July 7, 2014. I’m taking a hike this morning at the Bates Fork tract, a part of what I call Congaree Park East, which consists of park property east of the Norfolk-Southern Railroad. Bates Fork itself is about 2,400 acres, nearly four square miles, on the east side of Bates Old River and the US 601 bridge, and it extends all the way to the Wateree River. The topographic map refers to it as “Fork Swamp,” as it sits between the fork of the Wateree and Congaree Rivers.
A special acknowledgment is due here to some far-sighted conservationists, primarily Richard Watkins, a founding father of the park, and Mark Kinzer, an attorney then in private practice, and the Trust for Public Land, all of whom worked tirelessly to expand the park’s boundaries from the railroad east to the Wateree River. It started with Bates Fork in 2005 and more recently included 1,835 acres of the “Riverstone” property. These additions, purchased from willing sellers and totaling 4,235 acres, have expanded the park to its current 26 thousand plus acres. This also means the park now consists of thirty-two continuous river miles – twenty-eight on the Congaree and four on the lower Wateree. This is an extraordinary achievement to have so much coastal river frontage in permanent protection. The park also now ties in directly to the neighboring 16,700 acre Upper Santee Swamp, owned by the South Carolina Public Service Authority (Santee-Cooper), which includes the well-known Sparkleberry Swamp. Together, the two properties have created a unique piece of protected bottomland hardwood forest totaling nearly 43,000 acres.
All of Congaree Park East has been cut over at one time or another, so it doesn’t have any truly old-growth forest like the heart of the park. However, parts of it do have some nice stands of mature hardwoods, which will eventually become old growth. There are also a few scattered specimens of virgin cypress present that were never cut, including the “General Greene,” with the biggest circumference of any tree in the park, twenty-nine feet.
The eastern section of the park is different in several respects from the main park farther upstream. It is about fifteen feet lower in elevation with more open water and bigger sloughs. Bates Old River, the largest oxbow lake anywhere in the Congaree floodplain, is four miles long. This lake and its backwaters support some enormous alligators, twelve feet or greater in length, rarely found in other parts of the park. The more open expanses of water at Bates Fork also provides habitat for several small heron and anhinga rookeries, foraging ospreys, wood storks, and bald eagles. The hydrology is distinctive too, as might be expected when two large rivers from two different watersheds join together. The plant communities are different as well. Whereas the bottomland forest in the main part of the park is dominated by sweetgums, here it is primarily laurel oak and green ash.
Congaree East also has its own special history. McCord’s Ferry, first chartered in 1749 as Joyner’s Ferry, was an important part of the state’s early transportation network and commercial link between the Low Country and Back Country. During the Revolution it was a strategic crossing for both sides. It was here in May, 1781, that General Nathanael Greene, commander of the southern Continental Army, first met the famous “Swamp Fox,” Francis Marion, after his successful assault at nearby Fort Motte.
But back to the present. As I leave the vehicle, I check out the drying pools and sloughs under the large power line right-of-way next to Highway 601. These shallow water holes are good feeding places for wading birds and I see two great egrets, three great blue herons, and one wood stork. Several years ago an immature roseate spoonbill spent a few days feeding in one of these pools right next to the highway.
The old road leading to the swamp is partially grown up with a rich crop of ragweed, ironweed, sericea lespedeza, hibiscus, Ruellia, sneezeweed (Helenium flexuosum), a heliotrope not yet in bloom known as turnsole or Indian heliotrope, Heliotropium indicum, and other weedy plants benefitting from fertile clay soils and full sun under the power line. I also notice that deer have been browsing on the heliotrope.
Even at 8:30 AM I hear few birds calling, but the cicada chorus is starting up in the warming morning air.
There are impressive thickets of blackberry briars growing along the overgrown trail. Some of the canes are more than six feet tall and three quarters of an inch in diameter. They lean over the narrow trail, waiting to ensnare a hapless hiker, but I use my persimmon hiking stick and beat them back with gusto.
Shortly after the trail cuts away south towards Sampson Island, I make a brief detour to a nearby “flat,” a low area that holds flood waters for periods of the year, to visit a good-size water locust, Gleditsia aquatica. This tree is ten inches in diameter, about fifty feet tall and the largest I’ve seen in the park. I first found it last summer from a kayak when the water was neck high where I’m now standing. The thorns growing from the tree trunk are a key identification feature as are the lacy, pinnately compound leaflets.
The narrow trail, still soaked in dew in shady spots, is a perfect hunting ground for spiders and I pass through a number of webs. Then my attention is focused on a large, robust spider up in the corner of its web, which is anchored to a young sweetgum sapling. The arachnid is wrapping up a large beetle in silk for food. I identify it, based on size, coloration, and two large humps on her abdomen, as a giant orbweaver (Araneus bicentenarius) using Chick Gaddy’s Spiders of the Carolinas field guide. This is a great little field guide that, unlike so many which have turned into encyclopedias, you can still put in your back pocket.
I arrive at Sampson Island, in the heart of Bates Fork, about 9:30 AM. It’s always impressive to approach this “mountain” of high ground surrounded on all sides by swamp. There is almost a twenty feet elevation difference between the island’s highest point, a hundred feet, and much of the surrounding floodplain, which is about eighty feet above mean sea level. …………. to be continued………….