September 15, 2015. A pre-fall cool front came through central South Carolina this past weekend, bringing with it northeast winds, lower humidities, and cooler temperatures – in other words, perfect camping weather. I only hike in a relatively short distance before setting up camp near the south side of Cedar Creek, close to the junction with Boggy Gut. My location is determined, as usual this time of year, by the limited amount of available water to filter. And once again, I’m using a hammock to sleep in.
After a lunch of tea and peanut-butter crackers, I spend the rest of the afternoon walking the area between Boggy Gut and Running Gut. Both are dry in places with only pockets of standing water. The old log ford I found a few years ago at the bottom of Running Gut a little south of its intersection with Cedar Creek is high and dry. It’s an intriguing and frustrating glimpse into a not-so-long-ago chapter in the history of the park (my paternal grandfather was seven years old when cypress logging began in earnest in the park) which has all but disappeared, leaving almost nothing behind except fragments like old cypress stumps and this ford.
When I get back to camp after 5:00, it is already starting to darken at ground level. A barred owl flies in and perches for a while in the lower canopy of a water tupelo in Boggy Gut. Soon some of the neighborhood birds – led by chickadees and titmice, who always seem to be first at finding intruders, whether they be owls or rat snakes – discover it. The birds, including by now a summer tanager, a pair of redstarts, and a Northern parula, don’t actually harass the owl but flit around nearby, letting the owl know they know where it is.
In the waning daylight a few small flocks of grackles begin flying low over the canopy, a sure sign of fall to come. One flock pulls up and lights nearby high in the trees and begins their rusty gate hinge-squeaking calls. After a few minutes they depart in a loud swoosh of wings to join their comrades.
I climb in the hammock, lined with a sleeping bag, at 8:00. It’s supposed to get down in the upper 50s tonight and should be good sleeping weather. The only noises I hear are the chirping of crickets, an occasional barred owl, and something off in the distance that might be a coyote. There may be other noises out there as well. Boggy Gut was featured in one of Dr. Edward C.L. Adams’ stories in Tales of the Congaree about Old Man Rogan, a cruel slave master who enjoyed breaking up slave families, especially taking children from their mothers. Old Man Rogan also enjoyed fishing and relaxing at Boggy Gut and died there but his restless spirit, presumably as punishment for his evil ways, still haunts Boggy Gut. At night they say it’s not unusual to hear the rattle of slaves in chains, mothers calling for their children, and above all Old Man Rogan, walking along Boggy Gut, laughing at the misery he has inflicted on others.
September 16, 2015. I sleep intermittently and finally get out of the hammock at 5:45, an hour before first light. I do not remember hearing during the night any cries of distress, the rattle of chains, or the laughter of Old Man Rogan.
The expected sunrise doesn’t materialize – I only see traces of rosy streaks briefly in the east, then nothing as a hundred-percent overcast moves in. The weather has changed on me during the night, and the blue skies and low humidity promised by the weatherman have disappeared.
I enjoy two cups of coffee while sitting against a nice back-rest tree on the edge of Boggy Gut. At 7:15 a turkey starts yelping across the gut, not that far away, followed shortly by the squawking of other turkeys. The yelping continues intermittently from the same general location for more than an hour. I hope for a look, thinking perhaps the turkeys will come down to the edge of the gut for a drink. As I focus on turkeys, I detect movement from the corner of my eye and look down in the gut, thirty feet away, to see four river otters that have just left the water and are crawling about a dry tangle of cypress knees, logs, and flood debris. The otters are as startled as I am and quickly rush back in the water – the gut here is so shallow that it doesn’t seem possible for all four to disappear underwater but they do, and I don’t see a trace of them again.
After an instant oatmeal breakfast, I walk south from camp and meander between Boggy Gut to the left and the Oak Ridge Trail on my right. Hampton Pond and other water bodies in this area are completely dry and have been for some time. As I walk through one dry pond, a little after 10:00, I see a coyote walking perpendicular to me 200 feet away near the edge of the pond. The coyote has its head down in a clump of sedges, its jaws working as if chewing on something, although I can’t tell what. I’m thoroughly pleased that this very wary animal doesn’t know it’s being watched. But I doubt if this will last long and as the coyote continues its slow walk, it stops suddenly and looks my way. I have my raised binoculars focused on it – the yellow eyes, raised ears, black-tipped tail, and those long legs, whitish at the feet. The coyote is perplexed. It slowly walks a few paces, stops, and looks to try and figure me out. After repeating this a few times, it gives up and takes off at a slow trot into the forest.
On the way back to camp later in the morning, I spot a snake skin on the ground. It is four feet long, still limp, and fresh. It’s completely intact, from the eyes and head to the tip of the tail and probably belonged to a rat snake.