October 23, 2015. This is my first real opportunity to walk in the park since the floodwaters of October 4th receded, so I take advantage of it and hike the River Trail. Both the river and Cedar Creek have almost returned to normal levels for this time of year, the former reading six feet while the latter gauge, which has been repaired since it went down some days ago, is a little above three feet.
I see where the large beech at the beginning of the high boardwalk has finally started shedding its sweet fruits on the boardwalk, more than six weeks after some of its beech neighbors started dropping theirs.
As I get farther out in the floodplain, I note the strange sensation of seeing a line of silt and debris from the flood in the understory seven feet above my head. The lower leaves of pawpaws are especially noticeable with a light tan coating of silt. The first major flood damage I see is a gargantuan root ball, measuring about twenty feet wide and eighteen feet high, of the large cherrybark oak growing by Hammond Gut next to the Oak Ridge/River Trail. And when this magnificent tree fell it took with it the nice Shumard oak growing next to it. The cherrybark root hole is no more than three feet deep, and it is amazing to think that such a large tree, weighing perhaps fifty tons, could have been held up by such a shallow root system.
I pause sadly to reflect on the number of big cherrybarks I’ve seen hit the ground in the past twenty years – many eighteen feet or more in circumference. They need a good bit of sun to get started, more than most Congaree oaks, but once started they are perhaps the fastest growing Congaree oak. Their bigness belies their ages, however, which I feel runs about 150 to 250 years. There is a reason the top heavy, shallow-rooted trees have such large buttresses to help hold them up. I personally don’t believe they can get much bigger, and older, in Congaree than our current state champion (and unofficial national co-champion), measuring twenty six-and-a-half feet in circumference, before they are toppled by wind and water.
And speaking of cherrybarks, there is a fair-to-middling crop of cherrybark acorns now falling on the ground. I was expecting to see a lot more acorns from the red oak group, especially laurel oaks, this year, but so far it is shaping up to be a lean season for Congaree acorns, and consequently a hard year for deer, turkeys, squirrels, red-headed woodpeckers, and a host of other swamp critters.
As I continue on the River Trail I catch periodic whiffs of decayed flesh from a deer, pig, raccoon, or other critter that didn’t make it through the flood. I actually see no dead animals and assume some are buried under the numerous piles of debris and flotsam scattered throughout the forest. I am surprised that the vultures have not made their presence known with all of this pungent scent wafting up into the atmosphere.
There are far fewer spider webs in the swamp than there were a month ago. I do see a few marbled orbweavers, Araneus marmoreus, the so-called “Halloween spider,” with their webs strung across the trail and other openings. This handsome spider may get its common name from the fact that it makes its appearance in fall, plus it sports Halloween colors of yellow and orange on its round “pumpkin” of an abdomen.
Mosquitoes are one of the prime beneficiaries of the flood, and as expected, their numbers seem to be growing daily. Unless we get some cold weather soon, I’m afraid they will only get worse.
I finally arrive at the river at 1:30, after a detour checking on the state champion cherrybark oak, which appears to have weathered the flood in good shape. I find it amazing how little debris from civilization has washed into the swamp. I was expecting the ground within a few hundred yards of the river bank to be littered with cast off refuse, especially balls of all descriptions, tires, five- gallon plastic buckets, plastic bottles and cans, pieces of furniture, plastic toys, styrofoam and plastic coolers, and anything else floatable. But there is almost nothing, a fact reinforced yesterday when Frank and I motored the river in his johnboat from the 601 boat landing upstream to Mazyck’s Cut, a distance of eleven miles. We found little in the way of downed trees, riverbank washouts, and other environmental damage, nor did we see much “trash pollution.” The two most noticeable damages were both human-related: the floating dock at the landing was wrecked, having its mooring posts uprooted, and a private, stationery dock at a small development on the south bank of the river near the railroad crossing was swept away.