Tyger Tom: A River Report by Burt Kornegay
Updated: Jan 31, 2022
The following piece was written by Burt Kornegay after his canoe trip on the Tyger River from the Nesbitt Shoals Nature Park to the Broad River. His reflection is unedited except for the placement of pulled quotes. The writing does not necessarily reflect the views of the Tyger River Foundation and is published here with the author's permission. Photos are courtesy of Burt Kornegay unless otherwise noted.
By Burt Kornegay
When planning for a canoe trip and estimating how many days it will take, my rule of thumb is that I’ll travel around fifteen miles a day. If the trip is going to cover 60 miles, I figure it will take four days. Making fifteen miles daily might sound like a lot, but on average it comes to four to five hours of actual paddling, with broad margins on either side for enjoying camp, looking at plants, watching animals, poking about on shore.
So, when I left home in mid-December for a solo trip on South Carolina’s Tyger River, canoeing 44 miles to the Broad, then down the Broad another eight to Strother Landing, or 52 miles total, I assumed four days would be aplenty. I’d also have time to make a side hike to see a state historic site near the river, Rose Hill Plantation. But I was not underway for an hour before I realized that simply to reach Strother Landing on time, and not leave the shuttle driver in the dark about where I was, I would have to focus on making miles.
The temperature went to 23 degrees the first night. I woke the next morning to a camp so frosty it looked like a dusting of snow had fallen out of the starry sky.
Part of it was due to the Tyger itself. Based on the USGS gauges, it was flowing at 200 cfs where I launched, a water volume that Paul Ferguson in his paddling guidebook says is minimum for the river. Back from my trip, here’s how I’d put it: the Tyger at minimum has nothing in common with the powerful feline suggested by its name; it’s more of an old tomcat curled up asleep near the woodstove on a wintry day, not wanting to move even when stirred. I had to stroke steadily to make progress, because the river was in no hurry to go anywhere, and my paddle dug into the sandy bottom every other stroke. From time to time I even ground out and had to turn my paddle into a push pole. The pale winter sun cast a sheen on the river’s surface, making it hard to judge the depth.
Paddling friend Tim Carstens recently reminded me that an old term for a river trip was “canoe cruising.” But on the Tyger I was canoe creeping. If the Tyger is below minimum, count on walking your boat.
The miles were also long to make because the days were short. As I sand-stroked and push-poled along, I thought about a leisurely cruise I had made on Georgia’s Flint River last June. Dawn and birdsongs woke me by 5 a.m. I would start a fire and cook breakfast, nurse a mug of coffee, read, make notes on my river maps, and watch the sun slowly burn off the mist before feeling any need to strike camp. It was not breakfast but breakslow. Midday would find me midway into a siesta. And having made 15 miles by 5 p.m., I would start thinking about where to lay my head for the night. If no campsite showed up around the next bend or the next, well, it was the summer solstice, the sun was still high above the horizon. I had plenty of time. But on Tyger Tom at the winter solstice? I needed to find a campsite by 3:00 or I’d be eating supper in the dark.
And I did not want to eat supper in the dark because with the dark came the cold.
The temperature went to 23 degrees the first night. I woke the next morning to a camp so frosty it looked like a dusting of snow had fallen out of the starry sky. The second night was 26, the third 32.
Now, those temperatures are not that cold, and I have camped in lower—70 degrees lower at the extreme. That was in Alberta in 1996. Invited to join a group of instructors from the Boulder Outdoor Survival School for eight days of winter survival training, I was told to come prepared for a possible 30 below. It turned out to be the coldest week in Alberta in years. The first night plunged to -45. The next to -50. The warmest night was -25. You can die in cold like that. A minute of exposure can freeze-burn the skin, as I learned when I pulled my hands out of their gloves the first night to roll out my sleeping bag. Feeling my fingertips start to freeze, I ran over to the campfire and held them close. Too late. They were “nipped” for the rest of the week.
But when it comes to feeling cold all the way down to your shivery Deep South core, a winter night of camping in a Carolina river bottom will match 40 below.
Looking back on it, I see that part of the Tyger’s difficulty had nothing to do with the river or the season but with me. If I had launched 30 years ago with little water, less light, and nights below freezing, the icy adversity would have been a welcomed challenge to my own internal heat. But now, on the Tyger in December? Seeing where the temperature was headed the first night, I curled up in my sleeping bag before the stars had fully come out.
Don’t let my December discourage you from paddling the Tyger! Making up between Greenville and Greer in three tributaries, the North, South, and Middle, the Tyger’s main stem flows southeast through Sumter National Forest mixed with private tracts. It is wooded almost the whole way and has the remote feel river cruisers look for.
Immediately on setting out, I paddled into nearly continuous shoals with several Class II drops.
I started at the SR 50 Walnut Grove Road bridge over the river, east of Woodruff, on land owned by the Tyger River Foundation. The Foundation folks are dedicated to protecting the river and encouraging recreation on it; and upstream of the bridge they own Nesbitt Shoals Nature Park, open to the public. My plan was to launch at the park.
As a courtesy, a few days before the trip I emailed the Foundation’s contact person, Lawson, to let him know what I was about. I was surprised to get a call from the president, Julian. He said there was an easier access for my canoe and gear on the downstream side of the bridge, where the Foundation has its headquarters, and he generously offered to have someone open the gate to let me in. Assuming that the gatekeeper lived nearby, I was also surprised when I got there to learn that the one with the key had driven from Spartanburg to do it. Thank you, Monty! It was the perfect place to launch.
Immediately on setting out, I paddled into nearly continuous shoals with several Class II drops. The shoals go for four river miles on the map, and it is a beautiful reach, but since I had to zigzag down the channel in search of room enough between rocks to squeeze my boat, it was more than four miles.
The shoals ended with a rapid called Two Step, which lies hidden at the bottom of a cluster of small wooded islands. Take Paul to heart when he says of this drop, “Scout carefully,” and he rates it Class III.
Those of you who run whitewater know that ratings are based on a rapid’s complexity and power, and also on the possible severity of the consequences if you pin or swim. Nantahala Falls, for instance, is held up as the standard for a Class III rapid. But the falls becomes something more consequential than a III if there is a dangerous strainer lodged in it. Since I was in my cruising canoe on the Tyger, not my whitewater playboat, carrying my food and gear, in chill weather, and traveling solo, I bumped up Two Step’s rating to Class IV. If I got into trouble, there’d be just little ole me to get me back out. The middle and left channels though the islands join to funnel the water into the seven-foot-high drop. I took the by-passing right channel and got out to pull my canoe over two spaced-out ledges too shallow to run.
Once the shoals were safely behind me I could never quite catch up in terms of daily miles.
Even at a minimum flow, the Tyger has a lot to like. For one, because there are few houses, no towns or noisy highways along it, the river is quiet. I spent my third night camping about a half mile downstream of one of the few bridges over the river, Gordon’s Bridge, and heard more coyote howls, owl wails, and deer snorts in the darkness than I did vehicles crossing it.
For another, the river is free of trash. I include in “trash” a kind of litter that fouls many rivers today—Keep Out signs glaring at you from tree after tree, often for miles. Such signs are foul in two ways—the look itself and the I GOT MINE behind the look. When lining both banks, they turn rivers into long, narrow cages.
The shores have places to camp too, in the form of flat, wooded terraces topping off the banks. The trick is to get up to them, since the banks are often steep. One way is to look for side creeks joining the main. Even small ephemeral streams will do, and the contour lines on topo maps will show when they are coming up. It is at the confluence of the little with the big that you are likely to find a natural ramp to the bench above.
Another thing to like about the Tyger is wildlife. Since I was there during the winter rut, the deer in particular were on the move. Several times I saw one swim across the river. And once, rounding a bend, two does leaped in side by side from a bank and started swimming—only to spot me and turn to go back, where they found themselves trapped. Though I skirted them by hugging the far shore, the does tried repeatedly to jump up the bank, digging at the dirt with their hooves before falling back with big splashes. They even jumped on top of each other in their panic.
There are well-known sites in the west called “buffalo jumps” where various Indian tribes, wanting the meat, bones, and hides, stampeded herds of bison over cliffs to their deaths. Watching the does, I thought that for hunters from a southeastern tribe, that steep bank would have been a kind of buffalo jump in reverse—a fatal jump up, not down. Drive a herd of deer into the river there, with hunters on the far shore to scare them back, and the animals, frantically trying to get out, could easily injure or drown one another. I paddled on, trusting that once I was out of sight the does would calm down.
Then I came to a bald eagle, which responded to my presence in a different way. The eagle was perched on a branch over the river, its back to me; and at first sight, the shape was so large and still, I thought it was some kind of strange tree growth, not a bird. But when the head turned to look back at me, there was no mistaking the pure white feathers and hooked beak, the regal posture, the fierce eye. It could have been the very eagle on our nation’s great seal. Keeping its eye on me, the eagle slowly cocked its pure white tail and shot out a stream of pure white effluvium. I heard it plopping into the water just ahead of the bow. Then, lightened of its load, our national emblem spread its great wings and flew off.
Even at a minimum flow, the Tyger has a lot to like. For one, because there are few houses, no towns or noisy highways along it, the river is quiet.
I’ll end this list of likes by noting a piece of river booty the Tyger offered—the middle section of a green and white interstate highway exit sign wedged in a tree. Exit 60, to be exact. Interstate 85 crosses the Tyger’s tributaries up near Greenville, so the sign might have been washed down from there in a flood.
Glancing at my maps, I saw that Exit 60 leads to SC 101, a secondary highway Becky and I have driven when traveling through the state. The South Tyger and Enoree Rivers flow close to each other there, and the highway runs between the two.
Becky, I knew, would be delighted if she saw me come home with an exit sign in the back of my truck. It would go with our house and yard full of booty from other trips, including Daphne the mannequin, a metal baby-crib headboard, a four-foot long, two-foot wide steel spring from an abandoned textile mill. But like a man in a dinghy who comes upon a beached 16th century Spanish galleon loaded with the queen’s dowry, there was no way I could fit such a treasure in my little boat.
I left the sign as I found it.
Exit 60 Redux
Home from the Tyger, I started memorizing Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses.” It would be a good one, I thought, to buck me up on my next winter trip. You might know the poem. Its aging hero, Ulysses, unhappy back in his kingdom after so many years of adventurous travel and travail, restless to explore the unknown again, calls his crewmates together,
My mariners, souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me. . .
He urges them to take up the oars once more and “strike the sounding furrows,”
And though we are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Rousing words, those. I say them out loud and my arms start to dig in with the paddle.
But while getting the poem to heart I began to wonder, how can Ulysses gather his fellow mariners around him when all of them are dead? As Homer tells it in The Odyssey, Ulysses himself was the only one to make it back to Ithaca alive. Every member of his crew succumbed during those 10 years of homeward struggle after the Trojan War—swept overboard in storms, smashed by boulder-throwing barbarians, gorged on by Polyphemus the Cyclops, changed into squealing swine by the witch Circe, snatched off the ship’s deck in the talons of the many-headed Scylla and carried screaming to her reeking den, blasted by a lightning bolt from Zeus, overdosed on lotus blossoms and no NARCAN at hand. The grieving king recounts all that anguish and death in books IX-XII of the poem. Is that why he now calls them “souls” not men?
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
I began to see that Ulysses is a dead man talking—exhorting his ghostly comrades to set off with him down the only waters left to explore, the Styx or Cocytus or Pyriphlegethon in the Underworld.
One world of rivers at a time, please. I’ll keep “Ulysses” in reserve until Exit 60, its off-ramp arrow pointing from the main channel towards a river not on the map.
To make a smooth-water cruise on the Tyger, launch at the SC 56 bridge. It’s six miles downstream from the end of the shoals. Or (because Paul says the carry down to the river there is steep), ask the Tyger River Foundation if they own an easier access just below Two Step.
Plan your trip to include the side hike I had to forgo to Rose Hill Plantation. And here is an adventurous way to do it. Pull out about ½ mile downstream from the SR16 Sardis Road bridge (not at the public Rose Hill Landing upstream of the bridge), and look for Forest Service trail # 533B. I found a map of it online and traced it on my topo. The trail connects the river and the state historic site. If you don’t see the trail (I didn’t spot it from the river), simply follow a compass bearing through the woods. You’ll probably pick up the trail on the way. Besides the plantation house itself, I’ve read that there is a path around the grounds that goes through an old-growth stand of hickories. I wanted to see those antebellum trees.
Plan your trip to include the side hike I had to forgo to Rose Hill Plantation.
Better yet: camp in the vicinity of the trail your first night and hike in the morning. The park staff conducts house tours several days of the week at posted hours.
Trip Facts and Figures
Trip dates: Dec. 13-16, 2021.
Put in: Tyger River Foundation Headquarters, SR 50 bridge.
Take out: Strother Landing, SC 34 bridge.
Shuttle driver: retired chief of the Hobbysville Fire Department, John Mitchell.
Guidebook: Canoe Kayak South Carolina, by Paul Ferguson.
Tyger River Foundation: www.tygerriver.org
Rose Hill Plantation State Historic Site: www.southcarolinaparks.com/rose-hill