East atop Buckeye Ridge

East atop Buckeye Ridge

18 October 2018

Neal Polhemus

Congaree is a special place unlike any other natural space in South Carolina – where the ebb and flow of river and rain water dictate more than any other factor the extent to which one can interact with the towering giants of the old-growth floodplain forest. Some hikes have no purpose at all other than to just be in the forest – to listen, observe, smell and breathe. But on this occasion, I sought out a specific spot where several years ago John Cely found several old bricks that may correlate with a house site or an old cabin depicted on an 1861 plat. Though speculation may suggest the bricks originate from an old liquor still, the fact that the site is over a mile from the bluff, rather deep in the swamp, and near the old cabin, it could just as easily be the later. Nevertheless, I wanted to see if I could find it for myself and explore an area of the park I had not visited previously.

Exploring Congaree is a lot like Forest Gump’s famous proverb – ‘Life is a like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’ A week before, the river crested at 16.5 ft for two days, completely inundating the park but steadily receded to about five ft that morning. Though generally flat, certain areas of the floodplain drain and dry out quite differently than others.

As I crossed the Iron Bridge heading south, Cedar Creek was a bit high, seemingly in a race, its competitor unknown, to reach the Congaree. The water was moving swiftly at the Whiskey Pond bridges also. Making my way past Moccasin Pond and Summer Duck Slough, I headed east atop Buckeye Ridge. The ridge is distinct embankment, easily noticeable from the old road because along its northern edge is a beautiful small grove of Bald Cypress. The cinnamon-tinged bark of the cypress stands out from the darker hardwoods and, admittedly, its one of my favorites.

The ridge offered only a temporary respite from a waterlogged forest. I soon ventured into an area of the park that was clear-cut in the mid-1970s. The tract was pockmarked like the surface of Mars with puddles of various sizes and depth. Numerous false sloughs and streams that will disappear like ghosts in the coming days made this part of the trek more of a slog than a hike. The edge of Big Snake Slough was difficult to make, seemingly busting out from its natural bank. Shortly after crossing the old logging road that runs north-south, much to my surprise I found a thicket of Loblolly Pines – four sisters or brothers that had sprouted up after the mid-1970s cutting. All were the same age and size, not more than 5 ft. Perhaps over time, and if homo sapiens will leave well enough alone, they too will grow to be giants like those from which they sprouted.

Near the sloping bank of the cypress flats, an edge not easily delineated, I came across a large American Elm, standing off by itself, rather lonely like one I had visited west of Running Lake. Surrounded by a moat of brown water and deep mud, evidence of the park’s wild hog population, the buttressed trunk was quite impressive. Soon I approached the area where the old bricks were found. Unfortunately, the switch cane was dense and tall, a formidable foe for anyone adventurous enough to go off-trial. Inspecting a large area of the forest floor for the bricks was an impossibility.

The extent of the post flood conditions, and slowly receding waters, was readily apparent at the confluence of Otter and Ridge Gut. Further back at the cypress flats and Otter Gut I could’ve made it across to the eastern side and headed south, but elected to continue on. I also considered the fact that Hairy Head Slough was likely busting its banks also.

Identified as Steep Gut on an 1850 plat, Ridge Gut was very swollen, appearing in places to be a resurrection of the former river channel it once was thousands of years ago. The one spot I tried to ford across was within a few steps of entering the water thigh deep; not even near the middle of the gut. Since I didn’t have my life jacket tucked in my backpack, I thought it was prudent to retreat.

Crescent Lake appeared only surmountable with the help of Noah’s ark! The small triangle-shaped pond north of the lake had blossomed into a lake of its own. Off in the distance near the middle of Crescent Lake was a large beaver lodge. Having been long extinct from the swamp since the nineteenth century, beavers returned in the 1990s. Since the park had recently flooded, I didn’t observe any fresh wood chips or green cuttings but a few smaller fallen trees were noted along the bank.

Much to my surprise, soon after passing the northside pond the heavens began to rumble. The chance of rain was less than thirty percent for the afternoon. So much for forecasts. It was approaching midday so I threw my tarp against a nearby Sweetgum and retrieved my lunch. A symphonic shower of precipitation commenced in the canopy, tranquil and refreshing for a weary soul. Twenty minutes or so later and the pattering of rain against the surface of the lake subsided. The forest grew quiet, so I was off again.

The cane was quite thick and tall in places on the log road heading west but I made my way through taller earlier in the summer. In a matter of minutes, the sky grumbled again, louder and much deeper than before. Thunder echoed and right on que, the clouds opened up. The roar of the falling rain sprinted towards me from the south, growing louder and louder. I searched hurriedly for a Holly tree; its low-hanging branches ideal for hitching a tarp. Unfortunately, I settled for a less than ideal spot that turned into a muddy red stream quicker than expected. The rain persisted for over an hour. Any thoughts of making it across Running Gut faded quickly. Plus, a swollen Ridge Gut was more than enough to dampen my spirits of making it to the river. The tarp kept me relatively dry until the torrent subsided.

Trekking off-trial is incredibly rewarding but it does have its drawbacks. Obviously, there is no trail – the path becomes where I place my feet against the earth. Tree branches and other obstacles along one’s impromptu ever-changing trail must be navigated. One drawback is that even after a light sprinkle the understory is as saturated as the forest floor. Everything you touch is wet and quickly soaks into your clothes. A light brush against a Holly branch, brings down a deluge of rain caught in the canopy. Navigating the dense canebrake was like walking through a cheap automated car wash. Not a dry thread of cloth clung to my skin. I decided to embrace the forest, head back north and try to dry out. It was amusing to see the occasional footprints I left in the mud on Kingsnake heading south were now small puddles as I headed towards the bluff in the late afternoon.

The woodpeckers put on a marvelous show both sight and sound after the rain. Heard and observed three species, a few Bard Owls, Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks. Also startled a juvenile buck, six-pointer. He was asleep, camouflaged in the thick brush and seemed to be in no hurry to rush off. In fact, he stopped, turned back and starred for a minute with a look on his face that seemed to say – Oh it’s just you, thanks for disturbing my nap! Off he went after a doe in the distance.