A canoe trip in South Carolina, with an overnight in a tree house, was my chance to set the fun tone of tree house to right.
1 Up to the Tree House
My mother cut out an article from the travel section of the Sunday paper about a canoe trip in South Carolina that featured an overnight in a tree house. My memories of tree houses involved fear, scary climbs prompted by peer pressure to scale the branches beyond my comfort zone. Maybe this was my chance to revamp my notion of tree houses. On a May morning, I drove about two hours north of Charleston to rent my canoe. It was white fiberglass, a 13-foot Mohawk solo canoe, a kneeler with a tilted seat and a turkey feather stuck in the bow.
Before I set off, I asked what to do if I encountered an alligator. I was told they were not a problem. They were seen only rarely and the environment was such that they had plenty to eat. The potential for harm, I was told, hung in the wasp nests found in low overhanging bushes and a poisonous water snake that I was not likely to meet. As I was accustomed to taking precautions when canoeing on my own, I asked for a second paddle and a length of rope for tying the canoe. I was thinking five feet of rope, but I was given about twenty. While that seemed a bit much, I didn't feel right mentioning it as I had asked for something extra.
With my questions answered, I paddled my canoe on the Edisto River, the world's longest black water river and one of the three rivers making up the ACE River Basin. (ACE stands for the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers.) I pushed off into the black water. It was a weekday and I was just about the only human about. I shared the outdoor space with red songbirds, little yellow birds, great blue herons, and egrets. The air was filled with dragonflies, butterflies, and other insects. I saw a huge turtle waddle over the sand and into the water. There were lots of dead trees congregated all along the river. As I was trying to avoid one of those low, over- hanging bushes that might harbor wasp nests, I ended up pushing toward a pile of dead trees and somehow my length of rope became tangled in the debris. I lost my paddle trying to untangle the rope. I was glad I had asked for a second paddle because I used that spare to catch up to the first.
I saw a local alligator; the body length between its neck and the beginning of its tail was at least three feet. It was sunning itself on the bank, but then I watched it move. Resolute in its stride, the wide, black, tire-like creature descended the sandy bank and glided into the shallow black water with me. I then began a steady stroke trying to appear like a river traveler to be reck- oned with. I was reminded of the Halloween story's refrain: "The old woman said, 'I'm not afraid' and walked on a bit faster." I was relieved I didn't hit that hu
I had no map but was told to just follow the river. It was a winding river. I guessed incorrectly at one of the forks and found the end of a cove. No harm done as the scenery was pretty. As I paddled the 12 miles down the river, I wondered whether I would have trouble getting into the tree house. I was sunburned and my arms were shaking with fatigue. Would I have trouble climbing up to the tree house? Would I have to pull myself up with a rope? Slowly the structure came into view. To my relief, a staircase led first to a deck with a picnic table and then on up to a tree house. Inside, the tree house featured a table, chairs, a couch, and a stove. It was also equipped with playing cards, board games, magazines, popcorn, coffee, peanut butter, and lots of kerosene wicks to light. And I had gorgeous weather-hot, but breezy.
While entering the tree house was no longer a concern, I was still a bit on guard. I was warned that there were lots of copperheads and rattlesnakes in the area surrounding the tree house. The advice given me was simple enough-don't step on them. And, if bitten, stay calm so as not to speed the circulation of the venom through your blood. When I suggested that I would just make enough noise so the snakes would know to avoid me, I was told that snakes don't hear well. But, they do sense heat. So they may seem aggressive if you run before they determine your heat is bigger than a frog's. The woods were covered with a thick carpet of leaves, so keeping my eyes peeled for snakes wasn't much of a preventative. I didn't do much walking in the woods that evening. When I did venture about, I pushed a stick in front of me to disturb the layers of leaves. Late that night, I toasted marshmallows over an open fire in the woods. But it was hot, and the fire was making me hot- ter so that didn't last long. The bugs were buzzing out- side as well. I retreated back up within the branches.
My bed in the tree house was a double futon with pillows and blankets, and nested in the loft. There was a proper ladder leading to the loft and the screened opening looked out over the river. It was beautiful. As I was admiring the view, I noticed a gray velvet spider as big as my thumb resting inside the window screen next to my head. I stared at it for a long while. It was luxurious looking but big enough to be unnerving. I looked away for a while thinking-why not share this beautiful view? When my gaze returned to the screen, the spider was gone! I wasn't sharing a bed with that huge spider if I couldn't see it. I descended from the loft and "slept" on the couch. That night had a mellow breeze, but I was on edge. The pre-trip talk of snakes included mention of a rat snake in residence at the tree house to keep it free of mice. I was assured it wouldn't bother me and that it wasn't poisonous; as such, I shouldn't be concerned if I saw it. Each time the wind rustled a piece of plastic or paper, I jumped. I shined my flashlight wherever the wind had moved something to be sure the rat snake wasn't visiting-or if it was, that it wasn't visiting too close to me. I returned to the upper loft in the morning. I shook all the bedding and couldn't find the spider, so it must have left earlier. The tree house was at the top of a hairpin curve on the water so that both ends of the loft overlooked the river. It was so beautiful. If only I didn't need to share it with the spider and the snake.
My canoe was waiting for me after breakfast. When I turned the canoe over, I discovered a black frog had been using it for a shelter. I had thought something might enjoy that sanctuary when I had turned it over the day before. So glad it was a frog and not a snake. Big water bugs were swimming around the shoreline, and I pushed off. Later that morning, I saw a snake in the water, so for all I was worth I sang "Strangers Blues" for that snake. What else could I do? I don't even know if it was a poisonous water snake; it was just a snake in the water. Spanish moss draped itself on the surrounding oak trees. Bright green geckos appeared out of nowhere. It was an adventure into Edisto River magic. But I still think of tree houses with a bit of trepidation.