It seemed like this trip was never going to happen. We had planned it for earlier this year, but the threat of a tropical storm cancelled it. The storm passed by and there was gorgeous weather that day, so we had cancelled for naught. This Second Saturday’s trip on Wambaw Creek seemed like it might suffer a similar fate, with the remnants of Tropical Storm Nicole headed for the region. We watched the storm’s path closely. Even though we got lots of rain on Thursday and Friday, it looked like the weather would be fine for Saturday. We decided to go for it.
The Wambaw Creek Wilderness is located in the Francis Marion National Forest. The creek itself forms the boundary between Charleston and Berkeley Counties. The creek has been designated as part of the Berkeley Blueways Trail. While much of the creek is navigable for much of its path at the right water levels, The path we had in mind was about 4.3 miles from a national forest access road to the road 202 bridge. We planned to do about half of the trail seen in this map from the National Forest Service.
This area is steeped in history. In colonial days it was the site of rice plantations along the Santee River. The earliest news articles I could find spoke to this history. There was a 1758 article about a runaway slave from one of the Wambaw plantations.
Other articles covered transactions, employment, and other business relating to the rice economy.
Elias Ball, mentioned in that last article, was known as Elias “Wambaw” Ball and was a British sympathizer. There were several Revolutionary War battles in the area, many led by the national forest’s namesake, Francis Marion.
There is so much history to explore that one could spend days checking out cool spots. In 1980 the Wambaw Swamp was designed as a National Wilderness Area.
I got up very early to meet my fellow paddlers at our put-in. I arrived the find a lovely creek and swamp area completely infested with mosquitoes.
There would be only two other paddlers joining me, Matt Richardson and Chapin Burgess. They got held up by Charleston traffic, so I retreated to the sanctuary of my car until they arrived. Once they were there we ran a shuttle down to the take out and got the boats ready for departure.
The route we selected was rather short for one of our trips. We decided we would explore upstream first, then head down to the take out. As we launched we couldn’t have asked for better weather. It was warm and the reflections on the still water were amazing.
With the recent storm the water levels were pretty high. There were lots of side channels that we could explore.
We found one small channel and decided to explore. It went back fairly deep, and at times felt like it was a man-made channel, as if it had been part of the old rice plantation system. We explored it until a downed limb stopped us, then headed back.
The main part of Wambaw Creek was quite wide. There was really no discernible current. We passed several massive cypress trees along the banks. Most striking, though, were the clear reflections in the flat water.
We continued on the main creek for a couple of miles. Looking at our map I saw that the creek would eventually cross a road. There was also an interesting side channel called Mill Branch that would take us to the forest service road. Our plan was to take Mill Branch, then head back downstream.
We never made it to Mill Branch, though. Chapin spotted a barred owl so we stopped to admire it. This was the best photo I could get with my phone, which is all I had at hand.
We decided that the owl was a good turn around point, so we headed back downstream. We had paddled further upstream than we had planned, so it took us awhile to get back to our starting point. It was past time for lunch, but we hadn’t spotted any good places to pull out. We decided to just have lunch back at our original landing, then continue downstream. I was fine with that as it let me snag a chair from my car.
While we were eating lunch a couple came up and asked if we were the only ones there. Apparently they were supposed to meet up with a tour group. As we finished up our lunch a guide arrived. It would just be the three of them, and they were headed upstream. We continued on our way downstream. Those were the only people we saw on the river all day.
As the afternoon crept by the sun sank lower. In the deep cypress swamp it seemed that the shadows got even longer. We passed lots of side channels that we would have loved to explore, but we were concerned about making it to the takeout before it got dark. The angled sunlight just heightened the reflections and the beauty of the creek.
Eventually we reached the Road 202 bridge. There was a a rough ramp, but it was very muddy. We managed to get our boats out of the water and up to Matt’s truck.
With the addition of the trip upstream and a couple of side explorations, our trip came to nine miles. This was a very wild and remote paddling trip. There is no development along the banks and apart from the people we saw at the landing at lunch, we had the river to ourselves.
Here’s the time lapse video from the trip.
As I was working on the photos from the trip it occurred to me that I had been at this bridge once before. Back in 2014 we took our first trip down the Santee River with Lowcountry Unfiltered and took out at this very bridge. That means we had already paddled a good bit of the Wambaw. I found the photo of us approaching the bridge from the other direction.
This being a Lowcountry Unfiltered trip, our day was far from over. Once we had our boats loaded up it was time to find some food. We were close to McClellanville and Matt knew of a couple of restaurants in that area. We went to one, then another and found them both closed. That seemed odd for a Saturday night in a semi-resort area. Perhaps they had closed fearing the impending storm.
Further down Highway 17 we found the Seewee Restaurant open. The delicious smells when we opened the car doors let us know that we were in the right place.
The restaurant is in an old gas station. The main room looks like an old store.
Matt and Chapin got shrimp and I got scallops. We all got these “Seewee Style”, with Old Bay seasoning and other spices.
I got mine with mac and cheese, tomato pie, and butter beans. All of it was fantastic, but to me the butter beans were the star. They were seasoned perfectly.
Of course, we had to finish up with dessert. I had bourbon pecan pie with some of the best whipped cream I’ve ever had.
As we left we paused to listen to a singer butcher a George Jones song to an audience of two.
I said my goodbyes to Matt and Chapin, but my day was far from over. I had gotten up at 4:30 for the four-hour drive down here, and I had that same drive back. I’d been getting in sometime around 11:00 pm. I decided I’d try to find a place on I-26 and just head back in the morning. Little did I know what I was in for.
Since I didn’t have a reservation I started to look for fairly inexpensive places in the Summerville area. I found there was no such place. I stopped at one cheap looking place and quickly decided, “Nope!” There were so many transients it looked scary. Nearby was an EconoLodge and it looked safe(r).
The place was dirty and old, but I was tired. As I walked to my room I heard a dude screaming at two pit bulls. I thought he was at the next hotel over, but turns out he was at this one. I encountered him on the second floor, still screaming and swearing at his dogs.
The room I was given was in disarray. My first clue was that there was no shower curtain. When I looked for a phone to call the front office I found it tossed under one bed, disconnected. I walked down to the front office and told the clerk that the room had problems. She said she would bring up a shower curtain. In the meantime I discovered that none of the electrical outlets worked. Someone had snapped off plugs in the outlets. I wouldn’t be able to charge my phone or even turn on lamps. As I looked around I saw that there wasn’t even a TV in the room.
When the clerk arrived with the shower curtain I told her as politely as possible that this wouldn’t do at all. She said she had another room for me. At least this one had a shower curtain, TV, and working outlets, though I couldn’t find a remote for the TV anywhere. The lack of lamp shade, thread-bare furniture, and what appeared to be graffiti on the bathroom wall were a bit disconcerting.
For my trouble, the clerk gave me what she said was reserved for their “exclusive members.” It was a bottle of water, a granola bar, and brochures for local attractions. I was hoping for a martini at the very least. Oh well.
After a fitful night of sleep I made it back home safely, completely exhausted, but delighted with the paddling portion of the trip. The Wambaw was an incredible experience and well worth the trip down. Next time, I’ll make sure to find a more reasonable place to stay.