Thirty years: The mountains to the sea
By Tom Poland
I remember the year well. 1984. It was my first year working as a staff writer for South Carolina Wildlife. I had just spent six years working in film for what would become DNR. Those six years opened up a new world entire for me— adventures on barrier islands, blackwater rivers, Carolina bays, and documentaries about loggerhead sea turtles, eastern brown pelicans, and more.
And 1984 was a special year. The magazine was about to do something ambitious: publish a commemorative issue celebrating thirty years of existence. More importantly it would celebrate thirty years of conserving South Carolina’s rich natural outdoor resources. We divided the state into four chapters: Blue Ridge, Piedmont, Coastal Plain, and Atlantic Shore. For some reason we didn’t use the old reliable “Lowcountry.” My guess is we were striving for a workable balanced coverage incorporating the Sandhills and Upper Coastal Plain.
I had spent a good many days in the Lowcountry. During my six years as a scriptwriter-cinematographer, we focused almost exclusively on the land of Spanish moss, surf, and sea oats. We didn’t make one trip to the mountain province. No waterfalls, no Sassafras Mountain, no whitewater rivers. As I thumbed through the 1984 commemorative “book,” as we called it, a photo jumped off the page: rafters shooting through the Chattooga River’s Jawbone rapids. It brought up three vivid memories intertwined with the wild and scenic Chattooga River.
The first memory was when former South Carolina Wildlife editor, David Lucas, coaxed me into writing for the magazine after a quarter century’s absence. I was to write a special feature for another ambitious issue, First Light Over Carolina. My section of the state was the Upstate and I would cover the mountains and raft the Chattooga as part of my story.
I wrote, “To run the river in early light is to navigate the edge of night. The water runs dark while rocky cliffs to the west radiate day’s first light. All this glancing, dancing light airbrushes the river, giving it an airy, treacherous essence. If you run the Chattooga, you must be an unerring judge of depths, colors, and shadows. Geological processes 250 million years old perfected death traps that can—and have—devoured kaleidoscopic kayakers like M&Ms. Light is a tricky thing on a whitewater river.”
My second memory? We capsized at Seven Foot Falls, and I thought I’d drown. That led to my third memory: talking with James Dickey about Deliverance. “People still think of you as the man who wrote Deliverance, some twenty-five years after the movie came out,” I said. Dickey responded as only he could.
“Well, that’s all right. I don’t mind that. They don’t realize that the real strength is in the poetry, but not many people read poetry. But I don’t really worry about second-guessing what anybody else thinks about what I write. I know what I think about it, and that’s plenty good enough for me.”
And it was good enough for me. Back in the early 1980s, young as I was, I knew a special gift had been given me when I began to write for the South Carolina DNR. I had only lived here for ten years in 1984. I grew up on the Georgia-South Carolina border, however, with one foot in Georgia, and the other stepping gingerly over the line now and then. I thought I knew South Carolina. I didn’t, but my extensive South Carolina nature-outdoors course was well underway.
It continues to this day, and in 2024 South Carolina Wildlife magazine will celebrate seventy years of bringing the outdoors and more to people. I can’t be sure, but if the staff of today’s South Carolina Wildlife turns to outside writers, maybe my name will be called. That would make three commemorative issues for me. And come to think of it, I’d like to raft the Chattooga River one more time.