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May 17, 2007

Chapter 10 | 'Nothing else like it'

Eva Mae Frederick sits on the dock beside the Low Falls boat ramp. She has her pole, her cooler, her folding chair, but no fish yet.

She's counting on crappie, bream or catfish for dinner. "To tell the truth, I don't catch much anymore," she says. "People in boats give some to me. People come from far away to fish here, from Columbia."

Frederick, who lives in St. Matthews, has fished the Upper Santee Swamp since the 1950s. She worked on a farm, married, "cared for little babies for white women." Now she has time to fish on weekdays.

For her, as for many residents of the area, a bridge would make Sundays better. It's the first observation rural black residents make. Frederick says, "I've got family go to my church; they've got to go all the way around. Way up there to 601. It would be a shorter cut."

She adds a qualification: "I want the bridge if it just don't interfere with my fishing."

If the sun is out, someone's fishing on the banks. On weekdays, shift workers and retirees cast and talk. On weekends, johnboats float in the shore's shade; pontoon boats putter by.

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During hunting seasons, the guys in camouflage and orange park SUVs and head out for deer, dove, duck, squirrel, raccoon and opossum on the swamp's higher, drier land.

John Townsend Cooper, 28 and a third-year student at the Charleston School of Law, has fished and hunted duck with his father in Upper Santee and Sparkleberry swamps since childhood.

"There's nothing else like it," he says.

"When you're in the middle of the swamp, you're as far away from the rest of South Carolina as you could be, away from the noise, the trash. There aren't too many places you can go and get away like that."

So he's puzzled by the push for a bridge. He doesn't understand spending millions "to save a few minutes' driving time when there's a natural area that's irreplaceable."

Many sportsmen worry more about fewer fish and waterfowl than a bridge by a railroad trestle.

Duck hunter Ricky Coward runs Shady Grove Kennel in Gilbert, where he also trains retrievers. Coward, 50, has hunted in the area since high school and remembers when the Santee Wildlife Refuge would winter 150,000 to 180,000 ducks, who flew upriver to feed on swamp acorns.

He notes the Briggs-DeLaine-Pearson Connector's current $150-million price tag creates "a difference of opinion," then adds wistfully that Rep. Jim Clyburn could best improve the area if he could bring back waterfowl.

Louie Chavis, 58, has camped, hunted and fished in the Upper Santee as far back as he can remember. "I remember as a young chap, 10, 12, be nothing to go in the swamp and bag five or six squirrels."

A retired SCE&G lineman who lives in Lexington, Chavis is chief of the Beaver Creek Indians. He worries about tinkering with nature, whether it's bridge building, stocking flathead catfish for sport fishing or adding grass carp to reduce hydrilla.

"Mother Nature and the Creator built it themselves. What gives man the right to bring foreign species in?" he asks. As for a bridge, "Through my own eyes, I don't see any possible benefit. We just got another dead lake."

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