It’s been awhile, Jocassee

2 06 2007

Summer 2004

Southern Wesleyan University Ministry Teams experience some great youth camps up and down the eastern seaboard, but sometimes are allowed to participate in some untraditional events. A SWU senior citizen gathering called Southern Celebration brought dozens of 60, 70 and 80 year old alumni together for a week-long adventure seeking the waterfalls of the South Carolina Upstate. The highlight of the week had all the alumni and the ministry team members on boats discovering Lake Jocassee, South Carolina’s most scenic lake.

The line of pontoon boats visited waterfalls including Lower Whitewater and Laurel Fork falls, at which the boat pulled into a narrow cove only inches wider than the vessel itself. The waterfall plunged into the lake a few feet from the boat and provided a great spot for some cliff jumping for the few brave souls who dared to climb the treacherous rocks.

Back out on the open water, we spotted a rock jutting out of the lake. A perfect spot from which to jump. Not only did the young ministry team students go for a leap, but one of the alumni hopped out of the boat and joined. Her name was Ruth and she was 67 years old at the time. That trip is solidified as one of my fondest memories.

Fast forward to today, June 2nd, 2007.

Alarm – 6:30 a.m.
I didn’t want to get up but had to be ready to go by 7. I hopped out of bed and got dressed in swimming shorts just in case I decided to take a swim. As 7 rolled around the truck pulled up and I went out to greet Doc.

[Dr. Roger “Doc” MacKenzie is the chair of the Religion Division at Southern Wesleyan. I had the pleasure of having nearly every course that he teaches. Our trip to Jocassee would have us meet Dr. Rocky Nation, professor of Biology at SWU and avid outdoorsman. I would be borrowing one of his kayaks for the day.]

First stop – Hardee’s for a biscuit to start the day off right. Then back to the road to drive up Highway 130 to 11. A right turn on 11 and then the road to Devils Fork State Park. After park fees were paid, the truck meandered down to the lake via the curvy road to the remote boat access. [I’m told the purpose of the remote boat access is to give kayakers and fishermen a less busy spot to put in their craft.]

Two kayaks sat waiting – one light blue, long and slender and the other forest green, short and wide. Doc stopped and we unloaded his red kayak – the longest of the three – and placed it beside the other two. The green one would be mine for the day. After stowing items in the boats, we moved to the water’s edge and shoved off; each of us trying to keep our feet dry with the exception of Doc, who decided it wasn’t worth the effort (he had worn sandals for just such a purpose).

Rocky explained the basics of kayaking and we set off toward the first point a couple hundred yards away. My kayak bobbed back and forth as I tried to maintain stablility and balance. As the two long boats began to leave me behind, I realized that I would be in for a greuling day of paddling. The point seemed to be just as far away as when we had started (maybe even further).

After reaching the first point, we turned to head across the lake. I was apprehensive about this to say the least. I do not want to be out on the middle of Jocassee when my awesome paddling skills get me overturned. It took several long minutes and a lot of tiring strokes to get across, but a rare sight sat waiting for us.

Rocky focused our attention on a tree which stood on the tip of a small point. A tiny white dot sat motionless near the top of the tree. With binoculars focused, Rocky sat motionless for a moment. “It’s a bald eagle,” he informed us. I had never seen a bald eagle in the wild until then. The trip was already worth it. As we neared the point, the bird took to the air flying relatively low around the next point, where Rocky notified us it had lighted again.

It took some time to make it to the next point, but as we rounded it – hugging the shore – the eagle flew out of a tree to my right. I was less than a hundred feet from a bald eagle…pretty amazing, at least for me it was amazing. What is even more amazing is that I saw it poop. BALD EAGLE POOP! How about that, Andy Dixon, not in HD…in real life.

We navigated the three kayaks between the shore and a small island then turned right into a cove. The cove slowly narrowed and the sound of rushing water filled the air. Wright Creek Falls sat nestled in a crook at the very end of the cove. Huge rocks littered the bottom of the cove, some of which were as shallow as the dips of our paddles. Other spots were obviously ten feet deep or more, but with the crystal clear water of Jocassee, ten feet looks like a lot less.

According to Rocky, it’s customary to get the front of your kayak wet under a waterfall, so we each took our separate turns splashing the cold, mountain-creek water on the tips of our boats. I believe that my commitment in this tradition was much greater than the others’, because the tip of my kayak was two feet closer to the opening where I sat than was theirs.

We relaxed for a while with our feet propped on the tops of the shells until I decided that I wanted to get out and explore the waterfall from a closer vantage point. I pulled to the shore, got out and made my way through the underbrush and spiderwebs to the second tier of the falls. The total height of the falls is probably fifty feet, maybe a bit higher. Rocky explained that the last time he visited the falls at Wright Creek, the lowest tier was hitting the rock bottom of the lake. [A video on this site shows the low levels of the lake a couple years back – the place where the woman is standing in the video is under a few feet of water now]

The end of break time found us eating a small snack. Paddles hit water and we were on our way back toward the ramp. About halfway to our final destination, a group of common loons greeted us. Six or seven of the sharp-billed, light brown waterfowl took turns diving for fish. I paddled within ten feet of one, which quickly ducked under the water. The rest of the 3.4 miles back were relatively uneventful with the exception of several boat wakes to make the ride interesting – one of which almost made it into my kayak.

The boat ramp was much busier than when we had arrived. A dozen people or more scurried about pulling kayaks into the water and strapping camping gear to them in order to go to a remote campsite. Once everyone was out of the way, we pulled up to the ramp and got out.

I wanted to try one of the narrow kayaks and Rocky wanted to try Doc’s, so I jumped in (rather, I slowly slinked into) the blue boat while Rocky sped about in the red 14.5′. The slender kayak paddled incredibly easily compared to the stubby one. I felt as though I was flying on water. Doc wanted to try the blue because it had a rudder, so I got out and let him take his turn while Rocky continued speeding around in the red. “I got it up to 6 miles per hour,” Rocky stated, citing his GPS.

We dragged the boats onto the pavement and loaded them onto the vehicles. Rocky waved goodbye and was off as Doc tied off his kayak. We hopped in the truck and headed back out toward the highway, all the while I read a book on the furbearers of South Carolina which Rocky had so eagerly given away. Who knew that muskrats could be so interesting?

We took a different route home than the way we had come. We rode on Highway 133 through Six Mile, then Maw Bridge Road to Central. Doc dropped me off and I walked in the apartment with new dreams of life on the water. Now, how can I get my hands on a kayak?!