Discovering A Tidal Treasure: South Carolina’s Beaufort River

September 12, 2010

Published in The Miami Herald
By Deborah S. Hartz-Seely

Full Text of the Article can be found on the Miami Herald web site.

Discovering A Tidal Treasure:  South Carolina's Beaufort River

We wrestle our kayaks off the top of the car and look over our charts. Having paddled the mangrove tunnels, Everglades and manmade canals of South Florida, we anticipate discovering the natural beauty of this area's tidal marsh.

The Beaufort River is lined with tall marsh grass called spartina. At low tide, waters recede and expose mudflats. The space is shared by fiddler crabs, oystercatchers, herons, mullet, terrapin and osprey, all living not far from the historic downtown.

Beaufort sits on one of the largest natural harbors on the East Coast. The first Europeans to discover it were the Spanish and French who sailed here in the 1520s.

By the 1700s, these waterways had become important transportation routes for plantation owners moving their crops to European markets. Today, the water remains an important draw to this area.

Recreational boaters traveling along the Intracoastal Waterway -- many on their way to and from Florida -- find Beaufort and nearby Port Royal a welcome stop. And for people like us -- my husband is an avid kayaker and I paddle along for the scenery -- it's the perfect place to put-in our boats and discover the natural beauty of tidal marsh.

Our plan is to follow one of the local Blueways Trails, which are something like hiking trails for paddlers. They've been developed across the country, including in South Florida, by volunteers who also gather information about the history and ecology of the area and post it on their website to make your paddle more interesting and informative.

Talk to anyone with experience on the water in this area, and they'll tell you that before you set out, you should check the tides. They rise and fall six to eight feet just about every six hours, and they run at 1 3/4 miles per hour or more.

``You might as well go with the flow,'' says Alice Burke when we stop into Old Bay Outfitters in the historic downtown to make sure we've got the latest information. She consults the local tide chart for us and is so enthusiastic about our proposed paddle that we ask her to join us.

That's how friendly the people are in the Low Country. One day you're a customer and the next day paddling buddies.

Two days later, the three of us push into the Beaufort River. Heading into the dark blue current, we can't help but think of the brown oil that -- at the time -- threatened our bright blue waters and white beaches at home.

On this very hot June day cooled by a steady north breeze, the wind makes a lovely rustling in the spartina, the tall marsh grass that lines the banks. As we skim the coast, the turning tide means the water level is quite low; the grass stands tall and proud.

It also means we don't need to paddle very hard, so we have time to look for what nature offers. We are welcomed by schools of jumping baby mullet that virtually leap over our boats.

We push by a beach where people are studying the hard-packed sand. Burke tells us they are searching for sharks' teeth. When a shark (seven species are common to the area) loses a tooth, it grows a new one and the lost ones collect in areas like this.

Soon we see what looks like another beach, but it proves to be a craggy bed of sun-bleached oyster shells. Here we are entertained by two strutting birds. Their bright red, blunt-ended bills stand out against the shells sparkling in the sun and their black heads atop white bellies.

Burke tells us these are American oystercatchers. They use their bills to break open the shells of oysters, mussels and clams.

We take a break from paddling when we reach a beach with the remains of Fort Frederick on it. Built in 1734, the fort is believed to be the oldest tabby structure in South Carolina. All that's left today are a few waist-high walls, but at one time, it defended against the Spanish.

Returning to the river, we paddle for a little ways before leaving the main waterway to explore a ribbon of water cutting into the field of spartina. The grass is green this time of year with some shocks of brown grass leftover from the winter. The dead grass is actually easier than the live grass for many of the marsh animals to digest.

We watch the time to be sure we don't get caught exploring these marshy areas at low tide, or we may not get out. The mud that makes up the bottom of the marsh is slimy and sticky. If our boat gets stuck and we step out onto what looks like solid ground, we could sink in up to our hips, Burke tells us.

We also recognize the faintly sulfurous odor of the mudflats. It is not unpleasant, only different, the result of decomposing nature.

But there's an upside to the muck. It breeds and nurtures all sorts of creatures. Fiddler crabs scurry just above the water line. Those waving one big claw are the males, those with two small claws the females.

Because our kayaks sit so low in the water, we can't see over the grass, but there is plenty to discover beneath us. The pancake-shaped, reddish brown sting rays look like hovercraft navigating soundlessly around our boats.

A diamond-back terrapin sticks its head up to check us out. Its gray-brown shell or carapace covered with concentric hexagons makes it easy to identify. It quickly dives into the cool water in search of crabs and fish.

As we move silently, small creatures swim ahead of our boats rippling the water and reflecting the sun so that they look like bits of silver. Burke, who was born in Beaufort and learned about marsh life by spending time on the water with her father, tells us these are baby shrimp.

We hear the chatter of marsh hens as they signal to each other through the rustling grass. We see the flashing color of a red-wing blackbird.

When the slip of water we've turned into becomes too narrow to navigate, we return to the main river and head north once again.

We pass a manmade platform set atop poles that makes a comfy place for birds to deposit a cushion of Spanish moss for a nest. An osprey couple has made this their summer home.

Farther along the bank, another regal bird, standing on bright yellow legs, is decked out in red and blue plumage. Only later do we discover this is an appropriately named tri-colored heron.

We are equally impressed with the showy white plumage of the great egret that looks so out of place against the brown mud. Imagine if this regal bird were coated with oil.

Soon we paddle past modern palatial homes just south of Beaufort's historic downtown. Each has an emerald lawn that sweeps down to where the marsh grass begins. And then we enjoy a view of the majestic pre-Civil War homes of old Beaufort rising behind the boats docked in the town's marina.

Beaufort was captured by Union soldiers early in the Civil War and, as a result, houses in the historic area were spared destruction. Today they are protected by strict building codes and zoning laws.

As we pull our boats out of the water onto the Beaufort Public Landing, we have a great respect and appreciation for this place where historic and natural treasures remain beautifully intact.

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