Richard Laurent, the owner of a kayak eco-tour company on South Carolina’s Hammock Coast, answers our questions.
By Hope S. Philbrick
During my first kayak tour with Black River Outdoors, I helped rescue a sea turtle. A few months later, I welcomed the opportunity to again kayak with the company, expecting to have a different (if less dramatic) good time—owner Richard Laurent joked that the only thing that might top that first tour would be if a dolphin jumped over my kayak. Alas, that did not happen, but I did see a dolphin and I did have fun. Joining me on this four-hour tour were guides Paul Laurent (who also happens to be Richard’s son) and Mandy Johnson.
I once again paddled the salt marsh near Huntington Beach State Park in Pawleys Island on the Hammock Coast of South Carolina, but the experience was completely different. Paddling at high tide rather than low offers a different view, different challenge, and different wildlife sightings. In addition to the dolphin, we saw more bird species than I can remember—though two made a distinct impression: I was surprised to see a northern gannet so close to shore and moments later spotted a loon, the state bird of Minnesota.
With demonstrations and helpful instruction, Paul helped navigate the tide and currents. About midway through the four-hour tour, we beached the kayaks to walk and bird watch. We then paddled back while Paul shared local lore and legends.
It was a delightful experience.
To learn more about the company, I recently phoned owner Richard Laurent.
When did Black River Outdoors launch as a company?
I think it was 1991. We bought it seven and a half years ago.
What led you to buy it?
It’s a good story. We’d started doing a lot of family eco tours then our son Paul was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was nine years old. We had planned a trip to Belize several months later and thought we had to cancel it, but a specialist told us that we couldn’t cancel because then Paul would always think he needs to stop doing things. So we took a crash course in Type 1 diabetes and had our first ever exotic vacation. Paul didn’t want to go home. We started doing more trips and even bought property in Panama; we could have opened an eco-lodge but my wife wasn’t ready to live off the grid in Panama and asked if we could find a nature-related business here. I searched for a few years and stumbled across Black River Outdoors.
What makes Black River Outdoors different from other guided kayak tour companies?
The caliber of our guides is a big thing. We have knowledge not just of the eco system but history and social aspects of the area. We give a pretty well-rounded tour. Our guides have good skills plus we use better quality equipment—kayaks, life jackets, paddles—we do a lot of research before we buy, we test out a lot of boats. Since we bought the company we’ve improved all the equipment.
What kayaks do you prefer?
We’ve found that normally a 12-foot kayak is the sweet spot. It will go straight easily and will turn easily. A shorter boat is swirly and a longer boat takes better skill. We will use the longer 14-foot boats on our long tours because those are usually more experienced paddlers.
What types of tours do you offer?
We have several different two-, four- and six-hour tours. The two- and four-hour salt marsh tours are very popular.
On the four-hour salt marsh tour you go into a jetty and a stronger current. We know the path to take to minimize the challenge but if people were to go out on their own they can easily get stuck. The wind, the current and the caliber of the guide make a difference.
There’s also a two-hour cypress swamp tour and a four-hour Sandy Island tour. The four-hour tours have a walk in the middle. Most people are not comfortable sitting in a kayak for four straight hours.
Right now in the cypress swamp the snakes are coming out and there are three types of turtles we tend to see—there are more than that, but we see three types most often. We get alligators, they’ll be out in the next few weeks probably; when the weather warms back up they return. We catch snakes; Mandy said that she saw 30 yesterday. We pick up non-venomous snakes, in 30 seconds or a minute they’re calm so we can hand them to interested guests. Kids and more importantly adults who think they’d never go near a snake end up holding snakes. The key is we’re trying to educate about the reality of wildlife not the mythology; we’re raised to be afraid of snakes. This isn’t a pet it’s a wild animal. The true personality of the snake is that it will calm down and lay in arms if you’re gentle, snakes think we’re warm squishy trees.
We’ve started doing early morning tours at 6:30 a.m. in the salt marsh. You watch the sun rise out over water; it’s unbelievable. Mandy loves those tours and so do I. We also have an early cypress swamp tour. Evening tours vary depending on when sunset is. In the hot summer months we recommend morning and evening tours, you see more wildlife when you’re out of the brutal heat.
Paul leads a Georgetown Harbor history tour that is focused on the history of the area, not nature. Paul is a history major and brings the history to life; it’s a fun way to learn.
I’ve now been on tours with Paul and Mandy, both of whom know a lot about birds!
This is a great area for birding. Depending on the time of year, this part of South Carolina houses migrating arctic and tropical birds. A lot of birds from up north come down for winter and some birds that typically stay out in the ocean comes into the jetty sometimes, like gannets. We also see South American birds like roseate spoonbills. We also see herons, egrets, osprey, terns, plover, sandpipers, bald eagles—we have an eagle’s nest with babies on a two-hour tour now. Huntington Beach is kind of a birding mecca.
On a four-hour birding tour in the salt marsh you could see between 50 to 100 species of birds, it depends on the time of year. The neat thing about the birding tour is that you go through many different ecosystems—fresh water lagoon, brackish water lagoon, salt marsh, jetty beach, maritime forest—and you see so much variety because different birds are in each of those. It’s really like five tours in one.
What’s your most popular tour?
More people go on the two-hour tour because of the price. I think our four-hour tours are growing in popularity because we’ve started doing a better job of describing them. You will see more variety of wildlife on a four-hour tour and you’re opening yourself up to the opportunity to see sea turtles and dolphins. In the summertime we see more wildlife in the salt marsh and in the spring and fall the cypress swamp tour is unbelievable. Our guides’ favorite tour is the Sandy Island tour and their second favorite is the four-hour salt marsh tour. On the Sandy Island tour you go through a cool bog area with wild orchids, wild iris and carnivorous plants. We land and take a 45-minute walk through the Carolina bay bog ecosystem. There’s a very well-hidden path and depending on rain there can be several inches of water compressing down the mud. Every time I convince people to wade through it they’ve all thanked me afterwards.
What comments do you hear most frequently from customers?
It’s not uncommon to hear that the kayak tour was the highlight of their vacation. They came to go to the beach but the highlight wasn’t the beach, it was the kayak tour. We get a lot of repeat customers and every once in a while come up with a unique tour special for them.
Do you have anything new and different in the works for the future?
We’re looking at options for a couple of new interesting routes.
We are upgrading our kayak fleet. We found a new model; the one we’ve been using has been discontinued. The new kayaks will cost more but they’re a step up in comfort and how it paddles. We also have a new tandem kayak.
How big is your fleet?
We have 100 boats. We actually aren’t doing kayak rentals anymore. We stopped doing them a few weeks ago. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s not always safe.
How many people are on your tours?
We never do more than 20 people with two or three guides (one exception would be a group like a neighborhood or scout troop that comes to us that we’d then break into smaller groups of 10 or so with additional guides). Summer is generally busy. In the shoulder seasons you’re much more likely to have a smaller group of people. We used to have a minimum of two but got rid of that because the reservation tool didn’t have good capability of managing that.
When making a reservation can a couple or family request an exclusive outing?
We don’t currently offer that but have been toying with the idea. Booking a private tour would cost more. Mathematically it would have to be in the off season.
Black River Outdoors
- Cypress Swamp Eco-Tour (2- or 4-hour available year-round in the mornings)
- Huntington Beach Salt Marsh Eco-Tour (2- or 4-hour available year-round in the mornings; 2-hour evening tours available mid-April through September)
- Sandy Island Eco-Tour (4- or 6-hour; available year-round in the mornings)
- Georgetown Harbor History Tour (2-hour evening)
- Huntington Beach Birding Tour (6-hour kayaking & walking)
- Full Moon Eco-Tour (4-hour; available once a month in the evening)
Kayak Fishing Trips (4-hours)
Eco-, History, Birding and Full Moon Tour prices are $40 per person for 2-hour, $60 per person for 4-hour, and $80 per person for 6-hour tours ($35/$45/$60 for children age 12 and younger). Fishing trips are $125 per person for groups of 2 or 3; private fishing is $150. Group discounts available, prices subject to change. Reservations required. Tours often sell out.
Odds of Encountering Children: For the best odds, opt for a longer tour during seasons other than summer.
– Photos © HSP Media LLC
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