From my family’s cottage, I can walk to Lake Waccamaw State Park — but I’d rather not, knowing that the endlessly green, endlessly vertical pine forest on the left looks like, and is, a natural habitat for black bears. So I ride a bike, the better to cruise past the motionless black swamps and canals on the right, where the ridged backs of floating alligators are easy to spot. Their gliding menace never fails to thrill me, but the egrets are as unfazed by the gators as the fishermen putting boats in the water at the nearby ramp.
Nearly a third of the 14-mile shoreline of Lake Waccamaw is state parkland, and even across the lake’s five-mile span, you can see the boundary clearly from our pier. The miniature cottages cease suddenly, as do the flickering lights at night, and fireworks on the Fourth of July. I love that vacancy, that mandated emptiness. At one end is The Dam, so capitalized because it’s a summertime must-do for my family, ever hopeful that we’ll find the lake’s tea-colored water gushing dramatically over the concrete wall, short and wide enough to walk over. But it nearly never is — the lake is so shallow that you can learn to ski by basically wedging the rear of your skis in the sandy bottom and standing up — so we watch the fishermen baiting and casting, silent and intent, and speculate about what it would be like to paddle a canoe, as folks do, down the narrow, wadeable stream escaping beneath the dam, flowing lazily between the spreading roots and knobbed knees of ancient cypress trees. And we wonder at the fact that that narrow, lazy, wadeable stream is the honest-to-Pete headwaters of the Waccamaw River, which requires an enormous bridge to cross by the time its 140 miles reach Winyah Bay near Georgetown, South Carolina.
At the end of a four-mile hike beyond the dam, through various ecosystems but not the slightest slope, is the park’s visitor center, site of many a rainy-day visit for us. Much as we romanticize the fond theory that Lake Waccamaw’s perfectly oval shape, and the high bluffs where our cottage stands, were caused by a hurtling meteor, displays at the center suggest that there are many possible explanations for this “Carolina bay.” Look it up. More interesting by far is the 2.75-million-year-old whale fossil accidentally discovered in the lake, examples of the aquatic life found here — and only here — and black-and-white photos of the lake’s early days. Very little seems to have changed, for which I’m annually grateful.
Everyone is intrigued by a secluded, unmarked walkway that beckons toward someplace special, and from the park’s campsite and picnic area, an elevated plank boardwalk extends 700 feet through saplings and reeds, vines and weeds, then opens upon the lake itself, suddenly revealed in 180-degree splendor: a blue expanse, vast and uninhabited, sheet-metal flat or rippled, and occasionally whitecapped, by a breeze. Water lilies and grasses claim the shore on either side, but a wide dock, unadorned by anything but steps, begged my children — as it soon will my grandchildren — to stampede to the very end, brave and shouting, spreading their arms into a stiff afternoon wind.
To commemorate our 90th anniversary, we’ve compiled a time line that highlights the stories, contributors, and themes that have shaped this magazine — and your view of the Old North State — using nine decades of our own words.