Back in the day, Bluffton's New River was a money-making machine for local planters. The mucky soil along the water's edge was ideal for growing Carolina Gold, the grandfather of long-grain rice in the Americas.
The golden-hued rice hasn't been grown here for more than a century, but you can still see the remains of the impounded rice fields kayaking the upper reaches of the New River.
One of my favorite waterways to paddle when I lived in the Lowcountry, the New River is easily accessed from a landing on Highway 46 about 1.5 miles west of Highway 170. At this point you are near the headwaters of the 35-mile blackwater tributary, traveled by Paleo Indians more than 4,000 years ago. If you continue downstream, you would eventually end up in Calibogue Sound near the tip of Hilton Head Island.
As you leave the landing you will see channels of water flowing off to the left. These narrow canals were once used to transport rice through the fields. When we paddled the New River a couple of weeks ago, the tide was coming in, providing plenty of water for us to venture deep into the canals. If you're on a waning tide, be careful not to get too far into the marsh grass and then discover you've been left high and dry.
You don't have to paddle far past the rice fields before you will feel like you're a million miles away from bustling Bluffton. With the exception of a single house seen through the trees, there are no signs of civilization. The sound of traffic on Highway 46 quickly fades away and you're left to enjoy the serenity of the Lowcountry landscape.
The river continues to narrow the farther upstream you head. Along the way, you may come across patches of fallen limbs and dead marsh grass. Most of the time you can paddle through the flotsam. The day we kayaked the New River, the floating vegetation in a couple of areas was thick and clogged with some fairly hefty tree trunks. But we managed to get around or over them with a little effort.
There will come a point where you just can't go any farther. Ours came when we hit a pine tree that had fallen across the river. This one wasn't floating in the water like the others we had come upon, making it impossible to wiggle our way across the top of it. And it wasn't hanging high enough above the water to limbo our way underneath it.
We had made it about two and a half miles upstream when we had to turn back. On past trips, I've gotten a little farther up the waterway, but eventually the stream becomes so narrow you can't get through.
I should tell you I have seen some large alligators basking on the banks of the New River in the warmer months of the year. But they are more scared of us than we are of them. As soon as they spot you, they slip into the drink, disappearing in the black water.
Although the New River is paddled mostly by locals, several outfitters in the area offer guided trips for visitors looking for a different kind of paddling experience. For more information, vist Outside Hilton Head.