the wildlife along the way.
“We didn’t pack any fishing gear,, because we figured to get to Charleston, we were going to have to average 25 to 30 miles per day,” he said. “That’s 12 hours a day at an average of 2 miles per hour.”
By necessity, trip gear included all accommodations, food, water and other essentials. Primitive camping gear headed the list, including dehydrated food, water storage and purification systems, and hammock-style camping gear that would allow the pair to utilize trees over flat, dry ground for spending the night.
“We discovered the ENO Hammock System; it’s lightweight, packs in four small bags about the size of a grapefruit and lets you add piecemeal: a bug fly, rain fly, even a fleece liner — which we didn’t need in August,” he said. “Just string it between some trees, and you were high and dry off the ground.”
Other essential gear focused on navigation over land, water and sometimes both. Because the upper stretch of the Saluda River is backed up by numerous mill ponds, they had to pull their boats around dams and shoals, which meant dry-land portages as long as a mile or more, sometimes requiring cutting their way through undergrowth.
“We had seven dams to port before we got to Lake Greenwood,” Bradfield said. “The Lee Steam Plant and Piedmont dams were the worst — no place to get around and we had to load our boats on trollies and pull the boats and gear (170 pounds each) to the next section.”
Water filtration and GPS navigation were also high on the list. They loaded up Camelbak water bags but figured they’d need 40 gallons of water, so most of it would have to be filtered from the river.
“We each took a Katadyn water-filter system, but in some places the water was real silty, and the ceramic filters would have to be cleaned several times just to get enough water,” said Bradfield. “We also used purification tablets on the filtered water just to be safe. It had a little chlorine taste but wasn’t bad.”
Bradfield said two daily meals and snacks of Wise dehydrated food and Cliff bars supplied their nutritional needs.
“The dehydrated foods were great,” he said. “You heat the water on a little camp stove, pour it in the package, re-constitute it and eat. That saved a lot of space on pots and utensils.”
Once through Lake Greenwood, they opted to port all of Lake Murray. The flat-water paddle didn’t keep with the river safari they had in mind, and porting the Murray dam on foot meant several miles over land. Back on the other side in the Congaree, they soon discovered the wonders of Sparkleberry Swamp.
“We went two days and nights without seeing another person,” Bradfield said. “We had a huge pig come busting into our camp one night, and (we) only got lost once trying to take a short cut. Fortunately, we got back in the river, and using the GPS units, made our way out and down to Santee State Park.
Unfortunately, Mother Nature called an end to the trip at that point.
“We sat for three days watching thunderstorm cells on our phones,” said Bradfield. “We paddled in on Friday evening, and by Monday, there was no end in sight; we cut it short.”
Bradfield and Clark are already planning Phase 2: putting in at Santee State Park and paddling out under the Ravenel Bridge in Charleston. That phase will include locking out at Pinopolis dam, riding the outgoing tide, and spanning over 26 miles of federal land where no trespass is permitted.
That will have to be another tale for another time.