April 8, 2014. It’s time for an early morning paddle down Cedar Creek. I arrive at daybreak and hardly have the kayak in the water before I hear a gobbler calling from the south bank. The sound carries a long way in these still woods this time of day.
A little downstream from the Iron Bridge I flush a hen wood duck tending to her young brood. She performs the lame wing act, flopping across the water, while her charges, which appear to have just left the nest, remain in a dense bundle fifty feet in front of my kayak. I pull up to watch their next move. They are unsure of what to make of me and stay in the center of the creek; the hen has gone too far downstream to offer further instruction. Finally, she swims back and begins calling – the ducklings respond by moving towards her. I’m afraid that as I continue downstream I will be driving the ducklings too much, and they might split up and get disoriented. But my fears are unfounded as the ducklings and I come to a large downed tree in the water, with plenty of limbs and leaves for escape cover, which they find to their liking.
The creek has plenty of downed trees, logs, and limbs from the February ice storm, but I am lucky that water levels are high enough, 4.3 feet, that I have to get out and pull around only a couple of obstructions. It will be a different story later this spring and summer when water levels drop.
On the south bank of Dawson’s Lake I find several hawthorns in bloom. It’s an attractive understory tree at all times, but especially so in early spring when covered with white petals that reflect in the still, dark waters of the sloughs and creeks. This particular haw, known as green hawthorn, Crataegus viridis, has few thorns. According to the late Henry Davis, author of the classic The American Wild Turkey, the grand birds are quite fond of the fruit of this haw, which he called turkey berry. The tree is striking in bare winter woods when it is covered with small, red “pomes,” the botanical term for fruits of the apple family. The fruit stays on the tree for most of the winter, being generally ignored by most birds except a few robins and hermit thrushes. Only when they start falling to the ground in late winter do the turkeys take advantage of them. They don’t have any flavor to me and are mostly seed, but no doubt the turkeys appreciate them, especially at the time of year when other foods are scarce.
green hawthorn, Crataegus viridis
Another attractive shrub now blooming is the piedmont azalea, Rhododendron canescens. Most of the swamp is a little too low for its liking, but they are found occasionally on swamp ridges and creek banks. Growing in a woodland setting, they tend to have a flowing, loose form with radiant, pinkish blooms.
piedmont azalea, Rhodendron canescens
I turn into Tupelo Gut, a small, beautiful, winding watercourse which branches off of Cedar Creek. This gut narrows down, then becomes shallow and flattens out near the end just before it merges into “Hairy Head Slough.” With enough water you can paddle this slough southward into Otter Gut, or northward through a small cut into Elder Lake. A nine foot kayak is ideal for negotiating the shallows and tight turns of Congaree’s tree-filled sloughs, guts, and flats, but I have moved up to twelve footers because they track better and are easier paddling on straight stretches and hold more gear for overnight camping.
The swamp has finally greened-up to the point that it doesn’t look like winter anymore and with that beautiful shade of light, pastel green that I call “spring green.” The whirly gig beetles in the shallows of Cedar Creek also announce that spring is here for keeps, as does a red-bellied watersnake at the creek’s edge. And finally, I see my first Congaree prothonotaries of the spring – two males seeking mates and prime nesting sites. To finish out the morning, I hear two more gobblers calling.