Mar/April 2020The Carolina Seven By Tom Mullikin
Photos by SCDNR staff
An exploratory venture into our state’s natural treasury.
Having traveled and been awed by the length and breadth of this amazing planet for most of my adult life, I am never far from my first love, South Carolina. Her internationally celebrated natural beauty, wild treasures and resources all are so remarkably accessible to every day-hiker and adventure traveler regardless of global starting point. And, as a means of showcasing these treasures – herein referred to as the South Carolina Seven – I’m planning a new 2020 expedition from the mountains to the sea. This exploration, in recognition of Earth Day’s fiftieth anniversary, will bring focus to protecting the natural resources of our planet and better understanding our magnificent environment.
Our journey (I say “our,” because I will be accompanied by my son, Thomas Jr., an accomplished world-explorer in his own right.) will begin in the northwestern part of the state and move gradually south and southeast, largely on foot, but also by raft or kayak on the riverine stretches and beyond.
Though our actual geographic route may be somewhat fluid and fluctuating as we move deeper into the state’s interior, we will begin here within the pages of South Carolina Wildlife with Sassafras Mountain, the highest point in South Carolina (what we call the “Roof of the Palmetto State”) and part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are part of the Appalachian Mountains.
We will then raft the famed Chattooga River — the crown jewel of Southern white water and best-known as the filming location for the movie Deliverance. This magnificent stretch of wilderness river and surrounding gorge contains twenty-six miles of rafting adventure, split into two different river trip sections. Southern Living magazine rates the Chattooga as the "#1 Thing Southerners Must Do." I don't disagree.
Speaking of gorges, we will also be hiking the great Jocassee Gorges; named by National Geographic as one of the "world's last great places." Here in the uppermost reaches of South Carolina, the clear waters of Lake Jocassee splash against the base of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, essentially a "blue wall" of hills that represent the sharp transition between our Carolina mountains and the piedmont. Here we see dark forested slopes drop in elevation by 2,000 vertical feet in a matter of one to two miles.
Working our way toward the center of the Palmetto State, we will find Congaree National Park, a primeval expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest. In fact, it is the largest tract of its kind remaining in the southeastern United States. There are wild hogs aplenty, besides all the deer, otters, beaver, turkey, bobcats, snakes and other reptiles, and myriad birds. In this astonishingly biodiverse ecosystem — deeply remote albeit just off the beaten path — waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers nourish the floodplain, bringing nutrients and sediment that support the growth of some of the oldest national champion and state champion trees anywhere to be found.
Further south, we will venture via kayak into the dark waters of the ancient Edisto River, so-named for the subtribe of the Cusabo Native Americans who once inhabited this area. The Edisto River is one of the longest free-flowing blackwater rivers in North America.
It flows more than 250 meandering miles from its sources in the counties of Saluda and Edgefield to its Atlantic Ocean mouth at Edisto Beach.
We will then hike to and through what is easily one of my favorite exploratory destinations in the world: The ACE Basin.
The ACE Basin is so-named because it is a geographic convergence of the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers into St. Helena Sound, forming a large 350,000-acre basin of rivers, marshlands, wetlands and hardwood forests. As such, it is one of the largest undeveloped estuaries along the Atlantic Coast.
Here within the ACE Basin, we’ll navigate the seventeen miles from Bennett's Point Road to Bear Island Wildlife Management Area and the Michael D. McKenzie Field Station.
The marsh habitat, creeks and shallow grassy flats are teeming with birds, from plovers, rails and bitterns to American white pelicans, wood storks and bald eagles.
Lastly, we'll conclude our expedition at Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site in Charleston, which preserves the first permanent English settlement in Carolina.
These are the South Carolina Seven, though honorable mentions must be made for two of my favorites: Lake Murray and Brookgreen Gardens. Lake Murray, one of the world’s largest man-made lake reservoirs and a former training area for B-25 bombers operating out of the old Columbia Army Airfield during World War II. Lake Murray was constructed in the 1920s by damming the Saluda River which flows from the Upstate. Completed in 1930, the Lake Murray dam was the largest earthen dam in the world at that time. Lake Murray's 50,000 acres are surrounded by approximately 500 miles of shoreline.
Also, Brookgreen Gardens, America's first public sculpture garden which today features the largest collection of figurative sculpture by American artists in an outdoor setting anywhere in the world. Situated on Waccamaw Neck in Georgetown County between the Waccamaw River and the Atlantic coast, Brookgreen Gardens also feature a nature and historical preserve with a small zoo and a nature exhibition center.
Tom Mullikin is a lawyer, educator, world explorer and conservationist.