June 30, 2014. I arrive early this morning, at 6:45 AM, for a kayak paddle down Cedar Creek. The creek is low, registering only 2.75 feet, and calm with minimal current. Bird song is noticeably reduced compared to a month ago. For some species the breeding season is just about over while others are working on their second brood or re-nesting from a failed first one. I hear hooded warblers, Northern parulas, and the distinctive “hick-up” call of the Acadian flycatcher. Later in the morning others join in – a red-shouldered hawk (briefly), the always ubiquitous American crow, tufted titmice, red-eyed vireo, white-eyed vireo, cardinal, Carolina wren, and yellow-billed cuckoo. I also see a single belted kingfisher flying up the creek.
The creek has a number of log jams and “strainers” that, along with the low water, make for slow progress. The park periodically hires a crew to remove the obstructions, and with this past winter’s high water and ice storms adding even more downed trees and debris, they will have their work cut out for them. I soon have my first portage, and by the time I get to my destination, Horsepen Gut, have a second portage and encounter six or seven log jams I am fortunately able to negotiate without getting out of the boat. What would have normally been a leisurely two-hour paddle turns into three. And of course I have to repeat them all on the trip back.
At 8:30 I hear the true sound of a swamp summer, the annual cicada, striking up the morning chorus. I’ve always called them dog-day cicadas because they seem to flourish in the hottest parts of the summer when everything else is wilting. The appearance of this animal is as impressive as the sound. They are large, robust insects, about two inches long, with bright green on top and a silvery-white underside. They stay underground as nymphs for two to five years (and are therefore not “annual”), and upon emerging, crawl a short distance up the nearest convenient tree trunk, building, or other vertical surface where they shed their exoskeletons that children love to collect, and with freshly dried wings, begin their new arboreal life. It’s not uncommon to find a live one on the ground, perhaps injured enough to make it flightless; the males can be quite intimidating when an uninitiated pet or human gets too close and it sounds off with its ear-splitting buzz-saw note.
By 9:30 the woods are mostly quiet except for cicadas, red-eyed vireos, and gray treefrogs. The latter’s call provides one of the most characteristic sounds of summer in the swamp. Treefrogs have not been immune from the sweeping taxonomic changes that have affected reptiles and amphibians in the past forty years. The gray treefrog in Congaree is now known as “Cope’s gray treefrog” since some gray treefrog populations are considered to be a different species that go by the name “common gray treefrog.” Both species are impossible to distinguish by appearance alone, and their quite different calls are used to tell them apart.
I see several water turkeys (anhingas) on the creek this morning, all females, which flush noisily from trees overhanging the creek. Most fly off but one female that is sitting on a low-hanging limb hits the water to escape and begins swimming with just her head and snake-like neck showing and from whence one of its common names, snake bird, derives.
Near Tupelo Gut, where the creek makes a 90º turn to the north, I see a raccoon curled up in a large rotten tree trunk in the middle of the creek. I stop to examine it. The coon doesn’t seem too bothered by my presence and begins checking me out. We both agree simultaneously to go our separate ways.
I pass the striking bluffs on the north side of the creek that I call Garrick Hill, hoping to hear the wood thrush song of a few weeks ago but no such luck. Perhaps their nesting season is over for the year; I hope they were successful at bringing more wood thrushes into the world.
I soon approach the canal, an artificial cut about 300 feet long that was dredged years ago across the top of the largest meander loop on Cedar Creek. It saves paddling the six-tenths of a mile of the “Big Bend” of the creek. With today’s low water the canal is full of logs and debris and is impassable. Rather than another portage, I opt for the meander and take the lazy, long route. After the meander the creek runs straight, more or less, for a while. I get a whiff of, then see, a well-ripened dead raccoon at the edge of the creek, wedged between two cypress knees. I’m surprised it has lasted this long in one piece.
I pass the old landing at “Kits Grave” on the left bank and see a large feral hog, snorting and sniffing me out. Although most Congaree pigs are solid black, this one is still exhibiting his Hampshire bloodline, being black with a large, white shoulder patch.
The story I’ve heard about Kits Grave (also known as Kidd’s grave) is that many years ago a logger by that name was killed in a logging accident and, apparently not having any family, was buried on the spot. Harry Hampton reported strange sounds coming from this site over the years, especially on still, overcast winter afternoons. Some of these sounds could possibly be attributed to barred owls, which have amazing repertoires, some of which almost have human qualities. And as if on cue, a barred owl near the creek lets loose with what I refer to as the “hail lady call,” a one-syllable high note that sounds human enough. This may be the same as what owl biologists call the female “solicitation call,” but it seems to be the wrong time of year. I do know that there is more than one thesis or dissertation out there waiting for a study of barred owl vocalizations.
Near the approach to Elder Lake I pass a landmark, also on the left bank – a tall, dead, burned- out virgin cypress snag, with the girdle marks from the ax that killed it a hundred years ago still quite visible. It is a remarkable testimony to the durability of cypress wood that this snag is still standing after all these many years. There is also another similar snag on the right bank shortly after you exit Elder Lake.
A hen “summer” duck gives her alarm squeals in the middle of Elder Lake, and I see her late brood of five, two-week-old ducklings scampering away in the water. The hen gets up and flies a short distance, then sits back on the water, squealing away. Her charges have disappeared, probably off to the side under cover; I continue on as the hen “leads” me on through the lake.
Just before coming to Horsepen Gut on the right I pass through the “Narrows” of Cedar Creek, a bottleneck no more than twenty feet wide where even at low water a lot of current squeezes through. A few limbs and logs are trying to become obstacles, but I manage to work my way through them.
Having reached my destination for the day, I pull out on the right bank of Cedar Creek just beyond Horsepen Gut and have a sardine lunch washed down with water. Ahead of me in the creek is a huge downed tree completely blocking any forward progress. And I know there are others farther downstream before the canoe trail finally exits to the river at Mazyck’s Cut. I’m glad I’m not going that far.
I plan on walking south to the old Weston or Dead River dike. This area is also known as the Hunt Tract (Harry Hampton referred to it as the “Jim Williams Old Field”) after Alfred M. Hunt of Columbia purchased it from the Weston family in 1861. It’s a puzzle to me why the Westons sold what would have been prime agricultural property at the time after investing an enormous amount of slave labor to construct more than a mile of embankment that today varies from two to six feet high and four to five feet across (and this after more than150 years of erosion). Nor why Hunt, a hotel proprietor in Columbia, would be interested in owning the property. Interestingly, after the Civil War this tract was purchased by the South Carolina Land Commission according to researcher Elizabeth Almlie and her colleagues at the University of South Carolina’s Public History Program. The purpose of the Land Commission was to make land available to newly-freed slaves by purchasing large tracts of land from willing sellers, then subdividing them into smaller parcels to make them affordable at low-interest loans. The Hunt Tract, 774 acres, was divided into twenty-one parcels, but only two of these were ever sold. However, presumably because the land was a floodplain, nothing ever came of it in terms of improvements, and the tract reverted to a second-growth sweetgum forest.
The walk south is meandering and slow going. There are logs on the ground, stump holes, thickets, vines and limbs and woody debris, all impeding forward progress. And spider webs are making their presence known, especially those annoying ones head high.
After arriving at the “old field,” which on the surface looks similar to the rest of the forest except the trees are of more uniform size and growing closer together, I measure the diameters of eleven sweetgums, finding an average diameter of thirty inches. This second-growth forest, now about 150 years old, was mostly spared of any damage from Hurricane Hugo almost twenty-five years ago.
It is almost 4:00 when I get back to the boat for my return trip. A few bends upstream, as I am thinking about how long it has been since I’ve seen a river otter in the swamp, I look over to the left and see a grayish-brown head sticking out of a hole in a hollow cypress log on the bank, staring intently at me. It is an otter, one of my favorite animals. It seems attached to this log for some reason and reluctantly stays put for a closer look, giving frequent, nervous snorts. Could there be otter pups nearby? I see nothing except daylight at the other end of the log. The otter exits the hole and stands on top of the log in full view – a supple, surprisingly large and powerfully-built animal. Its beauty is only slightly marred by the disproportionate body lines, with the hind end being higher than the front.
The otter gets down from the log and “hop-jumps” with its ungainly gait over to the water’s edge where it gets in and starts acting like an otter. I follow it upstream a little but can’t keep up. I would love to know more about the biology and life history of this fascinating member of the weasel family. How far do they range, for example, and how many are there in the park? I suspect population sizes must vary a bit, depending on the season and water levels. The prolonged drought we experienced a few years ago must have been hard on otters since much of their habitat was dry, and food resources, especially crayfish, scarce. Presumably, many left the park and moved into surrounding ponds and lakes.
No sooner than leaving the otter behind I hear, from the left bank, a strange, purr-like “zoom-zoom” call and look over to see a mother raccoon with three young ones, about the size of big kittens, at the edge of the creek. The young, at their mother’s command, proceed to climb, with mother bringing up the rear, twenty-five feet up a stout red maple. I paddle over to watch. It doesn’t take long for her to decide that perhaps I am not such a real threat after all, and they climb back down to the base of the maple, she keeping an eye on me the whole time and uttering the strange zoom-zoom call.
Unlike this morning’s paddle, I start seeing lots of brown water snakes curled up in the bushes and overhanging limbs on my return trip. By the time I reach the take-out at South Cedar Creek Landing at 7:00 PM, I have counted a dozen browns and one small red-bellied water snake. This means, of course, that I had overlooked just as many. One brown is an impressive, stout fellow that allows close approach in my kayak. I can understand why to the untrained eye these snakes are confused with water moccasins or cottonmouths. The only cottonmouths I’ve seen at Cedar Creek were swimming across it, and not lingering in overhanging limbs and vines.