Jul/Aug 2009Jocassee Adventureby Talley V. Kayser, photographs by Michael Foster and Greg Lucas

Drought has changed the scenery, but a boat tour of this beautiful Upstate lake and its falls, cliffs and wildlife is still an awe-inspiring trip.

Waiting at the dock for my trip companions to arrive, I am surprised by two glaring details: the interminable length of the boat ramp, and the broad swath of beach rimming the cove. Two years ago, when I spent a wonderful day kayaking around the lake with my brother, the hemlocks dipped to brush the water's surface; now, a good twenty feet of sand separates the drooping branches from Lake Jocassee's brilliant surface.

"Wow," says S.C. Department of Natural Resources education specialist Greg Lucas when he arrives, even more taken aback than I am. "I knew it was low, but this is low." We watch a woman position her pontoon at the head of the ramp, then skillfully back it down thirty feet of concrete strip to the water. "Impressive," I say, and he nods, still frowning at the jumble of rocks piling down the red expanse of beach.

Earlier that week, we had both attended a Drought Response Committee meeting, where DNR State Climatologist Hope Mizzell announced that Lake Jocassee was 26.4 feet below normal level. This dramatic figure results from the drought that has parched our state for the past three years. But seeing the figure on paper does little to prepare you for the raw, exposed shoreline that currently rims the lake.

"From Jumping Off Rock, the shore looks like a bathtub ring," says DNR photographer Michael Foster as we troll across open water toward the Jocassee Hydroelectric Station. Twenty-four years of experience have given him an intimate knowledge of the lake's characteristics.

Like many other lakes in South Carolina, Jocassee was created artificially to provide electricity. In 1973, Duke Energy dammed Jocassee Valley, an agricultural area with an active tourist industry. Now, the 385-foot-high, 1,750-foot-long dam, flanked by storage towers on one side and sluice gates on the other, houses turbines responsible for the 610,000 kilowatts produced by the Jocassee station.

Foster's son, Elliot, has been peering through a pair of binoculars and draws our attention to the concrete wall halfway up the opposing hillside - the Bad Creek Hydroelectric Station, which provides 1,065,000 kilowatts of power to Carolina customers. Both of these plants use a pumped-storage process, sending water through turbines to create power during high-demand periods, then "recharging" their water sources by running the turbines backward during times of low demand.

Interestingly, the dam was built primarily from rock quarried at the site, a process that formed one of the lake's most popular destinations. Immediately past the hydro station, a hundred-foot-tall cliffside, still scarred by the drills that carved it, stands sentinel over the water. The site is a major attraction for photographers and divers, and day-trippers can picnic or sunbathe on the adjacent beach, even under normal water conditions. Behind this beach, a short trail winds up the rim of the cliff - immediately after hearing this, Elliot and I dash over the sand to find the path.

A few minutes later, we emerge onto a small promontory less than halfway up the cliff face. "Can you jump?" Michael hollers up from the beach, "I've seen it done there before!" We lean out and gaze into a sixty-foot drop ending in clearly visible, jagged rocks. The dramatic waterline stretching across the cliff makes it clear that our precursors made a mere thirty-foot leap of faith, paltry by comparison.

After taking photographs of the cliff, we power along the shoreline, looking along the high ridge for the broad granite face of Jumping Off Rock. A pair of peregrine falcons adopted this patch of rock as a nesting site in March 2008, making it one of only two documented peregrine nests in South Carolina. While the Jumping Off Rock overlook is now closed in the spring to protect the falcons, a new vista has been created nearby with the same breathtaking panorama of the lake and surrounding hillsides. The new overlook is accessible from Horsepasture Road - which leaves US Highway 178 near the community of Rocky Bottom in northern Pickens County - and is especially stunning during late October, when the leaves begin to change color.

We spot the rock high on the hillside but immediately turn our attention to the left, where a group of campers is hard at work tying five canoes together. As we watch, they attach a large tarp to two paddles and raise it across the lashed bows; to our surprise, the makeshift sail does quite well! The campers let out cheers as the tarp fills with wind and propels the canoes back down the lake, probably toward Double Springs Campground, Jocassee's primitive camping site. Campers can make reservations for this "boat in" site by calling the toll-free reservation line at 1-800-345-PARK (7275) or online at www.southcarolinaparks.com and can spend the night on a lakeshore under the stars - provided they're comfortable with having a pit toilet as their only amenity.

We continue toward the Toxaway River arm of the lake, hugging the shoreline in search of Laurel Fork Falls. The point where Laurel Fork Creek spills directly into the lake is one of the many waterfall highlights that visitors to Jocassee love to view. Today though, because of the drought, the face of the falls is very different.

Almost immediately after we enter the creek, we realize that a hike is in order. Exposed sandbars have shaped the usually broad creek into a shallow, meandering channel only a few feet wide. The piles of sand - five feet or more above the water's surface - are a wonder in their own right, colonized by opportunistic plants, many in flower. As we ground the boat and begin to trek upstream along the bank, we see a hillside of delicate orchids hosting large numbers of fluttering tiger swallowtails. These butterflies, which hatch on members of the carrot family, sport either yellow and black vertical stripes (the males) or black wings with iridescent blue trim on the bottom (females). A variety of sedges are also taking root in the exposed sand.

It's a five-minute walk up the creek to the falls - a trip that can be made entirely by canoe or kayak under normal water conditions. As we approach the falls, Greg notes a small wooden sign to our left, which points toward the Foothills Trail access. While unmarked logging roads wind through the woods surrounding the lake, the Foothills Trail is the most navigable walking trail in the lake area. The 76-mile path in South Carolina and North Carolina cuts just north of the lake, paralleling Laurel Fork Creek before crossing all four of the major rivers that feed into Lake Jocassee. Adventurous hikers can head farther north on Auger Hole Road, then take a left onto Chestnut Mountain Road. This road winds up to Gorges State Park in North Carolina, which offers trails to Rainbow Falls (a 75-foot drop) and Turtleback Falls (a "waterslide" falls).

We walk first to the bottom of Laurel Fork Falls - into a cool, stony crevice with moss clinging to its sides and trees standing guard overhead. Two fishermen are scouting the pool at the waterfall's base; the waterfall itself spills from overhead in a single, narrow stream. Though only a fraction of its usual size, Laurel Fork Falls is still a lovely sight - even more so once we backtrack and clamber up the bank to view the upstream falls. These upper falls are worth the short and slippery climb; two sparkling cascades feed a pool that (as Elliott doesn't hesitate to find out) makes a perfect - but chilly! - swimming hole.

After pausing to enjoy the quiet retreat, we hike back down to the boat and head toward the Toxaway arm of the lake. One of the four major rivers that feed Lake Jocassee (the others: the Whitewater, Thompson and Horsepasture), the "Mighty Toxaway" bears witness to how dramatically drought can change an ecosystem. This river is usually a churning mass of foam that plows directly into the lake. Now, a gracefully meandering stream only inches deep winds around brilliant green meadows - former sandbars that have adopted a variety of enterprising plants. Joe-pye-weed, smartweed, jewel-weed, red cardinal flower and blue lobelia are just a few of the blooming stalks rising above a crowd of sedges and shorter grasses. While long pants probably would have been a good idea (sedges have edges!) I thoroughly enjoy our foray into this unexpected garden of flowers.

During our half-mile trek upstream, we have a chance to examine the wildlife that inhabit the area via the clear tracks left on the sandy edges of the bank. We spy enormous tracks from a great blue heron, as well as the imprints of smaller birds. Kingfisher and killdeer call from nearby; however, these birds are not nearly as distracting as the three banded water snakes that we encounter in the water! These snakes are not venomous, although they're frequently mistaken (and killed) for water moccasins, which aren't found in the Upstate.

A 225-foot suspension bridge - our destination - is part of the Foothills Trail, and it offers a view down the Toxaway arm. We take a few photographs there and then head back downstream, this time walking in the middle of a former sandbar and taking a closer look at the variety of the plant communities. Butterflies - most of them tiger swallowtails - feast on the bright blue and red lobelia flowers, so engrossed in their work that they ignore our approach. We continue through the thick, bright green brush, admiring the subtleties of this temporary colony, then head out for a final destination - Mill Creek Falls, the only waterfall currently viewable by boat.

James Couch, a former Jocassee Valley resident and a tour guide on Lake Jocassee for more than twenty years, says the falls are the lowest he's ever seen. For him, and other tour guides in the area, this means a serious decline in what he calls "passive" tourism. "For kids, for families, the beaches are great," he says, "but people call me wanting to know how many waterfalls they can see on a boat tour, and I tell them one!"

This is a far cry from a usual year, when several small creeks drop into the lake, creating midsize waterfalls all along the lakeshore. "It hurts the fall tours," Couch says.

He's also noted a change in the lake's fishing. "Largemouth and smallmouth bass are ambush feeders," he explains, "and hang out near shore structures." While the broad beaches might be great for sunbathing, they offer no shelter to these fish, making bass fishing along the lake much less exciting. Trout, however, have been stocked as usual and continue to provide hours of entertainment for fishermen. Small wonder, too - Jocassee has supplied the state record brown and rainbow trout, as well as the records for spotted, smallmouth and redeye bass!

Michael guides the boat up the Horsepasture arm, and I'm struck again by the clarity of the water. I remember well my first swim in Jocassee; as I hoisted myself out of the brilliantly clear water and back into the boat, I witnessed my brother diving into the lake, and I could see him clearly even as he dove over ten feet deep! Two years later, I'm still blown away by the beauty of the lake, especially once we approach Mill Creek Falls, a ribbon of water streaming into the lake's glassy surface.

As we power back toward the dock, both Greg and Michael assure me that the waterfall is much larger in normal water conditions. However, I am far from disappointed. Like the broad beaches and wildflower islands, the delicate cascades only add to the lake's vivid character. The water may be low, but a visit to Lake Jocassee is still sure to lift your spirits.


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