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Friday, March 10, 2023

Santee NWR Cuddo Unit

Thursday, March 9, 2023 

Hi Blog!

We left coastal Georgia and are now in the sandhill region of South Carolina. We are camped in Santee State Park on the banks of Lake Marion. We had last visited this area in March 2022 with hopes of paddling the Plantation Island Canoe Trail in the Cuddo Unit of Santee National Wildlife Refuge. As we mentioned in our 2022 blog, we were unable to visit the Cuddo Unit because it is closed on Mondays. For a full report of what happened last time, click the link to our 2022 blog. While we really enjoyed our last visit, we did make plans to visit again and make sure it wasn't on a Monday!

Thursday morning dawned bright, clear and chilly. We set off for the Santee NWR Visitor Center to double check access and get updated maps. As it turns out, the Visitor Center was closed due to a lack of volunteers. They did however, provided maps in the kiosk in the parking lot. With map in hand, we took off to the trail head. 

The main road around the Cuddo Unit is a one-way wildlife drive. It travels through various habitats - mixed hardwoods, mixed pine, bottomland hardwoods, cypress, marsh, old fields and ponds. We saw several egrets and herons along the way.

It always amazes us when we visit a large park like this and have the place to ourselves.

Well, not exactly to ourselves. We do have to share the trail with large alligators.

After setting our kayaks out, we went down to the water's edge to see what we could see.

Yes, Virginia, there was a large alligator near the launch. However, it was willing to share and quietly moved on so we could set sail.

Another, smaller baby gator was curious and just watched us get our kayaks ready. Once we moved into the water, it quickly swam away.

Our inlet seemed a bit overgrown. We were wondering if we would have to fight our way through. Dave took off first. His kayak has a deeper draft, so if he would make it through, Kathy's boat could, too.

It was slow going at first, but we managed to find a way out of our inlet.

The Plantation Islands Canoe Trail is seven miles long and originally marked with 15 trail markers. There was an option to cut the trail in half by paddling through the middle of the Plantation Islands (now cut off by sedimentation and vegetation growth). However, it is also fairly easy to create you own paddle by just exploring in and around the little islands.

As we made our way out to Potato Creek, we didn't see the first two markers. It wasn't until we spotted No. 3 that we knew exactly where we were on the trail map. However, the map was not to scale and the islands they showed on the map were no longer islands. So much vegetation has grown up between the islands that it was impossible to paddle through. We decided it was silly to spend our time looking for routes and trail markers that may or may not exist any more. We turned our attention to enjoying the weather and watching the wildlife. 

When Lake Marion was formed back in 1939 by the WPA for rural electrification purposes, a number of old plantations at the mouth of Potato Creek were submerged. The highest hills are now part of the Plantation Islands Wilderness Area. We decided to circle a few of the island to visit with the locals.

As construction of the dam commenced, large areas were logged off. However, once the lake began filling, much of the remaining forest was submerged. Those tree that could stand having their feet wet survived. They now make excellent homes for osprey families. Here is mom with junior.

They were worried about us approaching, so they called Dad for reinforcement. He swooped in and circled us until we moved off.

Spring has sprung. The bald cypress are showing off their new greenery.

This tree appears to be growing anhingas, as well!

Little moorhens with their bright red beaks were our constant companions. As we paddled in a cove, they sounded the alarm.

After a few miles of paddling about, we decided to head back to the launch. Next to our kayak launch was the remains of an old canal lock. The canal runs from the Cuddo West Tract, through the Cuddo East Tract to our trailhead. Back in the day, you could paddle the 1.5 mile canal, but today it is mostly overgrown and home to some pretty large gators. We poked our nose in to take in the view, but carefully backed out so as not to disturb the local residents.

As we finished our paddle, we did see what was left of trail markers one and two. It reinforced our idea that the canoe trail has not been maintained for several years. If you are interested in paddling the Plantation Islands Canoe Trail, bring a GPS and make your own trail.

There is rain coming.  We are not sure what our next adventure will be, so stay tuned.

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