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Lowcountry residents learn early the difference between going "to the river," going "in the river" and going "down the river."
Going "to the river" means you're probably about to get baptized, as 27 members of the Baptist Church of Beaufort did in the Beaufort River on Oct. 11.
Going "in the river" means you're going fishing, and you'll be home soon with dinner.
But going "down the river" means you are escaping into the grandest realm of Lowcountry life.
Going "down the river" means you are leaving in a boat and will be gone a couple of days, maybe even a week.
You will be camping with the sea, the stars, mosquitoes, no-see-ums, rattlesnakes, faithful dogs, stone crabs, marsh hens, wild hogs, best friends, dazzling birds, goats, grits and bacon, ants, oysters, sun, wind, rain and fire. And always a shovel and hatchet.
You'll eat fresh mullet, steamed skin-side-down on a slab of pine bark shoved into hot coals. You'll set crab traps, cast for shrimp, watch tarpon flash above choppy waves, bury ice, maybe shoot a deer or duck, hook a trout or gulp down a hot beer. You may get in an argument with your friend on how many colors are on a male painted bunting.
In the old days, before it was prohibited, you might eat enough fresh, leathery loggerhead turtle eggs to bloat the wreck of the old Savannah. Kids back then might take the ping-pong-ball sized eggs home to sell for 10 cents a dozen. You might have found them while "turtle crawling" by the light of a slim moon. Or it might've been in blazing daylight, when you could get a snapshot of the kids riding a mother loggerhead like she was Space Mountain at Walt Disney World.
Redbugs, raccoons, alligators, horse flies and the relentless, crushing tides have always made going down the river a joyful open-book exam on survival of the fittest.
"You get knocked around a bit down there," said Charles S. Aimar of Beaufort, "but, oh, we loved it. Golly dang, just the freedom of it."
<strong>Generation after generation</strong>
Aimar will turn 85 on Nov. 12. Earlier this month, he went down the river for a week by himself.
On this trip to the windswept Atlantic Ocean shore of Bull Point, Aimar's camp reflected some signs of the times. He had three 2-by-3-foot Oriental rugs on the floor of his tent. They came from his office in Aimar's Pharmacy in Beaufort, which he owned and operated from 1952 until 2008. This was his first trip down the river since retiring. He'd looked forward to it for years.
It takes a lot of preparation. Aimar almost had to start over, but that had its advantages. Cool LED lamps replaced hot pressure lanterns. He was in an 18-foot Boston Whaler Montauk with 90-horsepower engine, with a cooler that could keep 25-pound blocks of ice -- and steaks, eggs and butter -- cold for eight days.
He took cots, a folding table, folding chair and a two-burner propane stove. He took "Pilgrim's Progress," the Bible, "Halley's Bible Handbook," "Bartram's Travels," back issues of Leatherneck magazine and a newsletter for Marines who served in China.
He took his M1 rifle, like the one he had in the Marine Corps in World War II, and 250 rounds of ammunition, along with a .38 Special.
He fished and crabbed. After his 33-year-old grandson, Taylor Kinsey of Beaufort, helped him get set up and spent a night, Aimar was ready to enjoy anew the pleasures he learned from his father and his best childhood friend, Reeve Sams. But he spent most of his time battling wind blowing 20 to 30 mph, with sand blasting through his tent screening. He'd pack up and head home after four days.
"I haven't given up camping," Aimar said.
How could he? He remembers "turtle crawling" with his father when he was 5, the year they moved from Savannah so his father could run the Enterprise Ice Co. in Burton. By the time they were 10 or 12, Aimar and Sams, who would become his brother-in-law when he married Jeanne Sams, were going down the river with no adults.
"When Friday afternoon hit, we were heading for the bateau to shove in an go to Goat Island," Aimar said. "We had a 16-foot cypress bateau that had belonged to his mother. It was very light."
They had to row everywhere they went, always catching the tides.
"Later on, Reeve's mother sewed a canvas sail for us, and my father built a side board for us. We could sail that bateau."
Soon after he and Jeanne were married in 1947, they went down the river together for a week on Skull Inlet. Later, they would take their four daughters and son down the river to Morgan Island, staying a week at a time in a military surplus squad tent. Many Beaufort families did the same, with the men sometimes making quick trips to town to check on things and get more ice.
<strong>'Buddy' and 'Zoo'</strong>
Pierre McGowan of Beaufort captures the magic of going down the river in his book, "Tales of the Barrier Islands."
He tells hilarious stories about perhaps the all-time "down the river" champions, "Buddy" and "Zoo." They went down the river together every weekend as long as they lived, apparently on the steady formula of one case of beer per man, per day. Today a Beaufort County public boat landing is named in honor of Clarence Henry "Zoo" Von Harten and Allen Brabham "Buddy" Lubkin.
McGowan, who turns 83 in December, took his first trip down the river at age 6. It was with his father, who carried mail on St. Helena Island for half the day and hunted and fished the other half.
"He couldn't boil a pot of water," McGowan said. "He started taking me to cook."
Today, McGowan and his son are finishing a new fishing camp on Old Island, where he built one with his father in 1943. That was step up from his father's World War I wall tent, which they heated with a plumber's gas lead-melting torch.
Years ago, people felt free to camp on land they didn't own, where they might not see a soul for a week. They were rarely up on the high ground. But now, most of the islands have owners who watch them closely, or they're controlled by the state, McGowan said.
But as long as McGowan can remember, wooden structures made by hand of recycled lumber and nails were scattered around the islands to be used as camps. Several of them were buildings the U.S. Coast Guard built, then abandoned before the end of World War II.
"It was first-come, first-served," McGowan said about their public use.
McGowan said Buddy and Zoo's camp is still there, with 36 members. Memberships can be inherited, he said.
Page Miller's history of Fripp Island describes the camps that were there before it became a modern gated community.
<strong>Out of touch</strong>
Author Ben Moise of Charleston, who spent almost 25 years as a state wildlife officer along the South Carolina coast, says going "down the river" is a beautiful link to a simpler time.
"It was the Lowcountry avenue of adventure and fun, something to do with friends," he said. "People were satisfied then with much less. Today, they've got to get there fast. They throw a line in and if nothing bites in a few minutes, they pull up and go somewhere else. The slow, quiet outdoors skills have been replaced by technology. Everything is GPS. Heaven help them if their battery dies."
McGowan says the origin of the expression "down the river" is too old to know.
But he knows one of its timeless attractions.
"If someone called my mother inquiring as to the whereabouts of a particular male member of the McGowan family, and the party being sought was off on a trip to one of the barrier islands," he writes, "the standard reply would be, 'He is down the river.' No other explanation was necessary."