“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Congaree National Park

I feel like some unseen creature is dragging me into the bowels of the earth. I’m stuck—really stuck—in thigh-deep, boot sucking mud, struggling to haul our canoe through yet another portage. With every step I sink deeper and deeper into the thick imprisoning muck. This is supposed to be fun?

Well, maybe struggling to escape from the vacuum-like grip of South Carolina mud isn’t exactly fun but given the scenery around us, it’s worth every minute. Sometimes you have to work for your pleasure.

We’re deep in the enveloping thickness of Congaree Swamp in the heart of Congaree National Park. This is no holds barred swampland, chock full of snakes, spiders, mosquitoes, deer flies, and heat. We’re paddling down the park’s main waterway, Cedar Creek, because canoeing or kayaking is the only way to really experience the National Park—with the exception of a few short developed hiking trails, most of the Congaree is a checkerboard of swampy lowlands that inhibits foot travel. Backcountry hiking is a difficult proposition given the thick underbrush, thousands of knobby cypress knees and watery terrain.

So we launch our flotilla—one canoe, one kayak—onto Cedar Creek at Bannister Bridge near the extreme northwestern border of the National Park. Cedar Creek is narrow here, the tea-colored water flowing swiftly through twisting passages fringed by Sabal palm, loblolly pines and tupelo trees. It is a hot June day when we begin paddling and brilliant rays of sunlight pierce the thick leafy canopy. There is a slight morning fog lingering in the air, hanging like a gauzy curtain in the trees. The scenery is enchanting, southern swampland at its finest, archetypical southern sloughs meandering among towering bald cypress trees garlanded in thick wisps of Spanish moss. It feels primeval, like a scene from Jurassic Park.

Congaree National Park is relatively small at 26,546 acres (by comparison, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is 521,000 acres) but they are lush, beautiful acres. Due to the inaccessibility of the Congaree wetlands, loggers were stymied in their efforts to harvest the swamp’s timber. Consequently, very little of the area was logged and massive bald cypress, loblolly pines, oak, sweetgum, ash and hickory trees dominate the park. These old growth forests harbor trees that are 200 plus years old and form towering canopies over 150 feet high. One loblolly pine in the park is over 15 feet in circumference and almost 170 feet tall.

This woodland paradise was almost lost in the late 1960s when high timber prices led private landowners to resume logging operations in the Congaree watershed. The potential loss of the forest alarmed local citizens who worked to protect the area and, as a result, in 1976 Congress authorized the establishment of the Congaree Swamp National Monument, a designation that was changed to Congaree National Park in 2003, making the area America’s second newest national park.

In keeping with the austere character of the swamp, park facilities are few. The Harry Hampton Visitor Center is your starting point and it includes the standard park exhibits on wildlife, fauna and history including a short orientation video. Other than that, facilities include primitive camping, a boardwalk loop and four hiking trails. The longest, Kingsnake Trail, scribes a long U-shaped path through the interior of the swamp.

But if you want to really see all the park has to offer, you’ll have to get your feet wet. And they will get wet. The 13 mile long Cedar Creek Canoe Trail twists and turns through the heart of the park and can be a real hull scraper if the water is low. Although the trail is maintained, storms and beavers often block the creeks with fallen trees, requiring difficult and arduous portages past blockages. High creek banks and that entrapping muck make things demanding. We had five hard portages and numerous encounters with hidden logs just below the surface that reached up and grabbed our boats. And the Congaree’s resident critters have a great sense of humor—practically every horizontal fallen tree over the creek seemed to have a giant pile of steaming crap on it—strategically placed in the exact spot where we needed to grab the log in order to portage.

Backcountry camping (with a free permit from the Visitor Center) is permitted along the creek and our fist night campsite was near Cedar Creek Landing, about midway through the park. If you’ve never camped in a southern swamp, you’re in for a real treat--that is, if you like noise because as the sun goes down, the decibel level goes up. Frogs croak, owls hoot, fish jump, otters and beaver splash through the shallows, deer crash through the underbrush, feral hogs grunt. Trying to sleep through all that racket can be a real challenge until you adjust to this new environment. Then you come to appreciate the natural beauty of a night in a swamp. For one thing, the night is dark—the only light is from the millions of stars that you forgot existed and the legions of fireflies dancing through the trees.

Courtesy USF&WS
Of course, all those critters are the other attraction of the Congaree. The place is a haven for deer, feral hogs, turtles, snakes, frogs, beaver, raccoon and coyote (and, reportedly, alligators, although we didn’t see any). I paddled around a bend in Cedar Creek and came nearly face to face with a river otter. He didn’t seem surprised to see me and we stared at each other for a while before he calmly swam behind a log. The Congaree was designated an Important Bird Area (an area recognized as being globally important habitat for the conservation of bird populations) in 2001. It’s easy to see why. We saw and heard more Barred Owls than I have ever encountered in any other place and we were continually hearing and seeing Pileated, Red headed and Downy Woodpeckers. White Ibis, Great Blue Herons, Osprey, Red shouldered Hawks and multiple warbler species (including the pretty Prothonotary Warbler) completed our birding experience. We had little luck catching the largemouth bass, panfish and catfish in Cedar Creek, but the days were hot, not the best of conditions for fishing.

We extended out trip onto the Congaree River which defines the southern boundary of the park. Cedar Creek flows into the Congaree and allows floaters to extend their trip for another ten miles. The Congaree is big, broad and fast compared with the narrow Cedar Creek and is an easy float down to the Highway 601 bridge take out point. We camped for the second night on a wide inviting sandbar. Although this part of the float is not as wild and primitive as the Cedar Creek section, it is still a nice experience and we glimpsed Osprey and feral hogs on the Congaree.

If you want to experience one of the South’s prettiest swamps without a multi-day trip that places like the Everglades or the Okefenokee entail, try the Congaree.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Undiscovered Ecuador

Cotopaxi Volcano
We had just saddled up and were following Diego, our Ecuadorian mountain biking guide, down the very steep flanks of an Andean mountain when he promptly executed a spectacular over-the-handlebars face plant, sprawling in a cloud of dust and pebbles. Not a very confidence inducing beginning to an edgy ride down the side of a slippery, sliding mountain. My sea level acclimated lungs were burning from the altitude and the near-vertigo-inducing vista below didn’t give me any comfort that I would make it to the base of the mountain intact. Diego’s dump didn’t do anything to persuade me otherwise.

This was our first full day in the Ecuadorian highlands and we were getting a jump out of the gate, hitting full stride immediately with a bike ride (more accurately, plunge) down the flanks of Cotopaxi, a snow covered 19,347 foot peak in the Andes, the second highest peak in Ecuador. Our bike ride began far up the mountain’s face, at 14,000 feet. We were below the snow line but above—well above—tree line and the terrain was barren, rocky and slick with loose scree and deep volcanic dust. Not a good combination for speeding down a mountain. So we all started out cautiously, squeezing brakes till our hands ached, but as we gained confidence our speeds increased. That’s when the carnage began and practically everyone in our group got to experience Ecuadorian dirt up close and personal--wipeouts which naturally came to be known as “Diegos”.

The flanks of Cotopaxi leveled out as we continued downward, gradually turning into level doubletrack that scribed the perimeter of the mountain. Our exhilarating plummet turned into a slog through high plateaus, starkly beautiful with miles of uncluttered backdrop in all directions. Little vegetation and no trees made for a forbiddingly captivating landscape and we enjoyed the better part of the day pedaling through the Andean highlands as the weather gradually deteriorated, turning first to rain and then to a pelting hailstorm that covered the ground with a white dusting of icy pellets. Enchanting.
An excellent introduction to this small, overlooked country. Only slightly larger than the state of Nevada, Ecuador encompasses a remarkable variety of landscapes-- glacier-covered peaks, desolate high plateaus, verdant highlands, lush green Amazon jungle and the bustling cosmopolitan atmosphere of Quito. Trekkers tend to head to the more glamorous South American destinations of Brazil, Peru and Chile which is a big mistake. Ecuador has as much natural beauty as its more famous neighbors and, unlike those three countries which are huge and sprawling, Ecuador is small enough to give trekkers a chance to experience all it has to offer in just a few days.

That compactness became quickly apparent. We had spent the evening before our Cotopaxi excursion at Hacienda La Alegria, a working dairy ranch dominated by a sprawling 1911 era ranch house. The best way to experience a ranch is on horseback, of course, and we had saddled up and hit the trail, riding among the lush fields and smattering of small hovels that huddled along the narrow paths through the ranch’s backcountry. And yet within a couple of hours of leaving La Alegria we had transitioned from that inviting green ranchland to the harsh mountain slopes of the Andes. Try that in Peru, where a day’s drive often gets you only halfway to your next stop.

From Cotopaxi we headed to the village of Banos--if you go to Ecuador, you have to go to Banos—the country’s adventure capital. Nestled between two mountain ridges in a subtropical cloud forest and surrounded by waterfalls and near vertical forested walls, Banos is small and charming. The village square is dominated by the basilica of Nuestra SeƱora del Agua Santa, a Gothic style cathedral constructed from volcanic rock from nearby Tungurahua, a still-active volcano.

We took advantage of Banos’ offerings, biking the road from Banos to Puyo and stopping at Pailon del Diablo (Devil’s Punchbowl), a hidden waterfall in a valley near the road. The ride is spectacular, traveling through tunnels and overlooking the broad and scenic Pastaza River valley. The hike down to the Punchbowl is easy and a short crawl through a low overhang leads behind the cascade.

The Amazon jungle
In keeping with Banos’ reputation, all kinds of adventure activities are available including horseback riding, bungee jumping, ziplining and rafting. We took advantage of a roadside zipline, plunging hundreds of feet into a deep canyon and across a wild river, flying like Superman above the jungle. We ended our bike ride in the town of Rio Verde, enjoying the sweetness of plantain and queso from a roadside vendor. Being a tourist center, Banos has an active nightlife with a row of restaurants and bars near city center. The Leprechaun Bar seems to be the most popular and the open courtyard with a blazing bonfire is a nice backdrop to the salsa music that keeps the crowd moving in this two-story bar.

We reluctantly left Banos to other partiers but the Amazon jungle beckoned. The terrain changed noticeably as we made our way into the Amazon basin. The high cloud forest gave way to lush rainforest as we descended into Ecuador’s Amazon jungle lowlands. We arrived at the Shangri la Lodge, perched on a 300-foot bluff overlooking the Rio Ansu, a broad, lazy flowing river that cuts through the edge of the Amazon jungle. We immediately plunged into the rainforest, hiking along the high bluffs overlooking the Rio Ansu. The contrast between the highlands of Banos and the rainforest could not have been more drastic. Heat and humidity replaced cool mountain air. Bugs and thick vegetation replaced open skies and soaring birds. A tarantula the size of a small skillet greeted us in our lodge. Welcome to the jungle.

We floated the Rio Ansu, immersing ourselves in the tropical rain forest. Experiencing the Amazon rainforest from a river is the only way to go and we spied birds everywhere before stopping along the way to make our way through the forest to an indigenous village. Visiting with a villager in the family’s hut gave a brief glimpse into the lives of the villagers and we tasted manioc and chicha, a fermented drink made from manioc.

The jungle is hot and one of the few ways to escape the pervasive heat is to climb a waterfall. Fortunately, there are many waterfalls in the rainforest and we stumbled on a pretty little stream carving its way out of the jungle. We scrambled up a narrow gorge, wading through a rushing stream that plunged over boulders and splashed over rocky ledges. A relatively easy climb with rope assists brought us to the bottom of a 100-foot cascade where a fine mist formed a rainbow in a narrow slot canyon. A picturesque finale to a cooling hike.

Many days of high activity deserved a rest and we moved onto the highlands to Papallacta where we kicked back and soaked in thermal hot springs with the cloud forest and mountain peaks framing our view. Our rest was short-lived, however, and the next morning we were up early for a hike through the cloud forest, looking for exotic birds. A rainy day and cool mountain temps made for a classic high altitude hike through thick forest and high fields.

The transition from the lowlands back into Papallacta’s high altitude prepared us for the Santa Lucia Highlands Plateau, on the northwestern side of Antisana volcano, back up again to near 14,000 feet. Antisana is typical Andean terrain; open, barren, beautiful. We hiked along a road in the national park while Andean condors, variable hawks and buzzard eagles rode the thermals between peaks and caracaras, horses, cattle and sheep grazed the open grasslands, the tableau dominated by Antisana, at 18,875 feet the fourth highest volcano in Ecuador. The summit was wreathed in clouds but the massive flanks gleamed in the afternoon sun, brilliant white glaciers reaching like fingers down from the clouds.

Sunset on the Rio Ansu, Amazon
I’ll take Ecuador. Where else can you experience 19,000 foot peaks and near sea level jungle with mountains, cloud forest, rainforest, rivers, waterfalls and glaciers thrown in—all easily reachable without grueling drives? Ecuador is incredibly beautiful, the people are inviting and friendly and the American dollar (the official currency) goes a long way. And the best part is, few people have discovered its attractions so you pretty much have the country to yourself.

DETAILS:  We took this trip with Active South America, http://www.activesouthamerica.com/.  Their Ecuador trip is called the Tapir Tour.