Santee River expedition by kayak
Over four days in early April, Julie and I kayaked from Wilson's Landing near the Lake Marion Dam to the bridge on Wambaw Creek. The following is a track of our paddle including waypoints for our overnight camping.
View Kayak Santee River in a larger map
Below is a description of our trip including preparation, each of the four legs, experiences, and photos.
Around early February Julie and I independently came up with the idea of paddling the Santee River from its navigable headwaters as defined by the Lake Marion Dam to Wambaw Creek. The estimated river distance was 75 to 80 miles.
As the plan developed we chose to launch on Thursday, April 5, in order to reach Wambaw Creek on Easter Sunday, April 8. We would be self-sufficient although we identified "bail-out" points along the river should we encounter difficulty. Although both of us were experienced campers, neither had experience on a 4-day river trip.
With only two of us and the remoteness of the landings, shuttling vehicles to each end was not possible. Therefore, we arranged with Nature Adventure Outfitters to shuttle us to the launch and to retrieve us at the takeout.
Two weeks before launch day we noticed that the Santee River was above flood stage as it flowed under Rt. 41 near Jamestown. Concerned that with the river flooding we wouldn't be able to find camp sites, I drove to Jamestown to eyeball exactly what was meant by flood stage.
The Santee flows through the Lowcountry. Lowcountry got its name because it is as flat as the plains of Oklahoma where I was raised. For every foot of rise, once the river is out of its lower banks, the river widens by hundreds of yards. Beneath the Rt. 41 bridge I found a very wide river stretching deep into the forest on either shore. My careful assessment, tempered by optimisim convinced me that even during flood, we would be able to find high ground upon which to camp with the caveat that we might have to paddle deep into the woods to find a dry site.
After conferring with Julie, we decided to keep an eye on flood stage, although we were determined to paddle.
Speaking of flooding and river level, beyond rainfall in the Santee watershed, the river level is affected by releases from the Lake Marion Dam. Information on releases can be found here.
On Thursday morning we drove to Kathi's Nature Adverture Outfitters HQ in Francis Marion Forest. As an experienced outfitter, Kathi eyed our gear and questioned us about our experience before agreeing to tote us to Wilson's Landing.
A strong northwesterly wind made the mid-40 temperature reading seem pretty chilly as we unloaded at Wilson's Landing.
Wilson Landing to first camp
Shortly after 11 a.m. we shoved off and pointed the yaks downstream.
A few miles downstream from Wilson's Landing we encountered the expected shoals. Other than a slight increase in heart rate due to fully loaded kayaks and unsure of what to expect, each of us selected separate paths through the turbulent water.
Throughout the first day we developed an easy paddling gait while taking advantage of a decent river current.
Sandbars were plentiful for re-stowing gear or lunch breaks.
Near the end of the day, perhaps a bit anxious to settle in before dark, we selected a less than ideal, although adequate site to camp.
After setting up tents, cooking our dinner, and battling mosquitos, we turned in early. A bit of exploration discovered stagnant water a dozen yards into the woods - perfect breeding grounds for the wee blood-suckers.
(image from How Stuff Works)
Day 2: Camp 1 to camp 2 or Little Sandbar to Big Sandbar
Neither of us are trail gourmands so we each carried a campstove and individual provisions. As those who've camped with me know, I'm in the rip-open-the-foil, dump ingredients into pan, heat, and eat trailside cook.
For a description of J's cuisine, you'll need to catch her at camp sometime. (And people think my food is strange!)
I am civilized, however, because each morning must begin with hot, black coffee - usually prepared while the sun warms J's tent.
Around nine or so we slid the loaded kayaks back into the Santee.
The second day turned out to be wildlilfe day. Although not our first sighting of a bald eagle on this trip we soon encountered so many eagles that we stopped counting.
Perhaps I should mention that I carried a Pentax Optio 6.0 megapixel WPi digital camera. As an automatic camera, the photos turned out as expected. The driving selection of this camera was the simple fact that it is waterproof.
Over dozens of kayak trips I've carried this wee camera in PFD pocket and snapped hundreds of photos.
After a terrifc day's paddle we espied the perfect sandbar on the right bank.
One concern, however, was the rising river level. We hadn't detected any weather systems with precipitation so the rising water was due to a release of water from the Santee Cooper Lake System.
Day 3: Camp 2 to McConnell's Landing
On the third morning I awoke to frost on my Teva's parked at tent entrance. Throughout the night we were regaled with various owl and bird screeches.
When we landed on the sandbar the day before, the river had been rising. This morning, the Santee River was three feet lower than the previous evening. Apparently, they had released water from the lakes and then stopped allowing the river to fall to normal level.
After breakfast, we slid the boats back into the water and continued downstream for another terrific day boating. Just above the Rt. 41 bridge near Jamestown we would encounter the first effects of the ocean tides. This was important for trip planning because below the bridge we would come increasingly under tidal influence and have to paddle against the tide, especially below McConnell's Landing.
The tide also brought seawater into the Santee River which meant that I could no longer use my water purifier to create drinking water. Julie had opted to carry enough water for the trip. This worked well for her because the days were cool and the nights downright chilly, hence one didn't lose a lot of water to perspiration.
I, however, carried an MSR Sweetwater Purifier to make my water from the river. This worked well above the tideline, but now that we were approaching brackish water, I filled water bottles and dromedary bag to carry me through the remainind days.
As with the day before, we saw no other boats on the water. The Santee River is very wide below Jamestown.
Day 4: McConnell to Wambaw
At the end of the third day we pulled into McConnell's Landing in the Francis Marion National Forest. During preparation for the trip we learned that we needed camping permits if we planned to stay in the forest. The permits are free. No one checked our permits and I question their purpose. I recommend checking with the forest HQ or stopping by the Sewee Center in Awendaw for details.
Because we were making such great time we chose to explore a stream on the left bank. (See Expediton Map)
Because I didn't feel comfortable leaving the boats out of sight at river's edge, I coerced Julie into hauling them to the tent site. As distance goes, it was a thirty yard tote, however, the elevation change was 40 - 50 feet.
McConnell's Landing is very isolated in Francis Marion Forest. I've paddled to and from it on many occasions including leaving vehicles unattended. There has never been a problem.
There are no facilities at McConnell's unless you count this...
With the best view, this toilet seat on a bucket and tp would make even Elvis envious.
The tides were such that we paddled against the tide until reaching Wambaw Creek were we caught the incoming tide for a ride to Wambaw Bridge.
We arrived at the bridge around 1 p.m. At McConnell's Landing we had phoned Kathi at Nature Adventure Outfitters with our ETA at Wambaw. All of our gear as we wait for our ride.
Would we do it again? Absolutely. In fact, we had scheduled a repeat for 2009 but we had to cancel it.
Berkeley Blueways - an excellent guide to paddle trails in Berkeley County, SC
Kayak Charleston by Ralph Earhart. Ralph lists more than 100 kayak trips within an hour's drive of Charleston, SC
U.S. Geological Service Lake and Stream data for South Carolina.