For visitors who may not be familiar with the area, listed below are brief descriptions of the geographic references used in the picture captions and entries under Notes and Reflections:
Brunswick County, NC – Brunswick County is on the Atlantic coast, at the southeastern corner of North Carolina.
Columbus County, NC – Columbus County adjoins Brunswick County at Brunswick’s northern boundary. Both counties have borders with South Carolina. Brunswick and Columbus counties share a rich heritage of ecological wonders, including Carolina bays, pocosins, cypress and tupelo swamps, and longleaf pine savannahs. The Waccamaw River marks a portion of the border between the two counties, from just above NC 130 (see below) to the South Carolina border.
Lake Waccamaw – Lake Waccamaw is a natural lake located in Columbus County, NC, just south of US Route 74-76. The Waccamaw River begins at a point on the southwest shore of the lake.
NC 130 (Babson’s Boat Ramp) – NC 130 runs northwesterly from the coast near Shallotte, NC, across Brunswick and into Columbus County. Just before NC 130 crosses the Waccamaw River into Columbus County there is a bait shop on the west side of the highway. Next to the bait shop is a narrow driveway that winds down to a privately owned boat ramp. This is Babson’s Boat Ramp. (Note: The landowner charges a small fee to use the ramp on an honor basis. Be sure and take some singles with you if you plan to use this ramp.)
NC 904 – Like NC 130, NC 904 begins on the coast and runs generally northwest across Brunswick County and into Columbus County, and like NC 904 it is important for our purposes because of a boat landing on the Brunswick County side of the Waccamaw. This is a public landing with concrete ramps and plenty of parking. There is a nice store on the exit road leading down to the landing that sells food, beverages, and fishing and camping supplies.
Note: The stretch of river between the landings at NC 130 and NC 904 has been designated as a North Carolina Coastal Paddle Trail. Go to the site below for additional information, including a useful map.
Horry County, SC – Horry County lies at the northeast corner of South Carolina, bordered on the northeast by North Carolina and on the southeast by the Atlantic Ocean. Horry County is most well known for its beaches at Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach, but it also has some notable inland attractions, including the Waccamaw River and the City of Conway, which is located next to the Waccamaw.
Wortham’s Ferry – Wortham’s Ferry is the first “landing” on the river after in crosses into South Carolina. Wortham’s Ferry is not an improved landing and there is no actual boat ramp. It is an open area at the end of County Road 111 which goes gradually down to the river edge. It can be used to take boats in and out, but has no designated parking area. It is possible to park there without interfering with the use of the landing, but if you plan to leave your vehicle it’s preferable to go further downriver to the public landing on Hwy 9.
Hwy 9 (Chris Anderson Memorial Landing) – The first improved boat ramp downriver from the North Carolina border is the Chris Anderson Memorial Landing at Highway 9 in Longs. (Chris Anderson was a local youth who died from stab wounds suffered when he went to the aid of another youth.) Highway 9 runs more or less parallel to the North Carolina border, from Interstate 95 southeast to North Myrtle Beach. The landing is just north of the bridge, on the west side of the highway.
Red Bluff Landing – The next major landing downriver from Hwy 9 is at County Road 31E, approximately 19.5 river miles downstream. Red Bluff Landing has a concrete boat ramp and a large parking area. There are two smaller landings between Hwy 9 and Red Bluff Road, one at the end of Star Bluff Road and one at Big Savannah Bluff. I personally prefer the larger landings, but the smaller landings do provide additional options.
Note: Portions of the Waccamaw River from the North Carolina border to just above Red Bluff Landing have been set aside for protection under South Carolina’s Heritage Trust Program and this stretch of river is a designated “Water Trail”. Go to the site below for more details, including directions and distances between landings.
It’s mid-March and I’m looking for a convincing sign that spring is on its way. Yes, there are buds on many of the trees, and yes it’s sunny and in the high 50s, but I’m looking for more of statement. I paddle out of a bend and into a straight stretch of the river where it widens out, heading upstream toward a group of small trees standing in a couple feet of water. The trees are easy to spot because they are full of emerging bright green leaves and decorated here and there with pretty white flowers. The hawthorns are in blossom.
Hawthorns are one of the first trees to leaf out in the spring and the flowers open up even before the leaves uncurl. Hawthorns are very common along some parts of the river and along the streams and backwaters that go off of the river, and it’s revealing to be there when they are in bloom because of the way they stand out among the larger trees along the edge of the river. By late spring the larger trees will dominate the landscape, but the end of winter belongs to the hawthorns.
After the hawthorns bloom the river comes slowly back to life. Red maples come forward with their scarlet buds and leafing laurel oak take on a distinctive peach color. Hungry fish take food at the surface of the water with telltale small splashes, prothonotary warblers show up in the understory and fill the air with their unmistakable song, mother wood ducks can be seen herding ducklings along the river’s edge, spider lilies bloom improbably against the dark banks, dragonflies start to patrol the air over the river, and groggy water snakes and turtles come out on logs and overhanging limbs seeking rejuvenation in the warming sun. Oh yeah.
Summer on the river is ….. slow. The water level is generally lower, fish seek out deeper water, and wildlife seek shelter from the heat of the day. But the river is still a pleasant place to be and there are things to see. Dragonflies and damselflies are active and provide a challenging diversion for photographers — and you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment. Some dragonflies are very accommodating in providing photo ops if you are patient enough to watch and wait. Get out early in the morning to avoid the most oppressive part of the day.
Fall brings cooler weather and some interesting color variations as the trees start to change. It’s a great time for day trips before the days get too short and the weather starts to deteriorate. In the spring there is so much going on that I don’t like to go point-to-point, preferring to stay within five or six miles of where I put in and spend my time poking around. Fall is a great time to take longer paddles and just enjoy the scenery and the fresh air.
Late November on the river brings a whole new element – hunting season. All through the rest of the year the river has been shared by humans in relative harmony, but hunting season changes the balance. This is not a condemnation of hunters or hunting. It’s just that the introduction of live fire zones on the river is incompatible with sightseeing by canoe or kayak. It just makes sense to let the hunters have the river during their season.
I once tried to figure out when hunting season officially begins and ends on the river, but gave it up in favor of a more general approach. My experience has been that the hunters come out in force around Thanksgiving and that from then until the end of December its best to stay off the river. I watch the landings. If the trucks are there in any numbers I stay home. If only a few trucks are there early in the morning, and they are leaving by 10:00 or 11:00 a.m., then I will consider going out for a couple hours.
Winter can be great time to be on the river. The air is pure and refreshing and there is a sense of solitude that is elusive during the rest of the year. Winter is also an opportunity to see things that are hidden from late spring through autumn, such as bird’s nests, beaver lodges, and great old oak and cypress trees that become visible through the bared branches of the forest. Evergreens like pines, hollies, bays, and live oak stand out and provide an uncluttered view of their distribution along the river, and birds are much easier to spot and observe.
So it is that each season on the river provides its own unique blend of benefits, attractions, and challenges.
Having pointed out some of the pleasures of winter paddling, I would be remiss if I did not at least remind readers of the hazards of being on the water in cold weather. First, bulky winter clothing that is not designed for water related activities can drown you if you capsize or fall into deep water. Second, getting and staying wet in colder weather can cause hypothermia, even at moderate temperatures. If you plan on paddling in the winter it makes good sense to purchase appropriate clothing, and always stow some extra dry clothing in a waterproof bag just in case. (NRS is one source for good clothing for kayaking.)
One of my first kayak trips on the Waccamaw River was from the boat ramp on NC 904 in Brunswick County, North Carolina, down to a pull-off in South Carolina known as Wortham’s Ferry. [See my note on “places.”] I was with my brother-in-law, Charlie, my wife, and a couple of friends. The river was at moderate height, the foliage along the banks was lush and green, and the whole trip was a leisurely and relaxing float downriver.
I have paddled that section, or parts of it, many times since. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I have “traveled” that section, because there have been times when I spent as much time pulling and carrying my boat as I did paddling. This is especially true in the South Carolina portion of the section, which can become almost impassable by boat when the river is low.
There have also been times on that section when I could paddle off the river into hardwood forests that are dry most of the year, and right over point bars (the sand bars that form on the inside corners of bends in the river) that would have been dry enough for camping at other times of year.
These changes occur over the entire course of the river, although it is more dramatic in some places than others due to differences in the width and depth of the channel and the elevation of the surrounding area. The depth of the river is constantly changing because of variations in rainfall upstream and other factors, such as changing ground water levels and the seasonal effect of increased evaporation from foliage (evapotranspiration) from late spring into fall. (Note: For an interesting discussion of the various factors that affect water levels in the Waccamaw River see the report entitled “The Waccamaw Drainage System: Geology and Dynamics of a Coastal Wetland, Southeastern North Carolina”, prepared by Stanley R. Riggs, Dorothea V. Ames, D. Randall Brant, and Eric D. Sager for the North Carolina Dept of Environment and Natural Resources.)
Changes in the height of the river can dramatically change the way the river looks, and can also change the view of the river, especially in a kayak, where you are literally sitting on the water. When the river is high you can see into forest that is obscured by the river banks at low water. Fallen trees and sunken logs that are unseen at moderate to high water become snags when the river is low, causing navigational problems, but also creating a dramatic change of scenery, and although drastic changes in water levels can be problematic, normal variations are natural and make the river all the more interesting and enjoyable.
The following relates to the area between NC 904 in Brunswick County, NC and Red Bluff Road in Horry County, SC, and is offered as a general guideline. If you are not familiar with the area, the best advice is to check with someone who is familiar with the conditions in the area that you wish to go or to use one of the local guide services.
Water levels on the river are monitored by gages maintained at several points on the river. Although historically, levels are higher in late in winter and early spring, falling in late spring and early summer, the most important concern when planning to go on the river is what is going on at the time. Experienced boaters will look at the river at landings and other access points and know when the level is too low (or too high) for what they want to do.
If you are unfamiliar with the river and don’t know who to ask, you can use the following as a rough guide for the area between NC 904 and Red Bluff Road, using the gage height at Longs as a reference (see link below): between 4 – 8 feet, relax and have fun; 2-4 feet, you may encounter some obstacles (sunken logs and shallow sand bars), especially in the stretch from the North Carolina/South Carolina border south to Wortham’s Ferry; below 2 feet, stay in the deeper sections around Red Bluff and NC 904, or check out areas on the lower portion of the river where water levels may be more stable. Above 8 feet the river can become confusing in some places, and the higher the water level the more confusing it can be.
If the waterlevel is significantly higher because of recent weather events the river may be unsafe. The Waccamaw is generally slow moving and friendly. If it looks turbulent and fast moving its best to find something else to do until the river calms down.
Link to site for gage height at Longs: