By: Tom Bamonte
For years I've been trying to hornswoggle my family into taking a family vacation on Tybee Island, Georgia. They knew that my praises for the glory that is Tybee were a smokescreen for my real intention, namely, abandoning them for days of kayaking out of Sea Kayak Georgia. They weren't having it.
Still, we wanted to visit the South and go to a place with distinctive architecture and cuisine. So, this year we found ourselves in Charleston, South Carolina. It is truly a lovely city, located on a peninsula thrust into an open bay between the Ashley and Cooper rivers. We walked for miles through winding streets and grazed on the local cuisine. Jestine's Kitchen was our consensus favorite restaurant, but there were plenty of worthy contenders for that title.
All the while I was in Charleston and during a side trip to Savannah, Georgia, another beautiful city, I kept my eye on the water and browsed the chart for the area. I realized that the Low County offered some great paddling opportunities--winding creeks, barrier islands, sand bars and breakwaters, and lots of bays to explore.
I arranged for a day of kayaking through Sea Kayak Carolina, a new (founded in 2008) outfitter located on James Island, just a few miles from downtown Charleston. Several Chicago area paddlers had been involved in a training session at SKC a few months ago. They had spoken highly of the place and the people.
I was equally impressed with SKC. Scott Szczepaniak and William Seabrook helped me plan a day trip by phone and email. They were encouraging but appropriately cautious when planning a trip for a perfect stranger like myself.
SKC is located in a nondescript warehouse-type building.
Sea Kayak Carolina World Headquarters
However, the shop inside was nicely arranged and filled with a good range of boats and gear.
Sea Kayak Carolina Store Showroom Area
When I arrived Scott got me outfitted in a boat and gear quickly. He and I were joined by Don, a kayaker from western North Carolina, for a trip on the open ocean. Another group was embarking on a bay paddle. On our trip to the launch site on Folly Island Scott reminisced about his Level 5 class with Jim Tibensky and Paul Redzimski, two Chicago-area uber-paddlers. It was evident that he had enjoyed what sounded like a pretty challenging experience.
The waves that day were disappointingly small. Yet, it was sunny and crisp. Water temperature was 48 degrees and air temperature was about 10 degrees higher. The play of light on the beach and the water made it all worthwhile to be out on this vast expanse of ocean.
Off Folly Island
We spent much time at the north tip of Folly Island, where a sand bar has formed at the mouth of Lighthouse Creek. Here we were able to catch some breaking waves and work on our surfing skills. The great thing about the ocean is that even on calm days you can usually find a spot were the ocean shrugs off a few breaking waves against a sand bar or around the edge of protruding rock.
I was paddling a P&H Capella. I had hoped to try out a P&H Cetus but, alas, my long legs and big feet conspired to make that impractical. The Capella was a nice boat, but I missed the solid edge of my Explorer. Consequently, I got to test--and retest--the theory that rolling in cold salt water is easier on the sinuses than rolling in cold fresh water. I'm pleased to report that salt water is quite restorative.
Even in these relatively calm conditions I was again impressed at how changeable conditions are in the ocean. It seemed that just as a steady set of waves would get established in an area, they would migrate elsewhere. There seemed to be an almost musical-like pattern of waves rearing up at various points in the sand bar area. As a Great Lakes paddler accustomed to a relentless four second wave period it took awhile to develop the patience necessary to wait in one spot for the next big set of waves to roll in. Chasing bigger waves around a sandbar is the kind of unproductive paddling that marks one as a neophyte.
We then paddled to the Morris Island Light. Built in 1876 on the site of a colonial lighthouse on Morris Island, the Light was located roughly a quarter mile inland. In the intervening years the surrounding land washed away, leaving the lighthouse surrounded by shallow water. Apparently, the construction of jetties at the entrance to Charleston harbor interfered with the southward flow of sand along the cost and erosion got the upper hand.
As a jaded resident of the inner city my first thought on seeing the lighthouse was was what a great canvas it presented for graffiti artists. Yet, there was not a line of graffiti on the lighthouse. Indeed, I didn't see graffiti at all in Charleston. There clearly is a different public attitude towards public structures in the Charleston area.
Scott relayed some of the history of Morris Island when we landed for a break. The island is one of the only undeveloped barrier islands in South Carolina and is now protected from private development. The island was the site of the bloody Civil War battle involving the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first Union fighting units comprised of African-American soldiers. This battle is dramatized in the film Glory.
SKC guests and guides regularly find battle relics while beach combing on the island, including human skeletal remains. Other finds have included arrowheads and fossilized shark teeth. Clearly, there is a lot of history on and under this lovely windswept island within just a few miles of downtown Charleston.
On our way back we paddled through the sand bar once again. In just the roughly 90 minutes since our first passage the conditions had changed signficantly. The first break seemed much farther out and the location of the inner breaks seemed to have changed. This was yet another reminder of the dynamic nature of the ocean environment. Don steered close to land and got a bit stuck in the shallow water with an adverse wind and current, illustrating how important it is to be able to read the water (and land).
I could have stayed on the water all day, but did not want to impose on my companions' hospitality, for whom this paddle was probably pretty boring. I staved off the inevitable for a few minutes by practicing reentry and rolls and self-rescues, just to reenforce the important lesson that you don't die instantly when you find yourself in cold water--properly outfitted, of course.
I landed with a cockpit full of water and a smile on my face. During the unpacking and rinsing back at the shop I got to talk to some of the SKC staff. I was impressed by both their friendliness and their commitment to building a Charleston area kayaking community. In just two years they've put together a Meet-Up paddling group that is approaching 600 members.
I hitched a ride with a SKC staff member back to Charleston, where I met my family for a Low Country dinner. They noticed that both my appetite and spirits were much elevated after a day of ocean paddling. I couldn't argue with that.
Happy as a Clam Sand Dollar