Lunch on an oyster shoal after a surprisingly easy first morning of paddling. (It got harder.)

We stopped for lunch during the first day of the Lawson Trek on an oyster shoal, an uncharacteristically hot October sun stinging my shoulders, but surprisingly unbothered by four hours of kayak paddling. We had crossed Charleston Harbor against the current -- the tide was coming in, whereas we were heading offshore.

From the Charleston Maritime Center on the west bank of the Cooper River, headed away from the vast Ravenel Bridge, it was only a mile of open water across the harbor. The current wasn’t too bad and the air utterly calm. The only disturbance to the water came from the fins of the dolphins that kept me and my guide, Ed Deal, cheerful as we had hugged the coast for another four miles towards the southern point of Sullivan's Island, where we could head into the Intracoastal Waterway.

That's me on the right and Ed Deal on the left. In the foreground is the fin of a bottlenose dolphin.

Sullivan's is one of a long series of barrier islands that defends the South Carolina shore. Some are tiny and low, barely more than marshes and above water only when the tide is low, and some high, supporting houses and electricity infrastructure. Sullivan’s has been populated since Lawson’s time. Of it Lawson says only that they passed it on the ocean side, heading into the maze of tidal creeks through the marshes and barrier islands through “the breach,” a notoriously treacherous inlet north of Sullivan’s that eventually tripped up the British during the Revolutionary War.

Lawson called the purely descriptive portion of his book, A New Voyage to Carolina, “A Journal of a Thousand Miles, Travel'd Thro' Several Nations of Indians.” Later, he goes through his notes and organizes his perception of what he's seen and whom he's met, but the most popular part of his book is the journal, a simple accounting of his days. And so it seemed, after the first leg of the Lawson Trek, that I ought to do the same. The Google Map below gives you a location-by-location summary of my journey by canoe along the South Carolina shore through the Intracoastal Waterway. In this post I’ll tell you a bit more about what happened, just as Lawson did.

My route.

Instead of the impenetrable tidal creeks that Lawson described as “turning and winding like a Labyrinth, having the Tide of Ebb and Flood twenty Times in less than three Leagues going,” after we crossed the harbor we took the straight shot of the waterway, dug over the centuries to make coastal passage easier. The tidal marshes, covered overwhelmingly by a marsh grass called Spartina alterniflora, remain almost unchanged from Lawson’s day. Thanks to the Francis Marion National Forest and the Cape Romain National Wildlife Reserve (both designated during the 1930s), the barrier islands this far north of Charleston have not developed, and my passage through them, especially when I found myself among natural creeks and channels rather than in the Intracoastal, was transformational.

Spartina alterniflora. Not just amazing, but truly beautiful.

Lawson spent his first night on what is now called the Isle of Palms, where a Bermudian invited them to share his hut, “open to the Heavens, thousands of Musketoes, and other troublesome Insects, tormenting both Man and Beast.” His second night passed more agreeably, on what is now Dewee’s Island, with “an honest Scot” who was living high on the hog, having gathered flotsam from a vessel that had wrecked offshore during a hurricane several months beforehand. Lawson praises the “Oat-meal and several other Effects he had found on that Coast,” which, given most ships’ stores of the time, we may infer included rum and salted meat (both far more memorable, but perhaps less politely mentioned).

I found this passage in Lawon’s journal tremendously satisfying, because anybody who’s ever been around the coastal Southeast knows that hurricane stories are essential, and they never die. I stayed for a week among the current residents, and almost without exception I heard stories of Hurricane Hugo stories, which passed through in 1989. I heard tales of floating household appliances, of so many boats washed up on shore that people jokingly called one island “the Goat Island Yacht Club,” and of the hurricane clearing so much land that it sparked a development boom.

Boats washed up after Hurricane Hugo in 1989. (Credit: Charleston Daily)

Lawson spent a few more days along the coast among the marshes, found the mouth of the Santee River and headed upstream where, when he made it to the settlement of French Huguenots living there, he got out of his canoe with evident relief and walked the rest of the way along his journey.

My first night host, Jimmy Small, has lived on Goat Island so long that he remembers before the island had electricity. Now even his palmettos have lights.

As for me, I spent my first night on Goat Island, with a host who shared with me a camping spot in his back yard—and stories of Hurricane Hugo. Ed Deal, my guide that day, pointed out the dolphins that sported with us and he taught me how to look for the troubled surface that indicated the presence below of the menhaden the dolphins love. He directed my attention to cloudless sulphur and monarch butterflies, to ospreys and eagles, to heron and egret, all making their livings among the Spartina. The marsh is one of the most productive ecosystems in the world, supporting the hatcheries of some 75 percent of fisheries. There sharks and other fish come to prey on the fish that seek shelter among the blades of Spartina; egrets, heron, ibis and other shore birds look for oysters and other comestibles. “The edge is the place to be,” my host said of the marsh. “There’s always something happening.”

The next day my guide Elizabeth Anderegg (I had several different guides) kept up a daylong patter about birds. As we slipped by mile after mile of Spartina we saw pairs of oystercatchers and roseate spoonbills, brown wood storks and snowy ibises. She noted how among the marshy islands we would always see yaupon (a species of holly), pine and of course palmetto. But the appearance of buckthorn and sugar maple, both calcium-loving trees, indicated either an oyster shoal or a midden from a forgotten village. Of course, an oyster shoal has plenty of other telltale signs. “They play music in the waves,” Elizabeth told me. Kathy Livingston, my guide on my last day, put it beautifully: “The tide lifts them up and sets them down, and they jingle,” she said. “It’s a kind of water-washed jingle.”

awson loved the Bull's Island beach: "Very fair sandy Beeches, pav'd with innumerable Sorts of curious pretty Shells, very pleasant to the Eye."

To camp on Capers Island I paddled up Price Inlet, where I enjoyed being carried forward on an outgoing tide. The next day, though, when I paddled across the inlet to enjoy a day hiking on Bull’s Island, I had to fight so hard against an incoming tide that I spent all day in fear of the outgoing current I’d have to face on my way back across to my campsite that night. I had the shrill whistle the Coast Guard required me to carry, but it seemed rather puny in the face of being swept out to sea. When Lawson left Bull’s Island in 1700, he tried to paddle across the expanse of Bull’s Bay, “when there sprung up a tart Gale at N. W. which put us in some Danger of being cast away.” Eventually, he and his gang made it safely back to Bull’s Island. Lawson talked about the pretty shells he saw there, which I also enjoyed.

Fortunately when I got to the canoe to paddle back to Capers, a stiff onshore breeze more than counteracted the outgoing current, and I reached the island with little trouble. A fierce storm did rock my tent that night from the southeast, but the next day I was back in the water none the worse for it.

My fourth day found me and my guide at the Sewee Shell Ring in Awendaw, a mysterious human-made structure some 4,000 years old about halfway up the coast to the Santee River. One local has done some experimentation and sees in the shell ring a Stonehenge-style calendar, but all anybody knows for sure is that it’s old, and Native Americans built it. I slept that night at a National Forest campground, where my canoe made a nice contrast to the enormous honking RVs housing the people making the most out of shrimp-baiting season.

On the water near the kayaks my canoe felt like a cruise ship. Parked next to the motorhomes of the shrimp baiters it felt like a dinghy.

Apart from the shrimp, oysters and many fish in which the locals trade, one of my guides gave me a small education in how the local Munn family gathers horsheshoe crabs, which are used for medical research. The crabs’ blue blood (it carries copper, instead of iron) gels when it interacts with biotoxins, and a quart is worth about $15,000. The crabs live through their blood donations and are released when they’re done, but my guide found it charming to see his friends “out there in the middle of the night in short pants, feeling for horseshoe crabs.”

I spent one last night sleeping on the porch of the kind of friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend you start running into when you set out on a journey like this. I heard great horned, barred and screech owls, all on the same night. I explained Lawson’s journey the next day to some young archaeologists: how Lawson just made his way from Native American tribe to tribe and hoped for a place to stay and something to eat. In that regard, he was kind of a millennial, I said, and one of my listeners nodded. “He was couch-surfing,” she said, and of course she was exactly right. (I would tell you her name but she never sent me the email she promised.)

The next day, guide Kathy Livingston and I paddled our last miles along the Spartina of the salt marshes and then headed up the Santee River. We soon began seeing alligators instead of menhaden, cypress instead of Spartina. And when we got to the Hampton Plantation State Park, almost exactly where Lawson himself said, “Stop the canoe! I want to get off!”—or something very like it—we were met by a parade of cheerful archaeologists, who brought me a soda pop.

From here Lawson walked, and, when I begin my next segment of this journey, so shall I.

I had a much better canoe than Lawson did but I was still plenty glad to be done with it. On to the next segment!

Editor’s note: For The Lawson Trek, journalist Scott Huler is retracing the journey of discovery undertaken by canoe and on foot in 1700-1701 by John Lawson, the first observer to carefully describe and catalogue the flora, fauna, geography and inhabitants of the Carolinas. For all the posts in the series, click here.