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Stop #5: The Pee Dee Rivers, SC
Featured Herp: Brown Water Snake (Nerodia taxispilota)

aerial photo
Confluence of the Little Pee Dee and Great Pee Dee rivers

The hike from coastal North Carolina into South Carolina brings the East Aiken walkers near Myrtle Beach, SC. Instead of playing video games and riding bumper cars, however, the school hiked inland to explore the area’s rivers and wetlands. The Little Pee Dee River and the Great Pee Dee River are named after the Pee Dee Indians, who had villages in the area as long ago as 1000 A.D. (For more information on pre-colonial Indian culture and South Carolina archaeology; for additional information on Pee Dee history.)

About 32 kilometers (20 miles) west of Myrtle Beach two beautiful river swamps combine into one. Where the two rivers, the Little Pee Dee and the Great Pee Dee, come together (the confluence), one can glean some idea of the origin of each. Examine the water from the Great Pee Dee and it is often reddish and laden with silt and clay. Peer into the water of the Little Pee Dee and it is a deep brown, almost black. At the confluence the darker Little Pee Dee waters mix with the red Great Pee Dee flow in a striking contrast.

dark water lined with baldcypress
The Little Pee Dee River

The Great Pee Dee is a "red water" stream, meaning that its origin is not on the Coastal Plain but much further inland. The name "red water stream" comes from the fact that the water carries the red, eroded soils of the Piedmont. The Great Pee Dee River has its headwaters on the Yadkin River on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina. The river travels 697 km (430 river miles) to the mouth of the Great Pee Dee River at Winyah Bay near Georgetown, South Carolina.

The Little Pee Dee is a "black water" stream. It is a river that has its origin on the Coastal Plain near Laurinburg, North Carolina. Black water streams generally have lower silt and clay loads than red water streams. Black water streams typically have coarse sand bottoms and tea-colored waters, a color that results from breakdown of leaves in water.

In the bottomlands of the Great Pee Dee River swamp a common plant species is the bald cypress tree. On the Atlantic Coastal Plain, cypress trees grow best in the bottomlands of red water rivers, which deposit their reddish, nutrient-rich silt across the floodplain during floods. Cypress growth is often poorer on the less fertile, coarser textured bottomland soils of black water rivers. [More on forested wetlands; for information on river "types", Piedmont and Coastal Plain habitats, etc., see NC Low Country ecosystems.]

The Great Pee Dee is a large river with a wide channel. At one point in South Carolina history it was a very important transportation route. The first English settlers in South Carolina’s Pee Dee area moved up from Charles Town. By the early 1700's, settlements had appeared along the Great Pee Dee River. By 1750, a settlement at "the Cheraws" was established (i.e., Cheraw, South Carolina). Cypress-log canoes and larger flats and sloops were once a common sight on the river as an integral part of the state’s commerce. After cotton became an important crop in the Piedmont, even steamboats routinely plied the Great Pee Dee waters! To learn more about the fascinating history of this area’s rivers, see Great Pee Dee River and the Black River.


Brown Water Snake (Nerodia taxispilota)

water snake on branch
Brown Water Snake (Nerodia taxispilota)
cottonmouth in duckweed
Cottonmouth (venomous)

It is nearly impossible to convince folks that brown water snakes are harmless. After all, they are so large-bodied, and so intimidating, and (on occasion, as when they drop into your boat from an overhanging limb) so startling that a person’s usual reaction is "Kill, Kill, Kill," and repairing the bullet holes in the boat is an afterthought. Even trained herpetologists who are catching brown water snakes for research will take a long look before grabbing "just to be sure". [View the Brown Water Snake fact sheet.] Of course, the reason behind bullet-ridden boats and herpetologists actually being safety conscious is this—brown water snakes resemble the venomous cottonmouth, and often share a somewhat similar habitat. Some individuals of both species can appear to be long, fat, dark, non-descript snakes. So, although I have no illusion that merely reading this will change many minds, here are some observations on differences between the TOTALLY HARMLESS brown water snake and the venomous cottonmouth.

I once worked for two summers as the naturalist at Santee State Park, a Mecca for bass fishermen. It was unfortunate that I knew squat about fish, but I did know my snakes. Over the course of two summers I would venture a guess that I had close to 200 (dead) snakes that were brought to me by fishermen who had killed the snake while fishing somewhere on the upper reaches of Lake Marion. All snakes were identified as evil, poisonous, venomous, aggressive, dastardly cottonmouths (= water moccasin); however, not a single snake actually was a cottonmouth. All were brown water snakes. How can we account for such unnecessary overkill?

First, many adults have learned an unreasonable fear of snakes (Note: herpetologists agree that it must be a learned fear, because the overwhelming majority of kids we deal with have an innate interest in the critters). Second, a healthy respect for cottonmouths is certainly warranted, because cottonmouths are venomous and can potentially do harm to humans. So, if a person perceives a snake as a cottonmouth, and consequently those fear hormones kick in, then that could spell bad news for the snake. Third, the consistency with which snakes were misidentified (zero for 200) seems to indicate a trend.

southeastern distribution

Although brown water snakes can be found in the very same place as cottonmouths, in many cases the harmless water snakes are using a slightly different habitat.

Judging from the results above, it would seem as though cottonmouths rarely are found in habitats where normal human beings go, and brown water snakes often are in places that humans frequent. YES, there are exceptions, and every person reading this probably has an example of one, but in general: 1) brown water snakes inhabit large rivers, large lakes and reservoirs, and some medium sized creeks, 2) brown water snakes frequently bask on limbs overhanging the water, sometimes at heights of 3.5-5 meters (10-15 feet), and 3) brown water snakes usually flee when disturbed, and generally dive under water. Cottonmouths, on the other hand, usually 1) live in small creeks, backwaters and ox-bow lakes in swamps, and sometimes small ponds, 2) almost never are found high above the water on overhanging limbs, and 3) often hold their position when disturbed, entering a defensive coil, or swim away on the surface of the water (see Cottonmouth Species Account).

>Brown Water Snake Fact Sheet
>Educational Flyer: Water Snakes vs. Cottonmouths

water snake on branch over water coiled, gaping cottonmouth
Brown water snakes often bask on limbs overhanging the water Defensive posture of cottonmouth when disturbed

Geographic Note

(Excerpt from article by Bob Greene, reporter, Chicago Tribune)

"The Pee Dee?" she said. "Those of us who grew up in the Pee Dee are used to saying it, but I suppose it does sound odd if you haven't heard it before."

She said the Pee Dee refers to the Pee Dee River. Actually, she said, there are two -- the Great Pee Dee River and the Little Pee Dee River. That's why people who live here say they are from the Pee Dee.

But they don't say, "I'm from the Pee Dee area"; the newspaper doesn't call itself "The Voice of the Pee Dee Area." They say they live in the Pee Dee.

Doesn't make sense -- they don't live in the river.

"It's like this," said Florence Police Chief Ralph Porter. "In South Carolina, if you live in Columbia you live in the Midlands. If you live in Greenville, you live Up Country. If you live in Charleston, you live in the Low Country. And if you live in Florence, you live in the Pee Dee."

Just the Pee Dee.

"As a matter of fact," Chief Porter said, "do you know the song ‘Swannee River'?"


"The man who wrote that was really riding along the Pee Dee River when he thought of the song. That's what the song is about. But he called it ‘Swannee River' instead."

Why would he do that?

"Think about it," Chief Porter said. And the chief began to sing:

"Way down upon the Pee Dee River..."

He burst out laughing. "Doesn't sound too good that way, does it?" he said.

Pee Dee is something I prefer to explain to someone face to face."

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