Blackwater Burt

by Pat Stone

just spent three days paddling with Burt Kornegay on the Little Pee Dee, a flatwater, blackwater stream in coastal South Carolina (it’s close to the ocean and near the South Carolina/North Carolina border). What a quirky, odd, almost peculiar adventure. Who knew that there was such a thing as running blackwater? Seriously. Whitewater, yes, but blackwater?

Yet there is. Only you’re not running Rapids, you’re running “slow-pids.” Or more accurately, you’re not dodging rocks, you’re dodging trees. Or more accurately still, you’re not dodging trees, you’re trying to squiggle your way through them. Again, seriously!

Tree Running Master

It turns out that Burt is a master at running trees, and that I suck. Really suck. When it comes to whitewater, he and I go down the same rivers and I can comparatively hold my own. Blackwater? He’s King Kornegay, His Royal Graceness. I am the Court Jester, Paddler of Lard Bottom.

Thanks to last fall’s Hurricane Matthew, the Little Pee Dee is crowded with large fallen oaks, lying straight across the river, sometimes two, three, or four together. Sometimes a log is deep enough that you can, with speed, pull yourself over it. Sometimes it is high enough that, if you duck very low, you can squeeze under it. Sometimes you can wend around its great root ball, a vertical disk of dirt and roots that may be ten or twenty feet tall. Sometimes if you line up parallel to the tree (perpendicular to the river), you can squeeze, pry, or thwack your way through the smaller branches and emerge to open water on the other side.

Or at least Burt can. Me? Not so much.

Some of this was due to our boats. Burt has a lean, clean Mad River Guide, I an old, seen-better-days Old Town Appalachian. Burt’s is shorter in length than mine. Burt’s is thinner than mine. Burt’s is shorter in height than mine. And Burt’s is even shorter underwater (has less draft) than mine. So he squeezes under logs I can’t, rides over logs where I jam stuck, makes turns that I can’t make, and squeezes through wooden crevices that are Katy-bar-the-door for me. He called my boat Lard Bottom, and every time it got wedged snug between two cypress knees (those knobby root protrusions I used to think were beautiful) that he had just glided—blithely—between, I had to agree with the name.

Did I mention that LB was slower than his canoe, as well? I watched Burt glide down the river, stroking, ruddering, stroking, ruddering, relaxed (ahhh), enjoying the surprised wildlife scattering before him — while I was cramming my paddle first on one side then on the other in a vain and unending attempt to catch up (aghhh). And when I did catch up, when I did, there would be another fallen tree, one that Burt would somehow belly dance his boat through and I’d then get stuck on (once I got so stuck under a tree, right at my hips, that for a moment I wasn’t certain I’d get out until the river dropped). By the time I finally did get free, he’d be long gone around the next bend, enjoying some frolicking wonder of nature. If I was lucky, I’d get there in time to see the splash. “River otters,” Burt’d say happily.

Heck, he’d go out of his way to find a maze of trees. He often took “cut-throughs,” short cuts around bends, short cuts frequently packed with arboreal bewilderments. I finally figured this out. “You like running trees, don’t you?” I asked. “I love it,” he replied.

But, alas, poor carpenter that I am, I cannot entirely blame my tool. (I love you, Appalachian. You are a true friend.) The truer part of the truth is it’s actually quite a skill Burt, and presumably other blackwater masters, have.

One: He is an artist at deciphering the wooden riddle — finding tiny little twisty lines through downright roadblocks of trees. Honestly, I can’t count the number of times I looked at a river-wide barricade worthy of the battle scene in Les Miz and exclaimed (silently, of course), “Well, we sure ain’t getting through that!” The next thing I knew, B’rer Burt had jumped out of the briar patch and was happily thumping his blade on the other side.

Two: There truly is a lot of skill and experience to running wood, skill that, white-colored-water paddler that I am, I never anticipated — and surely don’t have. Knowing how to handle a long, straight-tracking boat through twists tighter than any slalom course is an art, a true, if little-known, paddler’s art. Interestingly, part of it involves going slow, very slow. Any momentum going into one of these tree-trunk parallel maneuvers is just going to keep you going downstream (into said tree trunk) once you turn your boat. Instead, Burt would languorously wisp his way beside the tree, as if it was a loved but sensitive dog, asleep by his feet, that he didn’t want to disturb. Is he truly a Log Whisperer? Did I see his lips move?

I don’t know. You’d have to get Burt to share his techniques (if the sly old beaver would). I couldn’t figure them out. I was too busy picking twigs and poison ivy vines out of my hair. If the gold standard for canoeing whitewater is having a “dry hair day,” surely a “dry foot day” would be its blackwater equivalent.

Dry feet? I paddled three days with good Brother Burt. I now have three pairs of Smartwool socks currently drying on the line.

And Burt? I offered to help wash twigs, leaves, Spanish moss, and other detritus out of the bottom of his boat at the end of the trip the way I just had mine. After all, my feet were already wet, and his — well, you know. What did this mahatma of maneuvering think of my offer? He very gently replied, “Pat, don’t take this wrong, but I don’t think you need to.”

Pat Stone is the editor of Greenprints magazine.

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