Paddling the Little Pee Dee River in eastern South Carolina ranks as one of the most memorable water adventures in the South. And one not often completed in its entirety because of the difficult nature of the upper river. This Southern blackwater river rises from an old millpond along the North Carolina line and flows 109 miles through a sparsely inhabited belt of often pristine Carolina lowland forest to its junction with the Great Pee Dee River near the Atlantic Coast.
This book records a journey down the river with my cousin Chick Gaddy. I am William S. Walker, a writer with a house alongside the river at Fork Retch, S.C. Chick is L.L. Gaddy, a naturalist and author who is an expert on the Southern outdoors. I grew up in Nichols, only a scant two miles from the river and close beside the Lumber River, a tributary of the Little Pee Dee. My boyhood was spent on both rivers. Chick explored the same places as a boy and young man.
The Little Pee Dee drains a verdant belt that winds through four South Carolina counties – Marlboro, Dillon, Marion and Horry – on the way to the Great Pee Dee. The river floodplain is home to a stunning variety of wildlife including deer, alligator, feral hogs, turkeys, beaver, muskrat and at least 50 species of birds, a like number of fish plus snakes of all kinds, most notably the cottonmouth moccasin.
Tannins generated from decaying vegetation stain the river to its unique blackwater coloration. And when the flow crosses the frequent stretches of brilliant white sand, it produces images of a gold-tinted bottom stretching uninterrupted for miles.
The Little Pee Dee earned an enduring place in American history during the Revolutionary War when Francis Marion, the legendary Swamp Fox, made the region his private reserve for tormenting the British. In 1780, when the war hung in the balance with British troops on the verge of subduing the Southern colonies, Marion was the American commander who would not quit. The Swamp Fox and his small band of guerrillas struck with a series of raids that prevented the British from consolidating critical lines of communication and supply. His attacks came at a critical time when the entire American Revolution was in danger of being lost. And the first phase of his campaign was fought from the Pee Dee swamps and rivers. Under way on the Little Pee Dee we were never far from the places that made Marion and his men the state’s greatest folk heroes.
We broke our journey into day trips, 18 in all totaling 160-plus hours on the river. Much of our time was spent paddling in the shadows of overhanging swamp forest, crossing under great, gray streamers of Spanish moss, moving along a waterway capable of conveying a traveler, literally and figuratively, back across the centuries to a time when the river was the domain of the native Indians who inhabited eastern South Carolina.
Today, despite the inroads of civilization, a Little Pee Dee traveler encounters mile after uninterrupted mile of towering forest, primarily cypress, tupelo, water and laurel oak and the occasional stand of loblolly pine. Knobby cypress knees, the above water roots of the beautiful and massive cypress forest, protrude from the swamp floor and line the river banks by the tens of thousands. For half its length, until it reaches the junction with the Lumber River between Nichols and Mullins, the Little Pee Dee is unsuited for all but the smallest of boats, primarily single seat fishing rigs. Thus, the natural beauty of the river is only occasionally interrupted by humans. A few dozen houses and cabins have been built along the sections closest to public roads. There are clusters of larger homes around Dillon, at Fork Retch below the junction with the Lumber and at Cartwheel Landing, Knife Island, Davis Landing and Locust Tree Landing in Lower Marion County. But the river for the most part remains as natural and wild as it was in Francis Marion’s time.
Ours was not only a river journey of natural, geographic and historical discovery but also one involving the people we met on the way downstream- anglers, pleasure boaters, tourists and local residents. In addition, we involved our family and friends in the project. Our main man in making many parts of the trip happen was our uncle, mentor and frequent truck chauffeur, C.P. Mincey. His farm backs up to the Little Pee Dee between Nichols and Mullins. C.P., a retired barber from Nichols, is an accomplished farmer and conservationist. C.P.’s wife of 65-plus years, our mothers’ sister Betty, often fed us after the trips along with my wife Elizabeth, a local girl raised only a short distance from the banks of the river. Aunt Betty, Chick’s mother Sally, and my mother Clarice were South Carolina farm girls, Blantons from Wannamaker near Duford in Horry County.
The Little Pee Dee journey was important to me as a tribute to a brave man who didn’t live long enough to join us. A year before Chick and I set out, I promised my closest boyhood companion, my first cousin Ben Brown, that he and I would get back on the rivers of our youth when he recovered from cancer surgery. But his condition worsened in early 2011 and two days before his death I vowed to him I would make the river trip for both of us. That promise to Ben was my main inspiration in writing this book.
Our journey passed through the land of the Vehidi, or Pee Dee Indians, original settlers of the region that encompasses this river belt descending through Marlboro and Dillon Counties and along the border between Marion and Horry Counties, all of it between the two rivers, the Little Pee Dee and the Great Pee Dee. The chief of the Pee Dee Tribe, James Caulder, shared with me his people’s cultural history and attachment to the river from the earliest times.
I kept a written diary of the individual trips while Chick, drawing on his immense knowledge of the South Carolina outdoors, observed the flora, fauna and wildlife of the Little Pee Dee River Basin and filled me in on anything he found interesting. We traveled in lightweight plastic kayaks. Chick carried a waterproof point and shoot digital. I used a larger digital single lens reflex with a zoom lens. During our days on the river we took more than 10,000 photographs and a collection of them is presented in this book.