but watch out for the alligators! A family steers its way along the intracoastal waterway in South Carolina
Bobby Fisher

My brother Charles and I spent most of our school years living north of Charleston, South Carolina, in an 18th-century plantation house on the Santee River delta. The house, called Harrietta, was uninhabited when we first saw it,and hidden by rampant vines and overgrown camellias. If it cried out for rescue (perhaps most resonantly to our mother), the river and creeks beckoned to Charles and me. While our contemporaries escaped from home on bikes or in cars, we took off in boats.

We spent entire days out on the delta in a canvas kayak, drifting with the tide and generally a bit lost in the maze of creeks and ditches that cut through the sawgrass. Sometimes we used an old motorboat to run the 40 or so miles down to Charleston for parties, returning either at dawn or by moon and flashlight, Charles at the helm and me, the kid sister, generally asleep down below. We knew the creeks and marshes along that stretch of coastline the way most people know local roads and filling stations.

Ever since I settled in upstate new york, I've yearned to take my husband, brad, and our two daughters, seven-year-old Sarah and 11-year-old Jane, back to Charleston and the low country. I especially wanted my family to explore the region as I once had, by water. So when I stumbled on an ad for a flotilla of canal barges that make spring and fall "migration cruises" up and down the East Coast, I was thrilled. Mike and Teresa Wheeler rent out their barges in Florida in winter, and along the Erie Canal in summer; they also lead weeklong charters on their way South in the fall and back North in the spring. The objective for our cruise would be to move the boats North, so the itinerary was relatively set and travel was one-way. But the barges have bikes on board, as well as rubber dinghies with outboard engines. And when I discovered that the Charleston schedule coincided with our daughters' spring vacations, I scarcely glanced at the rest of the brochure before booking.

standby for launch
On a Saturday in April, we set out to meet the barge. My brother Charles, his wife Blair, and their two-year-old, Oliver, had met up with us the night before in Charleston. The Wheelers had sent a contract stipulating that we meet them at noon on Saturday at the Charleston Municipal Marina. But this turned out to be problematic, since the establishment did not, apparently, exist. Unable to reach the Wheelers by phone, we had no choice but to call every marina in town; at each, attendants assured us that there were no canal barges at their docks. Our hotel limo driver(thank you, Best Western) remained unfazed, in fact downright jolly, as we navigated the city for the third, then fourth time.

This was Charleston as I remembered it: the classical architecture, hidden gardens, basket vendors on street corners, live oaks with their freight of Spanish moss; and, more than anything else, the attitude--a regionwide shrug at haste, worry, and anything else that smacks of big-city living. We kept driving. It took stopping at every marina to find our barge. There it was, finally, with its two sister ships, all bobbing like a trio of tub toys. Their stout 42-foot hulls, from upturned bows to fat, round sterns, were poster-paint blue, their topsides a crisp red and white, with scalloped blue awnings covering the aft seating area. It struck me that when our daughters draw a boat, this is about what they come up with; our barge even had a forward porthole that looked like a bright, unblinking eye.

the first, and best, three days
The children charged up and down the docks while the Wheelers jovially introduced themselves. "How was your trip?" What is the correct response?I muttered something about phones. Teresa, in citrus-colored clothing, and with blond hair cropped short, took us aboard the Fantessy (pronounced, to our confusion,just as it's spelled, fan-tess-ee) and marched us through Barge Operation 101. "The air conditioner"--jaws fell open--"should only be used when you're hooked up to shore power" via a mighty-looking yellow cord. She walked us through steering, nodded toward the two bikes and pair of 12-foot dinghies, and showed us down below, where there were two double staterooms, a palatial shower, and a dining area whose table and benches converted to a third double bed. Then, the two bathrooms: "Depress this pedal. Pump." Teresa was pushing and pulling a tall handle with some force. I glanced at Brad, who was looking doubtful. "And this is extremely important"--her voice had taken on the force applied to the pump--"never turn off this switch!" It was in the main passageway, at Oliver level, and something like Armageddon would ensue if it were flipped off. Or was that on? Blair and I looked at each other, and before the hour was up, we had it sealed off with a few miles of duct tape.

After dinner in town, we spent our first night aboard the Fantessy safely tied to the dock. Fantessy, Jane remembers, "tipped back and forth; not in a scary way, just nicely. And I fell asleep. Then I woke up and had a yummy breakfast." Breakfast was cornflakes and toast and jam, but with the sun streaming in, seagulls mewing overhead, and little waves pattering against the hull, even cornflakes tasted special. It was Sunday, officially our second day, and it rolled in perfectly cloudless and in the seventies.

We were to travel along a series of interconnected rivers and canals called the Intracoastal Waterway, which runs 700 miles from Florida to Chesapeake Bay, a sort of boaters' back road that winds through port cities, fishing villages, wildlife refuges, and even, to my dismay, occasional malls. This was a bareboat charter, meaning, as barge literature proclaims, "You are the captain!" Not me--at least not me first. We all agreed on Charles, a computer programmer who has had ocean-racing experience on big sailboats. As the last dock line was thrown from shore, a flag-snapping wind swung us out into the harbor. This is when being the captain tends to hit you with a little zing: it is quite possible, after all, to wind up a barnacle on a rock.

But the Wheelers were in front of us on Freedom; all we had to do was follow and we would, presumably, stay out of harm. As a fallback, the Wheelers stay connected to their little brood by VHF radio. Steaming behind us on Fair Dinkum were Terrell and Beverly Price from North Carolina, and Bill and Betty Dorman from Mississippi, whose spirit and sense of humor proved to be one of the great pluses of the trip. We traveled as a flotilla throughout our voyage, with Mike and Teresa always leading, and the other two boats arranged according to the Wheelers' dictates.

As we chugged around Charleston's southern tip, the city's near-Bahamian pastels and palmettos were glorious. Flanking the mouth of the harbor are the low, brown profiles of Fort Sumter and Fort Johnson, where, I remarked to the girls, cannonballs had flown between Confederate and Union troops, starting the Civil War. Jane and Sarah eyed me politely, gathered up their cousin, and headed for the bow. There they climbed down a small ladder onto the foredeck to watch pelicans cruise past. Before long, strains of song drifted back to us: "Far across the distance," Sarah crooned, with Oliver piping in, "I hug you, I squeeze you . . ."

Our destination that day was the fishing village of McClellanville, some 40 miles up the coast, with Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, about 180 miles away, our final stop. We motored along at eight miles an hour. Soon we settled into an easy routine, serving countless mugs of canned soup and spotting Sarah and Oliver, whose idea of fun was to gallop toy horses up and down the rolling deck. About 15 miles north of Charleston, waterside development gave way to wide-open marshland, with a network of creeks whose outpourings are often the color of strong tea, the signature of water from a cypress swamp.

As the light began to fade, I realized I'd forgotten just how much in the way of soup and sandwiches can be consumed by kids and parents out in the sun and wind. We were starved, and the larder was nearly bare. But salvation was at hand. Before we'd flown to Charleston, the Wheelers had sent us a five-page itinerary that gave daily navigational advice as well as chitchat about sights and restaurants.McClellanville's Crab Pot got rave reviews from earlier barge crews.

The village, as we approached it, was a cluster of sparkling lights--it was Sunday, and McClellanville was shut tight. We wanted to ask the Wheelers where to find a store or restaurant, but they had anchored farther up and were also closed for the night. We ate spaghetti, with sauce from a jar.

Next morning the shrimp boats headed out well before dawn. Considerably later we emerged with cups of coffee. Jane went ashore and found a Jack Russell puppy to play with. We strolled through the village and admired the little Gothic-style St. James Chapel of Ease, covered in gray fish-scale shingles, with pale pink azaleas planted all around. Where was everyone?A Quonset hut covered in black netting turned out to be a butterfly museum. Closed. Grocery store?Too far away to bike. Restaurants?Time for us to get going, said Mike. We ate more sandwiches. Had I really told Jane we'd buy great food at markets and eat at waterside cafés?The crew of Fair Dinkum chuckled. This was starting to feel a bit like boot camp. Charles, Blair, and Oliver, slated to fly home that day, dug up an old friend in McClellanville to drive them to Charleston. We chugged back to the waterway.

This was day three. We were scheduled to travel the 27 miles to Georgetown, but the group agreed to first take a side trip up the South Santee River to see if we could spot Harrietta and neighboring plantations, Fairfield and the Wedge, and perhaps get all the way to spectacular Hampton Plantation, now state-owned and open for tours. My family manned one dinghy, the Wheelers and three Fair Dinkum passengers the other. (Beverly, who is wheelchair-bound, stayed behind.)

Remarkably, I recognized parts of the river. Here was the island we always steered south of (to avoid the barely visible logs blocking the northern passage); there, with the single dead cypress standing beside it, was the entrance to Collins Creek, which leads to Harrietta. And there was Harrietta itself, hiding coyly behind a screen of magnolias. Back in the woods was the Wedge, and then, as we rounded the bend, we could see Fairfield, a little Federal gem. About a mile and a half upriver was Hampton Creek, where the marsh ends and tall trees begin. An alligator, as long as our dinghy, lurched off the bank. Jane shrieked, Sarah giggled, Brad suggested we turn back. I continued on, aware that if you spook a basking alligator, it might leap into your boat.

The creek surged, black and astonishingly strong. Cypress trees vaulted skyward along the banks, occasionally veiled from top to bottom with the five-petaled white blossoms of Cherokee roses. About a mile up the creek, partly obscured by camellias, Hampton Plantation sits on a small rise. We beached the dinghy, leapt over (the girls leapt into) the primeval ooze called pluff mud, and walked up the garden path. If arriving here by boat is not the norm, you'd never have guessed it: the park ranger genially handed the girls a hose. Barefoot, they scampered all over the house, waltzed in its ballroom, and twirled out onto the portico.

andy griffith, are you there?
Georgetown, which we reached at dusk, is an 18th-century town, with broad, tree-lined streets, big houses, and a clean unfussiness that always made me think of Mayberry. The historic district seemed unchanged: dogs bark as you pass, live oak leaves crunch underfoot, and nothing much else seems to be happening--an illusion, I'm sure, but a pleasant one.

The next morning, we set off for the Waccamaw River, where the girls counted ospreys (47 in 47 minutes --not shabby for a bird that was down to 300 pairs in the seventies).

the ditch and the mall
Upriver from the Wacca Wache Marina, in Murrells Inlet, where we had spent the night, we passed a sign nailed to a tree. bucksport marina restaurant groc block ice sausage fuel disc abc pmts. The marina's restaurant, painted barn-red and overlooking the dock, was tremendously appealing. But then we followed the waterway into what I later heard a boatman refer to as the Ditch--a 30-mile-long gully excavated behind Myrtle Beach and vicinity by the army before World War II. To travel this route, with the overflowing Dumpsters of discount outlets and fast-food joints gliding by above eye level, is dreadful, but to do it at 10 miles per hour is excruciating. It didn't help that our destination was a mall. The girls didn't share my objection to staying at Barefoot Landing. We shopped, fed carp, and--okay, I'll admit it--all had fun at Joe's Crab Shack, where the food was fine, the Christmas lights gaudy, and the dancing waiters very funny.

We pulled out of Barefoot Landing mid-morning, destined for Southport, North Carolina. Arriving by evening, we anchored in a cove and took a dinghy to the first dock in the harbor. It belongs to the Yacht Basin Provision Co., which was a find--great food (grilled tuna and crab cakes), an honor system on beer and soda, and a terrific staff. We sat in the awning-enclosed area that night, and returned for lunch.

cape fear and other slight exaggerations
Just above Southport the waterway enters Cape Fear River, which, relative to the narrow, protected waters we'd grown accustomed to, feels like the Atlantic in a hurricane. Mike and Teresa planned our 27-mile run to Wrightsville Beach, our final stop, to coincide with the rising tide, and thanks to the wind, we made good time. Jane and Sarah attracted so many gulls with their fistfuls of bread that I thought--given some spiderweb--we might be carried off like James and his giant peach. About 10 miles up the Cape Fear River we turned eastward and emerged in Myrtle Grove Sound, a region of tiny islandstucked behind a long, low stretch of barrier island. The inland side of the waterway here has minimal development; the Atlantic side has the town of Carolina Beach, and then, for the remaining 10 miles up to Wrightsville Beach, nothing. I would have liked to spend the day here, playing in the sand and investigating in the dinghy. But we continued on to Wrightsville Beach, which seems to cater to the young and hip. Parts of Dawson's Creek are filmed in town, and the cast, judging by the pictures on the wall, hang out at the Middle of the Island restaurant.

all ashore
Teresa appeared shortly after 9 a.m. with instructions for our final morning: sheets in this bag, towels in that; windows, floors, bathrooms--all needed to be spotless.The Fantessy's next customers appeared. Brad got the mop and tackled the deck. We washed salt spray off windows; the wind quickly reapplied it. Teresa observed us stonily. We packed and evacuated. Whew.

Would I do the trip again?Yes, but differently. I longed to explore the pretty towns we docked at. And there we were, traveling past the famous barrier islands--we should have spent a few afternoons at the beach. Also, it would have been nice to stay at some inns along the way. Really, we needed more time. The entire journey had a sense of urgency that left me feeling rushed and disoriented. Often the Wheelers seemed brusque, and though they had not promised it, I would have liked more help finding places to eat, and notice of when to stock up on supplies. But it also needs to be said that the barges were exceptionally well equipped, with great touches like shelves full of games, books (local travel guides and birders' field guides), binoculars, and videos. And I do stand by my feeling that being on the water is essential. My favorite image from the trip is of our arrival at Hampton Plantation. To approach it by highway, past billboards and strip malls, is probably fine. But to make the trip in a boat, with those spacious skies overhead and maybe a dolphin as an escort, is so much better.*

Melanie Fleischmann lives on a small farm in North Salem, New York.

Barging is a big vacation trend in Europe, but it's just catching on in this country. A weeklong charter with Michael and Teresa Wheeler, the general managers of Canalling in America (800/962-1771; www.canal cruises.com) begins at $1,800. Another American company that offers self-drive barges: Mid-Lakes Navigation Co. (800/545-4318). Both run boats on the Erie Canal in summer and in Florida in winter, but the Wheelers also run spring and fall trips along the Intracoastal Waterway. For trips in England, Ireland, France, and Belgium, try the Crown Blue Line (888/355-9491 or 201/242-4401) or Connoisseur Cruisers (44-1603/782-472), or use a brokerage with contacts throughout Europe, such as Jody Lexow Yacht Charters(800/662-2628).

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