From a nature lovers point of view, there is a hidden gem in central South Carolina that I kind of happened upon accidentally. My first month in the south was on my own, and with a rental car and not much to do on the weekends, I began scouting for interesting locations to go to once Salwa joined me. On one of those day trips, I went looking for good locations for shooting birds along some of the larger interior lakes. I wasn’t inspired until near the end of the route on the way back towards Greenville when I noticed a boat launch sign on the north shore of Lake Marion. On the map, it didn’t look like there was much lake at that point for a launch, but I drove down a dusty dirt road lined with dilapidated single wides and rundown pickups until I saw a bunch of empty boat trailers and a concrete boat launch that lead to the water.
Getting out of the car, I wandered over to a guy pulling his little flat bottom fishing boat out and asked a few questions to make sure I was actually in a public spot. This is when I got my first real view of what might be the best little kayaking location in all of South Carolina. It would take another couple of months before the movers brought our kayaks, but once we put in here we were hooked and have gone back several times, each time presenting new and different sights and experiences.
The landing looks out onto a small opening surrounded by beautiful cypress trees with a path at the end that heads out into the greater swamp. Depending on the time of year, you can follow that route out, or in the wetter seasons, you can just head straight into the trees and explore the maze (at least in a kayak or canoe).
The locals all seem to know the routes through the trees, and there are markers along the way, but if you do come down here I would suggest you have a GPS to plot where you start so that you can retrace your path if needed. We’ve gotten turned around a few times looking for alternate routes back to the launch without much luck.
Although we love the kayaking, the real reason we keep coming back is the photography. The birds are abundant, and sometimes really noisy. There are turtles everywhere, and while nowhere near as numerous as the Okefenokee Swamp, we’ve also seen alligators. But it is the landscape, or should I say waterscape, that makes this an amazing location for photographers. It doesn’t matter the time of day or season, there is always something different to see. Shadows play across the water and the sun beams through the moss-covered trees creating some amazing moody scenes.
Sparkleberry Swamp is a jewel and for photographers and nature lovers, is definitely worth a wander and a paddle or two.
What To bring:
This is a location that you can quickly lose sight of time and lose yourself in the trees. It’s definitely better to be prepared with plenty of water, snacks, bug spray, sun block, and then more water. It can get surprisingly hot, even in February as we discovered on our most recent trek. Definitely bring a hat, and if you don’t want a goofy burn on the exposed parts of your legs, don’t wear shorts.
I typically bring two cameras, one with a 16-35 and the other with 100-400 and 1.4 teleconverter. A GoPro or similar video camera is a great thing to have attached to the kayaks if you have one (or a couple). I bring a towel that sits between my legs that I keep the telephoto ready to shoot and the wide angle sits in a deck bag just in front of me. One thing I would love to figure out is a tripod-like device that could sit on the rim and fold easily back down for paddling. If there is anything like that out there, please let me know, I would love to test it out.
What you might see:
You are very likely to see most of the usual water birds: ibis, egret, herons, and anhinga. Last year we were lucky enough to see two Limpkin in the trees, a pretty rare sighting in this part of South Carolina.
When you pull in to the parking lot you are likely to hear red-shouldered hawks, barred owls, and osprey before you even get on the water. The Osprey nest in the trees and are pretty easy to locate, and they always announce their presence when you get near them.
The beauty of the marsh itself is one of the main things to shoot. Cypress trees, reflections, mist, sun, Spanish moss….there is so much and so many combinations from sunrise to sunset we could go back a dozen times and not scratch the surface of all the potential shots.
Where to stay, what else is nearby:
Sparkleberry landing is approximately 1 hour from Columbia or 1.5 hours from Charleston. Both great places to stay as a base. Congaree National Park is a half hour back towards Columbia and a little closer is Poinsett State Park. The launch itself isn’t much and there are no facilities near by. Of course there are great opportunities for coastal nature photography all down the coast from Myrtle beach down to the Georgia border with Edisto Beach and Hunting Island as two other great locations that I will be writing about soon.
Being in a kayak gives you a great low angle for shooting a new perspective, take advantage of this and get your camera down low.
Bring filters as the light changes greatly as you move through the different parts of the swamp. A circular polarizer can help reduce glare and help keep the sky blue.
Remember that you are on a moving platform, keep your shutter speeds high enough as you may not notice the boat moving. A gimbal (dji ronin-s is the one I use) can really help with video as you won’t notice the boat rocking until you get back and start editing.
Keep a towel and some micro fiber cloths since it’s inevitable that you will get water on the camera and lenses at some point.
Pay attention to small details as well as the larger scenes, there is so much to see sometimes you can totally miss the proverbial forest for the trees.
Bring a good GPS. It is easy to get turned around in the miles of cypress trees, sometimes even the marked trails the fisher people use can be confusing with ribbons marking favorite spots as opposed to a return route.