Not wanting to let the winter get the best of us I spent much of December wistfully scrolling through topo maps on my home computer. My girlfriend, Marisa, and I had planned a trip down to Congaree National Monument Swamp in late December, but better judgment prevailed when a pouring rainstorm was forecast for the weekend. Switching gears in January we decided to try a weekend paddle across beautiful Lake Jocassee, South Carolina. A couple of years ago we took an awesome hiking trip to the new Gorges State Park that bounds the north side of Lake Jocassee, so we were familiar with the beauty of the area. This would be our second paddle/camping adventure and we were fortunate to get wonderful weather for the weekend. We had originally planned to spend two nights, but it snowed in the mountains on Friday and not knowing the condition of the mountain roads we elected to wait until Saturday and make it a one night excursion.
We loaded up our gear on Saturday morning and headed west out of Charlotte in the dark hours of the morning. After about a three hour ride we arrived at the Devils Fork State Park along the shores of Lake Jocassee. We checked in with the park ranger to ask him if it would be alright to leave our car at the boat ramp and he said it was up to us and that the ramp had 24 hour access. He asked about our plans and this is where we ran into a little kink in our agenda. Our plan was to put in at Devils Fork State Park and paddle approximately 9 miles north to the area where the Horsepasture River dumps into Lake Jocassee. The problem is, camping on the shores of Lake Jocassee is only permitted in certain designated sites; the one designated for Devils Fork State Park is only a short 2 mile paddle or so directly across the lake from the boat ramp. Marisa and I, however, planned on camping on the Foothills Trail, which runs approximately along the northern shore of Lake Jocassee. When we had hiked the Gorges State Park two years ago a permit was not required to camp on the trail, but that has since changed. Now a permit is required and the ranger stated you had to apply for it 10 to 14 days in advance! The ranger further stated that the penalty for camping on the trail without a permit was something on the order of a $400 fine.
Of course we all know asking for forgiveness is better than asking for permission, so we registered with the ranger to camp at the Devils Fork camp-site and gambled that the near zero degree temperatures would keep the North Carolina rangers off the Foothills Trail (Devils Fork State Park is in South Carolina, our destination was in North Carolina). Im not one to flout the rules, and I wanted to pay the fees required of me (which is why I paid for a camp-site I wasnt even going to use..) but the ever changing regulations required to have an adventure these days are becoming a logistical nightmare.
With our plan decided, Marisa and I loaded up our kayaks (Cape Horn 14 and 17 respectively) and pushed off from the Devils Fork boat ramp at around 0930. The lake was crystal clear and the wind was at our backs from the south-west, giving us, according to the GPS, a free 1.2 MPH. The temperature was about 20 degrees (F) at the beginning of our paddle, but we dressed for the conditions and both of us were comfortable for the duration of our paddle. The wind formed some small 8 to 12 inch waves, but as they were following seas we stayed bone dry the entire day. We shared the lake with maybe 3 or 4 trolling boats that were barely noticeable at all. It was refreshing not to hear the high pitch whine of jet-skis for our entire weekend!
The terrain surrounding Lake Jocassee is simply beautiful. The lake level was down a few feet, but it actually revealed many beautiful rock ledges and boulders that you could clearly see as you glided over them along the shore. The lake is in excess of 300 feet deep at some points in the reservoir and it seemed that all of the shore-line plunged rapidly to depth at most points. After 3 hours and 15 minutes of paddling (average speed 2.5 mph) we reached the limit of our northern exploration as we ran into a layer of 1 inch thick ice only a few hundred yards from the confluence of the Horsepasture River into Lake Jocassee. I suppose the water coming out of the mountains was so cold (below freezing) that as soon as it hit the lake and slowed down, it froze! Lucky for us a spur of the Foothills Trail was only a hundred feet or so from a nice cove we found and we pulled our kayaks up into the camp-site to camouflage our presence. The site must have been a fairly regularly used one on the Foothills Trail as there was a nice fire-ring already built out of rocks and a grassy flat area for pitching our tent.
Before making camp we took a short 1 mile hike along the Foothill Trails to the bridge that crosses the Horsepasture River. The whole area was covered in a couple inches of fresh snow and there were many fresh animal tracks along the trail. We hiked back to our camp and set up our tent and stowed all our gear. A nice little stream ran by the side of our camp and was perfect for purifying a few liters of water. We made a small camp-fire after the sun set, ate dinner and turned in early as the temperature dropped into the low teens.
Waking up early the next morning (Sunday) we broke camp early in anticipation of a longer paddle back into the wind. The skies were clear and the water showed ripples of wind blowing across it. Spray thrown up from our paddles froze into brilliant beads on our jackets as we paddled. On the paddle back we saw several bald eagles swooping through the skies and perched in trees on the shoreline. We were fortunate in that the wind was only very light (5 mph or so) in our faces for the return trip. After about 7 miles or so we stopped for a brief stretch and chocolate break (frozen Hershey bars are truly a treat after a hard paddle!). The channel leading up to our break spot was probably the hardest part of the paddle because the wind funneled through the slot in the mountains and increased velocity slightly. After our break on the island it was a short 2 to 2 mile paddle straight across the deepest and widest portion of the lake back to the boat ramp.
Our second day GPS read-out showed us averaging 2.2 mph and an elapsed time of 3 hours and 50 minutes. Distance totals on the GPS were 8.49 miles on Day 1 and 8.40 miles on Day 2 for a total of about 17 miles round trip. We had a great time; the lake and surrounding mountains are beautiful and Id say going in the winter is ideal because of the solitude that probably isnt present in the summer. Be prepared to face strong winds and VERY cold water year round though according to all other reports Ive read. I would be confident of being able to self-rescue when in the middle of a lake that is a couple miles wide because you wont last very long in water that cold, and of course, I always paddle with my girlfriend for mutual support! Additionally, next time I will arrange for a proper permit to camp on the Foothills Trail instead of risking a steep fine.
Devils Fork has very modern cabins available for rent. Across the lake (about 2 mile paddle or so) is a designated camp site with many prepared sites for pitching a tent. The northern fingers of lake run into several areas of the Foothills Trail which allows camping by permit.
Wilderness Systems Cape Horn 14' and 17'
For camping at the Devils Fork sites there was a charge of $6 per night or so. Not sure what the Foothills Trail permit costs.
DeLorme South and North Carolina Topo Atlas, Garmin Topo GPS maps, if you are going to hike the Gorges State Park area a MUST have is something called the "Thomas Guide" to the Toxaway/Gorges area.