On a beautiful mid-May afternoon in the Upstate, traversing a forested gorge underneath a deep blue sky is invigorating.
Trees, showcasing their spring-green vibrance, fill the landscape, and as the afternoon progresses, an increase in humidity becomes evident.
By early evening, rumbles of thunder can be heard in the distance as an approaching cold front drapes itself over the area. A slow steady rain increasingly becomes a deluge on the steep hillsides of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area in Cleveland, South Carolina. At least two inches of the four inches of rain will not be absorbed into the ground and instead reaches the nearest creek or stream, eventually flowing to the nearest river. About 250 miles to the east lies the Atlantic Ocean — the final destination for every drop of water coursing through South Carolina’s rivers. Evaporation, drawing water for drinking supplies, and diversions of river water for agricultural crops and power production all play a role in the amount of water reaching the Atlantic.
The abundance and use of rivers across the Palmetto state supported the cultural tranformation of South Carolina as it transitioned from a historically agricultural-based economy to an industrial powerhouse. With one of the largest watersheds in the Southeast, South Carolina rivers have provided ample opportunities for man to accelerate South Carolina forward. In major cities such as Greenville and Columbia, the emergence and financial strength of early 20th century textile mills powered numerous towns and communities along Upstate and Piedmont rivers. These mills provided a stable lifestyle, and the power to spin turbines generating power for booming mill structures came from water sources. Generations of South Carolina families worked in the mills until foreign competition using lower wage workers ended the textile industry’s prosperity.
The ruins of abandoned mills still exist in several towns in South Carolina. Searching along a tall stone wall in the town of Pacolet, I found a pile of beautiful, multicolored bricks underneath vines — the only remnants of glorious mill structures that once existed along the Pacolet River.
Water from the Mountain Bridge Wilderness deluge will travel a fascinating journey along the changing terrain of South Carolina on its way to the ocean. The bone-chilling, crystal clear water from this Upstate storm is enriched with oxygen as the water tumbles over boulders, waterfalls, and steep terrain. This oxygenated water provides rainbow and brown trout the chance to flourish. Needing water temperatures ranging from 44 to 67 degrees F to survive, trout can be found in such Upstate rivers as the Chattooga and Chauga. Upstate trout hatcheries support the regeneration of trout populations with thousands of hatchlings released along these beautiful rivers.
Man also experiences recreational benefits from Upstate rivers. Numerous outfitters along the Chattooga provide guided rafting and kayaking trips, complete with the necessary safety equipment, to enjoy the exhilarating whitewater experience. The late author and poet James Dickey, a USC professor in the 1960s through the ’90s, wrote the now famous novel Deliverance, which was made into a movie and filmed along the rapids of the Chattooga in 1972, and accelerated the discovery and experience of exploring a whitewater river.
The Chattooga eventually flows into the Savannah River, which defines the state borders of South Carolina and Georgia. Along the Savannah River near Augusta, ancient fish weirs still remain, originally used by Native Americans to trap fish for consumption.
Downstream from the mountain and foothills, Piedmont rivers change in character from the Upstate’s waterways. Water temperatures rise and no longer support cold water fish populations but with one exception — the lower tail-race from the Lake Murray Dam that feeds into the Saluda River. The cold waters flowing from deep under Lake Murray support temperatures for trout when it is released into the Saluda. Casting for trout while viewing the skyline of Columbia in the distance is a unique experience that this in-town river offers.
Erosion of Upstate and Piedmont lands carries silt that muddies Piedmont rivers. Silt, deposited over a millennium, provides a deep, generous deposit of enriched soil when rivers overflow their banks. In Columbia, the Saluda and Broad river conjunction forms the Congaree River. Look downriver from this joining to see the fall line, where hard-mineral Piedmont land juts against softer sedimentary coastal plain land. Rivers cutting across this geographic junction result in upriver erosion, exposing granite and changing the river’s elevation. Early in South Carolina’s history, the ease of boat and barge transportation stopped at the fall line, and portaging was necessary to proceed around rapids. Settlements sprung up along fall line rapids, benefiting from a steady power supply. Canals were built in Columbia to traverse the fall line, and the Columbia Canal can be seen today behind EdVenture Children’s Museum.
Nature provides a stunning display of Rocky Shoals’ spider lilies along the fall line of the Catawba River near Rock Hill. The second largest display of these lilies found in the United States covers the shoals located at Landsford Canal State Park. A must-do experience is to canoe the shoals and view beautiful wildflowers; white blooms blanket the river as far as the eye can see. The state park derives its name from the canal and levee system built in the early 1800s, enabling cargo boats to traverse the fall line. The quality of craftsmanship used in the construction of this stunning granite canal is worth seeing.
Leaving the Piedmont and the fall line, the pace of water slows in the coastal plains. Miles of terrain with little or no elevation change result in areas where water pools or floods onto surrounding lands. Slow, meandering rivers begin the last leg to the Atlantic. Tremendous river flood plains once covered regions along riverbeds from Columbia to the coast. Man never appreciated floodplains, and vast tracts along the Congaree, Wateree, and Santee rivers were cleared for agricultural and lumber uses.
Forty miles east of Columbia is the grandest example of surviving old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. South Carolina’s Congaree National Park is home to one of the largest concentrations of world champion trees. Periodic flooding from the Congaree River regenerates the rich fertile soil found in the park. Walking along boardwalks located in the park allows a view of trees towering to the sky.
Farther east of Congaree Park, one of the largest river diversions took place in South Carolina in the early 1930s. The South Carolina Public Service Authority was created to divert the Santee River to the Cooper River and form two large lakes for hydroelectric generation in order to provide the rural areas east of Columbia with electricity. Clearing more than 172,000 acres of swamps and bottomland forests, as well as historic homes, resulted in the controversial formation of Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie, funded by the Public Works Administration. Today, Lakes Marion and Moultrie are known for their sport fisheries as anglers cast for an abundance of catfish, largemouth bass, and striped bass.
As northern coastal plain rivers approach the ocean, slow moving waters pass live oaks, historical plantations, and lands once cleared for rice production. Supported by the rice culture of the 1600s through 1700s, South Carolina was the wealthiest state in the nation. Georgetown at one time was the rice production capital of the world. Four rivers intersect near Georgetown: the Waccamaw, Sampit, Black, and Great Pee Dee. This ample supply of flowing water was ideal for periodic flooding and draining of rice fields for the harvest of Carolina rice. Still today, these ancient fields and canals are visible on modern satellite imagery. In the late 1800s to early 1900s, waterfowl populations wintering in these riverine coastline impoundments numbered in the millions, and hunting legends stated the sky darkened from a booming population of waterfowl.
South of Charleston exists an Eden of wildlife and lush habitats located in the ACE Basin. Fed by the three blackwater rivers that give the region its name — the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto — the ACE Basin is one of the largest undeveloped estuaries along the Atlantic Coast of the United States. With more than 350,000 protected acres, South Carolina can provide its citizens a preserve where nature and wildlife are protected for future generations.
The Edisto River is the longest flowing blackwater river in the United States. Stained and darkened from tannin leaching from decomposing vegetation, the slow, dark, flowing waters provide a perfect reflection of the landscape above the waterline.
Presently, the main threats to river water quality are pollution, agricultural runoffs, urban development, and mismanagement of resources near rivers. Sensing the urgency to protect South Carolina rivers, watchdog groups across the state have been established to protect river basins through local alliances and riverkeepers. Such alliances depend on volunteers, along with paid staff, to patrol rivers and work with local farms and businesses to control pollution and the misuse of river waters.
Want to see your local river in a new light? Experience dawn in a canoe or kayak on the river and, in the right conditions, watch a mist rising from the peaceful waters right here in Columbia. You know you are in heaven if all you hear are the sounds of waterdrops falling off your paddle as it breaks the surface of river waters. Listen for owls calling from deep inside the bordering swamps, or you might watch an eagle snaring a fish along the river’s surface. Float on a blackwater river to experience the mirroring of nature’s display along the river’s waterline. You’ll find that the pace slows as you pass by twisting live oaks draped with Spanish moss. Perhaps you will experience a total silence on the river as you drift and find yourself in complete peace as the river runs through your soul.