This trip would be only the second launch of Kingfisher on the North Santee River at the Poleyard Landing, situated adjacent to the Highway 17 North bridge. The first was a long imagined sail – from the North Santee through the Inland Passage to Charleston Harbor and Remley’s Point Landing (see final chapter of Tracing the Cape Romain Archipelago.) This second was also long planned – to seek out and find an esoteric archaeological site in the Santee Delta. Though this trip was in the back of my mind for a while, a week off from work pressured me to use the time, though I did not have optimal conditions. The tide would be adverse for much of the trip, and my only good rationale for embarking on this venture was the promise of a solid south-southwest wind. I felt I would be able to counter the outgoing tide on my return. I talked to a crabber heading out, and he assured me the tide did not run any faster than by a piling he pointed out. After my 10AM launch at the Poleyard, we would have two more hours of incoming tide. In hindsight, it was the wrong day, the wrong tide, the wrong boat, but I was determined to go.
I felt confident to head out since the breeze was already up, unlike the previous day when conditions stayed glassy until 11AM. However the rustle and falling of leaves was a tease - limited air movement descended to Kingfisher‘s sail, and it continued to vary many degrees. It was windward work and slow, and at times we moved backward. One fallen tree on the northern bank was a landmark, and we had difficulty making progress to pass it. Generally it was a most inauspicious start. Falling leaves were detritus in the river; those still on trees offered a colorful scene, including the cinnamon of cypress needles, and the multi-colored sweet gum leaves. Several alligators were observed on the northern bank where aquatic grasses took over. In working to get around a point on this same side, I noted an anchored sloop up the river. Finally past this craft and the point, we reached down the next river section with a growing wind.
The river and delta teemed with a variety of birds demonstrating their diversity: the flights adaptations of a red shouldered hawk, ospreys, and anhingas, and the quack of a duck and the rattle of a kingfisher. In a bend to the southwest, we now sailed to windward but made good progress with a wind no longer fettered by dikes overgrown with mature trees but dominated by grasses. On my last port tack before turning back to the east I spied a good sized alligator on the bank and held my course to get a close look. He shifted his bulk into the water as a precaution against my intentions, and not caring to know about his I tacked away. We entered a long straight to the southeast, and encountered the floats of crab pots and the dives of brown pelicans, both harbingers of the coast ahead.
All along the trip I wondered about others making this passage in history: Native Americans, French Hugenots, and African American in dugouts and later plantation schooners, plying the Inland Passage. I’m sure they knew this river and all its bends and nuances intimately, and would have had their share of difficulties due to weather’s uncertainties. They would also have had the pleasure of a fine passage, which had become the state of my trip.
Memories came back in a long open section to the northeast, for it was here that on my previous trip I had to sail to windward in the opposite direction from my intended destination to the southwest. I ran briskly down, eating an apple and waving to the crabbers already returning from their coastal rounds, yet aware on the return I would be beating here against the tide. I had considered much earlier aborting this trip for another day, but the strengthening of the wind and solid progress spurred me on. The view all around was of a big horizon world, and one where multiple birds plied the air. A herring gull came close by my masthead and floated above to take a look, and a tern followed in suit. Passing by the opening to Minim Creek, an eagle prominently appeared on the wing, and above him a small cloud of white birds.
The wide section of the river stretched to the southeast and the Intracoastal Waterway in the distance. A glint of a boat’s windshield appeared far ahead, and before long it was apparent that this was a southern-bound craft in the ICW. My destination became tangible, and the increase in the wind egged me on. I added a rain gear top and lifejacket to my garb as the speed and spray kicked up. Beyond, clouds loomed along the coast’s line to the east, intent on coming ashore and clouding the rest of the day.
Once hitting the ICW we bore off until finally were running with the wind behind. I realized I would be beating back against this open section of water and strong wind. One gust spun Kingfisher from dead downwind to head-to-wind, but I avoided a knockdown with a quick reaction. I became focused for this remaining blast downwind, and visualized in my brain the map of the site’s location. A grove of cedars rising in the island’s marsh appeared to be the destination, and after a flying jibe and a reach across the ICW all indications were that this was the site. I dispensed with my usual safe landing (dropping sail and paddling in), and just sailed through the marsh grass to a narrow section of sandy beach on this hammock’s fringe. It was to be a quick stop, almost a touch and go. I left the sail up and secured Kingfisher to a small cedar.
One of my first steps on this beach was right next to a potsherd revealing a tantalizing prehistory.
The human occupation of the site dates back to the early woodland period, with ceramic artifacts dating to 1440BC (Thom’s Creek/Refuge assembly). It was a seasonal camp site used in spring and summer for subsistence on estuarine fish, especially sturgeon and gar. A major shell midden was deposited over three feet thick in places during the early Deptford occupation, around 600-250 BC. Deptford Check Stamped pottery was found in this midden, along with many oyster shells, and remains from fish and mammals. This was a permanent seasonal camp for a few families. For various reasons, the use of the site declined in the post-Deptford period. I learned of Deptford culture from potsherds located when digging piling holes, and when planting trees on my property in Awendaw. Uprooted trees from Hurricane Hugo exposed more signs of Native American life.
A sharp bluff about two to three feet high separated the beach from the limited upland, and this bluff was impregnated with oyster shell, and held together by the roots of cedars and yaupon hollies.
Before leaving the beach I watched a southbound sloop plodding slowly against the wind and chop, making very slow headway. The skipper appeared concerned that I might be in distress, but my thumbs-up signal cleared the matter up.
On the high ground a pit remained from the study block of the archaeological project reported in 1989. Along the beach I observed in the wrack pushed by a high tide a fine large potsherd from the rim of a pot with the edge rounded and punctate.
The site was very dense with vegetation and thorny vines, and I scratched through to find the rice dike, held together now by ubiquitous cedar trees.
The old rice field beyond was tall with vegetation, and even in the strong wind mosquitoes sought me out.
Prehistoric sites dot the Lowcountry. I felt certain this place has been plundered of artifacts in the past. While this site has been studied, and important information gleaned from it, it should be protected as part of our regional and national heritage. When people dig around and remove artifacts, they destroy information. Future developments in archaeological techniques can potentially shed new light in revisiting sites like this one.
After snapping some photos and inhaling my sandwich, I pulled Kingfisher off the beach, flattened the sail further, and launched out into the strong southwest wind. The chop was up, and the sailing was quite wet. We tacked off and on, working our way back toward the North Santee. One of the islands passed had a perched eagle on a tree on the windward point. I almost made the mistake to enter a creek, thinking it would take me behind an island. Later when entering the passage behind the island I found that I preferred the consistency of the strong wind to the fickleness of the island’s lee, and turned back out. I recalled my mantra “The wind is my friend”. At the junction we left the ICW behind, retracing our course back into the North Santee.
We sped along planing on a close reach, gradually removing the water collected in the cockpit on the previous beat through the automatic bailer. I was definitely damp beneath the rain gear, but thankfully it was a warm but now overcast day. As I rounded up toward the section where I expected a long beat to windward against the tide, I confirmed on a crab pot float a considerable flow of water against me. The wide horizon had closed in both the sky and in my mind: my vision was clouded by salted glasses and eyes. Nevertheless the sailing was fine, and progress was made against the outflow. We made it past a point along the northern bank to continue the next section on a reach.
The air became populated with cormorants, a steady passing of individuals. More cormorants appeared beyond the junction with Six Mile Creek, my attention to them interrupted by the passing across the river of a quartet of wood storks. After navigating another S curve, the straight river section appeared with the black heads of many cormorants, obviously finding abundant food in the same location as the brown pelicans. There were so many cormorants in the air I hoped none would err and run into my rig.
The slowest and most difficult part of the outward bound sail promised to be also the hardest on the way home, and the turn for a short distance to the southwest proved to be as difficult as anticipated. Again, the trees on the southern bank proved problematic in blocking the wind while the outgoing tide threatened to push us back toward the coast. I pleaded, begged, and cajoled the wind to get me around the last point. At times I even whispered to the wind, “my good friend”, for a little help, a little lift, a continuation of a puff. I was distracted while tacking by the flight of an eagle carrying nest material. I took to paddling through each lull to maintain forward momentum. Squeezing by the point, the Delta was not ready to let me go, and the wind spun round and dropped off. With the bridge in sight, it was all out paddling, only stopping when a real puff pushed Kingfisher along. Finally a steady breeze found its way down the river, bringing us to the landing. We were the last vehicle and trailer in the parking lot at 4PM.
In processing the trip on the way home and later, I realized I had paid a price, though a relatively small one, to experience the Delta. This difficulty was the proverbial blessing in disguise. It helped me to empathize with past canoeists, boaters and mariners who I’m sure experienced much greater difficulties. I imagined sailors losing their wind. Facing an adverse tide, their plight may have been to anchor, and then experience the rampant hordes of mosquitoes and biting flies, of legendary magnitude on the Delta. I wondered how the families at their fish camp would have coped in spring and summer when biting insects descended on them? What were their techniques for catching sturgeon and gar? Would they have also camped on my property, harvesting hickory nuts in the fall, and hunting for deer? In following their paths and courses, and learning more about the natural world, do I move a little closer to knowing about their lives.