by Julie Gyselinck
I won’t lie. Learning about the raid on the Combahee River, then being able to get donations of time, boat, guide, gas, and paddle boards to go on an adventure was amazing. Thank you to Botany Bay Eco-Tours and Island Bikes and Outfitters.
I’ll freely admit that we had some amused skeptics about our ability to pull it off. Leading up to the trip I heard everything from "Do you have an EMT going with you”, "What about alligators/venomous snakes/murderers/getting stranded” to my favorite, "You’re taking a gun, right?” All of these questions I scoffed at, and then privately posed to our guide Meg Hoyle. "Are you serious?” She laughed and looked at me like I was nuts. She did assure me that as a licensed captain, biologist, and former DNR with law enforcement commission, she was prepared to handle any folly that might come our way. I wasn't really worried, just need to make sure she was OK with all this.(OK, I was secretly envisioning the 1990’s move The River Wild, minus the rapids.)
Caroline Matheny is the Siegfried to my Roy (excluding tigers and romantic relationship). She is the photographer and a valued member of the two person Explore Edisto team. Early into the trip planning we decided we needed a third person to join the excursion to lighten the load of paddle boarding while simultaneously having to document every moment of our 30 mile trip. We went through mental rosters of people we knew. We lost a good candidate due to scheduling conflicts and were giving up on finding someone. Cue Adelia "Dilly” Hancock. She showed enthusiasm and a savvy for the outdoors that was exactly what we were looking for. Growing up on Edisto camping, fishing, hunting and learning survival skills was a way of life for her. We finally had our three person team.
The September day for departure finally arrived. Heavy morning dew saturated the boat and docks as we loaded up and made our way to the mouth of the Combahee River. The water was quiet and the sky was clear, only allowing a few wispy clouds to spin around overhead. Once we arrived at our drop off point, and the engines were cut off, the quiet was astounding. Having only passed a few other boaters early on after our departure we were quite alone. Giving the nautical culture we live in it was expected that we would be constantly encountering other people on the water. We were soon to find that to be totally false.
We zipped up our life vests and lowered our paddle boards onto the surface of the water. Stepping off of the boat on to our paddle boards, paddles in hand, we glided effortlessly up the river; is what I wish I could tell you. No, for all of our meticulous planning and daydreaming we forgot one major detail, none of us had any great experience paddle boarding. Not implying we had never done it, but getting on one that is sitting in rolling water, from a boat is not easy. I had to keep reminding myself: none of this trip was going to be truly difficult! I was worried about freezing water and cold feet? Where was my inner Harriet? As instigator of this voyage I had to show resolve. Keeping my nervousness to myself, I proceeded to crawl out on to my board like a scared cat! Once I was awkwardly situated in stable and sitting position, Dilly released my board, and the current rapidly yanked me away. Courage, courage, courage, I can do this. Having never considered myself cowardly, I was shocked at how absurd my mental dialog was! Dilly steps onto her board effortlessly (of course) and quickly joined me on the abducting tide.
I was struck at the pure undisturbed beauty of the area. No houses, no docks protruding in to the water, power poles and lines. Just raw, natural, lowcountry waterway for miles around. Quite possibly this is how it looked before the Europeans arrived in America.
We decided to get a move on; our boat was just up the river around the bend at Fields Landing. Field’s Landing was the first drop off point for Union soldiers that accompanied Harriet Tubman on the raid. It is now a public boat ramp.
Moving further into the Combahee River, it narrowed a bit and the pull of the tide and push of the wind lessened. I finally made it to my feet on the paddle board. Sitting crisscross or kneeling to give myself a rest. Caroline and I surmised at one point that sitting down and each putting a foot on the others board we could paddle together a pick up some pretty significant speed. We had a long way to go.
At around midday we reached bluffs that rose up off of the river bank and disappeared into the water again about a mile up river. At points they seemed well over thirty feet high. The river carved into them creating a bend that slowed the water down again and afforded us a much needed rest. We stopped for lunch at a small beach. The white sand of the cliffs created a deceptive surface on the water’s edge. What looked like a typical beach was fluffy white sand that you sank in up to your knees when you stepped on to it. Dilly attempted to scale the wall using tree roots to aid her ascent, but the soft cliff face dissolved under her feet. We decided that we would travel back and camp here if no other acceptable location made itself available. We were sure we could find an accessible place on the lower bluffs.
The trip was pleasant, the weather was perfect, company was good, and the location could not have been more beautiful. I don’t know what I expected to find that would reveal the turmoil from that raid so long ago. My imagination expected the gray barren land "cast with a wicked curse” look of cartoon movies. This land showed no visible scar of the atrocities people endured here. There was no lingering feeling in the air of sadness, foreboding, or loss. My visions of a wild adventure fraught with danger and intrigue were dashed. I pondered while I paddled on.
We made it to out stopping point of the original ferry that was burned down by Harriet. It is also now a public boat landing. We loaded up our boards and took some footage and shots of the location. It was a relief to be back in the boat full time. We retraced our route back down the river as the sun set, looking for a spot to camp for the night.
Arriving back at the bluffs, we slowly followed them to the end where we found a location that was low enough to get to from the boat. Our campsite sat about 10 feet above the river sparsely dotted with pine allowing for plenty of room to set up camp. It was a breath-taking view of the setting sun over the river. Exhausted we all sat quietly around our tiny fire and watched the ribbons of light unravel around an indigo night sky. A pod of dolphins hunted in the river just below us, their splashing and exhales acted as the percussion line of the wild symphony that was being played for us.
Dinner was a simple affair. Apples, crackers, and a delightful concoction called an "Onion Bomb”. Perfect for camping, a halved onion with the middle removed and packed with ground turkey or beef, wrapped in aluminum foil, throw into fire and let it cook for an hour. Dilly was our fire master and deftly pulled our dinner from the hot coals with a crudely crafted spatula. We eagerly devoured them, giving no thought to our dirty hands. It was delicious! Revived by our dinner we stayed up a while longer enjoying conversation and recounting the day’s events.
No one was eager to leave in the morning. We had accomplished a goal and witnessed a land so beautiful it was going to be hard to go home. Our sleep was deep only punctuated by the curious coyotes that had ventured into our camp late in the evening. Our K-9 companion and second mate Lil’ Foot, quickly alerted us to their intrusion and scared them off. I’m not sure if she ever went back to sleep, but I know we did.
We set out on the morning tide with campfire smoke clinging to our hair and clothes. We were quiet enjoying the sights and smells of the river as it woke up. We finally encountered a boat with two crabbers pulling in their morning haul. They were the first and only other people we were to see this whole trip. Pulling up beside, we inquired about their work. They were born and raised in the area and had worked the river their whole lives. They were amazed at the telling of Harriet’s raid on the river, they had never heard the story before. They stood and listened in stunned silence. When we finished our tale, they looked around at the river they saw every day in a whole new way. We said our good byes and head back down the river as they continued on with their work.
I was excited to see the impact of the story affect someone else as it had me. Perhaps the reason for my quest was to put Harriet’s story back in the hearts and minds of the people on this river. She had been gone for too long.
I quietly thanked Harriet for her struggles and for inspiring me to get out and find my own adventure and to fight my own battles with the same strength and conviction that she did. Most importantly it made me appreciate my life, my loves, and my freedoms. This trip made me realized how fortunate I have been to never know a true and desperate struggle. I must say there is nothing more enlightening that to appreciate every aspect of life, and to know true satisfaction.