The osprey became our spirit bird,” says Lowcountry Environmental Education Programs (LEEP) director Ian Sanchez. “It seemed like everywhere we camped, there was a nest right there.”

Over 12 days in March, Sanchez and photographer Terry Manier navigated the connected waterways of three rivers and four lakes between Greenwood, S.C. and Charleston Harbor on an expedition they called Project WOW (Web of Water.) When the sun sank to the horizon, they’d find a patch of dry land to make camp.

Perched on a Lake Murray island one morning, still north of Columbia, the pair opted for a late start to allow Manier to cover himself at the base of an osprey nest and wait for its residents to come home. The striking image that resulted and the rest published here are just a sampling of the beautifully documented wildlife and habitat they witnessed en route from the piedmont to the Lowcountry.

LEEP is a Charleston-based program that includes both classroom visits by naturalists and field trips to discover the natural world of maritime forests and beaches that our city was built upon. During their river trek, Sanchez and Manier continued that mission of connecting young people with their environment through stop-offs at Columbia’s Nursery Road Elementary School and the Naturescope event at Santee Canal State Park. Thousands of students got to sit in the kayaks and imagine they were experiencing the adventurous tales shared by the traveling pair.

Back in Charleston, the 45 eighth graders in James Island Middle School’s Middle Grades Accelerated Program traced the expedition’s progress via live blogs and photographs sent in by Sanchez to LEEP’s website. He created on-the-spot questions about animal adaptations and habitat, involving the at-home participants in the trek. “I want this to be an interactive tool that helps students connect the ecosystems of our state,” says Sanchez. “The idea is to kayak from the mountains to the sea, break it into ecological sections, and allow students to use maps and Google Earth to follow the trip from the classroom.”

Traveling by water from Greenwood includes passages in the Saluda, Congaree, and Cooper rivers, as well as lakes Greenwood, Murray, Marion, and Moultrie. The route passes through pristine cypress swamps and wooded riverbanks, as well as past coal-fired powerplants and polluted city rivers. Each of those manmade lakes is a dammed and flooded river plain. Sanchez’s most striking memory from the journey is South Carolina’s heavy dependency on coal, and the knowledge of high mercury levels in the water below his boat as a result.

Sanchez sees Project WOW as an opportunity to educate people on the source and consequences of our power supply, as well as to encourage smart development along waterway shores. “Conservation is the easiest solution,” says Sanchez. “It’s not as sexy as alternative energy or biofuels, but it’s the easiest thing to just use less, and you can do it right now.”

LEEP acquired sponsorships from Coastal Expeditions, Keen shoes, and Earth Fare this year, and is hoping to build on that for a longer Project WOW expedition in March 2008, beginning in Greenville. They plan to involve organizations like Upstate Forever and the Heritage Corridor, this time taking a team of experts in the natural sciences and filming the journey for a documentary and fully interactive online curriculum.

Although Sanchez is already thinking bigger, this year’s journey was no little feat. Covering as many as 50 human-propelled miles in a day, they braved swells and heavy winds while on Lake Marion, a shallow lake that becomes perilous during storms due to submerged tree stumps. They paddled only a few feet from monstrous alligators and rode Santee-Cooper’s locks into the canal. From a hauntingly beautiful stand of cypress trees on Lake Moultrie to a goose-down feather resting gently atop the water, Manier’s photographs of the expedition speak for themselves. There are still plentiful naturally wondrous places to explore in South Carolina.