Paddling the Upper Waccamaw
Guest article by Carl Hartsfield
On January 14 2017, four paddlers set out to paddle the first two sections of the Waccamaw River using the Benner and McCloud Paddle guide with Paul Ferguson's updated guide in hand as well.
The Waccamaw River was our playground to explore as no one had any knowledge as to whether the river was actually open after Hurricane Matthew had hit the area just three months prior. We knew that there would be blow-downs, but not how many.
We put in at the dam on Lake Waccamaw with the water level running at 12 feet and 1200 cfps. There were four solo canoes packed with camp gear. We packed a little heavier than normal down-river runs not knowing what to expect. We had about 20 pounds of firewood in each boat. Thought that we would need it to supplement what we would find in the swamp. No sense in roughing it too much.
The water was high at the dam; the water was running over it such that the lake and river were one, and paddling looked very promising. After a half mile, things changed dramatically; our first blow-down. We were able to scoot around and through the end of this first tree. Not so fortunate on the next couple. After three sets of blow-downs, I asked the guys if they wanted to go back to the dam. The consensus was no, as no one wanted to go back through those three downed groups of trees. We plowed on.
We had topos and topo apps on a phone so we knew where we were and that we needed to make it to the first logging road and nearby power lines to have dry ground to spend the first night. We covered 2.8 miles in three hours and 15 minutes on the first day. The goal had been five miles which would have put us at the second logging road that intersects the river. We were happy to be on dry ground. The logging road was covered with blow-downs as was much of the Green Swamp and River Swamp.
We heated up pre-made chili that night and fought the mosquitos a bit. They were bad enough that everyone decided to put up their tents. On most of these winter paddle trips, we sleep out in the open if all things are right. No rain and no slithering critters if it has been cold enough. Usually no bugs either.
Knowing that we were behind schedule, we got an early start the next day. It didn't matter because 200 yards down the river was an enormous blow down with several trees. Saws were the tool of the day along with paddles. Again we were averaging one mile an hour. When we got to the second logging road that morning, we took a break and discovered that locals had driven in and partied there the night before. Fate is an interesting paddle buddy sometimes.
Soon we were out of the roughest part of the swamp and into the fish ponds near Crusoe Island. We met a fisherman and talked a while and the river became easier past this point. There had been some clearing in this area but the river was not completely open yet.
We took a lunch break in a sketchy area that wasn't nice enough to camp on around the 8 mile mark and then pushed on. Soon we found high ground on river left and choose this spot for the night even though there was a road to it.
It was a great night of camping in the woods and we alarmed the beavers here in their back yard. The next morning after breakfast, we started breaking down camp and one of the fellows found a water moccasin balled up near our tents. He was very sluggish and we let him be. We pushed off at noon and only had two miles to paddle to make it to Old Dock which would become our new shortened destination.
The swamp and river are beautiful through this last two miles of the paddle guides section one. All is open here and we finally were through with hard work and basically drifted down to Old Dock.
Not knowing exactly where we would take out, we stopped at the first place we saw. It was a hunting club and there were several men working on their building. They were welcoming and friendly and let us take our boats out there. They were all curious as to the navigability of the river as well as how many downed trees there were. These men were the folks who kept the river open when possible. We had lost count of downed trees on day one. But no less than 4 dozen were negotiated by dragging over, ducking under, cutting through, and dragging around.
All in all, we were happy with our decision to paddle the Waccamaw River and even more so that we made it through. We didn't bring any firewood home but carried many smiles and memories of a challenging river paddle trip.