Hammock Camping

August 13-14, 2015.  A front has brought in an east wind to the Midlands. The humid weather has lifted a little (although that’s a relative term for August in South Carolina), and nightly lows for the next few days are forecast to be in the upper 60s. All in all, it sounds like pretty fair camping weather, so I head out for an overnighter. As the swamp is very dry and mosquitoes few and far between, I’m trying a different sleeping arrangement – a lightweight hammock rather than a tent and sleeping bag (but I bring along the latter two just in case the hammock doesn’t work out). I take the River Trail and decide on a campsite suggested in a recent issue of Backpacker magazine which was devoted to solitude and “crowd-free hiking.” The author selected a short, off-trail part of the River Trail as one of the best places in the country to find solitude. Rather than continue west on the trail where it hits the river at Boggy Gut, the article suggested turning southeast here, cross Boggy Gut (which was obviously dry at the time of her visit), and bushwhack along the river for only “a hundred feet or so” to find dry crowd-less camping. It’s a good choice except crossing Boggy Gut can be an issue for about half the year when water levels are higher (and the gut six feet deep or more), and the solitude can be broken by an occasional boater on the river.

Actually, back-country camping at Congaree offers some of the finest solitude found anywhere. You can start by going relatively short distances off the trail; real solitude is found in the park’s interior, away from the trail system, and I guarantee you will not see or hear a soul for a long, long time. But camping with a river view has a special appeal. And it helps that this time of year it’s a handy source of drinking and cooking water (filtered of course), the closest other water supply being Cedar Creek, more than a mile away.

As usual on the first day of a camping trip, I start late and don’t get on the trail until mid- morning. By the time I arrive at the river it’s early afternoon and my shirt is saturated with sweat (but I remind myself that the humidity and temperature are lower now than last week, and the high today is “only” supposed to be 90º). I cross a bone-dry Boggy Gut and find a nice campsite near the river just a few hundred feet to the south. It’s near an old logging road from the 1970s, now grown up, and scarcely discernible, into thick clumps of pawpaw trees and, unfortunately, rank patches of Microstegium. I sling my hammock between two small box elders by the river, although the view is mostly blocked by thick riverbank vegetation. I field test the hammock with a short afternoon siesta and deem it suitable for a night’s sleep. During my youthful camping days of many years ago I sometimes used World War II army surplus jungle hammocks but found them not very comfortable and hard to use. They had rubber tarp tops that were spread by sticks to keep the rain off and sides of mosquito netting to keep the bugs out.

My campsite and surrounding area have a good number of golden silk spiders tending their webs. The big spiders seem most abundant in the levee forest along the river. Their favorite victim right now is a round, marble-sized, glossy black beetle. I see one of the beetles actually fly into a nearby golden silk’s web. The large female is already occupied with another beetle recently wrapped in silk but comes over to investigate, briefly, then goes back to her first victim. The second beetle soon wriggles free of the web.

This looks like maybe the best summer I can remember for pawpaws. The sweet fruit is falling early this year, perhaps due to the drought, and the River Trail is one of the most productive areas of the park to find them. I eat five or six that I find on the ground this afternoon – they are even sweeter than usual, again perhaps related to the drought which has concentrated the sugars in them.

Spicebush berries (drupes) also seem early since some have already ripened and turned red; for some plants, every berry on the bush is red. It won’t be long now before migrating thrushes will be taking advantage of this berry bounty.

Spicebush fruits are relished by migratory birds.

I walk northwest over to Adams Pond (the one in the park and not on Bluff Road), a long-abandoned channel of the Congaree. There is an old antebellum dike on the northern edge of the pond, which runs northwest to southeast, constructed by a slave labor force belonging to the Adams family. At its southeastern end the dike is low, only about three feet above the floodplain at its highest point, and twelve feet across. Several large cherrybark oaks, three to three-and-a-half feet in diameter, are growing out of it. The lengthy dike, more than two thousand feet long, tapers to about eight feet across and four to four-and-a-half feet high at its northwestern end. Most of the cherrybarks have been replaced on its northwestern end by American holly and bitternut hickory.  As with all the old dikes in the park, there are several gaps and breaks created by decades of erosive flood waters.

The large bitternut hickory on the left is growing out of the Adams Pond dike.

I’ve always assumed the location of this dike was designed to hold back rising flood waters from the Adams’ planted river fields. There is another smaller dike constructed at right angles to this one less than a thousand feet to the north. And a third dike, located three-quarters of a mile to the southeast and in perfect alignment with the Adams Pond dike, appears to be an effort to tie the two together and complete a diking of the river fields. These dikes, none of which are very high, may have been early attempts at protecting the Adams’ investment in bottomland agriculture. Perhaps as more land was cleared for cotton in the Piedmont and Congaree flooding became more frequent and intense, James Adams realized these dikes were inadequate and began constructing his huge eight-foot-high dike still standing at the park’s western boundary.

I walk by a medium-sized overcup oak with odd-looking leaves growing on top of the dike. The leaves are much more narrow than the typical overcup, and the lobes are longer. Something catches my eye near the base of the oak, and I see what looks like a convention of hackberry emperor butterflies huddled together on the trunk. There are also a few comma butterflies and yellow jackets mixed in. I assume the insects are after sap but don’t see any obvious signs of it.

Hackberry emperor butterflies feeding on tree sap.

Near the northwestern end of the dike is a large walnut tree measuring 8.4 feet in circumference, the biggest I’ve seen in the floodplain. Walnuts are uncommon in the park, but their distinct, feathery foliage make them easy to identify this time of year. And during “leaf-off”, the black bark trunk stands out.

At 6:00 the sun is sinking lower in the sky, and it’s starting to get dark at ground level. I head back to camp, where shortly after arrival I hear a quiet, four-stroke outboard motor coming down the river. The boat passes by with two men in it, but the riverbank foliage is so dense I’m sure they don’t see me. They’ve got a good twenty miles in front of them to get to the 601 boat landing. As I’m preparing to eat supper at 8:00, I hear another motor boat, this time coming upstream.  I hope he’s a local going to a nearby private landing since it’s a long way back to a Columbia boat landing. Having two boats on this stretch of river, so far from the nearest public boat landing, is unusual, especially during the week. I have observed, however, a notable increase in boat traffic on the lower Congaree during the past twenty years or so. And it does takes down the solitude rating several notches.

There is something special and distinctive about summer twilight in river country. The air is thick with stillness, the light soft, the quietness palpable. There is a brief sort of truce between the end of a long, hot day and the beginning of the cooler night world. The silence is shattered by the last, loud calls of a few cicadas.  They finally call it quits at 8:40, after which follows twenty minutes of peace until the first katydids announce the start of the night shift at 9:00. For the first couple of hours of darkness, barred owl chatter is noticeable across the way on the south side of the river. I hear few owls calling from the park.

I cannot sleep on my back and have concerns about sleeping that way in a U-curved hammock, a position that sounds like a guaranteed backache. I awake several times during the night, not from any back pain but because I’m getting chilled, an interesting problem to have this time of year. I initially use my tent fly as a cover but get up again at 4:30 for something more substantial and use the sleeping bag as a blanket. Surprisingly, I have no back pain when I finally roll out of the hammock at 7:00.

After the usual backpacking breakfast of instant oatmeal, sprinkled with gorp, and two cups of “teabag” coffee, I strap on the pack and head back to the visitor’s center.