Bootleg Island

July 23. 2014.  Hard to believe it’s been nearly two weeks since I’ve been to the swamp. I arrive a little after 11 AM at the South Cedar Creek Landing. Two vehicles are in the parking lot, probably belonging to fishermen. The contrast between the hot, gravel parking lot, exposed to the full sun, and the dark forest beyond is striking, and ten degrees cooler. I walk west along the bluff line on the north side of Cedar Creek. The sky is partly overcast with temps in the mid-80s, but the humidity is high from the front that came through Monday and brought much needed rain. It doesn’t take long before my shirt is saturated.

The bluffs in this area are about fifteen to twenty feet above the floodplain and represent what biologists call a transition zone between the drier pine-dominated uplands and the wet hardwood floodplain.  Transition zones often have an interesting mix of vegetation from the habitats on either side of them. Here, for example, I see beech trees growing next to bald cypress and a cherrybark oak growing on top of the bluff. Near the base of the bluff there is an old cement boundary post with the markings “SRCL CO” – Santee River Cypress Lumber Company.

Things are mostly quiet except for the droning of cicadas and the calls of gray tree frogs. Soon I hear the noisy chattering of a red-headed woodpecker coming from the open mixed pine- hardwood forest on top of the bluff. The red-heads avoid the swamp this time of year. Some muscadine grapes are starting to fall, mostly green ones knocked off by the recent rain storm. They will be black, ripe, and juicy in another month.

The bluff has now become more of a slope that gradually merges into the floodplain. I’m on the edge of the muck swamp, which unfortunately has been freshly rooted up by feral pigs as far as the eye can see, and gives the impression of walking in a barnyard. I come to a little rivulet that runs off the “hill,” as I sometimes call the bluff. An old 1800s plat called it Indigo Branch. It has a good bit of flow as a result of recent heavy rains. I walk farther out into the muck swamp where the ground floor consists of little raised hummocks of exposed, intertwined swamp tupelo roots, interspersed with mud flats and pools of standing water. It is not easy walking. This is prime cottonmouth country, but I see no snakes of any description today.

Mosquitoes are negligible, but several deer flies are buzzing about my head. Fortunately the flies are more of a nuisance and don’t seem to be in the biting mode. The muck swamp seems to breed deer flies more than other parts of the floodplain, and I suspect it has something to do with the large amount of damp, decaying organic matter that they breed in.

I soon arrive at a small island of high ground in the muck swamp and start seeing old rusted 55 gallon drums – nine in all – a remnant of Lower Richland’s bootlegging era more than sixty years ago. Some of the drums have large, squared, punched holes from where the “revenuers” busted them up. One has a large, circular hole on the side of the drum, which I assume was for the boiler exhaust. I also see several smaller rusted buckets, a few broken mason jars, and pieces of brick. I’ve stumbled across the remains of half a dozen or so old stills in the park, mostly around this part of Cedar Creek. This one is by far the remains of the largest operation.

There are six large pines about thirty to forty inches in diameter on this small island, along with several splintered old stumps of fallen pines. But the most interesting one is a dead pine snag about thirty feet tall with the base chopped out by the bootleggers for fat-lighter kindling to fire up the stills. The base of this tree is no more than six inches wide at its narrowest point from where the ax tore into it. It has been like this for more than half a century and has managed to survive any number of storms, including Hurricane Hugo, without falling.

A fatlighter pine snag used for firing up the still

Just to the south of “Bootleg Island” there is an even larger ridge of high ground complete with  pines, beech trees, huckleberry in the understory, and partridge berry ground cover. This ridge is large enough, and high enough, to have supported a makeshift dwelling of some sort but I see nothing suggesting any past human activity. At the base of a large swamp chestnut oak, which has most of its foliage skeletonized from hungry caterpillars, I see many pieces of green acorns where the squirrels have been active. This is promising for a good crop of swamp chestnut oak acorns this fall.

I turn south towards Cedar Creek. Along the way I pass the webs of several large golden silk spiders. I also find a huge pile of freshly excavated wood chips, the work of a pileated woodpecker, at the base of a small tupelo snag. I marvel at the power of a bird that can dismantle a tree like this. The excavation is only four feet off the ground, and even though the snag appears to have been dead a while, the heartwood is still firm and hard.

excavated wood chips from a pileated woodpecker

Upon arriving at the creek I find a large beaver-gnawed sweetgum that makes a nice backrest, and I sit for a while and watch the creek go by. It is mid-afternoon and the cicadas are taking a siesta. The gray tree frogs are still calling, as is an occasional yellow-billed cuckoo, Carolina wren, and briefly, a summer tanager issues its loud hicky-up call.

Nearby, where Indigo Branch flows into the north side of Cedar Creek, I see in the clear water logs placed together on the bottom of the branch. The logs are about six to eight inches in diameter and eight feet long. It is an old log ford, probably left over from the cypress logging era a hundred years ago. I’ve found several of these old log fords, visible only at low water or during prolonged droughts, throughout the park.

From what we know about the early logging history of the park, it was done mostly by float logging, which involved cutting the cypress down after allowing them to “cure” on the stump by girdling, then floating them down river to the mill some forty miles away. It appeared to be a wasteful process, based on the number of logs that never made it out, still left in the swamp.  Perhaps as a follow up to float logging, or done concurrently with it, these old fords suggest that some logs were hauled out by ox carts and milled locally (or the oxen may have been used simply to carry logs to a staging area at a nearby stream or slough where they could floated out to the river).

I walk along the north bank of the creek back to the landing. A light rain has come up from out of nowhere. It falls for about ten minutes, with the sun shining for most of the time. The falling drops of water, gleaming silver in the sun, are photogenic. I spot a box turtle on the ground in front of me. He’s a handsome male (confirmed by the recessed indentation at the back of his plastron) with a red head and red eyes. There’s something about rain that makes box turtles active. I used to see them crossing country roads after a summer shower but, sadly, see very few any more (the same holds for snakes as well).

male box turtle