The Santee Cooper Lakes span more than 450 miles of shoreline and occupy more than 160,000 acres throughout four counties. Now, paddlers are enjoying the lakes’ benefits even more than your average electricity customer and other recreationalists, with the official creation of the Swamp Fox paddle trail opened this Fall.
The lakes were the result of the Santee Cooper Hydroelectric and Navigation Project, which sought to electrify rural South Carolina by connecting the Santee and Cooper rivers through two man-made reservoirs. When construction began in 1939, it was the largest land-clearing project in U.S. history, as well the largest public works project in the nation. By the time it produced electricity in February 1942, the project had created South Carolina’s largest lake in Lake Marion; its sibling, Lake Moultrie, is the state’s third largest.
In the decades following their impoundment, the Santee Cooper Lakes have become one of the region’s most cherished natural resources and a popular recreational destination. “People are very passionate about these lakes, and they always have been,” said Susan Welch, supervisor of inspection and compliance with Santee Cooper’s property management department.
The Swamp Fox 50 Mile Paddle/Camp Trail winds through lakes Marion and Moultrie and highlights their historical and natural significance while also utilizing the dozens of islands and primitive campsites throughout.
Just north of Santee Cooper headquarters in Moncks Corner is the Boy Scouts’ Camp Moultrie. Stan Stanley has been its camp ranger for more than 10 years. “I know Santee Cooper has been involved with Camp Moultrie since before I came here, and we’ve always had a terrific relationship,” Stanley said.
Earlier this year, Stanley and Archie Thompson began discussing the idea of plotting a 50-mile paddle trail through the lakes. Thompson volunteers with the Boy Scouts and is also an associate commissioner with the Berkeley County Soil and Water Conservation District, which worked previously with Santee Cooper and SCDNR on the development of the Berkeley County Blueways trail program that identifies more than 175 miles of paddling trails in the county.
“Stan and I bounced the idea back and forth over several months before I brought it to the Berkeley County Soil and Water Conservation District,” Thompson said. “Once they were on board, I went to Santee Cooper, and it’s carried on from there.”
The origin of the Swamp Fox 50 Mile Paddle/Camp Trail actually dates back to the Swamp Fox National Recreational Trail, which was developed in 1968. Much of the Swamp Fox National Recreational Trail was eventually incorporated into the Swamp Fox Passage of the Palmetto Trail, a project conceived in 1994 to establish a network of more than 420 miles of hiking and cycling trails connecting the mountains of the Upstate with the sea in the Low Country.
“The Palmetto Trail was designed for hiking and cycling, and so Archie and I had the idea to parallel it with an aquatic trail that’s as close as possible to the Palmetto Trail,” Stanley said. “Our goal is to get it all the way up into the Blue Ridge Mountains.”
Once Santee Cooper agreed to support the Swamp Fox 50 Mile Paddle/Camp Trail, Welch reached out to her contacts at SCDNR. One of SCDNR’s requests was for the GPS coordinates of the islands along the trail to be recorded. “This will help SCDNR respond quickly to any emergency,” he says.
The Swamp Fox 50 Mile Paddle/Camp Trail can be used by paddling enthusiasts of all stripes, but it was actually designed with a Boy Scout patch in mind. “The troop must complete the 50 miles over five consecutive days and put in 10 hours of community service along the way,” Stanley says. “We wanted to give the scouts stewardship over the primitive campsites along the trail.”
Thompson compared it to the Adopt-a-Highway program. “Our goal is for the scouts to eventually adopt these campsites.”
“These campsites have been here for a long time, and it’s nice that they can be used for something positive,” Welch says. “We’re happy that people enjoy using these campsites, but they don’t always take care of them. It’d be great if this trail could help raise awareness and encourage people to take better care of these campsites.”
Beyond its natural offerings, Thompson says the trail also features some significant historical landmarks. Eutaw Springs in Orangeburg County was the location of the last major engagement of the American Revolutionary War in the Carolinas and is considered one of its bloodiest.
Thompson says the average paddler can go about two miles an hour under ideal conditions. “So you’re looking at an average of five hours each day of just paddling. Then there are the two hours of community service that are required.”
From conception to fruition, the Swamp Fox Paddle Trail has taken a little more than eight months. “I think that speaks to the relationships we have with each other,” Welch said. “Whether it’s through our daily management of the lakes or through community outreach, we have a lot of positive interaction with each other. This paddle trail has been no different.”