“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”
Nolan in the Enoree River when she's up and muddy.
The last time I floated this river was about 27 years ago, when I was lithe and strong and filled with enthusiasm. These days I am troubled by bad feet, hot flashes, night sweats and anxiety. I hide myself behind hipster glasses, voluminous clothes and work. I don’t go out—even to the grocery store—unless it is totally necessary or unless my destination is obscure or anonymous. I can handle walking around downtown Beaufort. The local Walmart terrifies me.
So I don’t know what possessed me to float the river yesterday. Perhaps it was a sense of urgency that the lad will be going off to college in less than two months. And perhaps it was shame that my husband bought two kayaks four years ago and we have never taken them on the water. Then there was the nagging knowledge that without something to do, I would sit on my bed all day and read or peck around on my iPad.
The plan was thrown out hastily before the boy scooted out the door to church, “Hey, want to take the kayaks down the Enoree River today?”
Sure, why not?
- “I want the green one.” Nolan picks his kayak in 2010, not knowing he wouldn’t travel in it until 2014.
In this household, I am never exactly sure whether or not a plan is going to come together until it is actually being executed. So I puttered around the kitchen with less than 50-50 odds of the kayaking outing becoming a reality.
When it became imminent that I was going to get in the truck and go float the river, I hastily tossed some almost-random things into a gallon Ziploc bag—K-Bar knife, bug spray, Kleenex, a half a 16 oz bottle of drinking water, a floating solar powered lantern, a couple of individual serving packs of trail mix and because no one should ever leave home without enough bags, I threw in extra Ziplocs. You might need a few things in an emergency, and only two weeks ago there had been a major search on our benign little river for two boys lost on a cheap raft.
We, it turned out, were so poorly prepared for this maiden voyage that I had to turn around and drive back home to get our PFDs.
Portrait of Joey canoeing the Okefenokee swamp near Folkston, Georgia circa 1982. Joey used to be my Enoree canoeing partner.
The Enoree is a silty brown river, medium-sized, and in most places sluggish. We launched down a vertical bank that was maybe 15 feet high, quite a challenge for this old fat woman. Immediately we ran into a mess of downed trees low across the water that would become strainers after a hard rain. If I was afraid of spiders, I would have not made it past the first 100 yards.
But the river opened up and I began to point out landmarks along the stretch south from Lanford Station towards the Highway 49 bridge, including a famous fishing hole on the right bank marked by a big rock. My daddy had loved to fish this place.
This may be my lifer bluegill. 1961 with my Daddy.
My son’s experience with rivers had always been high adventure up until now. We’ve done the Nantahala several times. The Black River in Georgetown county. The National Outdoor Whitewater Center in Charlotte, which is intense. The salt marshes at Murrell’s Inlet. The Green River, nestled deep in a gorge in North Carolina. And oh, yes, the Chattooga when he was fourteen. I almost drowned, though from a simple fluke and not for being caught in something as dramatic as a hydraulic. The experience was such that I have never wanted to go back.
I wanted Nolan to know there was virtue in this quiet river.
“Listen,” I said.
Him: “What?” Wondering, I guess, what bird song or frog call I was about to point out to him.
Me, “Nothing. You can’t hear anything. No traffic, no dogs barking, no chainsaws or heavy equipment. Nothing.”
“You’ve been on a few rivers, Nolan. All crowded with other boats and rafts. How does it feel to have the river all to yourself?”
“My daddy always says if there are not cars in the parking lot of a restaurant, it’s because the food sucks,” he said.
Nolan casts from my kayak in 2009.
A good ways before the Highway 49 bridge, he began to ask the cliché child’s question. Are we there yet? I waved towards the left bank, the Spartanburg County side. The land there is one of my brother Joey’s primo spots for birding and herping.
“There’s Joey’s river pasture. It’s Sunday afternoon. Maybe he is over there herping.” I said, joking.
We got a little silly and started hollering. “Joey! Joey! Are you over there?” We even went so far as phoning Joey but our connection was bad.
Then I got occupied with spotting softshell turtles and we rounded a bend in the river and the bridge came into view.
“Look, Mama!” Nolan said, pointing at the bridge, “There goes Joey! In his Buick!”
It couldn’t be, could it? We phoned Joey again and this time the call went through. He verified that he had indeed driven his Buick across the bridge seconds before.
How often, I wonder, do lives intersect in this manner? What are the odds that we would be floating kayaks under the bridge just as my brother was driving over it? How many cars cross that bridge on any given day? Hundreds. How many kayaks go under it? Very few. The fact that our paths crossed, we recognized it and we were able to communicate with each other instantly is mind-numbing.
Old bridge abutments on the Enoree River near Musgrove Mill
Below the Highway 49 bridge is the set of rocky rapids that are sometimes fun. Not on this excursion. The water was low. We spent more time pushing off rocks and dragging our kayaks as we did surging over tiny sections of whitewater. Our new kayak’s seats were horrible, with zero back support. If you set your feet against the footrests and tried to push off the bottom with your paddle, there was not enough seat for you to do anything but flop backwards onto nothingness. Every muscle in my body screamed in protest. And let me tell you this—if a fat woman wearing a life jacket falls out of the kayak onto her back on the rocks, she is more or less stuck there like a box turtle until someone helps her roll over.
Past the rocky stretch, the river returned to its normal taciturn character. Silent and slow.
Nolan checks out the beach at Port Royal, SC, where we saw my South Carolina "lifer" bald eagle.
We watched the usual species—great blue herons, little green herons, wood ducks, kingfishers and red-tailed hawks. For excitement, a goldfinch. We passed sand bars cris-crossed with the tracks of nesting turtles. We endured a brief stint of traffic noise while floating under I-26, and encountered an isolated rapid that Nolan went into sideways where he rolled his kayak.
He was grouchy, and the trip seemed to be taking far longer than the two hours I thought I remembered. I was surrounded by water and yet horribly thirsty. Our moods plummeted. I somehow drew ahead of him, as he was not able to get all of the water out of his kayak after his last spill.
I noticed he was missing and turned to face upriver just downstream of a fun-but-tiny rapid. I was about to paddle upstream looking for him, but at last I saw the movement of his paddle and then his green kayak came into view. I enjoyed the rhythm of his paddle strokes, my mind a blank, my back temporarily comfortable.
It caught me by surprise, just over his head, circling out over the river. A large dark bird with an unmistakable blazing white head and tail, flying so easily that it looked…casual. I threw back my head and laughed, keeping my face towards the sky to watch for a re-run while I waited for Nolan. I considered that perhaps he fell behind because he was watching this eagle.
He drew even with me and passed me in stony silence. I turned the boat back downstream and stroked to catch up.
“Did you see it?” I said.
“Nolan. Did you see it?”
“Nolan! Did. You. See. It?”
He finally spoke, “What?”
“The eagle,” I said. “Did you see the eagle?”
He raised his arm and pointed downstream. “You mean that eagle?”
Sure enough, the bald eagle was perched on the Laurens County side and flew out over the river. The white of its tail was blinding. I broke out in cold chills and my eyes began to tear up.
Bald eagles belong to a subgroup of eagles called sea eagles. They are seldom seen far from really big bodies of water. In fact, breeding pairs prefer bodies of water greater than 7 miles in circumference.
Sightings away from large lakes, estuaries and oceans are rare. They eat mainly fish, with a smattering of other birds, rabbits, rodents and possibly bigger mammals such as raccoons and baby deer. They also eat carrion.
Birders and herpers call new-to-them species “lifers.” The first Southern hognose snake of your life. The first prothonotary warbler sighting of your life. Your first-ever glimpse of a roadrunner or a smooth green snake or spotted turtle.
Joey with his lifer Heterodon simus, Southern hognose snake
This Enoree eagle is not my true lifer.
I saw an eagle in the Florida Everglades in 1980. And while I’ve kept my eyes peeled for an eagle in South Carolina for 55 years, I had never seen one until two weeks ago. Venturing onto Sands Beach in Port Royal, I gazed out over the salt marsh and spied a bald eagle on a man-made nest platform. Again, Nolan was my sidekick.
The boy has a knack for seeing eagles. He saw his first at the age of 13, fishing Lake Murray with his dad, and has seen them on two different occasions less than a mile from our house.
Nolan can call the Lake Murray eagle his lifer, and the Enoree River eagle his fifth. For a birder my age, it is not that simple. The Everglades eagle, it is my lifer. The Port Royal bird, my home state lifer. But this Enoree River eagle is the lifer of my soul. My stomping grounds. My Upstate. My heart’s river.
The lad and I finally rounded a bend near the Musgrove Mill Revolutionary War Battlefield to see a cluster of people, adults and small children fishing from a sandbar and teen lovers bobbing in the water. We passed close to two encampments and were excitedly greeted by country folk—men clamoring towards us, all with the same question, “Hey! Where’d y’all put in at?”
Cue the banjos if you will. Open the pages of Norman Maclean if you prefer.
Scraped, bruised, sunburned, tired and thirsty, we pulled our kayaks toward the bank near the concrete pylons of a bygone bridge to the stares of more recreational waders and splashers. I was so feeble at that point that I washed through the final rapids, dragged behind my empty kayak, too wiped out to curse the slippery rocks upon which I kept falling. A float I thought I remembered taking two hours ended up being a five hour adventure, and I was shocked when Joey informed me it was ten miles.
Ten miles for an eagle? Totally worth it.
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