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A Paddler’s Journey Down a Modern Southern Riverway

Hal Crimmel reviews My Paddle to the Sea: Eleven Days on the River of the Carolinas, by John Lane

My Paddle to the Sea: Eleven Days on the River of the Carolinas, by John LaneJohn Lane’s latest nonfiction book, My Paddle to the Sea: Eleven Days on the River of the Carolinas, is the sort paddlers dream of writing: a book that captures all of the passion and all the ambivalence about a beloved river and region. Like other classic river narratives—Edward Abbey’s essays in Down the River, R.M. Patterson’s Dangerous River, Michael Burke’s The Same River Twice: A Boatman’s Journey Home, or Ellen Meloy’s Raven’s Exile—the book is by turns provoking, exhilarating, nerve-wracking, and soothing, providing the full quiver of emotions one experiences when descending a river.

In this good-hearted, at times humorous narrative, Lane, an accomplished paddler, describes a springtime journey down the sharp tumble of his local South Carolina creek—Lawson’s Fork, literally just a few steps from his back door in Spartanburg—and on down a succession of lowland Piedmont rivers until he reaches the Santee, a broad tidewater river that leads to the Atlantic Ocean. Lane’s previous nonfiction, which includes Chattooga: Descending into the Myth of Deliverance River and Waist Deep in Black Water, has established his reputation as a writer with a keen eye for the intersection between Southern nature and culture. Readers familiar with these other works by Lane will enjoy his latest exploration of an off-the-radar part of the South.

Canoeing with old friends on a familiar river system close to home might not seem much of a challenge at first glance. But perhaps like entering a second marriage, with the acute awareness of all the ways one could fail, a trip down a river where one’s been before can be more challenging than running one for the first time. Memory has a way of keeping one humble.

In Lane’s case, after setting off by canoe with old friend Venable, the two come upon a fallen oak tree that, just a few miles downstream, spans the river. Known as a strainer, a fallen tree’s trunk and branches allow water but not boats or swimmers to pass; consequently, strainers are one of the most deadly of all river hazards. This one had nearly drowned Lane and his two sons on a harrowing flood-stage kayak descent of the Lawson’s Fork several years earlier.

This time, with water levels lower, the author’s boat safely passes under the oak but Lane still feels like “a soldier returned to the spot of my unlikely deliverance, the foxhole where the grenade did not go off, or where the rifle shot passed my left ear.”

These and other memories of past river trips provide a layered texture to the narrative. One incident in particular suggests the emotional and psychological obstacles he had to overcome to complete this 11-day journey: three months prior to setting off on his backyard creek, we learn he and his family find themselves on a Costa Rican whitewater rafting adventure that quickly turns tragic, tragic enough to make most men his age swear off rivers for good. But as Lane writes, “I didn’t want this trip to be about my fear. Instead I wanted it to be about securing and continuing relationships.”

Perhaps the most central of these is his ever-evolving relationship with the Piedmont region and what has been called the River of the Carolinas. For this reviewer, born and raised on the Canadian border, I can’t help but think Lane has also drawn a poignant portrait of the rural South itself. The author’s intimate knowledge of his home watershed contributes to his profound awareness that the landscape he paddles through is diminished, a place once home to the “long-vanished Piedmont bison, cougar, red wolf, elk.” And if Lane finds the Pacolet River “alive and healthy,” the Industrial Revolution having moved to China, he is forced to witness elsewhere the encroachment of industrial civilization.

This steady, insistent technobeat of power lines, bridges, dams, trash, diversion canals, artificial lakes, motorboats, Interstate 26, a sewer treatment plant, a steel mill, a chemical plant, a nuclear power plant, and the sense that the remaining scraps of forest are either overrun by deer hunters carrying high-powered rifles or scarred by dirt bikes and four-wheelers, makes abundantly clear that in the absence of federal or state protection, land quickly becomes either real estate or pressed into service in ways that degrade the ecosystem.

In this regard Lane has done a remarkable thing: he has managed to complete a long journey by canoe in the face of some depressing places, sodden weather, unfavorable tides, and the constant temptation to simply, as he writes, “hop a freight train like Woody Guthrie and hobo back to Spartanburg in a day or two.” But also he has found a way to love this watershed, despite its scars and flaws and despite its troubled ecological history. My Paddle to the Sea is a lesson in how to embrace the local, even when that place has neither the scale nor the grandeur of the nation’s more conventionally scenic areas, though the journey does take us through the impressive 340,000-acre Sumter National Forest and Congaree National Park, one of “less than a dozen in the Southeast.” Here Lane gives us a sense of what the vast Southern woodlands and swamps were like prior to European settlement.

A human history of the region emerges from Lane’s reflections on indigenous peoples, Revolutionary War historical sites, former Huguenot settlements, and sweeping rice plantations. The history accumulates in the narrative like alluvial sediment, so by the time Lane and his canoeing partner reach the Atlantic Ocean, one has the sensation of having travelled through time as well as space.

“A river trip that I was imagining as a journey, an adventure, had been only two hundred years earlier, as common as a road trip on a present-day interstate highway” writes Lane, in an ironic reversal from the usual American experience that finds sparsely-settled places increasingly domesticated and filled with people. This book is noteworthy not for its descent of ferocious whitewater or accounts of extreme wilderness hardship, but rather for its portrayal of hardship of another kind: overcoming contemporary obstacles like dams, diversion canals, posted lands, and the incessant noise pollution that complicate travel on and appreciation of so many rivers today.

Readers will have to decide if our past treatment of rivers presents an acceptable model for the future. John Lane’s answer seems clear.


Hal Crimmel is the author of Dinosaur: Four Seasons on the Green and Yampa Rivers, coeditor of Teaching About Place: Learning from the Land, and editor of Teaching in the Field: Working with Students in the Outdoor Classroom. His essays appear in anthologies of river writing and in Pacific Northwest Quarterly, American Whitewater, Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, and Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, among others. A former river guide who has canoed and kayaked over 100 rivers in the U.S. and abroad, he now lives in northern Utah and teaches writing and literature at Weber State University, including field-based courses in Montana, Colorado, and Utah.
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My Paddle to the Sea: Eleven Days on the River of the Carolinas

By John Lane

   The University of Georgia
   224 pages
   ISBN 978-0820339771


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