Capers Island, October 2003
I've been wanting to do a coastal paddling and camping trip for a long time, and I finally got my chance when the Palmetto Paddlers went on a weekend trip to Capers Island, a small island maintained by the state DNR as a heritage preserve. This Capers island is located between Dewees Island and Bull's Island in Charleston County (it turns out there's another Capers Island in Beaufort County). There are no facilities on the island, and it's strictly primitive camping...a perfect place for a backcountry paddle.
The group met late in the morning at a small landing off Gadsdenville Road. It was nothing more than a dead end road and a little bit of water at the end. A fisherman assured us that this was the place. Soon we had commandeered the place, with boats and gear everywhere. Twelve of us, each with a kayak.
Paddling to Capers was easy and enjoyable. We timed it to ride the tide out to the island, and the weather was great. After maybe 100 yards of narrow channel surrounded by mud and seagrass, the path opened up into the big water of Copahee Sound. We stuck to the edge and soon found a small channel that cut up to Toomer Creek. We had to cross the Intracoastal Waterway, where you're fairly exposed and have to watch out for the big boats motoring up and down the channel. From there it was basically a straight shot to Capers Inlet and the southern tip of Capers Island.
As we paddled Capers Inlet we could see out to the Atlantic. Winds, tides, and shoals contributed to a frothy mess of waves at the end of the inlet. The Capers beach had firmed up to our port side and we decided to beach the boats and do some scouting. There's really no designation of the camping areas at the island...we had to compare things to a map we had. Camping is basically limited to the exposed beach areas on the northern and southern tips of the island. We got back in our boats, paddled further down the inlet, and then beached again, just at the entrance, but before the rough water. A small debate ensued about whether to camp where we were or to brave the water and round the point to a camping area that might have been better. Eventually we decided to stay where we were.
Not long after we settled on our camp location, and group of college girls came paddling down the inlet and right through the tricky part, looping around the point to land further up. But our corner of the island was fine with me...good breeze, fairly calm waters, and a lot of space to spread out. I looked for a quiet spot for my tent and found it just on the corner of the island. Took some doing to get it tied down in the sand...regular stakes don't do much, but eventually I got it situated. The dunes surrounding our camp were loaded with sand spurs, little spiky balls that attach to anything that touches them, especially skin! It took a while for us to learn to deal with them and choose paths that avoided them.
Several of our group had taken to building a main camp area complete with a campfire ring and a lean-to made of driftwood. I mostly stood around and admired their effort, but I did help collect some firewood. With the fire going, we all turned to making dinner. I went with ramen noodles. At the other end of the spectrum, Kate cooked up steak and potatoes!
We all sat around the campfire and had a great conversation. I sat on a fallen tree since I was the one person who didn't think to strap some sort of camping chair to my kayak. Kate told the story of fellow Palmetto Paddlers who spent an eventful honeymoon on Capers years ago.
As we chatted, we watched storm clouds and had a show of lightning off in the distance. It wasn't clear where the weather was headed, but it held off. I called it a night and decided to go read in my tent. After I read for a while, the wind really picked up and my tent walls shook in every direction. I suddenly wished I had spent more time securing my tent in the afternoon, but it would have to do. Soon after, it began raining. The whole event brought unpleasant memories of a harrowing stormy night in a tent on top of a mountain in Australia, but was happily a weaker storm and abated without soaking the inside of my tent.
My bladder forced me awake at half past four. I stumbled out of the tent to see a clear starry sky and a third quarter moon. So when I got up a little after eight, I expected sunny skies, but was greeted by chilly air and low gray clouds. The campfire was already going and I warmed up while boiling some water for my oatmeal. Some of my companions were much more elaborate, their breakfasts complete with bacon and cinnamon rolls. Before long, the overcast sky was beginning to burn off and let some sun through.
After breakfast, I decided to explore the island and play photographer. I wandered north up the beach, past two guys who had sailed in on a catamaran and camped nearby, and then past the college girls. A couple were getting an early start on their bikini sunbathing. I pressed on, into a plentiful expanse of beach populated only by birds, crabs, and fallen trees. Storm damage and erosion had taken a lot of trees on the island. I went looking for the perfect palmetto tree photo, but all of the living palmettos were mostly back in the scrub behind the hide tide line and didn't really stand out. I took some shots anyway, and eventually decided to head back.
As I got closer to our camp, I started passing a lot of beachcombers who weren't from the camps. When I came around the south corner of the island, I saw the eco-tour boat that had brought them. It was sort of a disappointment to see that our "private" island had been discovered, but at least it was only a short day trip. There are apparently plenty of boaters who invade Capers on the weekends in good weather.
Camp was fairly quiet when I returned. Most of the group had gone out beachcombing. I whipped up a simple lunch. Kate and I talked about a possible paddle to Bull's Island, across from Capers on the north side. I had the idea that we'd just bust out into the surf and paddle up the beach, but Kate's plan to paddle up the inland side of the island was better given the wind and waves. Roy agreed to join the paddle. We waited a while to see if anyone else wanted to go, but didn't get any takers. We hit the water and picked up Andy along the way, who was doing a little scouting on the beach of Dewees Island across the inlet.
The tricky part about going up the backside of the island is that it's not a straight shot like the oceanside. It is marshy and there are various winding creeks, some of which are not passable at low tide. We left just before high tide, so we had the opposite problem: all of the nooks and crannies in the marsh looked like passable creeks. We broke off of Capers Creek a bit too early and came to a seeming-dead-end. But the tide was high at this point, and we were able to make our own path, directly through the seagrass, skimming just above the muddy marl. It wasn't long before we found the Santee Pass, a decent creek running along most of Capers.
The map of Kate's GPS was slightly off and put us in another dead end. We stopped for a while to consult about it. I was concerned about getting back to the camp before dark...we had spent a lot of time to get this far behind Capers, and Bull's was still a ways off. But we decided to press on for a while, and soon found the turn to stay on the Santee Pass just before reaching Mark Bay.
The final stretch of the pass was wider and easy to navigate. Soon we could see our destination, but we had a bit of paddling to do. We crossed Price Creek and finally made landfall at the beach on Bull's Island. I was ready for a break after nearly three hours of paddling with nowhere to get out. We had the beach to ourselves, but the inlet had a fair number of boats hanging out. Across the water we could see the north end camp area on Capers, and it was packed. Apparently a family reunion of some sort.
Just above Bull's beach was a beautiful array of wildflowers and plants. Little red butterflies flitted about. Those weren't the only bugs around, however, as stepping very far off the beach invited a swarm of mosquitoes. Bull's Island is part of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, and this part of the refuge was definitely left to nature! I scarfed down some tuna salad and we hopped right back into our boats for the return trip, as we had to get moving to return to camp by sunset.
The trip back from Bull's began with difficulty. The tide was on its way out, and getting back up Price Creek was hard work. We paddled valiantly next to a sailboat, inching our way ahead of it. It took us a while to realize the sailboat was at anchor! Two boys aboard smiled and watched us struggle. But we made slow, steady progress, and eventually turned back into the Santee Pass. Soon after, the tides started working for us instead of against us. That, in combination with our new knowledge of the trail, got us back to camp in only two hours. We paddled leisurely down Capers Inlet as the sun was getting lower in the sky.
Our part of Capers was busier than the evening before. Some boats blasting music were down the beach, and a trimaran had anchored in the channel. The wind had died, and arriving at camp, we were violently attacked by the no-see-ums. This made dinner an unpleasant experience. Sunset brought a slight breeze that blew the bugs and the noisy boats away, and we enjoyed another night by the campfire, storm-free this time. Again I retired early to enjoy some in-tent reading.
I decided to take it easy for my last half-day on the island. Some of the group were ambitious and went for a little surf paddling, but I settled for another walk down the beach. I had it mostly to myself again, and walked along snapping photos. Some birds posed for me on a fallen tree surrounded by the surf. I spent some more time trying to make a title slide by writing "Capers Island" in the sand.
I returned to camp and we met the DNR ranger who patrols the island in his spare time on the weekends. He told us the island has almost no funding, and he spent most of a year's budget to buy his ATV to get around the island. Apparently he's using camping permits primarily for statistical purposes, to get data on how the island is used and hopefully acquire some more funds in the future.
After a quick lunch I turned to tearing down my camp and loading my boat. For some reason, my stuff didn't fit into the boat as nicely as before; maybe it was all of the sand that had hitched a ride. We took a group photo, cleaned up our camp, and were on the water just as the tide was beginning to come in. We had an easy paddle back to the landing, accompanied for some time by a few beautiful dolphins.
Some of the same fishermen were at the landing for our return. It was nice to see our vehicles were in good shape; we had left them in the care of a nice old lady who lives in the last house on the street. Soon our gear was loaded and it was back to civilization. This was a fantastic way to spend a weekend, and my thanks go to Kate and Brian for organizing it, and especially my wife for letting me go while she babysat.