Secret spot off the beaten track: Cuckold’s Creek

Story + Photography by Michele Roldán-Shaw

The great wilderness of the ACE Basin guarantees solitude for those bold enough to penetrate its depths. One of the most pristine estuaries on the Eastern Seaboard, it comprises 350,000 acres of woods, wetlands and waterways, notably the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto Rivers that give the region its acronym. Scattered throughout the ACE Basin are 23 public boat landings, many of which are in such out-of-the-way places that you’ll likely be the only human around. This was certainly the case at Cuckold’s Creek when I went one warm weekday in early fall. 

Could there be anything more relaxing than the sound of a billion grasshoppers and wind blowing through the reeds and the sharp green smell of the water? I anticipated an uneventful trip in a monotonous landscape of former rice fields — this winding creek with its side canals like veins through untold acres of weedy wild rice — and forest islands barricaded by impenetrable grass and mud that make it impossible to land on them. It’s the sort of place where there’s not much scope for going outside the box; you just float along and enjoy the quiet, maybe spot a few alligators and birds and call it good. But actually, there was more to see here than I thought.

With an abundance of snags over a fish-filled creek, this was osprey heaven, and I counted five nests during my paddle. Nobody was home in any of them. There were rice trunks, wooden devices that help control water flow in irrigated fields and freshwater impoundments. Then came the photographer’s delight of an old tin shack weathering away to appealing shades of rust and gunmetal; it tottered on the edge of the creek, propped up by a heavy, barnacle-encrusted beam that seemed to have been put there to brace it. By the time I passed it on the way back, the rising tide had covered the beam and was about to pour into the empty door frame and flood the old junk still inside.

Past the shack was a side canal that beckoned me to its end, where I found a private boat ramp below a gently sloping lawn that led to a grove of beautiful old live oaks, behind which I could just make out a big white plantation house. This was typical of the ACE Basin, the heart of rice country, where traditional landholdings still nestle into protected areas managed by state and federal governments. 

A lone black vulture sits in a bald cypress tree at Cuckold’s Creek, a tidewater creek flowing into the Combahee River.

What wasn’t typical was on odd sight I discovered by studying satellite images on Google Maps when I hauled out at the plantation’s launch to stretch my legs and eat a banana. A side creek off the main channel appeared to have a bridge over it — but the strange thing was that the bridge did not connect any roads. It was just a random bridge to nothing, and I would have to check it out. 

A short time later I reached a picturesque little wooden footbridge like something out of Monet’s Garden, which stretched from the forested mainland across the creek into reeds much taller than my head. Perhaps in winter one could cross the bridge and enter this wild waste on foot, but at the moment it presented no temptation to trespass. Near the bridge was a dock and hand launch, as well as a modest wooden cabin that seemed to be someone’s vacant fish camp. I hauled out for a snack, enjoying the quietude and baked wood smell of the bridge. Cuckold’s Creek had proved full of surprises, and I would recommend it to any adventuresome paddler on a pleasant spring or fall day.

If you go

Location: ACE Basin, Colleton County

Mode of transport: Kayak

How to get there: Take Highway 17 towards Charleston and look for the Cuckold Landing sign, where you will turn left onto White Hall Road. After several miles, take a sharp left onto Combahee Road, then another left onto the gravel road with the church. If you hit the little bridge, you’ve gone too far. 

Travel advice: Do the trip as an out-and-back, or arrange a shuttle for a much longer paddle by putting in at Cuckold Landing and taking out at the Harriet Tubman Bridge. For the second option, you’d want an outgoing tide. 

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