In the last week of July my girlfriend and I decided to try out an overnight paddle to Capers Island, SC. Located a few miles north of Charleston, Capers is a barrier island administered by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
We drove down to Charleston on Friday evening and spent the night in a cheap (read: scary) hotel in North Charleston just off I-26 so that we could have an early start Saturday morning. The plan was to paddle from the Isle of Palms Marina and be on the water around 7AM to catch the falling tide out to Capers. The distance to paddle was only about 5 miles so we expected a fairly quick trip out to the island.
Upon awaking at 5:30 in the morning on Friday I turned on the Weather Channel in our hotel room and my jaw dropped when they started spouting some nonsense about "Tropical Depression #7 organized off the coast of Southeast Georgia..." Needless to say, TD #7 was throwing tons of thunderstorms and heavy rain north across the very area we'd be paddling in. We drove through a constant downpour to the Isle of Palms marina and proceeded to load our kayaks in the pouring rain.
Once we were on the water (the major portion of the paddling was done on the Intercoastal Waterway) we slipped into another world. With the roll of thunder accompanying us we glided past the piled up oyster shells lining the banks of the ICW. The rain was heavy and steady, but there was almost no wind to speak of. Curiously, the free ride I had anticipated on the falling tide was in fact about a 1/2 mph current AGAINST us all the way to the point we turned out and caught the current going out Capers Inlet. In retrospect, looking at the maps I concluded that the relatively large quantity of water in the Copahee and Hamlin sounds must funnel mostly out through Dewees Inlet, which would account for the adverse current all the way to Capers Inlet.
Once in Capers Inlet we rode the tide out toward the sandy southern end of Capers Island. Along the way we saw some dolphins (porpoises?) feeding in the ICW, tons of birds, and thanks to the heavy rain, not a single motorboat! We even saw a small shark cruising near the waters edge scavenging for a meal. As we neared landfall on the southern end of Capers we could see the line of breakers out in the inlet, but our ride was glass smooth and we beached our kayaks about 2 hours and 15 minutes after putting in at the marina.
Miraculously, the rain stopped right as we reached Capers and we didn't have another drop for the entire balance of the weekend! We quickly unloaded our boats, set-up camp and hauled our kayaks up above the high-tide line. The beach was littered with fallen palm tree trunks half buried in the sand; reminders of the devastation hurricane Hugo wreaked in this area in 1989.
After getting camp organized we took off northeast along the beach and saw 6 or 7 kayaks pulled up on the sand just around the corner from where we made camp. The group camping there were from Coastal Expeditions, a guided tour group that had spent the previous night. They shipped out later in the day and the guide suggested to me that we occupy the site they had abandoned since "almost nobody turns the corner and heads up that way". We should have taken his advice right away, but we had already set-up camp and were hesitant to move all our gear. Surely our site was fine.
The exposed face of Capers is beautiful, with plenty of shells and sand dollars it's a shell hunters dream. The beach is very wide and flat at low tide with the stumps and logs of palm trees littering the area; it almost looks like the beach at Normandy on D-Day with all the obstacles. The tidal pools hold small fish, snails, crabs and all kinds of other mysterious creatures. Contrary to what we had been advised to expect, we suffered almost no bug-bites during our entire weekend on Capers. We did use Deet just in case, but the heavy rain preceding our arrival coupled with a good onshore breeze might have kept the legendry swarms away from us.
We walked back past our campsite up the shoreline bordering Capers Inlet and were surprised and baffled to see a john-boat pull up dead in front of our camp-site. Two fisherman got hopped out and hollered that they were going to make camp right behind our site, beyond the dunes if we didn't mind. Still in shock that in all these miles of shoreline they had to pick a spot 50 feet away from us I nodded and we kept walking up the beach. We climbed up onto the DNR boat dock and walked the Watson McCaskill trail through part of the interior of the island fascinated by all of the butterflies and cactus poking up through the sandy soil. You definitely don't want to attempt walking in the interior barefoot, you wouldn't make it 10 steps before impaling yourself on either cactii or sand-spurs.
After a nice walk we headed back to camp and as the sun started to poke through the clouds the power boaters descended on Capers as though it WAS D-Day. Fishermen lined the beach along the inlet and we discovered the truth in what the Coastal Expeditions guide had told us. None of the powerboats would dare go past the inlet because of the surf and sandbars, however a kayak can "turn the corner" and paddle through a very calm surf-free tidal zone and be totally alone just 300 yards further away! Next time we will know! While sitting in our camp-site we were constantly amazed at how people would just tramp right through our little area oblivious to the fact that they could have given us some space and walked down along the shoreline. Many times we witnessed what we came to describe as "Attention Deficit Disorder Shell Collecting": a power boat would pull up and a bunch of people would spring out with beers in hand, walk a hundred yards down the beach and back, hop back in the boat and roar off back into the ICW. It was hilarious in a sick kind of way. All the while we just laid in the sand with our heads propped up on a log reading or watching.
As the sunset most of the boaters went away, except for the guys that were spending the night 50 feet away from us. Thankfully they were a relatively quiet bunch. We lit a fire with some driftwood and roasted some hot-dogs for dinner. Someone (me!) forgot the marshmallows, so we ended up having smores sans mallow. The night was warm and clear with thousands of brilliant stars and we turned in to the crashing of the waves across the dunes.
The sun woke us at around 9 the next morning. We ate some breakfast, took another walk along the beach, broke camp, loaded our kayaks and struck out back toward the IOP Marina. Since the day started out sunny the power boaters were out in droves. They roared all over the place in everything from jet-skis to 50 foot yachts. They had a total disregard for no-wake zones and frankly we were much happier when it was pouring down rain and all the fruits were home watching sports on television.
We had another no-current assisted paddle back to the marina, which was now an incredible zoo of boats, humanity, cars and trailers. We found a gap in the traffic and ran up on the boat ramp quickly dragging ourselves clear of the launch area. We were unpacked and headed home shortly thereafter.
Capers IS a beautiful island. Unfortunately it is just TOO accessible. With so many people living so close to such a jewel it is really inundated on the weekends. Late fall or winter and/or mid-week would probably be a much more crowd free trip. The paddle is relatively easy, but there can be adverse currents, winds, and boat traffic on the ICW. Large barges use the ICW and they cannot stop quickly, so caution should be used and with such shallow drafts there is really no reason for a kayak to be in the middle of the ICW. We hugged close to the islands and marshes and generally kept out of the way.
Care needs to be taken when assessing the route because as the tide falls, what appears to be navigable can end up putting you in very shallow water, in marsh mud, or very sharp oyster beds. Being left high and dry for a few hours stuck in a stinking mass of marsh mud would not be a good thing. At one point we were going to attempt a short-cut between Marys Island and Dewees Island to get into Capers Inlet but my kayak started bottoming out in the mud and I hastily changed course back toward the deeper water of the main ICW channel. We had to go a bit further up to the main channel cut by Toomer Creek to paddle out Capers Inlet.
Bring tons of water if you go. I don't think there is any filterable fresh water on the island. The maps show inland lakes, but they are toward the northeast end of the island and I'm not positive that they aren't brackish. Sunscreen and bug spray are also high on the list of essentials! Once you get "around the corner" and away from the power boaters, you will really have a great time. The beach is awesome and there is a lot of wildlife and natural beauty to be seen.
Backcountry beach camping! Highly suggest you visit Coastal Expeditions and get some advice from them. Whatever you do, go just around the corner of the inlet and make camp on the beach or trees facing the ocean, NOT the inlet.
The SC Dept. of Natural Resources will fax or e-mail you a free camping permit. Telephone them at 843-953-9300, they were VERY accommodating. Camping must be done at the north or south ends of the island. Fires are allowed using downed wood, driftwood.
IOP Marina charged a $6 ramp/parking fee.
I-26 to I-526 toward Isle of Palms. Left on Highway 17 after exiting I-526 then a right on 517 and over a bridge onto Isle of Palms. Left on 703 on IOP and when it makes the sharp bend to the left keep following it around to the left and straight ahead will be IOP Marina.
Garmin GPSMap 76, DeLorme and Garmin maps.