May 23, 2015. It’s almost chilly this morning, 55º, when I leave the house at 6:00 AM. Surprisingly, there are no cars when I arrive at the South Cedar Creek parking, even though it’s the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. It is great walking weather, and I head for one of my favorite spots in the park, Old Dead River, three-and-a-half miles away. I don’t see much on the way except for two pigs I flush near the trail.
I arrive at the oxbow lake at mid-morning. In the middle-1700s, this placid, still “lake” (in name only; it’s more of a pond) was a large meander of the Congaree River, and the expanse of land within this meander was known as Kennerly’s Neck. Later it became known as Pinckney’s Neck after Charles Cotesworth Pinckney acquired a plantation here that stretched across both sides of the Congaree River. Sometime during the nineteenth century the Congaree River at flood stage took a short cut across the base of the neck and formed a new channel. The neck was now surrounded by water on all sides and became known as Butler Island after the Butler family acquired the land from the Pinckney estate. And later in the twentieth century it became known as Tabor Island after another change of ownership. Now, there is no island since much of the lake and former river channel have filled in with sediment and growing trees where there used to be open water.
Many of these old oxbow lakes have local, sometimes colorful, names that have been handed down through the years. Upstream from the park at Richland County’s Mill Creek mitigation site, for example, we have Goose Pond, King Lake, Green Lake, Hodges Lake and others. But for some reason Congaree’s Dead River or Old Dead River never acquired a name, at least one that stuck.
But back to the present. I see the usual cooters sunning on logs and a great egret hunting for food at the lake’s upper end. A hen wood duck is swimming along the shoreline closest to me and has a single duckling less than a week old with her. I keep waiting and looking for more youngsters to join her, but this is it. Out of a dozen or so eggs and probably as many ducklings she started out with, she is now down to one survivor. It’s a rather sad and poignant sight. The little duckling sticks close to mom, who by now has spotted me, and they turn south, swimming towards the wide lower end of the lake. There are more wood duck broods there; one hen has five half-grown ducklings with her, another, three. Dead River at this time seems to be functioning as a wood duck nursery of sorts. Also at this end of the lake are another great egret, four great blue herons, three double-crested cormorants, and one anhinga perched in a tree.
This lake always seems more productive for wildlife than Weston Lake. It may have something to do with isolation (few souls ever come here), closeness to the river, and perhaps a higher nutrient content and shallowness, both of which would promote greater microscopic plant and animal growth, which in turn would attract more wildlife. One thing that’s always puzzled me about Congaree’s lakes is that they have little aquatic vegetation. You’d think they would be full of lily pads, cattail, cutgrass, thick clumps of submergent vegetation, duckweed, and more, but they remain remarkably open and free of most aquatic plants.
The weather is warming quickly to the satisfaction of the mosquitoes whose presence is steadily increasing. Fortunately, a cooling wind from the northwest picks up about 10:45; it brings with it the occasional aroma of decay, probably from a dead pig. The wind also starts the trees “talking” with rubbing limbs. One emits a rather high pitched animal-like squeak, while another has a lower baritone that sounds like a deep yell. Tree sounds can sometimes be a little disconcerting when you first hear them while alone and isolated in the middle of a deep forest.
I’ve been sitting on the side of the lake for over an hour, enjoying the sights and sounds, and could easily stay for another hour, but I finally get up enough energy and start moving again. I think it helps being a good naturalist to have a lazy streak, as you will see and hear a lot more while seated and still than you ever will bushwhacking your way through the woods.
Not far from where I was sitting there is an interesting beaver lodge on dry ground, twenty feet away from the edge of the lake. It’s about four feet high, six feet across, and eight feet long. I see no obvious entrance or exit. It may have been built over a large root tunnel of which the collapsed remains are exposed between the lodge and the lake edge. I often see beaver lodges in the swamp built on creek banks and other high ground but still near water and an escape route; lodges built in guts and sloughs are subject to flooding. What do beavers do when a rip-roaring flood comes along and puts their lodge under water for a week or more?
As I approach the lower end of the lake, where Running Gut enters, I see ripples at the lake’s edge, ripples from three otters that come into view. I remain frozen, but they must sense me and quickly disappear. Shortly, I see a small, brown bird at the lake’s edge, teetering its body while jerking its tail up and down. The movements remind me of a spotted sandpiper, but it can only be a Louisiana waterthrush. This unusual warbler is picking up food along the lake edge and probably has a nest tucked away nearby in some root ball or crevice in the bank. The nest is almost impossible to find unless you happen to get lucky and see the bird flying to it.
I gradually make my way back, walking along the north side of Running Gut. I come to the remains of an old washed-out footbridge where a 1970s logging road crossed Running Gut. More than thirty years ago the Park Service created a long-abandoned hiking trail out of the old road, a trail that led all the way to the river. The bridge provided a key access point to the river, as crossing Running Gut without it is difficult at high water levels. I continue walking west along the north side of the gut, heading towards Horseshoe Pond.
In the soft, damp earth on the edge of the gut I see something that gives me pause. It’s a footprint, actually a boot print, about size 11 or 12, fresh within the last few days I’d say, and going the other way. I feel a little like Robinson Crusoe when he stumbled across another human footprint on the deserted island beach where he was marooned. It’s a rarity to see any sign of humans away from the park’s trail system. In the past forty plus years I can only recall seeing two people in the remote park back country (about 85% of the park). One of these was an ivory-bill searcher, part of a team that spent long hours in remote corners of the park from 2006 to 2008. The other was a guy walking an old, grown-up logging road.
It’s time to head back to civilization. I walk northeast along the edge of Horseshoe Pond, then pick up the old logging road, now grown up, that borders the east side of Fishhook Slough and eventually rejoins the old river trail. By now the skeets have become aggravating, but I resist putting on bug juice. I would bump up the mosquito meter from “3” (“moderate”) to “4” (“severe”). When I get back to the parking lot at 5:15, I count six cars and several bank fishermen at Cedar Creek near the bridge.