The River Next Door - River Magazine April 1998

Maybe milk cows are not water buffalo or bison, but by their sheer mass and horsefly-bitten disposition, Milkbud, Bessy and the rest of the herd assumes the role of dangerous wildlife. Actually, the herd is but a distraction—our real concern is the bull, who we've spotted on the bank beneath a persimmon tree. He looks content, in the shade and chewing his cud, but only ten yards of sand and five yards of creek separate our canoe from his intimidating horns.

Eyeing the bull on the bank while paddling through a herd of cows is not unlike sneaking down a Class II slot to avoid a Class IV rapid. The only difference being that the Class IV rapid is unlikely to charge you unprovoked.

Bessy startles, and splashes toward the bull, her wide-eyed calf struggling to stay at her side. But the bull doesn't come to their defense. Evidently, he's more interested in the shade on this humid, hazy Southern afternoon.

Up ahead, a great blue heron barks and beats its way into the air beneath the basswood and birch trees. The Enoree River banks right around a stand of rhododendron, then drops into two shoots, Class II-III water. David draws water on the right as I steer us into the left shoot next to a house-sized granite wall. The front of the canoe drops away, then the back makes that comforting swoosh of boat hull dropping into rock-less water.

Both of us let out whoops of appreciation—much to the amusement of two kids on a bike path beside the river. Being kids, they whoop back, then turn their bicycles into their suburban yard.

I recently "discovered" the Enoree, though it was only five miles from my house. From the Highway 14 bridge, in northwestern South Carolina, it appears to be a dull, muddy creek littered with trash. But judging a river by the highway view isn't even like judging a book by its cover. It's like judging a book by its index.

I had known of the Enoree for at least twelve years, but never bothered to move past the bridges. Yet, like the old man two houses down whom you one day take time to really talk to, the Enoree has become a source of unending fascination.

Now, instead of driving three hours north to the Nantahala River Gorge on the weekends, I paddle the Enoree. Each time, the river divulges just a little more about where it's going and where it's been. And each time, I'm pulled a little further down its reach. Now that I've divulged its secrets, I wonder how many other undiscovered rivers lie nearby.

This connection with local rivers didn't come naturally. Here in the Southeast, the roads are generally plotted between towns—hills are merely rises on the way and rivers are an occasional glimpse as you cross bridges. This isn't the case out West. When I lived on the North Fork of the Flathead River, near Montana's Glacier National Park, the river permeated life. You were either on the Park side of the river, or the Forest Service side of the river, because given the scale of surrounding mountains the roads tend to parallel natural waterways. Driving up North Fork Road, you passed Coal Creek, Hay Creek, Red Meadow Creek, Whale Creek, and Trail Creek roads—the only way to drive somewhere was to follow the relatively flat river valleys or find a bridge to cross.

Hoping to find that connection with rivers near my home, I committed to exploring the nearby reaches of the Enoree. My first forays were on my bike, scouting the water at the limited access points by road. Since then I've spent many a memorable day visiting the river in a canoe.

The first time Rick and I paddled together, we swamped our canoe in an unforgiving rapid on a cold Montana river on a numbing Spring day. The trout we had caught all swam away as our aluminum boat filled with snow runoff.

Our next river excursion is on the Enoree, and the day is warm and sunny despite the January date. We put in below what remains of the castle-like Pelham Mill dam. Like the Enoree, the crumbling stonework of Pelham Mill goes largely unnoticed by locals, even though it has been there diverting the river for 150 years. Preserved now as a county park, the mill once wove cotton clothes for Confederate Soldiers.

The waters of the Enoree beneath the leafless deciduous forest are clear. I know from a recent visit to the nearby Pelham Falls subdivision that there is a significant drop ahead. More precisely, there is an old dam with a break in the cement large enough for a canoe to fit through.

Gradually, we come into hearing range of the water rushing through the slot. The current quickens, and then the dam comes into view. Pumped with adrenaline, we paddle to shore and scout.

Back on the water, steering the canoe into our approach, Rick reminds me of our last encounter with whitewater. We align the canoe with the vertical break, then paddle for all we're worth. As soon as we enter the chute, our paddles hit nothing but bedrock and cement, and we careen down, blowing headlong into a standing wave at the bottom.

Water gushes into the boat, soaking Rick. It sloshes from side to side, threatening to tip us as we struggle to avoid a perpendicular rock jutting from the shoal immediately ahead. We broadside the rock, then brace the boat with our paddles. The upstream gunnel tips precariously close to the water, then rises back to a more comfortable position. Ten strokes later, we pull our barge-like canoe up to shore and empty it out, giddy with our success.

Getting the canoe down to the river beneath Cooper Bridge in July is another Enoree obstacle I've overcome. I was with my wife, Barbara, and the blackberry thorns tore our legs open, ensuring that the poison ivy we were walking through would set in well. Growing along the riverbank was a stand of jewelweed. Barbara pulled a few stalks and mashed the natural ivy preventative all over our legs.

People are mesmerized by moving water as they are by a campfire. It makes us ponder and reminisce. A banded water snake scurried across the river's surface in front of the canoe and disappeared behind a rock. We passed a beaver dam beneath towering sycamores to our left. Barbara held onto an alder branch while I set up my tripod and snapped a shot of the log work. A wood duck takes flight from the right bank—wailing like a squeaky door hinge as he disappears downstream.

I remember a time, years ago, when Bobby Leines and I had tried to peek into a wood duck box on a Georgia pond that was presumably safe from snakes, raccoons, and young boys. As Bobby maneuvered around the front with me on his shoulders, I was able to grab hold of the nest box. In one of those freak coincidences, a snapping turtle bit Bobby's toe just as the hen duck exploded in my face. I tumbled backwards into the pond, and when I surfaced, Bobby was on the bank, holding his foot and hollering.

I have USGS topographical maps of most of the wilderness areas that I have explored across the U.S. and Canada, yet I purchased the first one of my own neighborhood just last year. In the overgrown South, it is difficult to tell where a river flows just by looking at it. Maps can be of great assistance.

USGS 7.5-minute topo maps show features important to paddlers, such as shoals, hydro dams, and mill ponds. Surprisingly, unless you live in a rural area topo maps of your neighborhood are more likely to be current than of your favorite wilderness retreat.

Chances are, if you think that nobody has paddled a neighborhood creek or river, somebody has. Besides the local bookstore, I have found the Internet to be a great source of information on runnable rivers everywhere. The fact that somebody else has paddled a creek doesn't lessen my sense of discovery. If it's new to me, it's new.

While driving home from a sunrise photo shoot at Table Rock State Park, I crossed the Middle Fork of the Saluda River for the umpteenth time. But this time I stopped, and backed up to really look at the water.

When I got home, I popped a mapping program into my PC's CD ROM drive and searched for the headwaters of the Saluda. The fingers of the Middle Fork gather in Jones Gap State Park, near the border of North and South Carolina. I traced the Middle Fork to its juncture with the South Fork and farther to the North Fork. It flowed past Furman University, where I spent four years back in the 1980s. Then the river passed beneath I-85, where I had driven no less than 100 times in the past 15 years.

The Saluda puddles behind a dam in Piedmont, about 15 miles from my home, then continues past the mill towns of Pelzer and Ware Shoals. It joins the Reedy River behind the dam at Lake Greenwood, then snakes through rural country to Lake Murray. Ten miles past one of the largest earthen dams in the United States, it tumbles down the fall line of the ancient sea coast to meet the state capitol of Columbia, generating some Class V rapids before its confluence with the Broad River.

There, the two rivers become the Congaree, then the Wateree, and the Santee River before emptying into cypress-lined Lake Marion. Lake Moultrie lies beyond that, then the Cooper River—forty-five miles farther lay Charleston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean.

I clicked the mouse a few times to zoom out the view. There on the computer monitor was 400 miles of river, just waiting to be explored.

All of it was undiscovered by me, and it began, more or less, in my backyard.

Also see:
Mapping Your Way to a Better Trip

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »