Pristine wilderness awaits
Story By Michele Roldán-Shaw
Waterways grant the intrepid traveler access to a side of life not usually witnessed. Paddlers can steal into a pristine wilderness that is rarely disturbed by humans or probe a semi-urban creek that lands them practically in the backyards of locals. They can find secret beaches and remote fish camps and glimpse the hidden haunts of wildlife or the backsides of plantations — none of which they could have done from land. It’s a very intimate way to travel.
Whether your craft of choice is a canoe, kayak, raft, stand-up paddleboard or even an inner tube, the Deep South is full of opportunity. Take a trip with us to hit some of the highlights.
Why you should go: If you have never seen one of these impossible blue beauties bubbling up from the subtropical jungle, you’re missing out. Picture yourself suspended over a bottomless hole of water so clear and pure that 100 feet look like 10, watching fish swim around in a real-life aquarium. Now imagine yourself floating carelessly downstream, in the chill-zone between hot sun and cool water, past mats of blooming spider lilies and ferns with palmetto trees towering overhead. It’s one version of heaven.
Ideal craft: Inner tube or pool float
Essential gear: Sunblock and a picnic.
Safety tips: Keep a sharp eye for gators (but remember, if it wasn’t safe, the Florida parks wouldn’t be crowded with millions of visitors).
Hot spots: Ichetucknee Springs State Park, Chasshowitzka River, Rock Springs Run
Whitewater of Appalachia
Why you should go: Summer is the time to go up to the mountains, find a cool river and get wet. Whitewater kayaking is a serious sport that requires skill and training, but guided river rafting trips are more accessible and offer the same thrills. Either way you’ll be rewarded with priceless memories of a wild ride through rocky rapids and deep mountain gorges. That is, if you survive.
Ideal craft: Raft or whitewater kayak.
Essential gear: Helmet, personal flotation device and dry bag with first-aid kit.
Safety tips: Book a guide, or if you’re on your own, bring a buddy and be sure to check water levels to see if the section you want to do is runnable.
Hot spots: Chattooga River, between the Georgia and South Carolina border; Nolichucky River that flows through Western North Carolina and East Tennessee; Nantahala River in Western North Carolina.
Why you should go: In a storied state of Cajuns, Creoles and carnivals, the bayous are an enigmatic backdrop. The word is borrowed from Louisiana French, which in turn comes from the Choctaw bayuk for “small stream.” It refers to shallow, slow-moving or still water around creeks, rivers and lakes. But in popular imagination bayous are so much more — mysterious canals tunneling under cypress trees, with listing houseboats partially shrouded in Spanish moss and the disconcerting plops of unknown creatures in the water near your boat. It’s the Deep South at its most archetypal.
Ideal craft: Canoe or kayak
Essential gear: Bug spray and a phone with GPS.
Safety tips: Don’t get so caught up in the moment that you forget to pay attention to where you’re paddling and get lost in trackless swamp.
Hot spots: Bayou Teche, Cane Bayou, Atchafalaya Basin
Saltwater estuaries of Coastal Carolina
Why you should go: Egrets glide silently overhead, while shrimp pop and dolphins cruise beside your boat. Millions of grassy, watery acres envelop you in a tranquil warmth like the womb. The peace you can experience in these wetlands is unlike any other, but then again, so is the agony if you end up battling wind and tide under a flaming sun. And don’t get stuck in the pluff mud.
Ideal craft: Kayak or stand-up paddleboard
Essential gear: Tide chart, life vest, storm whistle and sun protection.
Safety tips: Know the tides, and always, always check the marine weather forecast. Sudden changes in conditions out here can be deadly.
Hot spots: Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, anywhere in our backyard.
Georgia’s Golden Isles
Why you should go: Being out on the wild, remote fringes of the continent is exhilarating, all the more so if you arrive under your own power. While it’s not for novices, paddling to undeveloped barrier islands is the adventure of a lifetime — empty beaches, twisted boneyards, forest trails and you with your little pack of essentials braving the elements. You might even find pirate gold.
Ideal craft: Sea kayak
Essential gear: Wet or dry suit and full kit of emergency equipment, including VHF radio, flares, waterproof matches, spare clothes and rations.
Safety tips: Unless you are a very experienced kayaker with strong knowledge of the tides and ability to perform rescues, it’s best to attempt open-ocean kayaking only with a qualified guide.
Hot spots: Wassaw, Sapelo and Little Tybee islands.
Why you should go: Pack your canoe with provisions, and embark on a multi-day trip down a well-kept secret. The Pascagoula is the largest (by volume) free-flowing river in the contiguous U.S., and its 80-mile course will take you through a wilderness of cypress swamps, pine savannas, bayous and salt marshes before emptying into the Gulf. If that sounds like a bit much, check out Black Creek, a 21-mile national wild and scenic river that runs through the DeSoto National Forest. Turtles, alligators and ducks will be your guides as you float lazily along on the ultimate Huck Finn adventure.
Ideal craft: Canoe
Essential gear: Everything you need to survive for days in the wilderness.
Safety tips: Be sure to leave a float plan with the folks back home so they’ll know where to send the authorities if you don’t turn up.
Hot spots: Pascagoula River in southeastern Mississippi, Black Creek in Perry County.