Destination Kayak


Part 2- Waccamaw River Through Paddle Series: Monday 12/19/2023

Launch Day: Mile 1 of 164 miles

         The night before as I laid in bed wide awake trying to force myself to sleep I dreaded the intrusive sound of the alarm clock set for 4am. Finally, around 11:30pm I fell asleep tucked warm and cozy in my bed. Waking up was not what I expected. I dreaded the sound of the alarm; however, when I woke, I thought what a welcoming sound that WOULD have been. I woke up wide awake at 2:30am. My mind racing of thoughts, anticipation, excitement, and nervousness. There was no slowing it down. The hamster wheel was turning so fast I could have powered New York City. I succumbed to my current state, made coffee and sat on the back porch waiting till 4am to come around. I went over my list again. I looked for anything I could have missed or forgotten. Then I went into trip planning, doing my best to forecast the conditions I would experience. I stared at the weather and hydrography like a predator stalking its prey. Hitting the refresh button on the browser every couple of minutes. The storm from the day before still lingering over the house with frequent howling winds. Not too much in the way of precipitation, but the wind! The wind was still ripping through the tree tops. My only comfort was knowing the first stretch of my trip would be tucked well below the tree line and protected from the gusts. My comfort was also accompanied by the red devil shoulder whispering legitimate concerns. How many trees fell through this storm? What kind of ninja warrior paddle experience will this be? Having done the upper section a few times before, I knew it was already a mess to paddle through. Now with the winds from this storm, how much more problematic will the first section be. This is not the part of river that a kayaker would want to paddle back up stream in. Especially with a fully loaded kayak and fast rising water. I came to the realization that this had to be a commitment; hell or highwater (literally), there was no turning back once I start.

          The alarm went off and Laurie (my Bride) slides out of bed. I head to the back yard to carry my vessel of choice to the truck. A 17′ Wilderness Systems Tsunami Kayak. It carried like a parachute as the wind caught every surface possible. I hoisted the bow on to the racks of the truck and proceeded to push from the stern until the kayak was securely set in its saddles. I made quick time of getting the straps on it worried that the wind would catch it wrong and blow it off. Fortunately, no such drama took place. Once everything was in place we headed to our office at J & L Kayaking, where all of my gear was pre-packed and ready for loading. Did I mention the wind was still blowing? With each howl from the wind, the lump in my throat climbed just a little more. Never-the-less, we loaded the truck and was on the road. It would be an hour drive to reach the top of the river. By 6 am we reached the spillway dam at the bottom of Lake Waccamaw. I could see just the faintest part of morning twilight beginning to paint the horizon. I stepped out of the truck and the first thing I noticed was the quiet! No wind howling, it was calm with a slight breeze. This was a boost of excitement and confidence.

           It would be an hour before the sun would rise and it turned out I would need all of it to solve the puzzle in front of me. “I have to get all of this into that?” I thought to myself. I am not a fan of having excess gear stored on the deck of a kayak. Through my experience and training this inhibits effective self-rescues. For me, the only option was below deck. I gutted every dry bag and again made careful decisions of what I would bring and what I would leave behind. Loading a kayak is more than just making it all fit. Weight distribution is a key factor as well. To much weight fore, aft, port, or starboard can disable the performance, stability, and maneuverability of the kayak. I spread everything out once again and made three piles. One pile for the bow, a pile for the belly, and a pile for the stern. By the time I was done, I had omitted another third of the equipment deciding it wasn’t necessary. The remaining two-thirds of equipment/supplies was crammed, stomped, shoved in to the kayak anyway I could fit it- relative to its assigned pile. 

         By this time, the sun had barely peaked over the horizon and there was finally enough light to see through the thick canopy of trees with no discernable river path to follow. It must be found as you go down stream. I stared into the tree line with more excitement than anything. It was almost as if I unwittingly signed up for the TV Series ALONE. I was ready, there was no more fidgeting that I could do to disguise my procrastination. A few quick pictures and a couple goodbye kisses and it would be time to launch. In my dry humor, Laurie wanted a few pictures of me with the kayak. I told her, “Don’t lose those, they might be the last pictures you ever get of me.” I thought it was funny; her, not so much. One last kiss, and I slid into the cockpit of my kayak adjusted myself to an acceptable comfort level and with the help of Laurie pushed off. 

On the river and through the woods

One thing was for sure, grandmother’s house was not my destination. The emotions surged through me as I cut through the trees to find the narrow and almost invisible path. It was a blissful and somber feeling, simultaneously. It was kind of like taking the first bite out of the best steak you’ve ever eaten knowing you still had most of the steak left on your plate to enjoy. At the same time it was like starting at World 1 Level 1 of Super Mario Brother’s with no cheat codes. It was going to take forever to get to the final dragon fight and save the princess. I had an appetite for each bite of the river, but also the realization that over 160 miles of water, obstacles, and cold nights were between me and the finish line. I was alone. Every stroke forward, every decision, every obstacle, every thought, every experience, every good and every bad moment were mine to share with myself. I was alone, but certainly was not lonely. My mind had a million thoughts running through it and it constantly juggled the taste of that steak, and the impatience of reaching the final dragon. In my case, the dragon would inevitably be Winyah Bay, which is notorious for rough conditions. It wasn’t a fear though because I never pushed the easy button or typed in a cheat code. Over the last decade I have developed my skills, built up endurance, and practice scenarios of self rescue (in conditions). I had done my homework and was prepared for whatever Lady Waccamaw had to throw at me. 

Part 3: Lake Waccamaw Dam to Babson's Landing: 38.6 miles

The journey begins… Lady Waccamaw breaks me in right off the bat with the first blockage only two miles down stream.

The tale continues: Release date: 12/31/2023


13 thoughts on “Part 2- Waccamaw River Through Paddle Series: Monday 12/19/2023”

  1. I am so enjoying this read. Can’t wait for the next portion. Beautiful pictures. Your wife is one fantastic lady.

      1. As you know I’m an avid reader and not easily distracted from the storyline
        This is reading like a good book right from the first “chapter”
        When you finishay I have editing and publishing rights?

  2. Marshall Drecchio

    “2 miles until the first blockage”
    That sounds promising. I want to hear about the next the next and the next.

  3. Hurry up December 31st…….I need to know what happens next……Justin, you are simply an amazing person. I am so proud and impressed with you. I get where that competitiveness and determination comes from. Looking forward to your next ideas and challenges for the club. Pretty sure you have something up your sleeve :-).

  4. Good that you had high water, trip is faster and you might be able to go around some obstacles. I ran this last April with 20+ paddlers at 6 ft at the gauge, it was a challenge. I used my chainsaw to cut thru a dozen spots and still had several portages. 36 miles in one day thru that upper run was good work. I do love that section in the spring, one year the snakes were out and we saw scores, one every few feet.

    1. High water certainly helps get through this stretch, but it also comes with its own set of problems or challenges. Of the times I have done it, low water obstacles tend to be easier to pick your preposition and go. High water your prepositions are limited and the water is deep with a swifter current.

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