Travel

Lake Waccamaw: The Natural Lake

  • By Scott Huler
  • Photography by Geoff Wood

From its origins to its people to its views, everything about Lake Waccamaw is too good to be true.

Lake-Waccamaw

Nothing about Lake Waccamaw should be the way it is. It’s a vast, oval lake, so shallow you can almost wade across it — exactly where no lake should be, in flat, coastal North Carolina. Surrounded by lakes so acidic they support only a few of the most common fish and mussels, Waccamaw teems with life, including several endemics — species that live nowhere but Waccamaw. And the community of Lake Waccamaw, in economically troubled Columbus County, all but actively discourages tourist development. It’s strange. There must, an outsider might say, be something in the water.

Well, that’s the obvious place to start. For one thing, Waccamaw is a real lake. Not a reservoir — a naturally occurring body of water — and a big one. About 9,000 acres, surrounded by 14 miles of shoreline, Waccamaw is the third-largest natural lake in the state. But lakes tend to be in large valleys — think mountain lakes — or at least in depressions scoured by glaciers, like the Great Lakes. (Story continues below video.)


A few minutes in a canoe on Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina’s eerily beautiful nine-thousand-acre lake, down east near the SC border and the ocean. Video by Scott Huler.

Not Waccamaw, down in the swampy Coastal Plain. Waccamaw turns out to be among the biggest of the Carolina Bays, a series of half a million lakes and wetlands sprinkled from Delaware to Georgia. They’re called bays not because they open onto the ocean, but because of the sweet, loblolly, and red bay trees that fill them. They have an oval shape, oriented from northwest to southeast. Most are wetlands; some are even dry, but larger ones — like Waccamaw — stay filled. They have unique ecosystems, and people love to theorize about their origins and worry about their futures.

Lake Waccamaw State Park Ranger Chris Helms clears up some things. First, the bays are not sinkholes, and they were not caused by the swimming action of fish. (No kidding — this is one of three theories park displays debunk.) Everybody’s favorite theory is that meteorites caused the bays. Even the local Waccamaw Siouan tribe calls itself the People of the Falling Star — dugout canoes hundreds of years old have been found buried in the lake. But meteorites leave behind deep, round holes, not shallow, oval ones. (Waccamaw goes down only 11 feet at its deepest point.) What’s more, Helms says, “We’ve never found any meteorite pieces or particles.”

No, scientists say the bays were caused by slight natural depressions in the land when the sea receded thousands of years ago. Some dried up completely, but most became swamps. Most are surrounded by a rim of sand, probably caused by moving ice back in the days when the ponds froze. Gnarled turkey oaks and majestic longleaf pines grow there.

And there really is something in the water. The few nearby bays that still contain open water, fed almost entirely by runoff and groundwater seeps, are much smaller than Waccamaw (in the hundreds, not thousands of acres). Their water stained by tannins released by decaying peat, the bays become powerfully acidic, unfriendly to most life. Waccamaw avoids that fate for two main reasons. For one, limestone bluffs on its north shore act as a kind of natural antacid, a Bromo-Seltzer relieving the dyspepsia of an entire ecosystem. More important, Waccamaw is fed not just by runoff, but also by the black waters of Big Creek, itself charged by several swamps. The lake then drains into the Waccamaw River, which continues its lazy way to the sea. So Waccamaw’s moving water, softened by that limestone, becomes less than one-hundredth as acidic as its neighbors. The sweet water is home to dozens of fish and mollusk species, several of those endemics: The Waccamaw silverside, for example, looks like a minnow, and locals call it skipjack because it skips along the surface when chased. Or the Waccamaw fatmucket mussel, one of the 25 billion or so mollusks any wader in the lake’s vast, sandy shallows is likely to encounter underfoot.

•••

The place to begin investigating Waccamaw by paddle is the Columbus County boat ramp, right where Big Creek enters the lake. Dyed by those tannins, Big Creek is black as yesterday’s coffee, the slow-flowing water perfectly still, water lilies and their spiky, white flowers the only break in the mirror of the surface. Cicadas chirp. Crows occasionally caw. The sound of church bells wafts upriver from the town of Lake Waccamaw all the way across the lake. Cypress knees poke up. Swaying Spanish moss hangs down all the way to the surface. If you look hard, you can see gators.

But the highlight of the paddle comes when you slide out of the creek into the lake itself, which opens wide like a pair of arms in a breathtaking, sudden expanse. One moment you’re in a green tunnel on black water — and then you’re in the middle of a vast, oval bowl. Helms says that after rain, the water from the creek looks “like someone had taken gigantic tea bags and set ’em loose — we see that stained water spreading through.” Even on a dry day, the color of the water beneath the canoe changes: from coffee to stout, to tea, to watery tea as you get farther from the creek. You can see the sandy bottom, never deeper than the paddle; schools of little fish dart this way and that.

The trees ringing the lake somehow just look right. They are pond pines and cypress — trees that like to get their feet wet. Trees that belong around a lake. Everywhere on the rim of the lake piers stick out. The state owns the lake, but with the exception of the state park, individual people own the shores.

•••

Like the origin of those endemic species, this is kind of a long story, but the outcome is the same. The people who choose to live on the shores of this unusual lake have, over time, become an ecosystem of their own.

American Indians lived around the lake for hundreds of years before European settlers arrived in 1745. A burgeoning turpentine industry picked up in the mid-1800s, joined by logging and shingles industries late in the century. Barges carried shingles from the south shore to the north shore of the lake, where mule carts pulled them to the train depot, where the Atlantic Coast Line carried them all over the country. After an early 20th-century renovation, for example, Waccamaw shingles cover the roof at Mount Vernon.

Lumber companies still work Columbus County, but most of the turpentine, tobacco, and textile companies that used to drive the county are long gone. Freight trains still serve Whiteville, but the Waccamaw depot is now a museum. Tourist dollars seem an obvious replacement — but still, most of its houses owned by families with long histories in Whiteville or Hallsboro, Waccamaw prefers its own quiet company.

Canoe rental at Lake Waccamaw? Good luck; it’s strictly a bring-your-own proposition. And if you entertain the preposterous idea that Dale’s Seafood, with its inexpensive baskets of fried oysters and its pleasant porch overlooking the water, is not satisfactory for dinner, you better head to the highway: Dale’s is the single restaurant on the lake. And even Dale’s commodious pier has a sign announcing that you’re welcome to use it — if you’re a customer.

Which is the way Lake Waccamaw residents like it. Limited access may discourage tourists, but it creates a profoundly homey feel. Consider leading citizen Ginger Littrell, who runs the Lake Waccamaw Depot Museum that fills the relocated 1904 train station with tools and artifacts. She welcomes you into the museum — but admits that “we don’t want anyone to move here.” Then she’ll likely turn around and invite you to a weekly party, running from May to Halloween, every Friday evening, on the pier of Johnny McNeill, age 93.

•••

You and everybody else are invited. Just bring a covered dish and a donation for the treasure box on the pier: “We go down there 6:30 or so, and we ring the bell at 7 o’clock,” says Frank Gault, the evening’s cosponsor. In the 15 or so years they’ve been holding the weekly parties, they’ve raised about $50,000, split between the Depot Museum and the town library.

You’ll have no trouble finding the place. Several neighbors’ yards have signs for parking, and if you’re walking, just follow the crowd onto a flower-covered dock with a two-story shade house on the end. The gathering started as a fish fry but turned to a potluck when Gault aged out of frying catfish every weekend. The crowd gathers early, Gault says. Then they ring a bell and have announcements and a brief prayer at 7 on the dot, and then it’s eating and telling lies until about 9, when people head home.

McNeill, who for most of his life ran a pharmacy in nearby Whiteville, grew up on the lake. “The lake was just a great place to go,” he says, in between guests paying court to him on the pier. “We grew up loving water, loving boats — we made canoes, even made a schooner one time.” In the mid-1940s, a developer dredged a canal to drain the northwest shore of the lake to render it suitable for homes. McNeill bought what he considers the prime spot on the lake — although when his son, Ron McNeill, said it perfectly caught the afternoon breeze, Sarah Wyche chimed in, “We were always told the best breeze was at our house.” Her grandparents’ house, she means — built in 1909.

That’s how long the community stretches back at Lake Waccamaw — and what makes it special, Ron McNeill says with a laugh. “They say their 5 o’clock breeze is better; we say our 5 o’clock breeze is better. That’s classic, old-school North Carolina: multiple multigenerational families who argue about the same inane subject.” And they protect what they’ve got. Partygoers proudly explain that they prevented Lake Waccamaw from being developed into a vacation destination.

Ron McNeill laughs about the traditional Old South nature of the cheerful neighborhood one-upmanship, but he also identifies it as simply human. “You could translate that to Greece or Persia or China,” he says, “and it would be exactly the same.” They call it community, and a strong one welcomes guests — but values itself, and its resources, too. That’s Lake Waccamaw. The town community is exactly like the lake’s ecosystem: What makes Lake Waccamaw unique are its endemics, the species that thrive only here. It’s not that the Waccamaw silverside couldn’t have evolved anywhere else — it’s just that it didn’t evolve anywhere else. It evolved here. And sure, Waccamaw’s brand of community could be translated to Persia or China. But it’s not Persia or China. It’s Waccamaw.

There must be something in the water.

Lake Waccamaw

Lake Waccamaw State Park
1866 State Drive
Lake Waccamaw, N.C. 28450
(910) 646-4748
stateparks.com/lake_waccamaw.html

Scott Huler’s articles appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Los Angeles Times, and Backpacker and Fortune magazines. He has written several books, including his most recent, On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood and the Systems that Make Our World Work. He served as the 2011 Piedmont Laureate and lives in Raleigh with his wife and two children. Scott’s most recent story for Our State was “The Biggest Wheel” (November 2011).

This entry was posted in Coast, January 2012 and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Lake Waccamaw: The Natural Lake

  1. Marilyn Sides says:

    This is one beautiful and serene lake. Absolutely beautiful in so many ways and full of nature in the raw. Living in Charlotte, my husband, Ken and I had never visited until a few years ago and now it’s one of our favorite places to enjoy nature untouched.
    Marilyn Sides

  2. Pingback: Biscuits and Such » 9/100: Columbus County Beet & Goat Cheese Pizza:

  3. John Page says:

    I grew up in Whiteville 11 miles away from the lake. As a small boy (9-14) I would ride my bicycle to the lake to swim and boat with friends. One one occasion I had visited Mr. McNeil’s home while it was under construction. He was working on the stone fireplace to the best of my recollection. I was there with two of my buddies and one of us had the bright idea of going skinny dipping. So…we dropped our trunks and found a stone on the bottom of the lake to hold them in place. Well….that was the last time we ever saw that clothing!!! When my friends Dad yelled that it was time to go…lets just say that is a memory that you never forget! I would personally like to apologize to Mr. McNeil for polluting the waters around his pier for the last 45 years!!! If I could select the site of my last breath, it would certainly be at “The Lake”. God Bless you all!!!

  4. Faye Weathers-Anderson says:

    I believe it was in the mid 70′s when we first met Mr. McNeil and his family. My husband and I thought this would be a lifetime dream to be co-owner’s of a Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Whiteville. It was great, but the store did not turn out like we expected it to. But it was a wonderful experience, one being that we met the McNeil family. What a joy they were to a small family being away from home for the first time. We will always remember their gracious hospitality shown to us.
    My son, now 47 years old, traveled with his two young daughters to Whiteville and then to Lake Waccamaw, a few years ago. He went to Mr. McNeil’s home in hopes that he could see some of the family and actually got to visit with Mr. McNeil. He and his daughters still talk about that visit and as we did when we lived in Whiteville, they also love Lake Waccamaw.
    Lake Waccamaw was where I saw my first swarm of May Flies, I believe that is what that are called.
    Savannah, Georgia is our home, but we will always have a spot in our hearts for Lake Waccamaw and memories of our short time spent in Whiteville. God Bless Lake Waccamaw and God Bless our USA.

  5. That helps a lot cause I’m doing a report about this tribe. Also it was kinda cool.

  6. My husband and I moved here from Massachusetts the year we graduated from college…1977 for me and 1975 for him. We were married in 1979 on the shores of the lake. We built a home along Lakeshore Drive that same year and we are still here. 35 years later, having raised 2 daughers and several dogs & cats later, we still love to call Lake Waccamaw home. We have decided we will never move from here. It is truly a wonderful place.

  7. bob richardson says:

    I love this . I should I grew up here. I have had the good fortune to travel both in US and abroad, but there truly is no place like the Lake. Coming back always keeps me grounded on what is really important in life. My family enjoys vacationing here any time. Hopefully the lake , will always stay as it is , the Lake.

  8. Dittos says:

    My memories: Lakeshore Drive, swimming, water skiing, cutoff toughskin jeans, muscles, white perch fishing, lily pads, sailing/boating, Lake Waccamaw Lions little league baseball, spanish moss, Big Creek, prehistoric sharks teeth, Boy’s Home, Ambassador Camp, skating rink, Glasshopper glass bottom boat and last but not least…Alligators, Cokes, Moon pies, Mars Bars, and snow cones at Hobbs Harbour.

  9. Nancy Yancey says:

    So thankful for my dearest friend, Margo Council Wright, who invited me into her family at holy Lake Waccamaw. It is a special place. Many wonderful memories.

  10. Gene A Jones says:

    I remember entering the Lake, “on the front side”, when I was six years old. Riding with
    my folks in a 1945 plymouth ,I stood up in the back straining to see the Lake, as we
    entered from highway 74. I enjoyed the water so much during the summer heat.
    During this time there was rides and ice cream shops at the Front Side of the lake.
    I really have many great memories of the Lake. As a teenager, water skiing was
    outstanding on the Dam Side of the Lake.
    Gene A. Jones

  11. Rhonda Bullard-Dutton says:

    Lake Waccamaw is definitely another beautiful and peaceful part of Columbus County. The lake tradition “gatherings” hosted by the McNeills, Gaults, Wyches, etc. is awesome! It makes me think of the days when people used to visit more, you could leave your doors unlocked, and you could welcome in friends/strangers who were just traveling by your home. The lake is the home for many wonderful people and attracts visitors from everywhere! Columbus County has many assets and plenty of things to see and do. Those of us born and bred in the south, Columbus County, are very proud of what it has to offer and while you can travel far and wide, it’s always great to be back home with the smiling faces, friendly waves, and a sense of belonging. I love calling Columbus County home!!!!

  12. Mickey Greer says:

    When my dad would head to the lake for an afternoon of fishing, he would simply say, “I’m going to glory!” That described Lake Waccamaw for him – and me!

  13. Bill Horniak says:

    I was a resident of the LAKE from 1988-1993. It is one of the most beautiful and pleasant places I have ever lived. I have lived in many locales both domestic and foreign and the LAKE compares equitably. A wonderful, and most imporantly, such a serene and harmonious place to be and reside in closeness to nature.

  14. Lake Stocks says:

    Home sweet home!!! So awesome I was named after it! Thanks for featuring us!

Leave a Comment:

Comments are moderated and once approved will appear in the space above. Your name will appear as you provide it in the block below. Your email address will not appear or be shared. Required fields are marked *.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>