There are a few things my years spent at Eagle’s Nest have taught me, but at the top of that list is the importance of stepping out of your comfort zone and into adventure! When it didn’t look like we would be able to canoe at Eagle’s Nest in the summer of 2020, I recruited one of my Best-Nest-Friends, Rose Sink, for a Hante of our own: we would paddle South Carolina from the Upstate to the Atlantic Ocean — a ~250 mile trek spread out over 16 days in June.
Like many wilderness adventures, this one started with a dream. The Covid-19 quarantine had brought me down, so I reread some of my favorite wilderness adventure books to step outside in my mind. But as the days turned into weeks and my reading pile ran dry I decided it was time to find a real life adventure. So I texted Rose, “Hypothetically(!!)  — would you be willing to canoe trek across South Carolina with me?” She immediately replied and we snapped into trip planning mode: downloading old topographical maps of the state from the late 1800s, identifying hospitals along the way, and plotting out a day-by-day route down the rivers to the ocean. We would paddle Lawson’s Fork Creek to the Pacolet River, follow the Pacolet into the Broad River, slide through Columbia on Congaree River, then canoe the Santee River to Chicken Creek, Chicken Creek to the South Santee River, and the South Santee River into the Atlantic Ocean.
For me, it was wild to think that after over a decade of canoeing with Eagle’s Nest — I wouldn’t be paddling through the canoe gates on the lake or running Nantahala Falls with campers for the whole 2020 summer! As a paddling program known throughout the whitewater community as skilled, safe, and solid across the board — I can’t help but think that the rivers of NC must have missed us this summer. But even if we weren’t doing normal paddling things like camping at Tsali’s or playing “Pirates of the Lake,” Rose Sink and I brought the Eagle’s Nest paddling energy to the waters of South Carolina! We created a modified version of Paige’s “Table Yoga” we dubbed “River Yoga” (including the inner cho-cho pose, of course), sang our favorite river songs from the songbook (and hoped that the Deep River Blues wouldn’t somehow bring rain), and FaceTimed some of our Best-Nest-Friends from the field when we had cell service. All and all the trip was made merrier by carrying the spirit of Eagle’s Nest with us.
With that spirit in mind, we confidently voyaged into nature’s unknown wilderness: communicating with our community, showing compassion to the Earth, and feeling utter joy among the river otters (of which we saw dozens, but their sightings never got old). The adventure taught us many lessons yet one of the most powerful was our realization that there are tiny pockets of “pure” wilderness everywhere — you just have to choose to see them. Over the course of our journey we saw dozens of alligators, hundreds of bald eagles, fresh mountain lion prints, and one night heard the snorts of a wild boar in the rushes. Yet those experiences didn’t all happen deep in the backcountry. Sometimes those moments were on a small island in the middle of a tidal creek over 15 nautical miles from the nearest dock — but other times we were under a highway overpass or on a riverbank in the middle of the city of Columbia. Perhaps if you find yourself down from the crazy year we have all had you don’t have to go 250 miles downstream to find peace in the wilderness. Instead, perhaps you can just channel Noni’s words each summer and find a nice spot outside to sit, close your eyes, and listen to the wind blow through the trees.
With the summer of 2021 just around the corner, I’d encourage all campers and junior counselors to sign up for canoeing or an Eagle’s Nest paddling Added Adventure/Hante. You see, as someone who spent over 10 years in the program, I can’t sing it enough praises. If you ask me, whitewater canoeing at Eagle’s Nest the perfect balance of reflection and fun. There are peaceful moments when you’re closer to nature than anyone could be on foot — like when Rose and I paddled past a bald eagle eating a pink fish some 10 feet from us on a sandbank, or when dolphins swam around our canoe feeding on a shoal of jumping fish. But there are also moments of adrenaline: navigating the bridge rapids of Columbia, or canoeing through the Congaree National Park’s swamp which was full of alligators longer than the canoe. Those moments of zen and bursts of excitement make every day an unknown adventure that you’ll walk away from feeling more confident in your skills and proud of your accomplishments. But moreover, the lessons you’ll learn in a tandem canoe about communication, patience, and practice will carry you far in life. Besides, once you learn how to canoe with half the paddle, you’ll be twice the paddler — and you can carry those skills with you throughout your life, perhaps on your own canoe trek across South Carolina one day.
By Jess Kusher