Early Spring Camping

March 7, 2015.  I decide to take advantage of the splendid weather forecast for this weekend and kayak-camp Saturday night. I get off to a late start packing Saturday morning and don’t get my boat in the water until nearly 1:00 PM. The Ancient Aztec warrior says that it takes as much gear and effort to camp for one night as five, the only difference being the extra food you have to bring along. As usual, he is right.

My camp is on the south side of Tupelo Gut, a beautiful, winding, slough-like gut that branches off Cedar Creek and dead-ends in a large flat and slough between Elder Lake and Otter Gut. The entrance to Tupelo Gut is almost as big as Cedar Creek itself, which takes a sharp 90° turn to the north, leading to confusion for some paddlers that end up making the wrong turn.

There is much noise from the “sounds of freedom” this afternoon, coming from the Midlands’ military presence: Fort Jackson’s artillery range is in action, and F-16s from McEntire Air National Guard Base are doing lots of fly-overs. But for some reason the lonely whistle of the Kingville train that passes through the swamp several times a day doesn’t seem nearly as intrusive and, in a way, almost enhances the swamp’s solitude.

Late in the afternoon I bump into a group of river otters coming my way down Tupelo Gut. I count at least five heads popping briefly out of the water to check me out and giving the usual snort calls along with a softer, nasal buzz-buzz-buzz. I wonder if these are not part of the same group I saw in Elder Lake back in December, which is not all that far away. I’m sure otters can cover a lot of ground, and water, when they want to.

It’s getting dark noticeably later now, and even at 6:45 PM (EST) there is still a little daylight left down here on the ground floor. By the time pitch black arrives and after supper, I paddle up to Dawson’s Lake. The planets and stars are so bright (the nearest artificial light is at least two miles away) they seem on fire. Even the Pleiades, normally nothing but a smudge in an urban sky, are bright, and I see at least five of the seven sisters with an unaided eye. Brightest of all, hanging low in the western sky like a headlight, is Venus, the evening star. A blazing night sky, free of artificial lights, is such a rarity anymore that most people have forgotten what a wonder it is.

There are a good number of wolf spiders, their eyes reflecting sapphire, on both the ground and some of the tupelo trunks standing in water. I assume the ones on the tree trunks got there from debris washed in by floods and that the trees offer enough food and shelter for the spiders to take up permanent residence.

I also see a few brief glimpses of bat reflections from my headlight, flying low over the creek. Other reflections along the creek bank come from much larger, and brighter, raccoon eyes.

March 8, 2015.  I sleep in this morning, having awoken earlier at 3:00 AM to pee, and couldn’t get back to sleep afterwards for a couple of hours. My watch says it’s 7:20 AM, but I had forgotten this weekend is the change to daylight savings, so it’s really 8:20. Not that o’clock time really means much in the swamp – the number of daylight hours is still the same.

The American crows are noisy this morning. As usual they’re in a group and appear to be hassling something on the other side of the gut. I also hear a fish crow F.O. (fly-over), giving its nasal caw that sounds like it has a cold. The fish crow call is another announcement that spring is on its way for the South Carolina Midlands, but somehow a crow lacks the romantic appeal of a bluebird, and I doubt if many poets will be using its harsh call in their sonnets.  So far as I know neither species of crow actually nests in the swamp, but spends their time here as fly-overs or seeking victims they can harass. The fish crow does depart the swamp in winter for coastal waters and estuaries farther south.

Something else is calling from the north side of Tupelo Gut on Palmetto Island. It’s a gobbling turkey, getting a head start on this year’s match-making. In just a week some of his buddies across the Congaree in Calhoun County will be in the cross hairs of camouflaged turkey hunters.

My plan for the rest of the morning is to paddle Big Snake Slough which feeds into the south side of Cedar Creek just north of here. The creek gauge is reading 4.5 feet so there should be enough water to float my boat. The beavers had this slough dammed up where it meets Cedar Creek, but the dam is no longer there. Even without the deeper water from the beaver dam, the slough is still two-to-four feet deep in the main channel.


A “walking maple” growing over a century-old cypress stump.

I pass numerous old virgin cypress stumps, more than a hundred years old and in various stages of decay. Many have trees growing out of them, typically red maple, but also sweetgum, elm, American holly, and, occasionally, for those getting a lot of sun, even blackberry briars. Some of the maples are large, forty-to-fifty feet high, and have roots growing around the stump, into the water, and down into the soil. As the old stump gradually disintegrates, it appears to leave the maple “walking” on its roots, giving rise to the “walking maple” phenomenon.

Some of the cypress stumps still look solid; in a few cases you can see traces of the notches that were cut by the loggers to insert the springboard, a heavy oak plank used by the sawyers to stand on while cutting the tree above the buttress. I think what a sight this place must have been when the huge virgin cypress, some over a thousand years old, were still standing.

A century-old cypress stump showing notches where the springboard was inserted.

I see my first “no shoulders” of the year, a slender, heavily-blotched rat snake swimming in the slough. This versatile snake seems equally at home on dry land, in the water, climbing trees, hanging around the boardwalk, or in your crawlspace at home. This adaptability accounts for its widespread distribution and abundance.


A rat snake on the low boardwalk.