The City Magazine Since 1975

Pilgrim at Shem Creek

Pilgrim at Shem Creek
August 2016
A longtime resident ponders the natural blessings bestowed upon us

The air is already thick, but the water is flat and glassy, unruffled by the world’s turmoil on this humid summer morning. So I borrow my daughter’s paddleboard, push out of the Old Village, and glide into Charleston Harbor. I plow the blade into the water and head west, but my paddling is more zig and zag than anything.

This board is too short for me, my husband says, which somehow explains my every-which-way maneuvering, though the physics confound me. Three strokes on the right zig me eastward, corrected by three zagging left, with a net gain of maybe one stroke of semi-forward motion. Whoever said it’s more about the journey than the destination wasn’t balanced precariously on a thick piece of fiberglass making miniscule headway.

Plus, I’m rather fond of my morning destination. Shem Creek is a narrow notch off the harbor, midway between Sullivan’s jetties and the massive loading docks of Charleston’s busy port. It’s the kind of place you’d duck into if you were playing hide and seek and the harbor was a wide-open field; the kind of place you’d idle in if you were a shrimper exhausted from a 20-hour trawl.

Shem Creek is broad and mellow. She is salty and wise, the nonjudgmental housemother with an open-door policy to whomever and whatever shows up. Which is a good thing since Shem Creek has evolved over the years from picturesque shrimping lane, once home to 70 trawlers with huge pigtail nets and an industrial icehouse, into an all-comers tourist attraction. The former icehouse is now a neon-lit bar where sunburned boaters pull up for a tall one. Restaurants line the waterway; an elevated boardwalk frames one side. A low bridge divides the creek, separating the commercial end from the residential, where private docks stretch from snoozy backyards.

And then there’s me, a middle-aged woman on a kid-sized paddleboard, making my way past all the action. I love being on the still-quiet waterway, powered only by silent strokes (however inefficient) and a quad-clinching prayer for balance. Paddling transforms my experience of this creek I’ve driven over numerous times a day for two decades—some 28,000 passings over the Shem Creek bridge—and so have come to take for granted.

Shem Creek is the threshold I cross as I leave my neighborhood on excursions into the wider world. It’s a vase for dolphins that show off for the boaters and partiers, rolling and arching their pearly gray backs, puffing out big Ujjayi breaths—yogis with fins. It’s a playground for pelicans with their gawky beaks and prehistoric wings. The creek is a canvas for sunrise, the morning’s still water capturing dawn’s yawning colors as they spill over the horizon. At the close of day, it is a cup that collects the last dribble of sunset, and offers it, saying, “Here, sip this—a cocktail of all that has been and will be.”

All of this I appreciate more deeply as I zig and zag along the creek, a paddleboarding ferrywoman to wonder. I pass the ragged trawler, Winds of Fortune, with her hopeful nets and tangled lines, and pray that tomorrow’s fortune may blow in stronger for all of us who harbor nearby—herons and seagulls, tourists and trawlers, dolphins and neighbors in houses with long docks.

Author Annie Dillard spent a year observing Tinker Creek in the Virginia foothills, writing, “It has always been a happy thought to me that the creek runs on all night, new every minute, whether I wish it or know it or care….” But to me, Shem Creek doesn’t feel “new every minute” as much as it feels old and encumbered.

We ask so much of her: entertain us, harbor us, feed us, make us money, soothe us. The least we can do in return is give her our attention, our care. Notice how her tides change almost imperceptibly, a gradual rise, then a quiet slinking out. How her mood shifts with the weather. She is constantly new, as are we. We just have to know her well to see it.

Contributing editor Stephanie Hunt lives in Mount Pleasant’s Old Village and, when wind and tide allows, launches for a paddle jaunt from her neighbor’s dock. Otherwise, she’s writing or out riding her bike. She misses the old Shem Creek.