Links to all Articles & Photos:
South Carolina’s Mountain Lakes Region
Thomas R. Fletcher
"I’ve been doing this 60 years. You find something you love and you just keep doing it," the elderly gentleman, smile-lines etched on his face, said. He sliced the blade of his pocketknife into the wood, peeling away another sliver. I had asked about his whittling. "Some day, you’ll say you’ve been taking pictures for 60 years," he said as I snapped another image of him at work. He was working a piece of basswood, sculpting a bird from a raw hunk of wood. Later he would finish the job by painting the color and markings of the species depicted. Cliff Grossenbaugh, ‘Wood Carver,’ his card identifies him, was one of several old-timers I would meet and talk with at the Hagood Mill, three miles north of Pickens, South Carolina. Cliff, who lives in Central, a town several miles south, came to share his craft at this once-a-month gathering.
The third Saturday of each month (9:00 A. M. - 4:00 P. M.) Hagood Mill becomes a scene of yesterdays gone by. Skills mostly lost in our fast-track society are demonstrated by those who continue to preserve them. See a water-powered gristmill grind corn to grits and cornmeal–a miller performing what was once an essential service to the community. See wool spun into yarn. See hand-quilting on a quilting-hoop from an age long gone. Enjoy some mountain music. Listen in as Beekeeper John Hester, sitting by his bee display, explains the intricacies of beehive operations, between bites of his Carolina barbeque. His display includes honeybees, a bee tree segment, and plenty of honey for sale. The folks gathered at the mill are eager to share their work with any who care to listen.
Hagood Mill, located in the heart of South Carolina’s Mountain Lakes Region, was built around 1825 when the local lifestyle was tied to the land and the economy depended upon the family farm. The rugged, hilly landscape and an abundance of water meant there were a number of mills scattered throughout the area. The mill provided a service for the surrounding community–grinding grits, cornmeal, and flour for the local farmers, taking a percentage as a grinding fee. The mill became a natural community gathering place. Hagood Mill continues to serve the community today, acquainting visitors with the cultural heritage of the region through various displays and exhibitions.
Snuggled within the northwest corner, squeezed between North Carolina and Georgia, the Mountain Lakes Region of South Carolina takes in the three counties of Oconee, Pickens, and Anderson. Named for the Blue Ridge Mountains and the three area lakes (Hartwell, Keowee, and Jacassee), the Mountain Lakes Region is one of four segments of the larger South Carolina National Heritage Corridor, that stretches some 240 miles, covering 14 counties from the mountains of Oconee County to the sea of Charleston. The Mountain Lakes Region has much to offer in the way of natural beauty, outdoor adventure, cultural exploration, and there’s some fine dining to be experienced as well.
A visit wouldn’t be complete without rafting the Chattooga River, known for the movie Deliverance, filmed there in 1972. The Chattooga was named a National Wild and Scenic River for its natural beauty, geological features, and cultural elements. Surrounded by National Forest (Sumter in SC, Chattahoochee in GA), the river flows south from Whitesides Mountain in North Carolina to form the border between Georgia and South Carolina. Rafting trips on the river are carefully timed so each trip has the river alone–preserving the wild and scenic nature of the river.
Chattooga means "rocky stream" in the Native American Cherokee, an apt name for this free-flowing, boulder-strewn river. I expected a slow ride and exaggerated rapids’ ratings (calling a Class II a Class III or IV for marketing purposes). What I found was a thrill ride. The rapids weren’t over-rated. After looking Bull Sluice Rapids over for our run, I wasn’t so sure its Class IV rating shouldn’t have been a Class V. The many rocks and swift water flow make this a technically challenging river. The slightest miscalculation and the raft will be emptied of occupants, as I found out. I saw it coming a split-second before impact. We were going broadside into a rock with the rushing river driving us. "Not good," I thought. Four of the raft’s five occupants were immediately ejected into the swirling waters. Fighting to the surface, gasping for air, bouncing like a pinball from rock to rock–I was given a solid reminder that whitewater rafting is an adventure sport that involves risk. Sometimes you go for an unscheduled swim. The Chattooga was more river than I expected to find so far south. Being free-flowing, the water level depends upon the rainfall. Levels can get quite low in summer and there were a couple of places where we were dragging bottom on a spring run. A couple of words to the wise: don’t underestimate the power of the river and pick the most experienced guide available (not a newbie from Kansas).
Lake Jacassee is another "don’t miss," whether one’s interest is fishing or merely sightseeing. The name Jacassee comes from the Native American Cherokee that once inhabited the area, and means "place of the lost ones." Lake Jacassee, built by Duke Power, features some 7,500 surface acres, 75 miles of shoreline and a maximum depth of 375 feet. Though built for power generation, the lake offers outstanding recreational opportunities. Popular for fishing (state records for several species of fish have been broken by fish taken on Jacassee), the lake offers access to several scenic waterfalls and the Cherokee Foothills Hiking Trail that surround the lake. The Cherokee Foothills Hiking Trail is an 85 mile long trail that connects three area state parks (Devil’s Fork, Oconee, and Table Rock). Partially surrounded by Sumter National Forest, the state recently acquired an additional 33,000 acres bordering the lake, known as the Jacassee Gorges Project, ensuring the area will remain as it is today, largely undeveloped. A robust forest of pine and hardwoods cover the steep ridges and hills. Surprisingly, there were only a handful of boats on the lake.
"July 4 is probably the day the lake is most crowded and even then, it’s not really crowded. The number of boats is limited by the number of parking places in the park," fishing/tour guide James Couch informed me. Devil’s Fork State Park offers the only public boat launching facility on the lake. The ramp is open to the public 24/7/365. I took a pontoon boat tour of the lake with James. We stopped at several locations along the way to hike to waterfalls, the most scenic of which is Whitewater River Falls, one of the highest cascading waterfalls in the eastern US, the waterfall plunges some 400 feet, crossing the North Carolina/South Carolina border before emptying into Lake Jacassee.
(Fran Hanson Discovery Center, South Carolina Botanical Gardens)
The best place to acquaint one’s self with what the region has to offer, is to stop by the South Carolina Botanical Garden on the campus of Clemson University. The Fran Hanson Discovery Center, within the South Carolina Botanical Garden, serves to introduce the Mountain Lakes Region and provide information on the garden. The center is a source for maps, directions, current events calendar, books, magazines, and brochures–everything one needs in one central location, thus a logical place to begin an exploration of the region. The folks there will even help one with reservations for accommodations and dinner (Two places I recommend for dinner are Sullivan’s Metropolitan Grill in Anderson and Café Rendezvous in Seneca. The crawfish etoufeé of Café Rendezvous rivals anything one would expect in New Orleans.) Situated on nearly 300 acres of ground, the botanical garden is an excellent place to spend a day–or at least an afternoon–meandering along the trails, listening to squirrels scampering and birds chirping. In addition to the expected numerous plant species, the garden has the largest collection of nature-based sculpture in the US, and two historical structures on the grounds (the Hunt Family Cabin dating from 1826 and the Hanover House, a French-Huguenot structure dating from 1716).
IF YOU GO:
Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher / PROSE AND PHOTOS