Our paddle on this particular day in South Carolina’s Low Country was in the ACE Basin. This basin is one of the most important coastal estuary systems (where a freshwater river or stream meets the ocean) along the east coast. The ACE Basin is an estuary created by the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers and the entire basin takes in around 350,000 acres. This estuary provides important habitat for many endangered species. We set out for a day of paddling the Combahee River and Cuckolds Creek.
This is a tidal area, and the tidal current was noticeable as we set out on the river and later into the marsh. The current was so strong at one point, when I paddled in to get out at the boat ramp for lunch, the current swept me right past the boat ramp (much to the amusement of my fellow kayakers). I had to turn around and paddle hard into the current to get back to the ramp.
Much of this area is black water rivers and tidal salt marshes. In estuaries, water continually circulates in and out with the rivers and creeks bringing in freshwater, and the tides bringing in saltwater. Because the marshes are tidal, they are a mix of salt and freshwater. Saltwater flows into the marshes with the tide twice a day but because the saltwater is heavier than the fresh water it moves along the bottom and the amount of salinity varies.
This variation in salinity throughout the tidal marshes, creeks and rivers also has an effect on what native species can be found in particular areas. This fisherman was happy with his catch of spottail bass from the estuary.
These particular tidal marshes were once large rice plantations worked by slaves. The rice fields once encompassed around 100,000 acres. African slaves skilled in growing rice were brought in to build and work the fields. These African slaves developed South Carolina’s unique Gullah culture that is currently in danger of disappearing. These old rice plantations are often referred to historically as the “Forgotten Fields,” for visually, the dikes have become overgrown and returned to nature.
A complex series of dikes, canals and gates were built to control the flow of water into and out of the fields. Gates, or “trunks,” were used to regulate the flow of water to flood the fields. The term “trunks” originated from the use of hollowed-out tree trunks for use in the irrigation gates. During our paddle we saw several old “trunk gates,” still visible along the dikes and channels.
As you can imagine, selecting the proper sites for rice cultivation was not easy and required a skilled person to consider, terrain, topography, soil conditions, elevations, native plants and water flow. Often marshy, or swampy wooded areas, had to be cleared to make way for the rice fields, an enormous task in itself.
When the rice boom ended in the late 1800s, wealthy investors bought up the failing rice plantations. They helped nature reclaim the rice fields. They continued to use the water gates for the rice fields to manage the marshes, turning them into prime waterfowl habitat for their private hunting retreats.
In the years to follow, private landowners led the effort to conserve this special place. Voluntary conservation easements have protected thousands of acres of private property. Also created to protect and preserve the basin is the ACE Basin Task Force and ACE Basin Habitat Protection and Enhancement Plan. These groups formed a coalition of businesses, landowners, private, state, and federal organizations. Their goal, to promote traditional land uses like farming, forestry, hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation while protecting the estuary and the shoreline from strong development pressure
The ACE Basin Project has proven to be one of the most successful conservation partnerships ever initiated by State, Federal and private citizen groups. To date, hundreds of thousands of acres have been protected through State or Federal ownership, and through conservation easements placed on private lands.
This area is home to the endangered American alligator. This is a little guy but we saw a really big one sunning on the bank at another spot.
During our paddle, we were fortunate to see the Hymenocallis liriosme, also known as Marsh Spider Lily, in bloom.
This is a plant that likes its feet wet. This wild lily is a southern native that can be found in marshes, swamps, pond edges and wet ditches. There were several patches of these lilies blooming as we paddled along the marsh channels. Their height and showy blossoms, make them an unusual looking plant.
As we paddled a channel leading to a large open pond area, one of my fellow kayakers said, “Look up at the sun.” It was mid-day, and the sun was almost straight overhead. Even though I had my sunglasses on I wasn’t that keen on looking up at the glaring sun but when I looked up it was an amazing sight. A solar halo was making a spectacular corona around the sun. I held my camera up and took a couple of pictures even though it was so bright out I couldn’t see the LED screen on my camera. I had no idea whether the picture would come out, but it did.
Halos around the sun or moon happen when high, thin cirrus clouds are drifting high above. Tiny ice crystals in the Earth’s atmosphere cause these halos. They do this by refracting and reflecting the light. Lunar Halos are signs that storms are nearby and rain is expected within 24 hours. In our case it held true. The next day it rained on and off most of the day. But on this day, we had a great day of paddling.