ONE MORE ADVENTURE IN A SWAMP
Somewhere in the middle of the Congaree Swamp National Park, surrounded by 40 square miles of mosquitoes and giant tupelos and waist-deep muck, is a single patch of dry ground about 100 yards long and 15 yards wide. It sits maybe six inches higher than the slow-flowing black water. It is so remote that probably even the park rangers have never been there.
We had paddled our canoes and kayaks between the surrounding giant cypress trees, water oaks, pines and tupelos to this uncharted heaven on earth, just as the last of the daylight faded from the skies over central South Carolina.
A few minutes earlier all six of us had been contemplating the idea that we might have to spend the night in our cramped little boats, surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of unbroken black river swamp.
Once we spotted the “island,” it took only another few minutes to drag the boats onto high ground, set up the tents and get the pots boiling on the two-burner camp stove. A few adult beverages soon appeared for those who wanted them, while others sipped on cappuccino or hot chocolate.
“This is great,” said David Myers from Tree Climbing South Carolina. “I don’t know where we are, but we’ll worry about that in the morning.”
Everybody laughed. We were lost in the middle of the largest remaining old growth floodplain swamp in the United States and all of us were thoroughly happy.
Little did we know that the next day it would take five tough and time-consuming portages of equipment and boats to reach the open waters of the Congaree River. But from there, it would be only a leisurely hour-long float downstream to our take-out point.
The adventure had started Friday afternoon, March 11, when we all met up at park headquarters, about a half hour south of Columbia, South Carolina. In addition of Myers and me, the group included Joe Maher and Glenn Fell from the Treeclimber Coalition, and biology students Katy Holthouse and Eric Stimpson from the College of Charleston, in nearby Charleston, South Carolina.
This was to be a scouting trip to the Congaree, which the park service claims is the home of several national champion loblolly pines, tupelos and bald cypress trees. We wanted to find some of those trees and climb them.
The swamp had been an international biosphere preserve for more than 20 years, but it was designated as the nation’s 57th and newest national park less than four years ago. There were still parts of it that had never been adequately explored or mapped.
We immediately learned that the river had crested a few days earlier at 11 feet above flood stage, and the water level was dropping only about a foot a day. The swamp was far deeper than normal and many of the signs that marked the canoe trails were still under water.
The weather forecast was in our favor, with partly cloudy skies and afternoon temperatures in the upper 60s and lower 70s. It would be great weather to be outdoors, and the bugs would not be a problem.
Cedar Creek was almost six feet above flood stage the next morning when we paddled away from the put-in point near the north boundary of the park, but we were confident that we could stay on the seven-mile-long canoe trail that led southeast to the Congaree River. We had two canoes that carried most of the gear, and two kayaks.
Our goal was to follow the canoe trail down to the river, find a high bluff for a campsite, climb a few trees, and complete the 13-mile drift down the river on Sunday.
Two miles into the adventure, though, the canoe trail completely disappeared from view. We backtracked a half-mile or so, found a marker and turned southeast again. The trail again disappeared and we made the decision to let the current flowing through the swamp be our guide. Once that decision was made, there was no turning back – we’d reached the fabled point of no return.
We agreed, this wasn’t the adventure we’d planned but it was the adventure that Mother Nature had handed us. We would go for it!
“Damn the torpedoes,” I shouted. “Full speed ahead.” Everybody laughed.
Soon, we were fighting to get through the thick tangle of giant trees, vines and snags that blocked every direction. The trees grew so close together that sometimes the canoes had to be backed up two or three times just to get through a single opening. We hauled the boats over logs, used the paddles to pole our way through flotsam jams, and sometimes we just grabbed the trees themselves to haul our way past them.
Despite the hard paddling, we had plenty of time to just float and study the trees. They were as big as the National Park Service had promised. We found loblolly pines with four-foot-diameters that towered 150 feet above the swamp and tupelos that were five feet thick with huge limbs that laced together high above our boats.
There were water oaks and white oaks and American beeches. The real giants, though, were the seven-foot diameter bald cypresses that probably were already 500 years old when Hernando de Soto was led into the swamp in 1540 by the Wateree and the Congaree Indians.
This swamp was also the place where Colonel Francis "Swampfox" Marion hid his troops between raids on British forces during the Revolutionary War.
Loggers had taken the best trees along the river during the late 1800s and early 1900s but the virgin forests farther back in the swamp were spared; they could not be reached with the logging equipment that was available at that time.
According to the park service, the canopy in some parts of the Congaree has an average height of over 130 feet and is believed to be taller than any other deciduous forest in North America.
We kept fighting our way past these trees and snags, following the current and hoping to find a deep creek or canoe trail that would get us headed back on the proper course to the southeast.
The decision to follow the current, though, turned out to be a major disappointment. It would flow southeast for a few hundred yards, then turn northeast or northwest – and sometimes even straight north, which was the opposite direction from our planned destination at the river.
Dusk caught up before we could decide whether to continue following the current or to paddle straight south toward where we knew the river would be. We settled in for the night and agreed to delay any decision until breakfast. We crawled into our sleeping bags and were serenaded by a constant chorus from thousands of birds, frogs and crickets.
The map showed a rail line that cut across the southeast corner of the national park. During the midnight hour two noisy freight trains clacked their way past the swamp and across the river bridge that was supposed to be at least a dozen miles down stream. We all agreed that the trains sounded a lot closer than expected; some thought they were only five or six miles away while others felt they were as close as two or three miles. (A Google Earth search later showed the tracks were only a mile and a quarter from our campsite.)
“I bet the route we’ve paddled would look like a maze if we’d plotted all the waypoints,” Eric said. “We’ve probably come a lot farther than we thought.”
A quick fix from the GPS receiver showed we had paddled several miles east of the proposed route and that we were less than a half-mile from the big river. Apparently we had been paddling on a course parallel to the river since early the previous day.
We happily set out again in the heavily loaded boats, and less than 200 yards later came up against another dry spot with no way to paddle around it.
We made the first portage of the morning, first hauling all the gear for about 150 yards and returning for the canoes and kayaks. A half hour later we were afloat again, and again we hit dry land within a couple of minutes.
It appeared that an old logging road had once run parallel to the river, so Eric jogged west to scout it out while I hiked east and quickly found myself in more knee-deep water. The others waited at the boats to guide us back with their shouts. We finally settled on a potential route that involved the least amount of portage distance.
We completed the second portage and paddled due south, but within 30 yards the deeper water turned west. We tried several directions but finally agreed that a third portage of about 200 yards was necessary. This one got us another 75 yards or so in the direction of the wide river.
We ignored lunch and made a fourth portage through smaller flood-resistant trees and brush that reeked of the fishy smell of the river. It had to be just a few yards in front of our boats.
Suddenly, the wide Congaree appeared in front of us, with a swift current flowing toward the east and our proposed take-out point. One final portage across 75 yards of dry ground remained, though, and we almost fought each other to speed it up.
About 2:30 p.m. we finally pushed out from the riverbank. David and I were in the lead canoe with Katy and Joe directly behind us. Glenn and Eric paddled the kayaks. All the boats stayed together while we dined on a late lunch of canned meats, cookies and apples.
Glenn and I toasted the adventure with the last two beers from the previous night’s stash.
The last surprise came after just 30 minutes on the river, when we rounded the second bend and spotted the high, narrow ribbon of the railway bridge. That’s when we confirmed that we’d traveled many miles farther than expected the previous day.
Another 40 minutes passed and we heard a pair of happy shouts from Eric and Glenn, who had paddled on ahead in the faster kayaks. They were within sight of the take-out point at the U.S. 601 Bridge well south of the national park.
Katy had left her car at the bridge parking area the previous morning, and a few minutes later she was driving David and Glenn to their own vehicles a half-hour away at the put-in spot on Cedar Creek. The rest of us got the boats onto dry land and cleaned them out as much as possible, and sorted out the gear.
One last group photograph was taken at the boat ramp before we parted ways. The college students were headed back to Charleston for Monday’s classes and labs, David had an hour drive southwest to his ice cream parlor in North Augusta, South Carolina; and the rest of us had a five-hour drive ahead of us to return to north Georgia.
Just before she drove off, Katy gave everybody a serious look and stated. “I can be here by Friday afternoon if we want to do it again next weekend!”
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