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The roar of whitewater rapids was about all anyone could hear as a small group of canoeists maneuvered down the Chattooga River, enjoying the mountain scenery of the southern Appalachians along the South Carolina-Georgia border.
But as they neared a calm spot in the river, something caught their eye. It was an odd-looking piece of wood, resting near the river bank. After careful inspection, the boaters realized they had found a piece of history: A weathered canoe, replete with the markings of a past era.
“It was exciting to find that,’’ said Bettina George, one of the group members on the trip late last fall.
This week, with water levels suitable to recover the craft, a conservation group pulled the old canoe from the Chattooga and is preparing to haul it to a place where the vessel can be put on public display.
Those who’ve examined the canoe, including archaeologists at the University of South Carolina, say the boat could be 200 to 250 years old. It’s a potentially significant discovery that could provide insight on what life was like in the late 1700s, according to USC and the Chattooga Conservancy, the public interest group that led efforts to save the canoe.
If the canoe’s age is verified through radiocarbon testing, it would mark one of the few times a canoe that old has been found along the Chattooga, a federally designated wild and scenic river in the mountains northwest of Anderson.
Most ancient canoes that have been discovered in South Carolina have been found in the Lowcountry, said James Spirek, the state’s underwater archaeologist.
“Up in the mountains on the rivers, they’re a little rare,’’ he said. “It’s interesting to find people were using canoes on some of these wild rivers.’’
The canoe, discovered below Sandy Ford between two major rapids on the Oconee County, SC, side of the Chattooga, bears some similarities to a 1740s-era boat found in the river 17 years ago.
At about two-feet wide, the latest find is quite narrow and may have been used to ferry early settlers or American Indians across the Chattooga, instead of running its whitewater rapids like boats do today.
The newest find, however, is about 10 feet shorter than the one discovered in 2004 and it is cruder in its construction, said Spirek, a University of South Carolina archaeologist who has seen the canoe.
An iron hatchet or ax was used to hollow out the canoe, meaning it likely was constructed after Europeans arrived in the southeast, said Spirek and Buzz Williams, a mountain conservationist who helped pull the boat from the Chattooga. Williams said a nail was also found in one end of the canoe.
“We know it’s historic,’’ Spirek said. “We can clearly see the tool marks.’’
A key question is whether the canoe was built by early colonial settlers or American Indians. Centuries ago, the area was populated by the Cherokees, the Native American people who developed villages not far from the river.
While boaters found the canoe last fall in a calm spot far from the river’s head waters, Spirek said “it probably had been tumbling down the Chattooga for some time. I’m sure it’s not at its original location.’’
The Chattooga River, in the northwest corner of South Carolina and northeast Georgia, is widely known as a whitewater rafting destination because of its extensive rapids. It gained national attention in the 1970s as the site where the movie “Deliverance’’ was filmed.
Williams, who founded the Chattooga Conservancy, said he’s delighted with the discovery and the support in the community for saving it.
He organized a group of about 10 volunteers who pulled the canoe from the river Tuesday, working carefully to make sure it was not damaged. They used a home-made cradle and straps to secure the boat before moving it onto a wooded river bank on the South Carolina side.
The next step will be laborious. The volunteers must pull the boat up a steep mountain slope, then down a bank, so they can float it through a calm stretch of river to the Georgia side. That effort is supposed to begin next week.
Once in Georgia, it will be easier to remove the boat from the Chattooga River corridor for storage or public display, Williams said. Volunteers are collaborating with USC and the U.S. Forest Service on the canoe removal.
Williams said he’s spoken with museums in South Carolina and Georgia about taking the canoe, as well as an outfitter in the Long Creek community on the South Carolina side of the river.
“This is a huge deal, just from the standpoint of education and learning about the people who lived here before we did,’’ Williams said of the most recent finding. “We are really enjoying the fact that a lot of local people in our community have joined in this effort to save the canoe.’’