A Love Note to the Southern River Float

As Labor Day draws near, it’s time to grab an inner tube and take to the waters one last time

Photo: Adobe

It’s been almost ten years now, but one of the most memorable afternoons I’ve spent in Charleston involved a river float in an inner tube down a marsh creek. I didn’t want to go. As I stood outside my house inflating the ridiculously unwieldy rubber doughnut, all I could think about was the possibility of an alligator eating me, tube and all. I sent a few goodbye texts to the people I love most with a picture of my death trap—that is how my catastrophizing mind works. I was hopeful that said alligators didn’t love coconut-scented sunscreen. Perhaps it would even be a deterrent. Or not.

In reality, the adventure was much less threatening. I tethered my tube to those of about twenty friends, new and old, and we set off drifting down Bohicket Creek on a bluebird day late in July. River and creek floats have long been summer traditions in the South, from those in Arkansas who love to ease down the Buffalo River, surrounded by sandstone bluffs, to the rite of passage that is “shooting the ’hooch”—the Chattahoochee River, that is—in Atlanta. But this wasn’t your average float. 

First, meandering down Bohicket Creek, which cleaves Wadmalaw and Johns Islands nearly in half as it snakes toward the Atlantic, is a little like navigating a drawing by the botanist John Bartram or an oil painting depicting avian life by John James Audubon—wildlife hums and jumps and splashes to your left and right. The panorama of the Lowcountry landscape is breathtaking.

Our caravan was beyond the norm, too: A little creek boat motored in front, gently steering our flotilla along with a lead rope, and another one brought up the rear, to keep us moving. A genuine floating stage, also attached to our group—replete with a band and an American flag whipping in the breeze—kept us entertained. And there was fried chicken. So much fried chicken, in fact, that the couple who brought it began tossing pieces of it to all the guests from their tube in the back. Large triangles of watermelon were delivered the same way. And drinks: daiquiris, beer, champagne, mysterious “float punch,” and other assorted Bacchanalian options. 

Perhaps it had a little something to do with all the diversions (and frosty beverages) involved, but the dark water didn’t look so dangerous to me anymore. All I really felt that day was gratitude. Not only that someone, somewhere, at some point in history, had thought the magic of the river float up, but that as luck would have it, I ended up living in a place where something like this happened as a yearly tradition. 

Once we finished the float, disembarking from Bohicket Creek at a very welcoming family’s dock, we ended the day with lots of fried seafood in a field. And no one was eaten by a gator.