September 10, 2015. This morning I’m checking out a new park acquisition (as of August, 2015) on the west side of the causeway at US 601, historically known as Smith Fork Swamp. This 263-acre parcel is like a peninsula that juts out into the Congaree River which borders it on the south and west, while the outlet from Bates Old River borders it to the north. Many vehicles and logging trucks pass by this property every day while driving on 601.
It has an interesting legal history. A previous owner of the tract put a conservation easement on the property in 2005. Conservation easements are permanent, regardless of who owns the land, and are recorded with the deed. Therefore, when the park acquired the property this past July, it came with strings attached, in this case a conservation easement held by the Congaree Land Trust. But this should not be an issue since the land trust, a private 501(c) 3 membership organization, and the National Park Service both have land conservation and protection as their primary goal.
The property has no old growth although there are patches of maturing second-growth forest. Nearly half of it was clearcut back in the early 1990s; the rest of it probably high-graded earlier in the century. I therefore don’t really expect to find much in the way of championship material for record trees.
The property adjoins Bates Landing below the 601 bridge at the Congaree River. As typical with any public boat landing in South Carolina, a noticeable amount of trash makes its way from the landing into the edge of the forested property.
I walk at first along a well-worn path made by bank fisherman that runs along the riverbank for about 400 feet before petering out. There is a distinct levee forest here, made all the more pronounced by low sloughs just to the north and east of the natural levee. The sloughs are old river channels hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. They are quite dry, and I follow them west and north after leaving the fisherman’s path. The walking is easy here, there being no ground cover and few obstacles. Pigs have churned up the damp, brown, clay soil in places.
The forest community in these sloughs is composed primarily of slender second-growth cypress with pronounced buttresses, along with water tupelo and swamp cottonwood, most of which I assume have grown up since the virgin cypress was taken out a hundred years ago or more. I hope to stumble across a few large cypress that were left behind because they were hollow or had other defects that made them unmerchantable, but I only find two of any size that probably pre-dated the last century.
The cypress knees in these old channels are tall and thick-based, measuring more than six feet in circumference at the base and six to seven feet high; one knee is nearly ten feet high, the tallest I’ve ever seen in the Congaree. Tall knees and heavily buttressed trunks are indicative of deep, fluctuating water levels.
I do find an enormous cypress stump, broken off at ground level, that is thirty-four feet in circumference. The interesting thing about this stump is the fact that the inside of it is well below current ground level by three-to-four feet. This suggests to me that extensive sedimentation from Piedmont erosion of the 19th and 20th centuries deposited at least three-to-four feet of sediment in this old channel outside of the stump, although the actual amount might be more since the sediment has been building up inside the hollow stump as well. Therefore our ancient stump’s circumference might in reality be closer to its true circumference at breast height since the original base may be buried under four feet of sediment or more.
I continue to follow the sloughs which have now turned to the north, and soon reach the edge of the clearcut line from the early 1990s. It’s all young forest now, with scattered, grown-up food plots and wildlife openings left over from the property’s active hunt club days. Some of the openings are thick with thoroughwort, a native composite in the genus Eupatorium, a tall slender plant topped with corymbs of small, fine, white flowers. This genus includes such famous medicinal plants as snakeroot, false hoarhound, and boneset, the latter used as a stimulant, laxative, and for the treatment of aches and fevers, dyspepsia (indigestion), catarrh, and various other bodily ailments and pains. The faintly fragrant flowers are attractive to a wide variety of insects including bees, wasps, and beetles.
At mid-morning I take a sit-down break on a large log at the intersection of two old logging roads. Shortly I see movement from the corner of my eye, and when I turn for a better look, a raccoon coming from behind me quickly takes off for a nearby slender sweetgum. We both startle each other. In almost no time the coon scales fifty feet of the trunk and disappears into the leafy canopy; I’m impressed with its effortless and nimble climbing skills.
On the way back, around noon, I stop to investigate some bird activity in the understory of a dry slough. Four to six Northern parulas are flitting about in cypress, box elder, red maple, swamp cottonwood, and overcup oak foliage ten-to-twenty feet off the ground. Mixed in with the parulas are a pair of chickadees and two Acadian flycatchers. The birds are mostly foraging, but some of the parulas are obviously in some sort of territorial dispute since they frequently engage in flights of attack and retreat.
Just before arriving back at the boat landing’s parking lot I spot my first ladies-tresses orchids of the fall, only recently in bloom and nearly hidden on the ground floor among the crossvine, poison ivy, and catbriar.