“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.

1 comment:

  1. You forgot to mention the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in your bird list... did you look for it? Looks like prime habitat.