November 21, 2014. It’s a beautiful fall day this early afternoon, and I’m off on a short backpack overnight camp. The muck swamp is now nearly completely denuded of its foliage, except for the bald cypress which still has some persistent needles not quite ready to fall. Almost overnight the bottomland hardwood community has taken on a new look. The hard freeze we had this past Wednesday morning killed a lot of deciduous leaves, many still green and attached to the tree, and they have now all fallen to the ground. I fail to see a single pawpaw with a leaf left on it. Some sweetgum leaves are still on the tree but are browned and shriveled. Swamp chestnut oak leaves did weather the cold pretty nicely as did American beech, many of which still have green leaves.
My choice of campsites, especially this time of year when the swamp is dry, is dictated by water. It is a supreme irony that water can be limiting in a swamp (but remember the Congaree is not a true swamp, but a bottomland hardwood forest, and is supposed to be dry in the fall). Right now water choices are slim and consist of the river itself, Cedar Creek, and oxbow lakes such as Weston Lake and Wise Lake. Some of the guts and sloughs do have standing, but quite stagnant, water, and I use them as a source of filtered drinking water only as a last resort.
I find a nice campsite near the mouth of Tennessee Gut, and about three hundred feet west of Cedar Creek, my water source (park regulations require that campsites be at least 100 feet away from a water body). This part of the park receives little public visitation, and it has a splendid old growth forest of sweetgums, ash, overcup oak, laurel oak, and other hardwoods. Years ago I found a monster Shumard oak of national-champion proportions, twenty-two feet in circumference, in this area (it later snapped off during a high wind before it was officially confirmed). The nearest one of any size I know of in the park now is the current state champion, fifteen feet in circumference, and located on the Oak Ridge Trail.
By late afternoon I’ve picked a nice log backrest near the bank of Cedar Creek to serve as a wildlife observation post. Maybe I’ll get lucky and see an otter. The sun is sinking rapidly and so is the temperature. The only sunlight left, a glowing yellow almost as if coming from a flashlight, is high above me in the tops of the tall canopy trees. In that light I watch a pair of cardinals feeding on sugarberry fruits. By 5:00 (official sunset is 5:17) what little light left in the tall canopy has turned from yellow to flaming orange, and by 5:15 there is no sunlight remaining anywhere in the forest. An hour later it has become black night down here on the ground floor. Only a few hardy crickets are still calling in the coolness, and I spot just a few spider eyes and no granddaddy longlegs. I hit the sack at 6:45 with the temperature somewhere in the mid-40s. It’s going to be cold in the morning. I don’t miss a fire too much this night, but certainly will in the morning when the temps will be in the mid-30s.
November 22, 2014. It’s as cold as a witch’s breast in a brass brassiere this morning at 5:30. The high swamp humidity just cuts through you. I did stay toasty in my new down bag which is rated for 15º. Sleeping bag temperature ratings seem to be highly subjective, and perhaps more geared to young people than us oldsters with “thin blood.” My regular synthetic bag is rated for 20º but seems to be closer to 25 or 30º the older I get. Down bags are lighter, and to me warmer, than synthetic bags. Their “down” side is that they are more expensive, lose their insulation when wet, and are more expensive to maintain. I think the new down bags, however, have improved a good bit on the second point.
With the canopy noticeably more open from all of the recently fallen leaves, I get a much better view of a magnificent night sky than I did last week while camping out. It also helps that the half moon then has become almost a full moon now. The big dipper is glowing, and one planet overhead, Jupiter I think, is almost as bright as a sliver of moon.
I have just enough layers to ward off the cold, but not sure for how long. It’s clear to me that the person(s) who made the ruling about no camp fires in Congaree’s backcountry has never spent a night here in cold weather.
At 6:20 I hear my first bird of the morning, a brown thrasher, calling from a nearby thicket. From my experience it’s not the cardinal that goes to bed last and wakes up first but rather the thrasher, who gives away his nocturnal abode with a series of loud, short churring calls. He is joined a few minutes later by a Carolina wren, whose winter song is always appreciated on a cold morning. Soon loud whacks of woodpeckers striking hollow or rotten wood reverberates throughout the forest, a noise made even louder by the morning temperature inversion.
Around 7:00 I see the first sunlight beginning to light up the tall canopy. It takes a long time, however, for that warming sun to get down here at ground level. As usual the temperature seems colder for the first hour or two after sunrise than before dawn. I am now “one layer short” of keeping warm so have to move around to keep the blood pumping. It doesn’t seem possible that only yesterday afternoon I saw butterflies (cloudless sulfurs I think) and spider webs lighting up in the afternoon sun.
Bird activity has started picking up, led by hungry robins feeding in the canopy on sugarberries and swamp tupelo fruits. The berries make them thirsty and soon the edges of Cedar Creek are lined with drinking red breasts.
After breakfast I spend the rest of the day exploring the north side of Tennessee Gut. I find a real oddity near the bank of Cedar Creek – a fruiting persimmon, the only one in the swamp I can ever recall to actually produce fruit.