Essay: Changes at the Park – A Fifty-Year (Nearly) Perspective

This will be my last entry for Congaree Journal, A Diary of Life in the Swamp. I’ve enjoyed sharing my observations and experiences with you over these past two years about one of the most distinctive and biologically diverse parks within the national park system. And I appreciate John Grego and Friends of Congaree Swamp for providing an outlet for this diary.

I thought it appropriate that I close with an essay about changes in the park I’ve experienced over the past nearly fifty years.

On the surface at least, the Congaree of 2020 appears pretty much like the Congaree of 1974 when Jim Elder, Dick Watkins, and I first started knocking around the place on a regular basis. But just beneath that surface there have been lots of changes, some more noticeable than others. This is to be expected however, since we know that the one constant in nature is change itself. Indeed, even the most remote outpost on the planet is not immune from natural, and increasingly, artificial, change as a result of mankind’s dominion over earth.

“Redwoods East” – the magnificent avenue of giant loblolly pines along the Sims Trail, 1974. Photo by George Taylor.

One of the most obvious (and saddest for me) changes at Congaree took place shortly after the park was established. The drive into the park then on what is now the Sims Trail was lined with the most magnificent stand of giant loblolly pines anywhere in the world. It was breathtaking to walk along a half-mile stretch of a pine forest cathedral that soared 130-150 feet over your head. This magnificent avenue gave rise to an early name for the Congaree – “Redwoods East.”  It didn’t seem possible that a tiny insect no bigger than a grain of rice could damage, much less destroy, those great trees but that’s exactly what happened when a pine beetle epidemic swept through and killed many of them.

The pine bark beetle outbreak was followed a few years later by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. This monster storm hit Congaree, and the Midlands of South Carolina, with sustained wind gusts of 90 miles per hour or greater, a figure never before recorded this far inland. I’ve noted in an early essay (Secrets of the Sweetgums) the impacts this once-in-a century storm (maybe even a two-century storm) had, and continues to have, on Congaree. Suffice it to say, however, this storm was a game changer for the park in many ways, particularly as it relates to the old-growth forest’s structure and composition.

The Congaree forest of fifty years ago fit well the classic description of “virgin” or “original” eastern forest noted by the early naturalists and explorers:  tall, cathedral-like stands of large trees with a dense canopy that blotted out the sun. Walking at the obstruction-free ground level was ridiculously easy, and spotting a deer or turkey 300 feet away was routine.

Obstructions and thickets are now commonplace throughout Congaree as a result of canopy damage from strong winds, often associated with hurricanes.

This description began changing after Hurricane Hugo. Downed trees, limbs (many the size of small trees), tip-up mounds, vine tangles, thickets, and dead falls became commonplace, and the pattern seems to have only increased in the intervening years. I suspect that in some cases a delayed effect from hurricane damage to the canopy has taken place as gradual rot and insect damage from wind-inflicted wounds has resulted in fallen limbs and canopy loss years after the storm. Now, in many areas of the park, walking is not “ridiculously easy,” and moving in a straight line is out of the question with so many obstacles to negotiate.

Congaree’s “East End” was hit particularly hard by Hugo. The switch cane that was three-and-a-half feet high before Hugo has not only spread, but gotten taller, presumably from increased sunlight. The cane in some areas is now five- to six-feet high or more, and in company with numerous vines, shrubs, downed limbs and trees, has resulted in a nearly impenetrable jungle worthy of a Tarzan movie. Such tangles and thickets are now commonplace throughout the park.

Graham Norman and Brice Jenvrin negotiate a cane thicket in Congaree’s east end.

Neal Polhemus and I were recently kayaking beautiful, black Upper Cedar Creek and stopped off at Big Hurricane Island for a break. This aptly-named piece of high ground, surrounded by muck swamp, was also heavily damaged by Hugo, with many of the big four- and five-feet diameter loblolly pines being felled or snapped off. Years later Hurricane Matthew knocked over a good number of large hardwoods. Now the island looks more like a logged-over forest than an old-growth one and “Big Thicket” Island might be a better name for it.

One of the biggest challenges facing any park manager is the spread of exotic, non-native plants, and Congaree has not been exempt from this threat. Chinese privet, Ligustrum sinense, is one of the worst invaders of floodplains, and it’s not hard to find bottomland forests that have been completely taken over by this aggressive species. Initially I wasn’t too worried about privet at Congaree, but after Hurricane Hugo opened up the canopy, perhaps coupled with extensive areas of soil disturbance created by pig rootings, I have noticed more and more privet seedlings rearing their ugly heads throughout the park. Some other worrisome plants that have showed up at Congaree include chinaberry (Melia azedarach), Japanese climbing fern (Lygodium japonicum), Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), non-native bamboo, and Japanese stilt grass (Microstegium vimineum). The latter has been a particularly bothersome ground cover that in only a few short years has made its aggressive presence known throughout the park. It is perhaps significant that I encountered none of these species, except for small patches of Japanese honeysuckle growing along the floodplain edges, fifty years ago.

Japanese stilt grass – one of the worst exotic plant newcomers to the park.

Changes in the park’s fauna have kept pace with changes in its flora. In the 1970s it was almost unheard of to see a wild pig in the park and there were no beavers, coyotes, or armadillos. The proliferation of feral swine began in the mid-1980s when some of the surrounding hunt clubs began stocking their lands with semi-domestic pigs. Within a few years the pigs, one of the most fecund animals in the Western Hemisphere, were everywhere in the park. I wonder sometimes if the fact that I see so few snakes at Congaree than I remember from years ago is due to a lot of hungry swine.  Perhaps one good thing about the newly-arrived coyote population will be as predators of young pigs.

Beavers don’t fit the exotic introduction pattern since they were native to Congaree, and much of the Southeast, 150 years ago before they were all trapped out. I first began noticing beaver sign in the park in the early 1990s. Although the big rodents damage and sometimes kill sweetgums and other swamp hardwoods, their benefits far outweigh any negatives since the dams and ponds they create hold water during dry periods and benefit a host of fishes, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and other wildlife.

Beavers re-colonized the Congaree after a 150-year absence.

What of the future?  What is in store for the park if the current warming trend continues? One immediate example that comes to mind, and presumably related to global warming, is the spread of the golden-silk orb spider (Nephila clavipes). In the 1970s this magnificent arachnid was only found in South Carolina on the barrier islands and in a narrow strip of coastal forest. It has been spreading inland ever since, and I first saw evidence of it at Congaree in the mid-1990s. Like many newcomers, plant and animal, it is now one of the most common spiders found in the park.

Golden-silk spiders, one of the park’s most common spiders, only arrived here in the mid-1990s.

Climate change, by affecting rainfall patterns, could alter the park’s flooding cycle and hydrology. Rising temperatures can affect tree growth and even eliminate certain species. National Park Service scientists, working in collaboration with other institutions, have predicted that, based on rising temperatures, many higher-elevation coniferous forests of western parks will eventually be replaced by deciduous forests, with profound consequences for animal species that depend on them.

I believe the largest threat to the park, like for so many of the world’s ecosystems and natural areas, is the invasion of exotics, whether plant or animal. My biggest fear for Congaree is that some sort of introduced blight or exotic insect pest will wipe out an entire tree species. It happened less than a hundred years ago with a blight that wiped out the most abundant and magnificent tree of the Appalachian forest, the American chestnut. More recently, an exotic insect pest is on its way to eliminating the eastern hemlock. Introduced ambrosia beetles are currently decimating redbays along the Southeastern coast, and Dutch elm disease has destroyed millions of beautiful elm shade trees of the Northeast and Midwest (so far the elms of Congaree appear healthy and secure).

As I write this in late 2020, I learn that the dreaded emerald ash borer has been found in the neighboring states of Georgia and North Carolina. This small exotic beetle, a native of Asia, somehow found its way to North America, where it was first discovered in Michigan in 2002. Since then it has killed more than seven million ash trees in that state alone. It is depressing to think that in a few years we may be looking at a Congaree skeleton forest of dead ash trees, a species that currently represents about fifteen percent of the bottomland hardwood forest. I tremble when I think of other exotic pathogens wiping out entire stands of giant Congaree sweetgums, or some bug or blight killing what remains of the park’s virgin bald cypress, some perhaps more than a thousand years old.

Change, even in nature’s most pristine and remote places, is inevitable and unavoidable. But the unprecedented scope of foreign, accidental introductions as a result of our increasingly interconnected world, coupled with rapid climate change, threaten to overwhelm native forests and ecosystems on an unprecedented scale. We must move beyond the academic stage to confront this crisis and recognize that it will take widespread public support and funding to combat it.

A Flow-Through System

December 26, 2015.  In a repeat performance from last year, the swamp is experiencing Christmas flooding. Today the Congaree River gauge at the park is reading nearly eighteen feet and has been sixteen feet or higher since December 23rd. With more water on the way down the Broad and Saluda Rivers, the park could stay flooded for the rest of the month and into the New Year. The Cedar Creek gauge is nearly 10.75 feet, about three feet above its banks. With this much water, the entire floodplain is inundated, an impressive event known as sheet flow. With sheet flow the floodplain becomes part of the river, so that in effect the Congaree River is three- and-a-half miles wide rather than the usual 400 feet when the river is confined between its banks.

Sheet flow in the floodplain from a big Congaree flood event. This is at the South Cedar Creek canoe launch.

A heavy flood of this magnitude is a reminder that the floodplain belongs to the river and the river belongs to the floodplain – the two are inseparable. It also emphasizes that, unlike most parks, the Congaree is an “open system,” a flow-through system whereby events taking place in its upper watershed a hundred and fifty miles away can have consequences much farther downstream.

Watersheds are shaped liked funnels or like trees with large, branching canopies; for the 8,000 square mile Congaree watershed, the park is located at the bottom of the funnel or the base of the tree. Much of the rainfall and runoff that falls within that watershed eventually find its way into the Congaree River, and some will end up in the park’s waterways and filter into its soil and sediments. This runoff can sometimes carry a variety of pollutants, excess nutrients, and large sediment loads, all of which can have negative consequences for the park’s environment.  The other side of that coin, however, is that the park needs floodwaters to properly function. As with just about everything else, finding that elusive balance or middle ground is the key.

Big floods, like this one from January, 2014, can put parts of the boardwalk under water. 

From strictly a layman’s viewpoint, I would say that excess sedimentation is one of the biggest threats to Congaree’s hydrologic integrity. Many of the park’s sloughs, pond, guts, and lakes show obvious signs of filling, a natural process but one that has been greatly accelerated over the past two hundred years. In fact, geology researchers have found an increase of up to 2000% in sedimentation rates at the park since early European contact, resulting in tree root collars being covered with more than six feet of excess sediment in some areas of the park!

Two hundred years of excess soil deposition on the Congaree River is revealed as a four-foot layer of red clay on top.

Heavy deposition like this can eventually kill trees and choke out aquatic life; convert hydric plant communities to drier ones; reduce the full complement of biota in lakes and ponds; and create excessively high water temperatures.

The good news is that I suspect that the current sedimentation rate in the park has slowed considerably compared to the nineteenth century when much of the Congaree watershed was cleared for cotton cultivation. Those same cotton lands have been reverting to forest for the past century, resulting in reduced soil erosion and run-off. This may not appear to be the case during a big flood on the Congaree when the river runs a rich brown from excessive sediments. Much of this now comes from urban and suburban environments, rather than farmland. Getting a handle on urban run-off will be difficult, especially with population growth increasing in the watershed, but it can be done if we put our minds to it.

The pollution picture may have improved also. It really wasn’t that long ago when the city of Columbia was dumping raw sewage, without any treatment, directly into the Congaree River. Even though recent newspaper reports raised concerns about pollution in the Congaree River and within park waters, I can’t help but believe that the Congaree is a good bit cleaner than it was forty years ago. And for me it reiterates the fact that so many of the ills that affect the Congaree National Park, as well as the larger environment itself, are human-related. This means we can also intervene to mitigate for many of these problems as long as we have the fortitude and wherewithal to so do.

A Winter Paddle on Cedar Creek

December 18, 2015.  Frank and I make a long paddle down Cedar Creek today, putting in at the South Cedar Creek Landing. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to see a significant portion of the creek since the heavy flooding started two-and-a-half months ago. I’m expecting to find a lot of damage in the form of downed trees, logs, limbs, and flood debris obstructing the channel.

Cedar Creek in winter.

We paddle downstream for nearly five miles, and I’m surprised, except for a couple of spots where obstructions have backed up large rafts of flood debris, how little damage there is. It probably helps that Cedar Creek is running a little high, 4.4 feet, and that the real extent of damage may become more obvious later this spring and summer when water levels will be two or three feet lower than they are now. I suspect, too, that there will be a delayed effect from super-saturated soils and undermined root systems on creek bank trees that will result in more of them falling within the next few months.

The weather has started to change – it has become partly overcast, and the wind has picked up, thanks to a cool front moving into the area. We have yet to have a freeze this fall, and I still have blooming flowers in my yard in Columbia.

We finally head back upstream for the long two-hour paddle back. So far we’ve had the creek all to ourselves this Friday, although we do see a lone fisherman at Dawson’s Lake.

On the way back we see a small flock of wood ducks and later three female hooded mergansers clumped together swimming a hundred feet in front of our kayaks. The drab females, looking like dead leaves, keep a low profile and just about disappear on the water when you turn away a moment. But they reappear quickly when they start to erect their rusty-brown crests. “Hairy-heads” must be emotive waterfowl, based on the way they frequently raise and lower their crests, almost like a dog wagging its tail. They remain for me an elusive, almost inscrutable duck because of their silent, unobtrusive, and secretive ways. They are far overshadowed by their famous, abundant, and colorful distant cousins, the wood duck, but a displaying group of male hooded mergansers in a blackwater cypress slough has few equals in nature’s world of beauty. Their status at Congaree is considered to be a permanent resident, yet I may go for months and months and never see one. I would love to know more about them.

A drake hooded merganser showing its crest.

A Dead River Morning

December 16, 2015.  I walk down to Dead River this morning. The spring-like weather continues, with a high this afternoon reaching 72º. The switch cane in the former logging road leading to the river has gradually thinned out over the years, probably due to shading from an encroaching canopy, but I am puzzled why the old road bed, now forty years old, has remained, except for cane, free of brush and tree growth.  I surmise that heavy traffic from 18-wheel logging trucks in the mid-1970s compacted the soil so much that root growth is still prohibitive.

Hard to believe that this little woodland path once carried 18-wheel logging truck 45 years ago.

I find that I am not the only one using this trail. Parts of it are still muddy from all the flooding, and the evidence left behind in the form of numerous tracks show it to be a regular coyote/pig highway.

A coyote track in the old road bed; animals, like people, always take advantage of a road or path.

Spiders, at least a few, are, believe it or not for this time of year, still active (barely). I nearly run into one web in the middle of the old log road occupied by a lethargic spiny-backed orbweaver (Gasteracantha cancriformis), and another holding a triangulate orbweaver (Verrucosa arenata). Later in the day I find a single female golden silk spider in the old levee forest around Dead River.

I approach Dead River from the south by first walking along the north side of Running Gut. The lower reaches of the gut before it empties into Dead River are steep-sided and as wide as Cedar Creek. The north bank has several large thickets and even a briar patch half the size of my backyard, forcing me to make several walk-around detours.

I stop for a few minutes at the Big Lake Cattle Mound. It should really be called the Running Gut Cattle Mound since it’s much closer to the latter than the former. It’s not a big mound, only about twenty-five feet wide, fifty feet long, and about three-and-a-half feet above the floodplain, except along the edges where it tapers to ground level. Although I’m sure it has eroded over the years, it still is not large enough to hold many cattle during a flood. I wonder if its small size means that it was constructed after the Civil War by a reduced work force rather than by slave labor that it took, for example, to build the much larger Cooner’s Mound.

Big Lake Cattle Mound should really be called Running Gut Cattle Mound.

The mound is relatively open but does have two, three-and-a-half foot diameter cherrybark oaks growing on its western end; one small American holly; and three small ironwood trees. And like other mounds in the swamp, no beech trees that you’d think should be here.

When I arrive at Dead River, and I never know what I’ll find here, I’m greeted by only a small flock of wood ducks that take off, squealing at my approach. Otherwise there are a few cooters lined up on logs, soaking up sun, and one hunting kingfisher. Later, a pied-billed grebe swims down the muddy former river channel. The red fruits of green haws lined up along the far shoreline provide a picturesque and colorful setting to an otherwise bare and somber forest.

Dead River in December.

Timber Doodles and Ticks

December 12, 2015.  Even at 9 AM, the weather is almost balmy, and the high is forecast to be 78º. By noon I have peeled off two layers of clothes and am down to a T-shirt. This is some kind of weather! I cover some of the same ground I did two days ago. Birdlife is even less than it was then; I see not a single kinglet, but I do find a neat bird, an American woodcock that I flush from a sweetgum ridge. Rather than taking off with its usual, near-vertical helicopter flight that scares the daylights out of you, my woodcock only makes a  short, low flight of forty feet and lands back on the leaf-covered ground. I look for any tell-tell sign of small holes in the soft earth where it may have been probing for earthworms with its long beak but find nothing.  I also try and sneak up on the hiding “timber doodle,” but it flushes again, this time for good, before I can get a good look.  Woodcocks appear to be greatly reduced in numbers compared to forty or fifty years ago when I used to flush a fair number during winter walks in the woods. Now I can generally count on one hand the number I see in a year.

American woodcock. Credit: PennLive Patriot News.

A handsome cloudless sulphur butterfly, Phoebis sennae, flies by in the early, sunny afternoon, a late migrant perhaps making its way to southern Florida to overwinter. With the kind of weather we’ve been having I’m sure the sulphur could spend the winter here at Congaree.

After arriving back home, I notice for the first time a small, dark tick embedded in the skin on the underside of my forearm. It’s a black-legged tick, Ixodes scapularis, also known as the deer tick, the notorious carrier of Lyme disease. It’s the first tick I’ve had on me from the swamp in quite some time.

Swamps and floodplains are not typical tick habitats. In fact, I never saw a tick in Congaree until sometime in the early to mid-1990s. And the same goes for chiggers, too. Several things came together that may have introduced both. Hurricane Hugo punched numerous holes in the canopy that allowed sunlight to invigorate lush stands of sedges, switch cane, and other undergrowth favored by ticks; a reduction in the amount of flooding (during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the swamp went through a several-year period of almost no floods) allowed tick and chigger populations to flourish; and a proliferation of hundreds of feral swine provided ticks ample blood meals and the means of rapid population increases.

Deer tick. Credit: Cornell Univ. Cooperative Extension.

Deer ticks must be increasing in the South. I don’t ever remember seeing one in my youth when I spent a lot of time in fields, woods, and other tick habitats. Then, the American dog tick, Dermacentor variabilis, was the only one to worry about.

The swamp went through a period a few years ago when deer ticks were very prevalent; after a day’s tromp you might pull several off your body. More recently, they have become scarce or nonexistent. Interestingly, the only time I get ticks at Congaree is in winter, even on cold days, and I started referring to them as “winter ticks.”

A Balmy Fall

December 10, 2015. We have enjoyed more than two weeks of ideal, clear weather – lows at night in the mid-to-lower forties, daytime highs in the upper 60s. A warming trend is developing throughout the country, caused by the jet stream blocking cold, arctic air from flowing southward.  Here it is two weeks before Christmas and we have not even had our first freeze! Expected highs this weekend are to be in the mid-to-upper seventies. I’ll take it.

This is the first time I’ve been able to walk the trails in more than ten days, due to persistent, near-continuous flooding. Flood waters have receded only since yesterday, leaving the trails as slick and muddy as they were on November 29th.

I see my first Congaree dark-eyed juncos of the fall flush from the sides of the low boardwalk. I wonder what these ground-feeding birds do when the swamp stays flooded for days at a time?

Many cherrybark oak leaves remain on the tree until after Christmas.

From the eastern leg of Weston Lake Loop, I do some off-trail exploring. The woods are finally looking like winter, as nearly all of the hardwoods have shed their leaves, except for the swamp chestnut oaks, overcup oaks, and cherrybark oaks that will hold on to some of theirs until after Christmas. As I walk by one of the many large sweetgums in this area, I feel faint specks of debris falling on me; some are lit up by the sunlight, and I see they are tiny fragments of sweetgum seeds. I immediately look up, and 125 feet away, in the very top of the canopy, are a dozen or so female red-winged blackbirds methodically picking over sweetgum balls to get at the seeds. This particular tree is full of the prickly balls, easily seen clinging to bare branches against a clear blue sky. Each ball has numerous seeds, enough to keep the hungry red-wings busy for some time. When I depart fifteen minutes later, they are still there.

Only two weeks before Christmas and these swamp chestnut oak leaves are still green.

I cross the Cedar Creek Bridge, walk a short distance down the Oak Ridge Trail, then head east for more off-trail reconnoitering. The ridges and high ground in this area are bare earth in places, as clean-swept as if a leaf blower had just been through. In other places piles of debris and wrack from the recent floods are heaped up in mounds.

Birds have been scarce for much of the morning, due, I suspect, to the unseasonably mild weather that requires fewer calories of them and less hunting for food.

The record flooding of fall, 2015, has cleared the swamp floor down to bare earth in many places.

On my return, I stop and examine a recently-cut sugarberry that had fallen across the trail. The tree is sixteen inches in diameter at four-and-a-half feet above ground, and the cut was made three feet higher. The growth rings are clearly visible, and I count a century’s worth. For the first fifty years of life, starting about 1915, the sugarberry put on twelve inches of radial growth; for the last fifty, only four inches of growth. This is often the case with forest trees. They put on big spurts of growth in their early years due to favorable conditions that got them started in the first place, primarily abundant sunlight from a newly-opened hole in the canopy. Eventually the open canopy closes and growth rates slow considerably.

The state champion sugarberry in 2004; unfortunately it is now dead.

Although trying to age a tree by size alone is not very reliable, I do wonder about the ages of Congaree’s forest giants, many times the size of this moderately-sized sugarberry. The state record sugarberry, for example, is located in the park and is fifty-two inches in diameter, more than three times the diameter of this cut sugarberry. Does this mean the champ is 300 years old? Probably not, but inquiring minds would love to know.

A Fall Walk

November 29, 2015.  Finally, after more than three weeks of flooding and high water, I’m able to actually put my feet on swamp soil. The muck swamp this fine November morning looks like a high tide that has just receded, which is basically what happened as the water dropped quickly from flood stage last night, leaving behind still-damp layers of leaves and silty mud glistening in the morning sun. The unprecedented fall flooding of 2015, which began with the historic flood of early October, has continued for most of the month of November. Cedar Creek was running at seven feet or higher for fifteen days from November 3rd to November 18th, and eight days from November 20th to November 28th. The river was twelve feet or greater for thirteen days from November 4th to November 17th, and seven days from November 20th to November 27th.

Flood debris at Weston Lake Loop Trail.

October and November are the prime acorn months, and unfortunately for the many animals that rely on them for sustenance, the swamp has been underwater and the acorns covered up for much of that period.

The first critter I see from the low boardwalk is a gray squirrel, nose to the ground, in a search mode for buried food. It soon finds a water tupelo drupe, which it quickly consumes, then continues searching. It finds another drupe under the wet leaf litter and chooses to consume this one from a nearby fallen branch rather than staying on the ground. The squirrel’s muzzle is muddy from digging in the muck. I suspect it’s hungry too, since it has not been possible to look for food on the ground for much of the past few weeks due to high water. Both water tupelo and swamp tupelo fruit crops have been meager this year, and I see very few of either still clinging to the bare limbs. There is another squirrel nearby, but it is feeding higher in the canopy on the large samaras of Carolina ash.

Evidence of a hungry squirrel feeding on a green sweetgum ball.

By now my attention has been drawn upwards into the canopy where I see a red-bellied woodpecker hanging upside down from the slender horizontal branch of a poison ivy vine,  feeding on poison ivy berries. A nearby flicker is dining on them as well, but not being as agile as the red-belly, he is content to remain on a more secure tree limb and reach out for the small, yellowish-white berries. Farther back in the trees, I see other birds partaking of poison ivy berries – a yellow-bellied sapsucker, ruby-crowned kinglet, yellow-rumped warbler, and two small-to medium-sized birds I can’t quite make it since they are backlit against the sky. I move a little and see that they are bluebirds. It surprises most people that bluebirds are occasionally found in the swamp in winter, but they do make periodic incursions from nearby fields and pastures to search for the swamp’s soft mast crop.

As I continue on the low boardwalk, I notice the evergreen switch cane all looks brown and dead from being submerged and coated with silt from a near-record two months of high water. The same thing goes for the normally bright green meadows of sedge, which are all brown and bent over.

But there is still a good bit of color in the swamp, mostly coming from sweetgums, maples, and ironwood. The best color is coming from the beeches, which are just about at peak. Green is dominant in the color scheme as well, coming primarily from the hollies and laurel oaks and a few late swamp chestnut oaks. Most of the leaves of the latter are a burnished orange-brown, but a few have turned a striking, crimson-red color.

Beech trees provide splendid fall color at Congaree.

The trails are muddy and slippery in places. Sometimes I feel like I’m almost walking on ice. I’m not the only one slipping as I see lots of hog prints in the trail, some of which have noticeable slide marks. Parts of the trail look like an animal super highway, and besides pig tracks, I see those of turkey, deer, coyote, squirrel, raccoon, and opossum.

Coyote and turkey tracks.

The trails are not in good shape. Many sections are littered with flood-strewn logs, limbs, and piles of leaves and other debris. It will take some doing to get them back to normal.

I get as far as the big blow-down on the eastern leg of the Oak Ridge Trail before turning back. I take note of the lone surviving pine sapling by the trail that has outlived (barely) its two now- dead compatriots. The surviving five-foot pine is scraggly and mostly brown with only a bit of green color showing on top. I don’t think it will make it, thanks to the record floodwaters of 2015 that have put its roots under water for days at a time.

Low boardwalk damage from heavy fall flooding of 2015.

The Dark Side of the Swamp

November 25, 2015.  The swamp, including the low boardwalk, has been partially flooded these past few days. The Big Flood of 2015 has continued now, with minor ebbing here and there, for almost eight weeks. The most recent flooding finally subsided on November 17, with the Congaree dropping below fourteen feet at the park. It eventually fell to nine feet on November 19, but then shot up a whopping seven feet in less than twenty-four hours and is now running at sixteen feet. What causes these dramatic, almost tidal-like, water fluctuations? The answer lies upstream at the Lake Murray Dam on the Saluda River, as well as smaller, upstream dams on the Broad River. On November 22 and 23, the South Carolina Electric and Gas Company released a wall of water eleven feet high from the Lake Murray Dam. Fluctuations are not as dramatic as on the Broad, but since it’s a bigger river, a pulse of four feet may be equivalent to eight feet or more on the Saluda.

I arrive at twilight (about the time of moon rise) for a full-moon stroll on the open portion of the high boardwalk. However, it will take an hour or two before the white orb starts showing through the bare trees. I hear a few barred owls calling briefly, far away, when I first arrive, but an hour later the swamp is eerily quiet.

A few years ago then-superintendent Tracy Swartout made what I think is one of the best decisions the park has made in its nearly forty-year history when she decided to open it twenty-four hours a day. This has allowed us to view and experience an entirely different side of the swamp, the night world, a little-known and still mysterious realm. We humans are not endowed with adaptations for the dark, and for much of our long history the night has been something to fear and avoid (and still is for most people). Much of this has to do, I suspect, with our poor night vision. We feel more vulnerable after the sun goes down and are nearly blind to possible threats around us. Night sounds are different from day sounds. Some of them may trigger ancient, long-suppressed memories embedded within the far recesses of our mind that date back to the African savannah, when predators stalked us in the dark.

Darkness for humans is a time to hunker down in a secure location and restore our bodies through sleep. But much of the natural world comes alive at night and there may be more activity then than during the day. One of the last frontiers is piecing together the many puzzles and secrets of the nocturnal world of life.

Urbanized man has so flooded the nightly sky with light and sequestered himself from nature after hours that many people have never had a decent view of the heavens on a clear night, much less experienced even part of a nighttime outdoors. Everything about the dark world of Congaree is interesting and new. Simply sitting on a boardwalk bench and listening to the sounds of the night and watching the sky open with a glittering brightness is an exciting experience.

The most iconic of night sounds at Congaree belongs of course to the barred owl. At certain times of the year the park has organized nighttime “owl prowl” walks to introduce the public to the amazing repertoire of this most characteristic of the swamp’s nocturnal denizens. But there are many other voices out there too (especially during the warmer months) which include chirping crickets, croaking frogs, and the loud pulsing of katydids. Mammals sometimes make their presence known: snorting deer, yipping coyotes, caterwauling raccoons (almost guaranteed to raise a few neck hairs), and the bird-like chirping of foraging armadillos. Sometimes there are sounds of unknown origin – a disconcerting rustling of leaves; the snap of a twig (what’s that?!); or a sound coming from a critter that you’re not sure has fur or feathers.  But often there are no sounds at all – just long periods of absolute black silence. Sometimes this can be the most disquieting time of all, a reminder of our nocturnal vulnerabilities and that we are merely visitors who have overstayed our welcome.

The moon has finally started clearing the trees as I turn to leave, bathing the boardwalk and surrounding forest in a silvery brightness. I hear the distant whistle of the 9:30 Kingville train. The coyotes hear it too and briefly let loose with high-pitched yips and howls coming from the direction of the primitive group campground.

Essay: Congaree’s Cypress Story

That wonderful 1963 National Park study that declared Congaree Swamp worthy of protection within the national park system used the term “near-virgin” to describe the floodplain’s old-growth forest. This was because much of the park’s virgin cypress had been logged in the early 1900s. The evidence was plainly seen in the form of cut cypress stumps lining the park’s creeks and waterways.

Old cypress stumps from the early 1900s are found throughout the park’s waterways.

The cypress story began a long way from Congaree. In the 1880s, Chicago was the center of a growing nation’s logging industry. By then the vast white pine forests of the Upper Midwest had been reduced to a cutover shambles and the lumber industry was looking for new sources of wood. The Deep South was a logical location because it still had millions of acres of valuable, uncut longleaf pine and bald cypress, and land prices were depressed.

Francis Beidler I and a partner created the Santee River Cypress Lumber Company.

One of the many timber concerns that came South from Chicago belonged to entrepreneur Francis Beidler I (1854-1924). I am not sure why Mr. Beidler was interested in bald cypress, or what attracted him specifically to South Carolina and the Santee River system in particular. Possibly local or national timber agents, whose job it was to find sources of lumber to feed the mills, had provided favorable reports of large stands of virgin bald cypress in South Carolina. We do know that by 1888 Mr. Beidler and his partner, B.F. Ferguson, had incorporated as the Santee River Cypress Lumber Company (SRCLC) and had secured the necessary capital to begin acquiring extensive holdings along the Santee River and its two main tributaries, the Wateree and Congaree. Over roughly a thirty-year period SRCLC acquired more than 150,000 acres of cypress swampland that stretched for more than seventy-five miles along the Congaree, Wateree, and Santee Rivers.

To process cut cypress logs and convert them to usable lumber, SRCLC constructed a large mill around 1888 on the Santee River in southeastern Orangeburg County near Eutaw Springs. The mill consisted of the usual facilities associated with lumber work, including bunk houses, a commissary, and even a hospital. At its peak, the mill employed 400 people, larger than many communities in South Carolina at the time, and became known as Ferguson. The 1921 Army Corps of Engineers topographic map for Eutawville shows the Ferguson mill with the old Atlantic Coast Railroad Line leading to it and a large holding pond next to the river where the logs were kept in storage until they could be processed.

A 1921 topographic map showing the Ferguson lumber mill (red), now under the waters of Lake Marion.

Beidler first started cutting cypress along the Santee River in the vicinity of his mill, but later, as he acquired more holdings, moved farther and farther upstream into the Congaree and Wateree floodplains. SRCLC first began cutting Congaree cypress in 1899, with the last year being around 1915, when the mill shut down. It is testimony to the durability of cypress that the cut stumps, now more than a century old, still stand in the park.

The big cypress trees, some measuring twenty-five to thirty feet in circumference, were cut above the buttress with crosscut saws by two men, each standing on a sturdy, oak “spring” board. Once felled, the tree was cut into sixteen-foot logs, the standard lumber length at the time.

Neal Polhemus examines the spring board notch in this century-old cypress stump with a red maple growing out of it.

This work was done primarily in the summer and fall when water levels in the swamp were low. After the winter rains came and the swamp started flooding, the logs would be poled out to the river where they were lashed together with chains and floated downstream to the mill. Unfortunately, the loggers found out the hard way that freshly cut, “green” logs don’t float, but sink (and to this day the bottoms of many guts, creeks, and sloughs in the Congaree have numerous old cypress logs, sixteen feet in length, which never made it to the mill). To remedy this problem, teams of ax men were employed to girdle the cypress, effectively killing it, by chopping a ring completely around the tree, and letting it “cure” on the stump for about a year, after which the logs would be light enough to float. Amazingly, I have run across bald cypress “snags” that have been dead for a century or more and still standing with their girdle rings clearly visible, that for whatever reason the loggers didn’t cut down.

Dave Schuetrum by a virgin Congaree cypress with girdled ax marks showing.

Because there were so many virgin cypress available, Congaree loggers could afford to be choosy, and selected only those trees with the straightest trunks free of knots and excess limbs. Plus, in the pre-chainsaw era it wasn’t profitable to waste the labor and time of several men to cut blemished, hollow, or otherwise defective trees. This resulted in enough uncut bald cypress being left behind, including the current state champion, to provide a tantalizing glimpse of what the original virgin cypress stands in the Congaree must have looked like before the ax got to them. Many of these ancient relics are crooked, hollow, have deformed trunks and other deficiencies, but some appear perfectly sound with straight, soaring trunks. Finding one of these swamp patriarchs always fills me with a sense of awe and wonder.

Congaree’s state champion bald cypress in the park’s east end measures nearly 28 feet in circumference and 132 feet tall. Photo by Joe Kegley.

Bald cypress is renowned for its longevity and easily the oldest tree in the Eastern U.S. According to the SRCLC mill manager at Ferguson, the average ages of Santee cypress that came through the mill, including those from the Wateree and Congaree, were 500-700 years, but one log had 1,600 growth rings. Similar ages have recently been verified by scientists who found a 1,500-year-old cypress at Audubon’s Beidler Forest in Berkeley County, and a 1,700-year-old cypress in eastern North Carolina (and in 2019 a 2,600 year old cypress was discovered in eastern North Carolina!).

The “wood eternal” had high economic value primarily due to its legendary rot resistance. It was also a “soft wood,” easy to work and shape. Among its many applications, where the ability to withstand exposure to the elements was paramount, was as railroad ties, cooperage, pilings, posts, docks, steps, porches, doors, shutters, flooring, siding, and trim. One specialized application was roofing shingles or “shakes.” The Ferguson mill had special facilities devoted to doing nothing but turning out wooden shingles. Stories of cypress shakes lasting for a hundred years are not uncommon. In  2007, a story surfaced of a homeowner in New Jersey replacing the wooden shingles on the sides of his bungalow cottage, shingles that had “Santee River Cypress Lumber Company, Ferguson, South Carolina” stenciled on the bottoms. These shingles at the time of replacement were about a century old.

Former park superintendent Tracy Swartout holds a century-old cypress shingle that came from the Ferguson mill.

Cypress logging did not prove all that profitable for SRCLC. The market was glutted at times with an oversupply from throughout the South, forcing the mill to shut down, for sometimes months at a time. The Ferguson mill eventually closed after twenty-seven years of operation. But unlike most lumbermen of the day, who got rid of their land holdings as soon as the timber was cut, Francis Beidler recognized that tree regrowth was rapid on his swamp properties, and that he had enough acreage to cut trees in perpetuity.  This all changed in the 1930s when the state of South Carolina announced the mammoth Santee-Cooper Project that would, among other things, flood 60,000 acres of SRCLC land, nearly half of its holdings, for the construction of Lake Marion on the Santee River.

There are still enough virgin cypress left in the Congaree, notably the park’s “East End,” to inspire a sense of awe and wonder for visitors willing to undertake a long trek, without trails, into my favorite part of the park. Indeed, parts of this area must appear as it did before cypress logging began in Congaree since nary an old stump is to be seen. Most of these trees were standing long before the first white man came to Richland County and will be here long after we are gone and forgotten. It is a humbling experience to be able to place your hand on one of these ancient links with the past.

Graham Norman sits atop a 16-foot cypress sinker log that never made it to the lumber mill.

The story of Congaree’s remaining virgin cypress has been mostly overlooked in the park’s narrative. Fortunately, my friend Graham Norman realized this and has recently undertaken a survey of these remarkable trees, documenting their number, size, location, and condition.

Scenic Bluffs

November 13, 2015.  The fall of 2015 will surely go down as one of the biggest flood seasons for the park in the past fifty years. The swamp, in fact, is still underwater from a big flood nine days ago. So I have no recourse except to walk the Cedar Creek Bluffs. Not that I mind since this area is one of my favorite parts of the park. I start from Dawson’s Lake and proceed eastward. The closest thing to a trail here is old sections of firebreaks and jeep trails. Walking is fairly easy, with few obstructions and a relatively open ground floor. Starting from South Cedar Creek Landing and a little beyond, these hardwood bluffs rise to an impressive twenty-to-thirty feet above the creek. They take a small dip east of Dawson’s Lake, then rise to their fullest extent at Garrick Hill and White Oak Bluff. The bluffs delineate the original park boundary of 1976 and feature an impressive hardwood forest of mature beech, white oak, red oak, hickory, ash, and other species. My idea of a perfect home away from home would be a rustic cabin perched on the edge of one of these bluffs, with twenty thousand acres of floodplain as my front yard. Or better yet, a permanent home atop the bluffs.

Steep hardwood bluffs along a flooded Cedar Creek.

The appearance of the bluffs now is quite different from how they looked for most of the past few hundred years. Until recent history, much of the land surrounding these bluffs had been cleared for agriculture and homesteads. Topographic maps from the mid-twentieth century show human habitation and farmland scattered across the park’s northern boundary, a rural, agricultural landscape that even included two schools! And in the early twentieth century there were at least three lumber camps operated by the Santee River Cypress Lumber Company on these bluffs. And of course Kingville at that time was a thriving little railroad depot community. Now this area has been de-populated and reverted to a “state of nature” to the extent that hardly a single soul lives between South Cedar Creek Landing east to US Highway 601. This development, so widespread throughout the South and other parts of the country, has been very good for creating a significant buffer and maintaining the park’s core conservation values.

This mystery mushroom reminds me of the lion’s mane fungus but has a soft texture.


A mystery mushroom.

I continue walking almost as far as the old landing near Kitt’s Grave.  I find, except for a few pig rootings, little evidence of animal refugees from the flooded forest across the way. I search the base of a large willow oak and find almost no evidence of acorns; the same holds for white oaks too. I finally spook a couple of white-tails that snort at me from a safe distance. I also find a couple of interesting mushrooms but their identity escapes me. The white one growing out of a rotten tree trunk reminds me somewhat of the lion’s mane fungus but has a soft, almost fuzzy texture. The day has warmed up, and as I head back, I swat a few mosquitoes buzzing me. It is not a good sign.