Lake Moultrie is gator country. Tell anyone familiar with it that you’re going to paddle there and you’ll undoubtedly hear, “Watch out for the gators.”
Maybe it’s the 771-pound dinosaur that three Upstate residents hauled out of there in late September. Or maybe it’s the man who lost his arm when he went snorkeling in 2007.
Loading up my kayak for the drive to Moncks Corner, I wasn’t concerned about gators, although the decision to bring along my Australian Shepherd (read: gator bait) seemed questionable. He’d hate to miss a chance for a camping trip though — just him and dad, alone in the woods with miles of water and islands to explore.
Poking around the sleepy community of Bonneau Beach, I settle into my surroundings. This is a town with street names like Carp and Brim roads. The lake’s big public ramp is closed as a result of the low water level, three and a half feet below normal. I pull up to Lake Moultrie to find white caps stretching across the water, whipped into a froth by 20 mph winds. It’s blowing from the north, and I’m on the south shore. My destination is Coon Island, about halfway across. Between myself, the dog, and the gear, I’ll be pushing about 300 pounds across the expanse. It won’t be easy.
Not easily deterred, I drive around looking for a place to launch, preferably a place where I won’t be shot at for wandering onto someone’s property. I get lucky with a boat landing tucked onto a winding creek that’s not on my map.
Two boys, about five and eight, are catching brim and tiny largemouth bass with Walmart fishing poles and a tub of earthworms. They pull out five in the short time it takes me to unload my boat and pack the dry wells.
“This must be your honey hole,” I remark.
“Oh, it’s not even,” says the older of the two. He doesn’t say where their good spot is. Then he asks me about fishing and examines my rod and reel. I keep packing, while he says things like, “I’m country, but I ran out of my camo shirts so I had to wear this one.” It’s a nondescript black tee.
He asks if I’ve kayaked here before, and I tell him it’s my first time.
“Well, I maybe shouldn’t tell you this, but there’s a lot of gators out there.”
If even the local kids are concerned, maybe I should think twice. But I’m packed and ready, so I push out into the shallow creek and start poling my way toward the lake.
“Wish me luck with the gators,” I shout back at the boys.
“Just paddle faster than them,” the oldest advises.
“How deep is it there?” one man asks.
I check with the paddle. “About four feet.”
“You know there’s gators in there!” a woman hollers.
I look back at the dog, tucked into the cargo hold of my boat, his snout inches from the water, and I think to myself, “Buddy, let’s both hope nothing leaps out of that murk and pulls you down.”
About 10 minutes later I’m paddling into the expanse. The bottom is no longer visible, and the wind is whipping pretty hard. I’m heading right into it. I spot what I think is Coon Island far in the distance. There’s another island, about halfway there, and it looks like I’ll need to pass it to the left. Hugging the shoreline would double my paddling time, so I decide to set out straight across the lake.
Within five minutes, gators are the least of my concerns. Waves are breaking over my boat as I struggle to keep the bow turned into the three-foot swell that’s white-capping all around me. I dig in. About halfway across, I see a strange brown spot, like driftwood, floating on the surface.
Heading toward it, I quickly realize it’s a stump. This broad, round valley, a series of ridges and swamps, was flooded in the 1940s by the S.C. Public Service Authority to generate hydroelectric power. Today, public power utility Santee-Cooper controls the lake and its adjacent land, making the islands available to the public for camping and recreation.
The stumps of the cypress trees left behind by the intentional flooding have been well-preserved in the water. I start to notice them all around me. Some poke six inches or so above the surface; others only appear after a large swell passes over them. Many remain completely submerged. They look like ghosts. I’m a mile from land in the middle of an underwater forest, fighting my way through gale-force winds and waves.
I pull the boat to shore and set out to explore. We’re on the tip of a peninsula, jutting out into the lake. The coal plant on the north shore seems even more ominous and threatening from this closer vantage point. Apart from its two giant smokestacks and enormous industrial structure on the horizon — and the occasional beer or motor oil can bobbing on the lake’s surface — there are no other visible signs of humans.
The dog and I set out around the point. We’d pulled in on the protected side, but we turn the curve and catch a reminder of the wind we’d paddled directly into only moments ago. There’s another island about as far off as the distance we just paddled, straight into the wind and directly toward the coal plant. I decide that even if this isn’t Coon Island, we’ll be staying here for a while.
The island’s interior is thickly wooded and home to more banana spiders and their expansive webs than I’ve seen in even the most infested coastal maritime forests. It’s a thin peninsula — about 150 yards wide — and the lake is visible through the trees from almost anywhere. After walking full speed into more than a few four-inch-wide spiders, I decide to keep to the shore. The low water level has left a wide beach. Some parts are sandy, others muddy or hard eroded limestone.
After about a quarter mile, the woods narrow to just a line of trees. I hop from one shore to the other and walk back to the boat. I’ve noticed a clearing in the woods where a plywood table, fire circle, and plastic bucket privy indicate folks have camped here before, and I head there with my hammock and book. I find a place to tie the hammock and look up. High overhead, a bald eagle alights from its nest.
Relaxing in my hammock, I think about the map of Lake Moultrie posted at the landing. It marks the location of churches, cemeteries, and schools where they once existed, erased by seven decades of water. I recall visiting the Berkeley Museum years ago and an old promotional video made after the lake was completed. I remember a narrator with a booming voice saying, “Once again, the persistent determination of man has triumphed over the patient resistance of nature,” heralding the lake’s completion. Being an environmentalist, I wonder if Moultrie’s origins have kept me from exploring it before.
In 2011, it’s a beautiful place, flourishing with wildlife. Of course, the omnipresent coal plant is always visible, but it’s the power utility that built this lake in the first place. Never mind the posted warnings about consuming the lake’s fish; they have high mercury levels due in part to the smoke from the coal plant. I decide to settle in and enjoy this place for exactly what it is today: a natural escape, less than an hour from Charleston.
It’s not until several hours later that I venture out, about an hour and a half before sundown. Continuing along the curve of the island, I finally confirm my suspicion that I am indeed on Coon Island. The hook-shaped spit’s inside curve boasts a wide beach, with almost a dozen obvious primitive campsites tucked into the sandy, wooded shore. Maybe it’s the low water levels or the late stage of the season, but on this balmy fall Saturday, I seem to have Coon Island — indeed, all of Lake Moultrie — to myself.
At the island’s other terminus, dead trees are everywhere, sprouting up from the water all the way to the shore. Many of these stumps boast flat tops where they were harvested before the area was flooded. The low-hanging sun stretches out the trees’ shadows, so I take a few pictures of the eerie scene. It’s not as romantic as the boneyard beaches on Edisto, Capers, or Bull islands, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.
My camera battery dies, but it’s too far to return to the boat for another. I head deeper around the curve into a muddy stretch that connects Coon Island to another. What was once a maze of navigable waterways dividing solid high ground is now an expanse of marshy growth left behind by the receding water. I spook a flock of ibises and head into an area of tall grass. I’ve yet to see a gator, but maybe I should watch out. A massive reptile charging from the marsh at the dog would be a terrible way to end the day. Just in case, I check my belt for my knife, a pocket variety far from adequate for fending off an alligator.
Eventually, the grassy marsh gets a bit too muddy — and likely too gator infested — to continue across. We turn around, following our steps for about a mile and change, back to the boat. I consider paddling to a new campsite in the waning light, positioning myself for the moon and sunrise (and avoiding a view of the coal plant across the water), but there’s plenty of firewood here, and the breeze facing north should keep mosquitoes away.
I cook up some ready-made teriyaki noodles, feed the dog a bowl of soggy dog food, and crawl into the hammock with my travel guitar. Hours later, I think about going to bed, but I’m guessing the moon is about to rise just around the corner.
It’s all I can do to muster the energy to get out of the hammock and walk around the curve and discover that my premonition was right. The moonlight shining across the backdrop of cypress trees growing out of the lake is stunning. It’s impossible to get a good picture with my point and shoot, but when the flash bulb fires, I spot a pair of eyes in the water. I flip on my headlamp and two gold orbs stare back at me.
Gators have reddish-orange eyes at night, I think. Maybe I’m wrong. I motion to the dog to wait behind me, and I step closer. The eyes hold steady. How close should I get? Just as I’m debating moving farther in, the creature jumps up and seems to run across the water. It’s a raccoon. He hides out in the exposed roots of a cypress tree, and I let him be.
Finally, I fall asleep. It couldn’t have been for more than an hour or two though, because I awaken to the moon just reaching the top of the trees. It’s colder than I expected, and my 45-degree-rated down sleeping bag isn’t cutting the wind chill or insulating the bottom of my hammock. I could set up the tent, but that’s a tough proposition when it’s the dead of night and even colder outside of the sleeping bag. I lay awake. It’s strangely silent here. A few birds move in the trees now and then, but I never hear an owl.
Just as I’m dozing off, a racket erupts from the woods, not 50 feet away. The dog jumps up, ears perked, growling. There are bears here, I know. Maybe even a puma — we’re on the edge of the Francis Marion National Forest and about as remote as you can get these days in the Lowcountry. It’s probably a deer. Moments later, whatever it is takes off through the trees. My nerves slightly rattled, I settle back in and eventually fall asleep.
It’s dawn when I awake again,and colder than before. Still, I pull myself up, put on my pants, and quickly pack the hammock. We’re back on the water before the sun is an inch off the horizon.
This time, the dead forest is gorgeous. There’s no breeze, so the water is a silky tapestry, reflecting both stumps and the occasional live trees across the surface. I paddle happily through the shallows, spotting an enormous gar and a couple of good-sized striped bass in the crystal clear water.
All of a sudden, there’s a scrape on the boat bottom. I’m stuck on a stump. I try to push off the tree with the paddle, but I’m only spinning myself around in circles. Finally, I succumb to the reality of what I have to do. I get out of the boat and venture into the grassy, waist-deep water. With my weight off of the kayak, it’s easy to dislodge. I climb back in.
Heading deeper into the swampy forest, I’m more careful with my movements. The water’s depth fluctuates from thigh to head high, but the stumps persist throughout. The deeper I get, the more uncomfortable the thought of getting in the water becomes.
The journey into the muddy, colorful marsh is stunning. The cypress trees are turning a rusty red, and the cloudless blue of the sky is reflected off of the lake’s surface. I continue as far as possible before the lake narrows and becomes so shallow I have to turn around.
I set out toward the direction I came from, looking for a sandy beach to cook breakfast and relax. But I never find one. When the water level is low, Coon Island boasts the only beach accessible without tramping through mud, and I’ve left that island far behind.
Finding the inlet and creek where I began, I start to write the story of the adventure in my head. I’ll conclude it like this:
“In 24 hours on Lake Moultrie, I saw two bald eagles, several impressive osprey nests, and an endless parade of geese, cormorants, egrets, and herons. Turtles were constant companions around me in the water, and a four-foot gar slowly passed under my boat. But guess what I never saw? An alligator. Not even one.”
On cue, I look to my left and spot an enormous black mass on the nearest shore. The gator and I make eye contact. It rises. The beast is at least 10 feet long. The alligator takes a few steps forward and slinks into the water before I have a chance to take a picture. I paddle ahead, hoping to catch a glimpse of it swimming through the water. Then I look back at the dog, looking nervous in his tiny perch on the boat. I reconsider, turn toward home, and paddle faster than a gator can hopefully swim.