Destination Kayak


Part 8- Waccamaw River Through Paddle Series: Wednesday 12/21/2023

Savannah Lake to Pitch Landing

I am well on my way to Conway and my body is feeling much better. I’m finally reaching acceptable hydration levels and my body has adjusted to its new temporary norm. One landmark after another I go. I am counting them all along the way. Once more I am following the gentle flow of the river recognizing trees from trips past. The river is mostly wide by now which has its pros and cons. I have always been bias to the more adventurous narrow winding sections of any body of water. As far as intrigue and excitement, there was little left to be had. I paddled along and began to settle into the new norm of the river which would be wide and slow flowing the rest of the way. Houses would be seen river left and river right. Dogs would occasionally charge down their docks with beware barks, like the kid on the school bus in “Forest Gump”- “Can’t sit here”. They were certainly always on guard. They were not having any part of my company. Some recognizable landmarks were becoming more prevalent. It would be a particular tree I remember or the house that has a few white ducks that playfully swim along their property. These landmarks give me an idea of how much further I have to go and how long I would still be paddling for.  Some landmarks were just simply familiar to me, while one, in particular, is notorious in my memory of my most embarrassing moment as a trip leader. 

         When I lead trips I usually like to stay in the middle or the back so I can easily have eyes on each person in the group. I was leading what should have been an 18 mile trip as part of a Waccamaw River Challenge to our members. This would be their “longest leg challenge” out of the nine trips planned for them to complete 123 miles of the river. On this trip I was in the back invested in good conversation with one of the members mindlessly following the lead of those in front of me. The paddlers in the front approached a high rocky bank approximately 40 feet tall with houses carefully placed at the top. The river here turns right, but there is a cut to the left. The split is much like that of a perfect 90 degree “T” shape. As the current flow presses against the high bank the current splits into both directions with the left seemingly being the more open and prevalent path. The group followed the misleading left. Myself, in a mindless robotic mode followed the group without question. I knew this was a right turn but, did not even take notice of where we were. About a half mile in, the assumed path came to an abrupt end. Shallow water penetrated into a dense hammock of cypress, tupelo, and oak. As the group halted and pondered about where the river had vanished, I realized we went the wrong way. I knew we weren’t far away from the actual flow of the river so thought nothing of it. We turned around and proceeded to head in the correct direction once again. When we arrived at the “T” I was still in great conversation. I didn’t even take notice that we were at the “T” back by the high rocky bank. The correct path through this area is narrow and covered in a thick canopy. I thought nothing of it and followed the wider part of the river to the right. It was about 2 miles later when my conversation partner and I took notice of a large styrofoam cooler that was trapped in a river sweeper. We both looked at each other with the same defeated look. She asked me- “Isn’t that the same cooler we past earlier? Are we going the wrong way?”. I thought to myself surely not. I looked at my GPS and realized we, in fact, were backtracking to our starting location. There was no playing this off, no fixing it, no excuses. I was utterly defeated and embarrassed. “How could I have done this?” There was no excuse and no one to blame but myself. The group took it TOO easy on me and were up for the challenge to keep moving down towards Conway. Thankfully I did not miss the turn a third time. Mentally, I was so disgusted and infuriated with myself. Externally, I wore a smile as to keep a positive environment and motivation as we went along. In the end, the 18 mile trip became approximately 23 miles. It took more than a week for me to let it go and move on. For those members on the trip, you have full permission to still harass me and pick on me about it. I deserve every bit that comes my way for that. 

           I learned that day, that no matter how wide or easy the path- you have to stay vigilant. Wrong turns can happen in unexpected places, and when you aren’t focused, they will happen. Alas, here is that dreadful turn. I took a moment to take a picture of the high bank and send it to one of the “victims” that day. I playfully sent the picture with a text that said- “Turn left, correct?” Immediately a return text….”TURN RIGHT!”. I laughed, turned right and went on my way. Sometimes the best thing to do is forgive and let live. I can now (mostly) laugh at the embarrassing moment, but I will always let-live. That was the learned lesson that day. It would be long after that the sound of cars hurrying along the road would be a dominant sound. I reminded myself this is just a tease. The river runs closely parallel to HWY 90 for about a mile. My next landmark with cars would be HWY 501 in Conway. However, I was no where close to that yet. I still had nearly 15 miles to go before reaching Conway. The river would flow straight and wide for much of this section. It was a time for me to enjoy the isolation and say a few prayers. The sound of the cars traversing the nearby highway would slowly dissipate as the river turns away from it flowing completely opposite the direction I wanted to go. This is the natural river flow and there is nothing you can do but, take the long way around. At “Point A” the river would flow predominately north approximately 3 miles before turning and reorienting its southern trek for another 3 miles to “Point B”. As the crow flies Point A to Point B would be about a mile and a half apart. I had to paddle 6 miles to gain less than 2 miles. It probably would have bothered me more if I didn’t know that I was getting very close to my stop for the evening. 

          The river was still rising; although, much slower by now. It had been three days since the heavy widespread rains fell and caused the river to spill over its banks. The sight of the old railroad tracks along river left were a welcome sight. I knew I was close to Conway now. However, the railroad track also reminded me of a potential morale breaking obstacle ahead. The railroad bridge. I knew at this water level that I might be in for quite a difficult task. I rounded the corner as the river widely bends to the left. The railroad bridge is on a swing system and my hope was that the bridge would be open for water traffic. No such luck. Slowly, partial views of what was to come became more visible. There it was the railroad tracks that hover just above the waters surface. The weathered bridge presenting its age by proudly showing its rust stretched from the right bank to the left bank. It was barely suspended over the water. Maybe twenty inches or so. “Maybe there is a chance”- I tried to encourage myself. The bridge double in size as I drew closer to it. The sliver of space beneath the bridge also seemed to grow slightly taller. There was hope! I slowly progressed until the bow of my kayak was completely under the bridge. My paddle lay across my lap and my hands holding onto the bridge. I bent forward getting my body as low to the deck in front of me as possible. I calculated the space. “Can I? Is it doable? Maybe its worth a try?” I thought. I looked to the right bank and left bank. My alternative was try to get out on a very steep bank then pulling the kayak up said bank with 200 pounds of gear. Going under seemed like the most appetizing option, but I had my concerns. The underneath of the bridge had metal support beams. Every few feet I would have about 22 inches of clearance to pass under a beam, then I would have closer to 45 inches of clearance between the beams. “What if I get stuck between two beams. What if my jacket gets hung up on one of the rough metal shards that stick out of the old bridge. If I get stuck under here that would be the end of me! The river’s current rate of rise it will likely be to the tracks in 2 more days. I stowed my paddle and laid my upper body as far forward and as low as I could get it. Using my arms I reached and slowly began to pull myself under the outer beam. My jacket started to scrape the beam and I immediately pushed backwards to escape. The sound played into my fear of getting stuck and made me retreat. My jacket was just barely scraping the beam, I wasn’t stuck or wedged. I yelled at myself like a personal trainer would due to a client when lifting weights. It was motivational yelling. I regained my composure and once again laid as low as I could get. When the jacket began scraping the bridge again I tested its ability to keep moving and it had no objections. I reached for the next beam then the next. I was on the last beam on the downriver side and my upper body and jacket tightly squeezed through. It definitely felt tighter than the first beam; never-the-less I was through it and clear on the other side and very happy that was over. 

          Only about 5 miles left to Pitch landing which would be camp for the night. I came to the Conway riverwalk. Part of me hoped that I would see it bustling with people looking out at the water. Looking out and thinking what kind of idiot would be kayaking down this river in 35 degree weather. Just a few young teens a couple of older couples, and one couple that appeared to be newly-weds was all there was. I glided right past the river walk nearly undetected by the few that were out for a stroll. Pressed on under the tall charismatic 501 bridge and was out of the downtown area and back to the quiet river banks. Over the next few miles there would be houses, mainly on the right side, with a few on the left. I was nearing my campsite. I hadn’t been to pitch landing much. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Either way, I figured I’d be good to go. The back up plan would be another 2 miles downstream at what is locally called the “Redneck Riviera”. I was approaching Pitch landing, maybe only a half mile to go. Plenty of houses still remained on the right. I passed a gentleman standing at his seawall. No doubt, he was assessing the rising river. I assume he was probably contemplating on whether to make some adjustments to his property, trying to decide if the river would come up the other 6 inches it would take to invade his property. If it did the river would burglarize his yard and likely carry a number of items downstream. I greeted him and he returned the friendly greet. “Where ya comin’ from” he asked. I replied, “Well, I put in at Lake Waccamaw on Monday.” He paused with a query look on his face. “You talkn’ bout da lake up there in North Carolina?” I said “Yes sir, I’m headed all the way to the ocean.” Again his face went crooked as he raised his upper lip towards his nose. I could tell he was a little concerned and before he could ask I told him “I’m stopping for the night just up here around the corner at Pitch Landing.” He, with a sigh of relief on his face, said “Oh you goin’ stay right up there at the landn’?” I said “Yes, sir”. Without a moment passing by he excitedly said back, “Aw hell! I’m gonna come see ya. I got-ta here more about your trip.” I happily invited him to come on down and we bid our goodbyes, for the time being. A few minutes later I was at pitch landing or what was left of it, at least.

Part 8: Savannah Lake to Conway-Pitch Landing

The ramp is flooded, camping not so glamorous, but the stranger at the river visits and brings gifts. Nick brings me spring rolls from Rivertown Bistro, and a friend and member Romain pops in for a visit. A great network connection was made with the stranger (Marcus) and Romain. We shared a warm fire, stories, and laughs.

The tale continues in part 9: Release date: 1/6/2024


4 thoughts on “Part 8- Waccamaw River Through Paddle Series: Wednesday 12/21/2023”

  1. I’ll never forget that “18 mile” paddle 😉 It was long but fun…good .friends, a river and a kayak —-what more could a person want?

  2. First of all, I’m impressed with Marshall keeping your whopper warm under the hood. That’s a new one for me LOL
    I hate seeing the landscape covered in trash, I will go with you to clean up whenever you go, gladly! 50 miles….WOWZA Just amazing you are>(that’s yoda talking) Getting closer and closer ……… 🙂

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