July 27, 2015. It has been six weeks since my last visit to the swamp, time occupied by a detour to Maritime Canada, where I was sleeping under two or three blankets at night and wearing a fleece pullover in the morning. The swamp is so different from Canada that I may as well have been on another planet.
It has been hot and dry during my absence. For my six-hour visit today the only water I found was in Cedar Creek, and there wasn’t much in it (the gauge is reading 1.9 feet). The mosquitoes are absent as well, but a few deer flies are still lingering on. It is a reminder of the regular clash of reality versus myth for southern river swamps – the public image of quicksand, biting insects, poisonous snakes, alligators, and other perils and dangers. I daresay that just one campground in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia has more mosquitoes than now found in the entire Congaree National Park.
There was obviously a recent, violent windstorm as indicated by three oaks snapped off by the high boardwalk on the edge of the floodplain. They all fell pointing north-northwest, indicating the wind coming from the opposite direction. Within the floodplain two large loblolly pines by the boardwalk were also snapped off by the same storm (fortunately neither hit the boardwalk). And several large limbs are on the ground. No doubt it would have been a frightening experience being caught in the middle of such violence and mayhem.
I leave the low boardwalk and walk west. About the only thing blooming right now is swamp milkweed growing in the muck swamp. I continue on a westerly course, in what I call “low swamp” (referring to elevation and not canopy), a transition area between the muck swamp to the north and the higher bottomland forest to the south. The latter is demarked by an abrupt line of switch cane that runs almost like a straight line along its edge. The low swamp consists primarily of green ash, laurel and willow oak, overcup oak, red maple, and American elm. There is no undergrowth and you can easily see three or four hundred feet in front of you. The ground floor is bare, with scattered patches of luminescent green sedge and strewn with downed limbs and logs. The trees for the most part are not that big, perhaps due to the thick, hard, clay soil that contains little oxygen to support root growth.
There are a lot more spider webs out than when I was last here, on June 11, and I see some impressively large female golden silk spiders. The open visibility also allows me to see a doe deer two hundred feet away. She is looking at me intently, ears flared like open car doors, and tail twitching. She can’t quite figure me out but doesn’t like what she sees and snorts with displeasure. She actually walks slowly my way for a better look (or smell) and then makes a side step and circles around me, all the while snorting and checking me out. Then I see a yearling buck coming behind her with six-inch spike horns in velvet. The buck is not as alert as the doe and isn’t aware of my presence. Finally the doe has had enough and turns to retreat, but the buck goes in front, and they bound off together.
I make it as far west as Big Hurricane Island on the north side of Cedar Creek. It’s not a true island, being surrounded on three sides by muck swamp and Cedar Creek on the south and west. I have a hunch that the “island” made a good cowpen during antebellum times because of the high ground and being surrounded by water for much of the year. This could explain the origin of the large pines on its southern and western ends since much of it would have been cleared and open enough to grow pine trees after being abandoned as a cowpen.
The island got hammered by Hugo, especially in the middle. Parts of it are still nearly impenetrable with a jungle of grape vines and thickets. The hurricane knocked over or snapped off a good number of pines. Some of the survivors have since succumbed to insects and “old age,” and like other loblolly pine stands in the floodplain, there are no seedlings or young trees to replace the dead and dying old pines.
It is now early afternoon, warm and humid as I make my way back. Today’s high is supposed to be in the upper 90s. Without the cooling effects of the dense overhead canopy to block most of the sun’s heat, I would probably not last more than an hour out here.
I return via the bottomland hardwood community closer to Cedar Creek, which means walking through switch cane, where I flush a yellow-billed cuckoo. It flies to a low-hanging, bare limb ten feet off the ground. It’s unusual to see one close to the ground like this. The bird is in hunting mode, and provides good viewing as I watch him for fifteen minutes. He acts almost like a squirrel as he ambles over limbs and vines, using his feet rather than his wings to search for food. His head turns constantly as he peers intently while moving, looking for any movement that may betray a victim. For a brief moment he acts like a bird and makes a short hover flight to the bottom of a leafy twig and snatches at something, but I can’t tell if he was successful or not.
I turn a few logs; one has a patent leather beetle, a millipede, and a good-looking three-lined salamander.