1 of 2
Cara Ellen Modisett
Jocassee's water levels have been lower because of regional drought. This is view is back toward the boat launch.
2 of 2
Cara Ellen Modisett
A sign remembers the community that once lived under what is now Lake Jocassee, in upstate South Carolina.
"When the lake's full, you can go into North Carolina."
It's a Monday morning, and the water is still, and around the edge of the lake is a sandy, rocky, yellow beach that in other years wouldn't be there.
Alex Orr is at the wheel, and he pulls the boat up to shore. He's out first, and his foot sinks into mud past his sneaker. ("You work up here, you carry an extra pair of shoes," he tells me later.)
We (Orr, my mother, who's along for the trip, and I) step out onto a bank that's usually covered with water, and walk to one Jocassee's waterfalls – Wright's Creek, a series of three smaller waterfalls that drop into pools before reaching the bottom. At full pond, the cascade would plummet right down into the lake and Orr could pull a pontoon all the way to the base of it. As it is, we look up into a thicket of rhododendron and he points out where the usual waterline is – above our heads, and halfway up a big boulder.
Lake Jocassee hasn't been around much longer than Orr, who turned 26 in September. It's one of three lakes – four if you count Bad Creek Reservoir – in the mountains of upstate South Carolina, each one (Keowee and Hartwell are the other two) created by dams. Jocassee is the deepest, in places more than 300 feet down, and at the bottom are forests, roads, a graveyard, a resort hotel. Four rivers – the Whitewater, Toxaway, Horsepasture and Keowee – flowed through Jocassee. In 1853, long before Jocassee Valley became Lake Jocassee, Harper's New Monthly Magazine described it as "the very spot to dream in on a summer-morn; or, in moonlight-hours to dance with the woodland elf."
"Everybody thinks this has always been here," says Kevin Evans, park manager at Devils Fork State Park. The park is focusing interpretive efforts on telling the story before the lake – "that there's still a valley under the water."
Photographer Ben Geer Keys remembers before the lake filled the land – he and others came to help dig up the Oconee Bell, a beautiful little flower that only blooms here, that's found a happy second life at Devils Fork State Park, where there's an entire nature trail devoted to it.
It was 1973 when Duke Power Company flooded the valley. Debbie Fletcher writes about her memories there in "Whippoorwill Farewell," one of a few books written about Jocassee. She spent her summers at Attakulla Lodge, which her grandparents owned and ran as a resort hotel for years.
"Even in summertime, the evenings were cool, and the Lodge had no heat except for a wood stove in the kitchen," she writes. "What a wonderful feeling to jump back into bed and cover up with piles and piles of handmade quilts and blankets!"
Today, the water is smooth. It covers up what used to be, and it's hard to imagine the storms that will rile it up every so often, blowing waves up to four and five feet high. All three lakes here draw anglers, and Alex Orr, who grew up here, on and near the water, swears by Jocassee.
"It's a quality lake, not a quantity lake. This lake's deep, cold and clear. The fishin's tough."
June and July are good for trout in the lake, which is stocked annually; in August, you'll find browns around the dam. Bass fishing is good March to May – "April's probably the best," says Orr – "they're spawning then."
"When a storm blows up, it can be pretty intense," says Julie Pierce. She and her husband Jeff moved to Salem, near the lake, from Florida to buy and run Sunrise Farm Bed & Breakfast.
"We enjoy Keowee," says Julie, but on Jocassee, "you don't have all these boats buzzing around you," says Jeff. Julie: "Sometimes we're the only boat out on the water." Jeff waterskis, and they've joined the Jocassee Boat Club, whose members have the use of boats and other amenities through Jocassee Outdoor Center, less than 15 minutes away.
With roots in Michigan and Ohio, the Pierces have settled in with their daughter and a menagerie of animals – six cats, a dog, a sheep, three pygmy goats, two llamas, two miniature horses and a pig.
"A lot of people don't think of South Carolina and mountains," says Kevin Evans.
But there are mountains. Bad Creek Reservoir is one of the most beautiful places to really see the ridges. A slow, mechanized gate opens into the area (open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.) just off S.C. 130. Miss the turn and keep heading north on 130, as we did, and you'll be in the Nantahala Forest of North Carolina.
Heading back, we find the turn, wait for the gate to open and drive in. The signs say something about a visitor center, which we never find, but we stop at the overlook and gazebo. In one direction, the mountains and North Carolina. In another, Jocassee and the view continues south. The mountain ridges are tall, wooded and uninterrupted.
Towns are tiny and friendly around here. In Seneca, the Copper River Grill, a homegrown chain, is a happening place that seems to attract the Clemson University crowd.
In Walhalla, the Steak House Cafeteria has been recommended, but it's closed on Mondays, so we pull into the Mountainview Restaurant. The car ahead of us creates its own tight, makeshift space, leaving us the easy one; the driver gets out saying, "I left you that – I'm not going to be here long anyway." Inside, it's no frills and good: blackberry cobbler, macaroni and cheese, turnip greens and fried okra on the menu. Our good Samaritan picks up takeout and is gone.
Duke power's World of Energy, a visitor center and museum, sits where Jocassee meets Keowee, the shallower, busier lake to the south. It's perched right above the Oconee Nuclear Station, and the view of the 19-story-high reactors is a bit startling from the butterfly garden planted out back.
The exhibits are well-produced, and explain the history and the inner workings of this lake system and its hydroelectric and nuclear power generation. Duke built its first power plant in 1904 and supplies power to parts of North and South Carolina, Indiana and Ohio; it's also invested in wind and solar energy and has forged relationships with organizations including Trout Unlimited and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation.
On our last morning, my mother and I hike the Bear Cove Trail, a three-mile loop through woods and along the shoreline in Devils Fork State Park. We catch our first glimpse of lake at about 8:25, coming up a small rise. A little breeze blows the water into movement and rushes through the rhododendron tangles around us, through the maple and pine branches.
Devils Fork has the only boat access to Jocassee, and limits the boaters by the number of parking spaces. People on the lake wave hello, says Evans.
"When you meet a boat, you do that," says Evans. "You don't see that on the road. It's something about being on the lake."