November 12, 2014. It’s been a while since I’ve camped in the park, and with nice weather in the forecast, I’ve decided to take advantage of it and spend time in the old growth at the park’s east end, near the original 1976 boundary. It is one of the most isolated parts of the park. There are no roads or trails and about the only evidence of people is an occasional boater on the Congaree River.
One thing that makes this area so isolated and seldom used by the public is the difficulty of access. The high ground to the north, all extensive forestland without a house anywhere, is either blocked by private land or large sloughs and creeks full of water. And, if you are able to walk in, it takes so long as to make a day trip almost prohibitive, especially during the short days of winter. It’s a long way downstream to the nearest boat landing at US 601, and the land on the south side of the river in Calhoun County is rural and sparsely populated. The most efficient and easiest way to get here is via a thirty-minute boat ride from the Highway 601 boat landing. And that’s what I’m doing this warm fall afternoon.
The boat drive up is always enjoyable and interesting. You see few people and go by a lot of history. The south bank of the river has some magnificent bluffs that tower 150-200 feet above the river. From the top of one of these bluffs the famous battle of Fort Motte was fought in May, 1781, during the Revolutionary War. You pass under a historic railroad, the first rail spur in South Carolina, built more than 170 years ago in 1842 from Branchville to Columbia. On this same rail line in 1863 General James Longstreet’s First Corp of the Army of Northern Virginia, 12,000 men in all, was sent west as reinforcements for the bloody battle of Chickamauga in northern Georgia. You pass by the Congaree Bluffs Heritage Preserve, a 200-acre property managed by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. And there is another high bluff labeled on Robert Mills’ 1825 map of the Orangeburgh District (part of which later became Calhoun County) as “Lover’s Leap” (spelled “Lep” on his map).
Of course there is usually river wildlife to see, depending on the time of year – waterfowl, wading birds, osprey, bald eagle, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawk, turkey and black vulture, anhinga, kingfisher, and double-crested cormorant, just to name a few. Today I spot an osprey, and on the way back home tomorrow, a bald eagle.
Getting a late start from home, there isn’t much time left for exploring after setting up camp, located near the river bank between Stump Gut and the mouth of Cedar Creek. Sadly, there is not much left of the two-mile stretch of lower Cedar Creek from Mazyck’s Cut to its mouth. Mazyck’s has essentially become the new mouth of Cedar Creek since there is so little flow and scouring energy now going into the lower creek. The mouth is almost invisible from the river, having shoaled in badly and grown over with willows. It’s hard to believe that forty years ago I could drive a fourteen-foot john boat at least a few bends up lower Cedar Creek.
Near camp I come to an old landmark in this part of the swamp, a cabin built in the 1960s on the east bank of Cedar Creek not far from its mouth by Johnny LeMoine, a former member of the Cedar Creek Hunt Club (the lease holders of Congaree before the park became public). I never met Mr. LeMoine but always admired his handiwork. It’s a beautiful little cabin, and still standing on pilings after all these years, but showing a lot of wear. The roof has fallen in on the back side, the rear wall has slipped to the ground, and the back of the cabin threatens to fall away from the front. LeMoine built his swamp villa board by board, bringing in all the material by small boat from the 601 boat landing, six miles downstream. I wish I could have shared a drink with him on the cabin front porch and listened to his Congaree hunting and fishing stories.
It gets dark early in the swamp now that we are off daylight savings time. I lean back on my log backrest and watch the swamp turn out for the night shift. Crickets are chirping away, and I see a good number of wolf spider eye-shines lighting up the ground floor, although not nearly as many as I saw in the summer. A few ants and other insects are crawling about on the leaf litter, but the real stars of the litter fauna are the granddaddy longlegs. These long-legged arachnids are not spiders, and are known as harvestmen in the scientific world. They are, of course, completely harmless, chiefly nocturnal, and eat a wide variety of foods, including aphids, mites, beetles, and other insects, decayed organic material, and even each other. Several are crawling over my gear spread out on the ground and on my log backrest. Like lightning bugs, doodle bugs, June bugs, crickets, cicadas, and other creepie-crawlies, granddaddy longlegs used to be part of nearly every kid’s childhood. But as we quickly attain adulthood, granddaddy longlegs, like other interesting members of the animal kingdom that grew up with us, become forgotten without us knowing much about them, except for the myths and fables older kids and adults passed on to us.
Around 6:30, with only a tinge of daylight left in the fading sky, a deer not far away has scented me and lets out with a series of loud snorts, magnified with the beginning air inversion. He is clearly upset at the interloper who has moved into his territory. It takes him a while to calm down, but he finally moves off farther back in the forest.
Camping for me means going to bed early, and tonight is no exception. I roll into the sack at 8:00 and sleep pretty well, waking at 4 AM. During the night I hear a few barred owls, the Kingville train, and best of all, the yip-yip calls of coyotes.