Paddling South Carolina's Lynches River through a wetland forest thick with bald cypress and towering tupelos, it's easy to see how Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion earned the nickname "Swamp Fox."
It was in this hauntingly beautiful, but inhospitable terrain, the brigadier general and his ragtag band of Patriots waged a devastating guerrilla warfare against the British, crippling their campaign in the South and helping turn the tide in the War of Independence.
Despite being dramatically outnumbered, Marion and his mounted raiders would sneak up on the enemy, strike with ferocity and then vanish into the swamp. Riding the sure-footed Carolina Marsh Tacky, an indigenous horse suited to maneuver through the dense lowland swamp, the militia was able to outrun the British and avoid capture. They kept their load light by hiding munitions in the hollows of cypress trees.
The Revolutionary Rivers National Recreation Trail follows 66 miles of the blackwater tributary, passing through Marion's backcountry battlegrounds and his secret base camp on Snow's Island at the confluence of the Lynches and Great Pee Dee rivers.
Interpretive panels mark several historic spots along the trail, including Venters Landing, where Marion took command of his militia, and Dunham's Bluff, where he built earthen fortifications to protect his trade routes.
Area outfitters offer guided kayaking trips on the historic waterway. Among the most popular is a three-hour paddle from Venters Landing in Johnsonville to Snow's Lake. The tour is led by Swamp Fox Kayaking and Rentals owner Terry Cook, who grew up swimming, fishing and playing on the Lynches River.
"It was my first love," said Cook, a ranger with the South Carolina Forestry Commission.
Having a knowledgeable guide is important on a river that branches off into channels and can be difficult to follow at higher water levels.
Cook starts her tour at Venters Landing, where the river is wide and open. About a mile into the trip, you'll get to a tight passage called "Hell's Gate" and enter the deep swamp floodplain forest. In this narrow section of the river, ancient cypress and tupelos, some as old as 750 years, stretch skyward, creating a canopy enjoyed by a wide array of migratory songbirds.
Among the annual visitors is the brilliant prothonotary warbler, seen flitting through the understory of the swampy woodlands. The golden-colored birds often build nests near or over standing water in bald cypress knees.
Wood ducks also can be seen flying off as paddlers approach. The shy and skittish waterfowl are cavity nesters with a particular preference for the hollows in cypress trunks.
Birders will be able to pick out the familiar call of a barred owl or the loud "wuk-wuk-wuk" of a pileated woodpecker in the forest.
Along with an abundant bird population, the swamp is also home to beavers, alligators, snakes and white-tailed deer.
But it's the trees that steal the show in this untamed wilderness. You can't help but stare in awe at the massive trunks of bald cypress that have held strong through the years, surviving lightning strikes, fires and floods.
On a side channel, Cook likes to point out one particularly magnificent tree with a hole so large, she and her paddle can easily fit inside its opening. At another hollowed cypress, she invites guests to paddle into the gaping mouth.
Saving the best for last, Cook takes paddlers into Mill Creek, a ribbon of water off the main branch of the Lynches River. Here, the canopy cover is so dense, it feels like you're paddling through an arboreal cathedral with rays of sunlight filtering through the leaves.
Because you're likely to encounter strainers and may need to navigate around downed trees, some skill is required to paddle this section of the river. Upstream in Scranton where the river is wider, RiverRats offers tours and rentals for kayakers of all levels.