Santee River to McClellanville - September 25-26, 1999

One of many Carolina trip reports available on

All contents © 1999 Steve Semanchuk.


A photo of John in a tree on the beach.

It had been way too long since our last kayaking expedition; we basically spent the summer months working and gardening. Finally, the last weekend of September found Liz, brother John and I driving north out of Charleston, SC, towards our projected take-out point in the town of McClellanville. This town is on the Intercoastal Waterway, or ICW, and thus had the boating access and parking that give trip endings such convenience. We reached our starting point on the North Santee river some 13 to 14 miles upstream of Cedar Island and the Atlantic Ocean. The tidal effect was probably minimal at that point but it was turning in our favor anyway; the weather was mild and the banter with the local fishermen was just the beginning all paddling trips should be blessed with. The tannic-colored river is several hundred feet wide where we started and lined thinly with cypress trees, spaced by rushes, pickerel weed and arrowleaf, both of which were blooming. It wasn't long before we spied a bald eagle in a treetop who allowed us a close viewing before flying off. Alligators were fairly common and comfortably sized. Hard and dry shoreline was not normally visible and when an old levee showed itself, we quickly disembarked to return the morning's coffee to the earth. What we could see from the levee was, according to the topo map, old rice plantations abandoned when slavery was abolished.

We reached the ICW at Crow Island in a few hours of easy paddling; the current and tide did much of our work for us. Bearing right on Duck Creek as we crossed the uncrowded waterway, Cedar Island was soon in view and we beached on its white sand banks, looking east at the ocean, 1/2 mile in the distance. Glad for the chance to stretch our legs and replenish our energy systems, we stayed over an hour, collecting a tube of grease for ballast and a few fiddler crabs for later fishing. Partly cloudy conditions changed to mostly sunny, so outfitted with sunscreen, shades and hats, we paddled out to the ocean and turned south, almost immediately crossing the choppy mouth of the South Santee and landing in the gentle surf and sand beach of Murphy Island several times before finding a spot that seemed suitable for a night's stay.

It didn't take long to discover the distance between the high tide line and the mosquitos at the shrub line was about three tents' width and we carefully plotted our positions to minimize trouble from either water or bugs. There was time before the chores of preparing camp to explore some and we found many animal tracks, mostly deer and bobcat. Dragonflies and butterflies were abundant and, unfortunately, so was trash. Considering we were miles from any town, this was probably all boater's trash - plastic containers, some full, grease cartridges, wire and rope, styrofoam floats. We didn't have much time to dwell on the beach condition because the sea breeze died that evening and the mosquitos came out hungry. Our only tactic was to cover what we could and spray what we couldn't. Dressed to excess and cooking soup in lieu of the fish we never managed to catch, we chatted around a small, beachwood fire and waited for the full moon to arrive. Walking to a to a small projection in the beach, we marveled in the brightness and magnificence of our feature attraction for a while before diving out of the reach of the bugs, into our tents.

A photo of Morning on Murphy Island
Morning on Murphy Island

Well past dawn, we arose and packed, feeding the morning mosquitos until the rising sun sent them back to the marsh beyond the dunes. Apparently, the full moon affects more than the tides and crops; my camping gear had expanded overnight, no longer fitting back into the places it came out of. Jammed, strapped and bulging, we launched through the surf and followed the coast south again, paralleling Murphy's Island and heading towards Cape Island, the northern reach of the Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge. On the way, Liz suprised a sea turtle and we all got close to a number of dolphins. We paddled in three foot swells most of the way, skirting a section of challenging breakers, just before beaching at the north end of Cape Island.

There were no trees on this end of the island; most of what we could see was covered in no more than waist high scrub. The tide that was so helpful the day before was now working against the direction we needed to travel. It was time then to relax in the warm sun, beachwalk, study maps and wait. We swam, strolled the sand and even sampled prickly pear fruits until a few hours had passed and we were ready to move along. The topo maps were becoming more necessary now that we were preparing to enter the estuaries and marshes that protected McClellanville. Cape Romain lighthouse was easily visible on nearby Lighthouse Island, helping us identify other landmarks seen through binoculars. Back in our boats and running against the tide, we hugged the shoreline of Cape Island, hoping for the benefit of some eddies. Our next stopping point was the other end of Cape Island, at a long and fairly new dock, high above the outgoing waters. We studied our maps again and mentally prepared for the long, last portion of the trip.

Crossing Cape Romain Sound, we entered Horsehead Creek and passed through a school of dolphins working the shallows, breaking the surface and muddying the waters as they fed. A flock of oyster catchers watched us paddle by as they waited on a lone exposed shoal. Shrimp skittered ahead of us in Muddy Bay and our paddles regularly stirred up, well, mud. Still, it was passable at low tide and we were thankful for that. Boat traffic increased but we took advantage of that to help us find our way through the confusing system of creeks to the ICW and the McClellanville ramp. Two and a half hours from the Cape Island docks and we were scraping plastic on concrete.


Related Links And Info

Directions North out of Charleston, SC, on Rt. 17 to Pinckney Rd. in McClellanville, across from Rt. 45. Go right on what becomes the main street of a handsome town and ends almost at the boat ramp. There is a fair amount of parking, used by fisherpersons but no gate or fee. From that ramp, back to the highway and right ten miles to the north end of the Rt. 17 bridge over the North Santee river. Here there is excellent access, lots of parking with some shade, no fee or gate either.

Time and Distance We are steady paddlers and reached the ICW in 2hrs and 45 min. from the ramp. The ocean was only 30-40 minutes after that. Stepping off the topo map, I gauged the river mileage to be 13 miles and thus our speed was about 4 mph. It was another 4 miles to our campsite on Murphy. To the mouth of Horsehead Creek from camp was just over 6 miles and about that or a little more to the McClellanville ramp. Rounded off then, the entire trip was 30 miles and the shuttle was 13, one way. Camping was possible and allowable on both Cedar and Murphy Islands. The way we interpret the topo maps, the extreme northern tip of Cape Island is just out of the Cape Romain Refuge and has potential for camping in a less mosquito-prone area.

Maps are available from The Map Shop. Quads required: