This past week I had two opportunities to paddle the Bates Old River oxbow in Congaree National Park. For one trip we headed upstream into the deep cypress swamp, and for the second trip we headed downstream into the oxbow itself. Both trips were fantastic, each with their own characteristics. Each made me realize that this is going to become one of my favorite paddling destinations.
Trip 1 – March 11, 2023 with Lowcountry Unfiltered
I had missed the last several Second Saturdays with Lowcountry Unfiltered. It was time to get back on the water with them. I missed my paddling friends. This time we decided to head up to Bates Old River, but it would be a very small group. Matt Richardson, Tim Brown, and I were the only ones on this trip.
When I arrived I found conditions very different from when Billy Easterbrooks and I paddled here back in December. That time the access road was flooded and we actually launched from the road itself. This time the access road was exposed, but there were deep puddles and ruts. This road is tricky even in the best of times, but it seemed worse on this day. I think I almost prefer a flooded launch. Somehow I managed to back my trailer down to the water to unload my boat. Matt unloaded his into one of the larger puddles. He did eventually get it into the main body of water.
Tim and Matt wanted to paddle upstream into the swamp to see some of the sights Billy and I had discovered. We set off along what seemed to be the more obvious route, but soon found our way blocked. I paddled back to the bridge and discovered that the main route turned to the right, running parallel to the bridge for a bit. I called back for Tim and Matt and they soon rejoined me.
The channel was deep and clear, but it was obvious that the water levels were much lower than the December trip. Last time this area reminded me of Sparkleberry. We could paddle just about anywhere. This time we stuck to the main channel.
Even with the lower water the scenery was spectacular. The early spring green was dusting the cypress trees. Birds flitted everywhere and the sounds had that enclosed cathedral characteristic that I love about Sparkleberry. Tim made the comment that photos just couldn’t do this place justice. It was beautiful paddling back into the swamps.
We continued on for several miles, picking our way through cypress knees and trunks. On the right high banks marked the hunt club’s property and served as a guide. Sadly, there was one loss on our trip. I reached behind my seat for something and my new Apple Watch popped loose. I don’t know when/where it fell, but it’s now at the bottom of Bates Old River. Oh well.
The trees through this area are amazing. The temptation is to stop and photograph every unusual stump or tree, but if you did that you’d take all day and never get out of the swamp. Matt found a hollow cypress and decided to wear it as a hat.
We were looking for a good spot to pull out and have lunch. Matt had eyed several possibilities on the north bank, but I wanted to find the landing where Billy and I had stopped last time. But, I was having trouble. The lower water was throwing off all of my landmarks. Even more confusing, the landing wasn’t really a landing. It was either a road or a dam across the swamp. There was only a narrow opening with swift flowing water. I was able to find it by spotting the “BBQ” no trespassing sign.
Last time we were able to paddle right up to this sign. Now the tree it was on was high and dry. The peninsula formed by the road, dam, or whatever it was made a perfect place for a lunch stop. Matt pulled out The Most Photographed Stove in South Carolina™ and the three of us had our traditional bratwurst and sauerkraut.
After a suitable repast we continued on through the narrow channel upstream. We reached the open expanse of Big Lake and once again admired the gorgeous scenery.
We chose this as our turn-around point. With the water levels low I didn’t think I’d get much further upstream. We headed back through the swamps.
I was trying to follow my GPS track since this was only the second time I’d been here. I had the higher bank of the hunt club to my left and was fairly close to the track, so I figured I was OK. Sadly, that was not the case. There was a small rise between us and the actual creek. We found ourselves running out of water quickly. We weren’t lost, we just didn’t know how to get where we needed to be.
Finally, a space opened up and Tim and I were able to portage over to the main creek. Matt found another opening where he could paddle through.
Soon we found ourselves back at 601.
We paddled under the bridge then out onto the main oxbow lake for a bit, following a path similar to the one Billy and I had taken. I pointed out the old bridge across the river, we paddled on out further a bit. I rookery of ibises graced the left bank.
We didn’t go too far, though. All of us had a bit of a drive and it was getting late in the afternoon. We turned around at the first bend then returned to the landing.
The load up and drive out was even more challenging. My trailer drug bottom a couple of times. Even with the tricky access road and losing my Apple Watch, it was a great day out on the river. We covered about 6.5 miles.
Of course, I did a time-lapse.
This wasn’t the last time this week that I’d visit Bates Old River. I had another spur-of-the-moment opportunity come up just a few days later. That’s on the next page…