This past weekend I joined two fellow paddlers for an excursion out to Bomb Island on Lake Murray to watch the purple martins. The trip also included camping on Wessinger Island. Parts of the weekend were absolutely amazing. Some parts, not so much.
Chapin Burgess had set up the trip as a two-night event. Folks would arrive on Friday and Saturday would be spent practicing safety routines such as self-rescue and assisted rescue in the cove near our campsite. Saturday evening we would make the one mile paddle over to Bomb Island for the main event. The previous week for me had been tough and very expensive, with pet issues, dental issues, and major plumbing issues. I needed some kayaking time, but couldn’t go down on Friday. I planned to meet Chapin and the others Saturday and come back Sunday.
The drive down was crazy. There has been constant construction between Newberry and Columbia on I-26 for a long time and on Saturday morning it came to a standstill. The exit I needed to take had backed up onto the Interstate.
The landing was busy, as one would expect on a popular lake on a Saturday in mid-July. I made the two-mile paddle over to Wessinger Island without any problems, crossing mostly open water.
On the south side of the island I found the camp set up and Chapin and Jeri Lynn Whitmire waiting for me. The other paddlers had something come up and weren’t able to make it, so it would just be the three of us. I set up my tent, and instead of practicing safety techniques we just floated in the water for a bit.
We waited until early evening then set out for Bomb Island. The crossing was a bit bumpy from boat wakes and waves, but Lynn said that it was nowhere near as bad as last year. As we approached the island I could see that lots of boats had gathered near the cove on the north side of the island.
We decided to circumnavigate the island. The banks were eroded red clay. Small holes dotted the banks.
Bomb Island is officially known as Doolittle Island, in honor of the Doolittle Raiders stationed at what was then the Columbia Air Base. During World War II this island along with others in the lake was used as targets to practice bombing runs. As we made our way around the island Chapin pointed out several metal fragments which he said were parts of the bomb casings. These would have been dummy bombs filled with sand. They would have penetrated deeply and are now being revealed as the banks eroded. There are pockets of white sand visible that had once been encased in the bombs. While the WWII history of the island has been well-documented, I haven’t been able to corroborate Chapin’s information about these pieces of metal. It makes sense and is an interesting supposition.
Bomb Island is now home to one of the largest populations of purple martins in North America. During summer months thousands of birds flock to the island. They leave during the morning, then come back to roost in the evening. The island is now off-limits to protect the roosting birds.
The sun was dipping lower as we completed our circuit. More and more boats arrived and a full-blown party was getting underway. There was lots of drinking, stereos blaring country music, and people diving off of pontoons. I wasn’t sure what we had paddled into. We were the only human propelled craft in the area.
First there were a few birds, then more, then more. Soon the sky was filled with thousands upon thousands of purple martins. They would flit from tree to tree and swarm together. It was amazing to watch. If you could block out the blaring country music, they were just as amazing to hear. I’ll just post some of the photos and a bit of video, which in no way could do justice to the experience.
Here are the videos…
As it got darker a thin crescent moon shown over the island. The clouds made the sunset even more dramatic.
The experience would have been much better without all of the motor boats, or, at least without the obnoxious ones. In addition to the loud music and loud motors, there were some clearly intoxicated boaters. Chapin had jumped out of his kayak to float and enjoy the birds and one pontoon came dangerously close to him, paying more attention to the birds than to where it was going. As we got ready to paddle back I encountered some outright hostility, with one boater shouting to me that I must be out of my mind.
We started to make our way back. I had a bright light on the front of my kayak, but we were still a bit worried about visibility. One pontoon started following us and we weren’t sure of its intentions. There was an exchange between Lynn and the boat. She later said that they had offered to carry the kayaks and ferry us across. She declined, not wanting to get onto some stranger’s boat. The pontoon followed us all the way back to Wessinger Island. It turned out that they just wanted to make sure we made it back safely, but they didn’t really make that clear. Once we realized what they were doing we appreciated their concern and thanked them for the escort.
We sat up for a bit longer sipping bourbon and chatting. I realized I had missed an opportunity. I make a good purple martini using Empress Gin – purple martinis to go with the purple martins.
Chapin told us that he had been coming to this spot for 28 years. He had already spent several nights here, first with his daughter before we arrived. I realized that this island was one that I used when I gave lectures about the ghost towns in South Carolina. This was the site of Countsville, now long gone. There was no indication of remains or anything else related to the town on the island.
I had a fitful night of very little sleep. I don’t do so well on hard ground as I had done in the peak of my camping days. Around 6:30 I managed to crawl out of the tent…barely. I could see the towers near the dam and the Columbia skyline silhouetted in the distance. Lynn got up a bit later and set up her chair outside of her tent. She spotted the purple martins leaving Bomb Island in the distance.
We broke camp and started to get things packed away. Lynn was heading back to Georgia, but Chapin would be staying one more night. We weren’t done with rude boaters, though. As we rounded the island we came upon a fisherman in a boat that was NOT happy that we were there. We had given him plenty of clearance, but he let loose with a tirade of vulgarity. Once we got past he gunned his boat towards us and swerved, trying to swamp us with his wake. We made it back to the landing without further incident and got our boats loaded up. We said our goodbyes until the next paddling adventure.
Seeing the purple martins was an amazing experience, but kayaking Lake Murray is something I don’t really care to repeat. I have paddled almost every major lake in South Carolina and have never had boaters be so openly hostile. And I’ve been on some very crowded lakes. There have been inconsiderate boaters, but none that I felt were actually out to get me. Oh well. There are plenty of other places to paddle.