With water, water everywhere – and so much of it tidal and shallow and winding, especially in the back creeks – there is perhaps no better way to travel through the Pawleys Island area than by kayak.
Photograph courtesy of Surf The Earth
Motorboats are, of course, great vessels. They can get you places faster, farther and with more ease. They can load more fishing gear, more coolers, more people.
But in a kayak, you get closer to the intricate and natural world of the area’s diverse ecosystems – salt marsh, maritime forest, beach shoreline, fresh water black rivers. Without a churning motor on a kayak, you’re less likely to spook the blue heron on the mud bank or the osprey in its bald cypress nest. Closer to the water in a kayak, you’re more likely to see the spotted sea trout swimming through the creek or the fiddler crabs sidling out of their holes.
And kayaking is also good exercise – definitely not grueling, but the kind of workout that can be rhythmic and meditative.
Fortunately, for visitors and locals alike, three area outfitters, Black River Outdoors, Surf the Earth and Express Watersports, offer guided and self-guided kayaking tours for all experience levels and age groups, and in all of the area’s ecosystems. Typically, these tours last either two or four hours. Whichever you choose, each outfitter brings the kayaks, the paddles and the life jackets; and each provides basic kayaking instruction and a knowledgeable naturalist who teaches you about the ecosystem’s wildlife, ecology and history.
When you imagine yourself on a kayaking tour, if you picture gliding beside spartina grass, seeing a pelican take flight above your head and smelling the trademark salt and mud of the tidal Lowcountry, then you’ll want to try one of the salt marsh tours.
“If you want to see a lot of birds, do the salt marsh tour,” says Richard Laurent, the founder and owner of Black River Outdoors, which offers a tour of the Murrells Inlet salt marsh and Huntington Beach State Park. “But when the tide is low, there’s a lot of neat ecosystem in the salt marsh, too.”
Laurent believes that kids, especially, like checking out the tiny world of crabs, periwinkles, oysters, clams and minnows at low tide. Adults, he says, like seeing all of the shorebirds – pelicans, egrets, herons, storks and eagles. And both age groups get pretty excited when they witness sea turtles swimming in the summer or bald eagles nesting in the spring.
Yet outfitters will also connect the area’s natural history with its human history, giving vacationers the local scoop.
“On our guided tour, we go back down some of the back channels you wouldn’t necessarily go down on your own,” says Jennifer Poole, the owner of Express Watersports, which offers a guided two-hour salt marsh tour in Murrells Inlet. “Our naturalist can go through the birds, the flora and the fauna of this area, as well as the history of this area. Drunken Jack Island, for instance – that great story that is known by all the owners.”
“Our ecosystem is awesome,” says Scott Benston, the owner of Surf the Earth, which offers a two- hour guided tour of the Pawleys Island marsh. “All of the shorebirds are in the back of our creeks. And we’ve got a really nice, relaxed and easy paddle in the Pawleys creek.”
On this tour, paddlers are allowed to get out of their boats and do a little beachcombing for seashells and other maritime curiosities that have washed up on shore.
An interesting variation of the salt marsh tour, and one that all three outfitters offer, is the Full Moon Tour. Near sunset, and at a very full tide, paddlers go out into open water and watch the full moon come up over the ocean. Then, with the help of lights strapped to the kayaks and the brightness of the full moon, they return in darkness toward the mainland.
For all the attention that the salt marsh and ocean get, there is another equally spectacular ecosystem in the area – the black waters and mossy cypress swamps of the Waccamaw River. Perhaps best explored by kayak, these waterways are iconic, wild and make for relatively easy, but definitively splendid, paddles.
“The two-hour Cypress Swamp tour is probably the calmest tour,” says Laurent, whose Black River Outdoors offers a two-hour swamp kayaking tour and a four-hour kayaking and walking tour of Sandy Island, which is situated in the Waccamaw River. “And if you want to see snakes and alligators, do one of those two.”
Perhaps the most memorable moments of a cypress swamp tour occur when paddlers get a different perspective on the creatures they fear.
“We take a lot of pride in helping show people what snakes are truly like – the reality versus the mythology of snakes,” Laurent says. “We’ll catch a snake, calm it down, and let a guest hold a snake. They’re holding an animal, and they’re seeing these are not aggressive animals. That can have a really big impact on people. I get people who say, ‘Wow, you’ve changed my whole perspective on snakes.’”
And alligators, too. During the spring and summer, kayakers often round a creek corner and see alligators moving about calmly in the back sloughs.
“The other day,” says Laurent, “we had an alligator within easy sight, and everyone was calm and quiet. No one was frightened, not even the alligator.”
Indeed, these interactions can remind paddlers of why kayaks exist in the first place – as vessels that allow humans to move stealthily through the natural environment. But it’s not just traveling from place to place; in the remote cypress swamps, you may also feel that you’re traveling back in time.
Another unique “time-traveling” kayaking tour is the Hobcaw Barony tour, offered by Surf the Earth in partnership with the North Inlet Estuarine Center.
“To get a beautiful plantation trip, kayak ride, barrier island scavenger hunt all in one package is pretty awesome,” says Benston.
During this four-hour tour that covers parts of Hobcaw Barony, the 16,000-acre wildlife refuge just north of Georgetown, paddlers discover a pristine and fertile ecosystem.
They also learn the history of Hobcaw Barony, from when the Wall Street mogul Bernard Baruch purchased it as hunting property and his daughter, Belle Baruch, willed it to the state of South Carolina, all the way back to its primitive history.
Indeed, Surf the Earth also offers a two-hour variation of the tour, called the Midden Tour, that focuses primarily on this history. These middens, or old seashell islands created by Native Americans, date back more than 4,500 years.
“Every time you go back to one of those islands is different,” says Benston. “What you see, what’s been left by the tides – that’s a unique experience.”
BIRDING AND FISHING
For those most interested in fish and fowl, there are kayaking tours for those species, as well.
Though all of the area kayaking tours include bird watching, Black River Outdoors’ Huntington Beach Birding Tour is specifically catered to the bird-watching enthusiast.
“It’s exceptional from a birding standpoint. The focus is completely on birds,” says Laurent. “How many bird species can we find for you? And it’s not unusual to find between 50 and 100 species in one tour.”
The six-hour tour, which includes three hours of paddling and three hours of walking, covers almost every area ecosystem. This trip gives paddlers the opportunity to see a wide variety of birds in Huntington Beach State Park, which many consider one of the best birding locations on the East Coast.
“It’s great for the serious birder,” says Laurent. “Usually we knock something off someone’s life list. But you don’t have to be a serious birder, either.”
Nor do you have to be a serious fisherman for Black River Outdoors’ Kayak Fishing tour.
“Our guides can take you out if you’ve never fished in your life,” explains Laurent, “or they can take you out if you’re an avid fisherman who wants to come out and really maximize your catch. We tend to focus on waters that aren’t deep enough for the big powerboats, but kayaks can go back there, and that’s where an awful lot of the feeding goes on.”
Depending on the time of year, anglers may catch any number of species, as the salt creeks are teeming with fish. Flounder, drum and trout are typically the most sought after – and kayaking can provide a distinct advantage.
“So a lot of times when the powerboats aren’t catching anything,” says Laurent, “the kayaks are doing pretty well.”
If all this sounds appealing but you are more the do-it-yourselfer, you can also rent kayaks for self- guided tours from Surf the Earth and Express Watersports.
With this option, it’s important to remember the two things that every outfitter will tell you to bring, regardless of where or how you choose to go kayaking. “Sunscreen and water. Sunscreen and water,” says Poole at Express Watersports.
And to be mindful of the tides and elements. In some places, a low tide can leave you stranded until the water comes back in, and you definitely want to avoid paddling against the tides. Also, the weather can turn quickly, especially on warm Lowcountry afternoons, so it is typically best to start your adventure in the morning during the summer months.
Whichever kayaking adventure you choose, remember to keep your eyes open! As you’ll see, it’s wild out there.
Hastings Hensel lives in Murrells Inlet and teaches in the English Department at Coastal Carolina University. In addition to working as a freelance writer, he is the author of the poetry collection Winter Inlet, winner of the 2014-2015 Unicorn Press First Book Prize.
WACCAMAW RIVER TOUR
By Carolyn Haar
Photograph by Carolyn Haar
I have enjoyed every one of the salt marsh kayaking tours I have taken over the years and highly recommend them. Every local out- fitter offers one or more, and they are a wonderful way to catch close-up views of great blue herons, pelicans, dolphins and a host of other salt marsh wildlife.
For a different perspective, along with Gary and Pat Gadek, I ventured out on a gorgeous day to paddle along the Waccamaw River and surrounding creeks on a tour with Black River Outdoors. This densely wooded, swampy area, or “black water,” is a completely different ecosystem than the salt marsh. It is home to song- birds, turtles, snakes and alligators, as well as deer and small mammals.
Our guide, Mandy Johnson, was a fountain of information. Several times she pointed out different bird calls. “Hear that?” she said, “That’s a belted kingfisher. They’re short, squatty birds with big, thick beaks. They are actually burrowers. When you see perfectly round holes in the river bank, that’s where the kingfishers nest.”
We passed several wood duck nesting sites and were told that when wood ducks are just a day or so old and still unable to fly, they jump out of the nest – sometimes 40 feet high – and hit the ground or water without injury. “They weigh nothing” said Johnson. “Their little bones are hollow and their little downy feathers help protect them.”
Our trip was in the fall, and the reflection of the trees in the water was breathtaking. “In the spring” said Johnson, “this area is just alive with pink flowers and white flowers and red flowers and yellow flowers.”
We saw several turtles (yellow-bellied sliders) basking on logs, lots of birds and squirrels, but there were no alligators. In the cooler months, alligator sightings are less likely.
Johnson joked that when she does encounter an alligator on a tour, she tells the group to stop paddling. The reason behind the stealth behavior is not because paddling will aggravate the alligator, however. It is to keep the alligator from hiding in the water be- fore everyone in the group has a chance to see it.
According to Johnson, alligators eat fish, turtles and small mammals – not people. “I will jump into this water in the middle of the summer with a 12-foot alligator over there. He’s not coming after me,” she said. When I questioned her about the recent attack of a small child at Disney World, she explained that alligators are only dangerous when people feed them, which makes them begin to associate people with food.
On the paddle back, Johnson discussed cypress trees and pointed out some cypress “knees” that are part of the trees’ root systems. When these trees drop their dark-orange leaves in the fall, the color from them stains the water, which is a key reason the water in the Waccamaw River is dark.
As we neared the end of the trip, we passed an area that is a great blue heron rookery in the spring. I have seen photos of bird rookeries, with nest after nest of precious, fluffy baby birds. I can imagine the activity that might surround one when it is full of birds and immediately decide a spring kayaking excursion might be in order. Who can resist flowers and baby birds?