July 7, 2014. Sampson Island is a unique geologic formation found in no other part of the park – a large, twelve to fifteen acre sandy ridge of high ground in the middle of a floodplain. According to geologist David Shelley of the Old-Growth Bottomland Forest Research and Education Center at Congaree, Sampson Island is not an ancient sandbar as I once thought, but rather an old dune formation first formed by winds carrying light sand particles from higher ground on the opposite bank of the river fifteen to thirty thousand years ago under a glacial climate of dry, windy conditions. Why was the dune formed here? Why are there not others in the park? What would the surrounding forest have been like then? How long did it take to create the island?
The earliest date we have for the island’s name dates back to a 1756 royal grant issued to Herman (Harmon) Rich for 150 acres that included a portion of “Samson’s Island.” It has a long human history associated with it that goes back at least five thousand years. Preliminary archaeological investigations by the National Park Service and its contractors have revealed regular human occupation at the site for the past three centuries. Before that, Native Americans had temporary, and perhaps permanent, camps that date back to the Late Archaic period, 3000-1000 B.C.
The island has more than likely been cleared or partially cleared for much of the past several hundred years – originally by Native Americans and later by black slaves and white settlers for agriculture and shelter. For the latter half of the twentieth century it was cleared for wildlife food plantings, but is now slowly reverting to forest through natural plant succession . Currently winged elm saplings are prevalent in the sandy soil, followed by young sweetgum, green ash, hawthorn, water oak, and loblolly pine, the latter coming from seeds of overstory pines that have been present on the island for many years. I first visited Sampson Island on a summer day in 1968. At that time there was an old empty tenant home, perhaps serving as an ad hoc hunt cabin, located in the middle of the island next to the trail. The island itself was planted in wildlife food crops.
Who was Sampson (Samson)? I’m assuming an African-American slave but after that the imagination can create many scenarios. Was Sampson an escaped slave? Could the island have been a temporary refuge for the notorious escaped slave Joe and his maroon followers? Perhaps Sampson was an outdoorsman who provided fish and game for his master’s dinner table? Or a herdsman who tended free-ranging cattle and swine. What was the island’s role during the Revolution? (It would have made a great camp for the Swamp Fox.) What was the island’s history during and after the Civil War and into the twentieth century? Hopefully, more in-depth archaeological investigations will shed additional light on this interesting place.
I pull up an old plastic chair under a run-down shed on the island, a legacy from the hunt club era, and sit a spell. The shed appears to have been constructed on the very highest point of the island. There are numerous “doodle bug” (ant lion) holes in the sandy soil under the tin-roofed shed, a bug not usually associated with bottomland swamps. The island also has some unswamp-like birds, including blue grosbeaks, mockingbirds, kingbirds, and even a painted bunting that I saw here last fall.
I have been away from the traffic noise for some time now. Road noise is the main drawback for Congaree East. Typically you can hear traffic up to about a half mile on either side of Highway 601, depending on the season, but even more during temperature inversions, usually at night and early morning.
I continue east towards Horseshoe Lake, a picturesque oxbow lake on the lower Wateree. I take a last glance at the open sky over Sampson Island, a rare view in a dense floodplain forest. I see the inevitably turkey vulture or two, along with three Mississippi kites hawking dragonflies and other flying insects, and highest of all, the primitive, cross-shaped outline of a soaring wood stork. It appears to be the missing link between reptiles and birds.
The mature second-growth forest here is, except for an occasional patch of switch cane, open and nearly free of obstructing ground cover. It makes for easier walking than the old growth upstream, with its impediments of large downed logs and limbs and thickets growing up in canopy gaps. There are few canopy gaps at Bates Fork, which suffered relatively light damage from Hurricane Hugo.
I soon approach “Burnside Bridge,” built years ago over a deep slough by well-known sportsman and businessman Marion Burnside of Columbia, who had the hunt lease here for many years. Like everything else he did, the bridge is first class, built of massive iron girders with metal grating on top. It must have been a monumental job getting all the materials here, and the fact that it has been here intact more than forty years, since November 3, 1973, the date inscribed on top, is testimony to its quality construction. For several years there was a large beaver lodge on the far end of the bridge where it joined an earthen embankment. The lodge is now gone, perhaps washed away from the heavy rains of 2013.
I’ve seen plenty of pig sign this morning – fresh rootings and wallows – and just before arriving at Horseshoe Lake, see six young shoats, rooting in the bottom of a dry stream bed. The colors include black, brown, and gray, and they are easily approachable, even as I make a lot of noise.
Water levels at Horseshoe, which was full for much of the spring when the Wateree was running high, are low and dropping. Back during the big drought of 2008, the lake, not very deep, completely dried up.
A little blue heron flies off at my approach, and I see a number of turtles sunning on logs and a few gar at the water’s surface. Several anhingas (a Brazilian Indian word for snake bird or devil bird) are perched in cypress trees on the edge of the lake, and one female is in the water hunting, with just her head and neck showing. Every so often I hear the strange, guttural croaking notes given off by the “snake birds.”
An osprey shows up, flies over the lake, and then perches, rather uncomfortably, in a small cypress overlooking the lake. It stays there for a few minutes, then flies off, circles the lake, and makes a pass at a perched anhinga, before heading to the river.
A few years ago I was here at Horseshoe, on the southeastern side closest to the river, enjoying a September lunch of sardines, when I began hearing brief, but loud, crunching noises, followed by silence. The crunching noise would start up again, again followed by silence. This continued a few more times before I was able to track down the source of the sound to a huge bull gator half hidden in the shallows on the far shore of the lake. He had a very large, recently dead snapping turtle in his jaws and was crunching its shell to soften up for swallowing.
I have a comfortable red maple backrest with a nice view of the lake. A slight breeze stirs periodically to cool things a little. I smell the characteristic odor of bottomland – a unique smell composed of, among other things, mud, decaying vegetation, stagnant water, and who knows what else. It is an evocative smell, one that stimulates memories for me that go back fifty years.
I reluctantly arise from my armchair and head back. I stop at nearby Cooter Hole and flush a wood duck, a great blue heron, and one anhinga. I happen to look down at the ground and see a large, fresh pig dropping slowly moving along the ground! The mover turns out to be a dung beetle underneath, who moves the dung to cover a small opening in the ground, perhaps his burrow. It’s hard to imagine the strength of this insect that can move something many times heavier.
Farther down the trail I see a Florida cooter in the trail. She hasn’t been out of the water long, and I assume, is looking for a place to lay eggs. I identify her by the clear yellow plastron with doughnut-shaped markings on the bottom of the marginal scutes.
I get back to my vehicle at 3:00 PM. The only serpent I’ve seen today is a red-bellied watersnake, crossing the trail on the way back. And right now there are more mosquitoes in some backyards in Columbia than there are in the Congaree.