June 7, 2015. This morning I hoof it to Sampson’s Island, a mile and a half, and then on to Horseshoe Lake on the Wateree, another mile and a half, for a six-mile round trip. Before parking, I drive to the US 601 boat landing, aka Bates Bridge Landing, and count thirty-eight cars in the parking lot at 7:30. It appears the fish are biting.
The deer flies on the trail to Sampson’s are bad and hungry, and much worse than last year. Their erratic flight pattern and neon-electric buzzing are enough to drive you nuts, but the worst part is their painful bite, which continues to itch an hour afterwards. One of my favorite sounds is the crunch of crushed fly wing against soft body parts whenever I manage to catch one of the devils and make it pay for tormenting me.
When I arrive at Sampson’s, I find two species of mulleins in bloom, woolly mullein, Verbascum thapus with large, flannel-like leaves, and moth mullein, V. blattaria, with much smaller, and smoother, leaves. The moth mullein gets its name from its “hairy” stamens, reminiscent of a moth’s antenna. Interestingly, this plant has been shown to contain natural pesticides that deter mosquitoes and roaches, with the latter even providing the plant’s specific name (blatta in Latin meaning roach). By mid-summer some of the mullein stalks will be more than six feet high, and some of the moth mulleins are that tall now. Among the pollinators for both species I see honey bees and a bumble bee. I assume for the former that means a wild nest in a hollow tree somewhere in the swamp. It’s been so long since I’ve seen a wild honeybee nest that I have forgotten what they look like.
A yellow-breasted chat is calling from nearby thickets. It’s interesting to see how the island attracts this species as well as other “un-bottomland-like” birds such as blue grosbeak, Eastern kingbird, Northern mockingbird, chipping sparrow, and even painted bunting.
I see two snakes at Sampson’s – one a slim, three-and-a-half foot black rat, the other a two-foot black racer. They are the only snakes I see today.
The trail to Horseshoe Lake is more open and easier walking than the one to Sampson’s. There are, however, four water crossings, fortunately shallow and narrow, that were formerly crossed with primitive bridging, now all washed out.
I find my old red-maple backrest, the same I used the last time I was here, on the edge of Horseshoe and sit a spell. A very loud bullfrog calling nearby from the back end of the lake lets loose about every five minutes. He dispenses with the preliminary “jug” call and just bellows “rum-rum-rum.” He is joined by a passing fish crow, a red-shouldered hawk, Cope’s gray treefrogs, and the splashing of fish. Occasionally I hear the hum of an outboard motor coming from the Wateree, less than a mile away. The scene before me is full of peace and serenity, helped all the more by a nice breeze blowing off the lake. I sit for nearly an hour and have to force myself to leave.
As I gaze out over the brown-water lake, framed by a summer sky full of billowy white clouds on top and luminescent green forest on the sides, I can’t help but reminisce and think of the year 2015 as being an anniversary of sorts, a fifty-year anniversary of outdoor adventures in the COWASEE Basin. It got started in my high school senior year of 1965: my first trip to Sparkleberry; a solo hike in the Upper Santee Swamp where I was temporarily disoriented for much of the afternoon; drives to the top of Cooks Mountain in a 1947 gray Plymouth; boat trips down the Congaree River; visits to Poinsett State Park and Manchester State Forest; and more. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my life in the outdoors and future career were being shaped by the COWASEE Basin (only back then there was no official COWASEE Basin, just miles and miles of big rivers, expansive river swamps, high hills and bluffs big enough for a seventeen-year old boy to lose himself in). Here it is fifty years later (where did all that time go?) and the seventeen-year-old boy has been replaced by a sixty-seven year-old man who never grew up and still likes to play in the woods and explore this splendid blue-and-green world only thirty minutes from home. The thrill of finding new discoveries in the natural world, no matter how seemingly commonplace or trivial, continues to hold a grip on me and lures me back again and again to my old haunts. I realize how very lucky I am to have grown up with this unique setting on my back doorsteps at a time when kids were expected to be outdoors all day and “going to Santee” was a way of life for many.