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Waccamaw Riverkeeper Paddle Patrol

Quiet Swamps and Trashy Beaches

Part of my job as your Waccamaw Riverkeeper is patrolling the Waccamaw River watershed. Even when I do not have a particular issue to investigate, I always have my eyes open for any potential threats to the water quality of the river. You may think that this means I spend most of my days on the river paddling or cruising around on a boat. Unfortunately, a lot of my time is spent indoors doing research, analyzing data, coordinating programs, and even doing expense reports. Being a Riverkeeper is not just kayaking and playing in the river – though sometimes I wish it was!  

In an effort to spend more time on the river, I am beginning the Waccamaw Riverkeeper Paddle Patrol. Each month I will be going out on the river to investigate and I want to invite you to come along with me. Anyone with a kayak is welcome to join. The goal of these paddles is to get to know the river and your Riverkeeper. My first official Paddle Patrol was a solo adventure on July 16th at Red Bluff Landing – and it was truly an adventure!

I launched from the landing just after 8:00 am and paddled upstream. I hadn’t been on the water for a while but immediately fell into the steady rhythm of paddling. The air was cool but I could tell it was going to be a very hot day. I had just started to relax and enjoy the river as I rounded the first bend. But then my blood began to boil and I was furious.  

Trash littered the beaches of the river. The sandy beaches are a popular hangout during the summer and it looked like they had been busy. There was trash all over the place! Plastic bottles, beer cans, food wrappers, and clothing was strewn across the bank waiting for the next high water to drag it into river. Rather than stop and have to paddle with a trash-filled kayak, I promised I would do some cleaning on my way back. I had brought along my picker and some trash bags for this reason and I had no doubt the trash would still be there when I returned.

I paddled around another bend and left the litter behind me. I was still fuming, but I was determined to enjoy my paddle. As I entered the Waccamaw River Heritage Preserve, peace returned. The Heritage Preserve protects over 5,000 acres surrounding a nearly 30 mile stretch of the Waccamaw River from the state line to just above Red Bluff Landing. I paddled into the cypress swamp just off the main stem and sat there in silence for a few moments. The cypress trees reflected off the dark blackwater in the morning haze. Our cypress trees have adapted to exist in both wet and dry conditions through a unique root systems and buttressed bases. The knees, once thought to provide oxygen to the trees through the roots, are a mystery of nature. As a lifelong nature nerd, I am always impressed by these incredible trees.

I left the swamp and paddled up the river for over an hour. Despite the low water, the current was strong. Sticking to the sides for shade, I gathered trash and looked for wildlife on the way. An owl fussed me and flew overhead deeper into the swamp. A great egret flew upstream as I followed it, always staying just ahead of me. Fish jumped and startled me in the strange quiet. There was very little evidence of humans while I paddled. I was all alone on the river. I was amazed that so close to the rush and bustle of the Grand Strand, I could find a place so serene and pristine. The preserve is one of Horry County’s hidden gems.

After turning around, I propped my legs up on the bow of my boat and floated downstream. The current carried me downriver much faster than I had traveled up and I was soon out of the Heritage Preserve and back to the land of humans. I began to see more and more trash.  It was time to call in reinforcements. While I waited for them to arrive, I got out of my kayak and picked up trash at three small camps along the way. Despite the litter, I was greeted by some wildlife while doing my cleanup. I spotted a southern leopard frog hid camouflaged on a tree. And under a burn pile, I found an ash-covered toad who seemed very annoyed that I had taken his new shelter. By the time I returned to my boat, it was completely full of trash.

I met my helpers at the main beach near the landing. We spent over an hour collecting trash. Cans, bottles, food wrapper, forgotten toys, and clothing were everywhere. It even appeared that someone had taken the time to bag up trash and then simply left it by the river. I was disgusted and infuriated by the complete disrespect for nature.

We collected five large garbage bags of litter. While my helpers transferred the trash to the landing, I paddled the rest of the way back. At the landing, we picked up yet another bag of trash. We often identify the majority of trash in our rivers as accidental trash carried by stormwater. This was not the case at Red Bluff Landing. This trash had been intentionally left behind by people enjoying the river. I was sad to see it. Cigarette butts, fishing line, bait containers, and more food containers littered the small beach near the landing.

Sweaty, tired, and dirty, I loaded up my kayak and all the trash and headed for home. What had been mostly a relaxing paddle in the preserve had turned into a much needed cleanup. While rewarding, the cleanup did put a damper on my experience. The contrast between the quiet pristine preserve and the trash covered beaches showed how much we can impact our own environment. We all need to be good stewards so we can protect these beautiful areas. Sometimes that means being the person who cleans up after others.

Even when I get to spend time on the river, I am working. Being a Riverkeeper is not just a full-time job for me, it is a lifestyle. I want to invite everyone to come join me as I work on the river. Join me on an upcoming Paddle Patrol on August 20th at Reaves Ferry Landing! If you cannot join me on the river, then continue to be a good clean water steward and help us keep the river clean and healthy for everyone to enjoy! We need all the help we can get and it will take everyone’s commitment to protect our swimmable, fishable, drinkable water.

Paddling upstream of Red Bluff Landing on the Waccamaw River.
Trash litters the bank of the Waccamaw near Red Bluff Landing.
Cypress trees reflect on the blackwater swamps of the river.
The quiet beauty of the Waccamaw River Heritage Preserve.
The Waccamaw Riverkeeper relaxes as she floats downstream.
The Waccamaw River is a blackwater river with dark tannins.
Souther leopard frog hides among the roots of a tree.
An ash-covered toad pouts after losing his manmade litter shelter.
Kayak storage full of trash from near Red Bluff Landing.
Trash collected from near the Red Bluff Landing.
Your Waccamaw Riverkeeper, Cara Schildtknecht
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Winyah Rivers Alliance

P.O. Box 554 | 301 Allied Drive
Conway, SC 29528
843 .349 .4007
winyahrivers@winyahrivers.org

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