Down the Creek

August 14, 2014.  It’s almost chilly this pre-dawn morning as I paddle down Cedar Creek. It feels more like April than August – the only thing missing is a turkey gobbling. Bull frogs and green frogs are calling from the big slough on the other side of the creek bank that has been recharged with recent rising waters. Water levels for the creek are ideal for paddling, 3.75 feet – high enough to cover logs and other obstructions, but not so high and swift that the creek loses its character.

This is a magnificent morning, and I can’t help but think about the contrast between the overwhelming beauty and serenity of this place with the noisy, artificial world of traffic and urban development I left behind a short while ago. That this great forest is only a 25-minute drive from my house is truly remarkable. By park standards the Congaree National Park is small, less than 27,000 acres, yet it has the seclusion and wilderness atmosphere of a park many more thousands of acres in size. Once you get away from the park’s trail system you could sit on a log and never see another soul for a long, long time.

Congaree wilderness boundary sign

Congaree’s wilderness atmosphere has literally been created by an act of Congress, going back to 1988 when about 15,000 acres of the park was officially designated as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. In 2014 an additional 6,690 acres was added, bringing the total wilderness acreage to 21,700 acres or about 82% of the park. This is some of the largest amount of designated wilderness within such close proximity to more than half a million people anywhere in the country.

Several cuckoos are calling from the forest canopy along the edge of the creek. One is close by and giving a long string, up to a dozen, of loud, caoo-coo-coo– or kaow, kaow, kaow calls, from which the bird gets its name. Despite their large size and loud calls, cuckoos, being forest birds, are masters of stealth and surprisingly hard to find in dense foliage. In spite of outward appearances, they do not belong to the large family of “perching birds” that songbirds are all members of, but instead are in the same family as the roadrunner. They specialize in feeding on hairy caterpillars, a food that most forest birds avoid.

About 7:30 I come around a bend in the creek to see ahead of me a brilliant, tightly focused sunbeam piercing a hole in the tree canopy and illuminating the creek and overhanging foliage as if someone was pointing a powerful flashlight beam. The effect is electrifying, especially with the faint wisps of cooling water vapor that rise off the creek and swirl up into the sunbeam. I shoot one image after another, trying to capture this transcendent scene, but knowing it will fall far short, which it does. I could turn around and go back home to bed now, content with the knowledge that the rest of the day couldn’t get any better than this.

Despite my slow pace, I’m making good time since the creek has been recently cleared of log jams and downfalls. The water level is high enough to paddle through the canal, except for one small log that I have to get out and pull the kayak over.

Elder Lake in summer

Elder Lake this morning is devoid of waterfowl; in fact I see no wood ducks at all today despite paddling for a total of ten miles in five hours. There are several anhingas that I flush from the trees along the lake and one kingfisher. I often hear the “water turkeys,” as anhingas are sometimes called, before I see them. Their guttural croaking, sounding very much like some type of frog, often gives their presence away. Most fly off at my approach, making much fanfare and noise with their wings, but one bird chooses to escape by diving for water.

There is just enough water to make Pine Ridge Slough floatable by kayak, so I strike off to the north from Cedar Creek. Like all sloughs, this one is thick with cypress and water tupelo, which make maneuvering with a seven-and-a-half-foot kayak blade difficult, so I pull out my four-foot light wooden paddle that I carry for such occasions. The slough is full of tall cypress knees, but the water is just high enough to get over most. There are always a few, however, lurking just under the surface that can, and do, hang up a passing kayak.

I arrive at a stopping point, halfway up Pine Ridge Slough, tie up the kayak, then walk east towards Pine Lake. I am walking along a ridge of high ground that runs east- west and which has a number of old large loblolly pines. It used to have more until Hurricane Hugo came through in 1989. This area west of Pine Lake and north of Hurricane Pond had some of the heaviest hurricane damage in the park. I remember thinking when I first got here in the spring of 1990 that some logging crew had lost their bearings and cut in the wrong location. I like to visit here periodically to see how the recovery is going.

I am soon walking in stands of young, slender hardwoods about five-to-ten inches in diameter. The walking is quite easy, but twenty years ago would have been impossible. Then they were impenetrable thickets of shrubs and vines. These blow downs have taught us a lot about natural regeneration in a bottomland hardwood forest and, perhaps most importantly, how the shade- intolerant sweetgum gets to be the dominant tree in the Congaree. As I walk through one old blow down after another, now growing young trees, I note the different species – green ash, American elm, sugarberry, laurel oak, sweetgum, swamp cottonwood, red maple, and sycamore. Right now the big winner is green ash, clearly the dominant young tree.

Each blow down seems to have a slightly different tree composition than the other. As you move south from the ridge into slightly lower ground, swamp cottonwood and red maple predominate; in a few, sweetgum is dominant.  There is something else I notice about sweetgum that doesn’t seem to apply to the other species – root sprouting from the shallow, horizontal roots of a larger gum. In one case I see four gum saplings about four feet tall and eighteen inches apart, growing vertically in a perfectly straight line from a shallow root of another sweetgum. This is an interesting pattern that you often see in the park – two, sometimes three, rarely four, very large sweetgums growing close together in a straight line as if someone planted them.

Right now I would say that this area in a hundred years will be dominated by green ash, not sweetgum, but perhaps the gums will eventually overtake the ashes and shade them out. It will be up to someone else, born fifty years from now, to make that observation.

The day has warmed up considerably since 6:15 AM, but with a light northeast wind and low humidity, it still doesn’t feel like a dog day in August. I head back to the boat in a meandering circuit, stopping and looking along the way. On a log by a small slough I see a red-spotted purple  butterfly imbibing the minerals and nutrients from the remains of otter scat, consisting mostly of fine bits of crayfish exoskeleton. The butterfly opens its wings to sunlight pouring through a hole in the canopy, lighting up the iridescent purples, blues, and red-oranges that glisten in the sun.

Red-spotted purple butterfly by John Grego

Another insect is also enjoying the warm weather. There has been a recent mosquito hatch, and the little devils are making their presence known, enough so that I swab some bug juice on my bare arms. I think this is only the second time I’ve used insect repellent this summer.

I make unavoidable noise walking through a thick patch of switch cane on the way back, and as I near a thicket, hear loud rustling of something big leaving the thicket. It’s a wild pig, and I can just make out its brown back as it runs away in the thick cane. The oinkers like to bed down in thickets during the heat of the day, and fortunately all of the many that I have inadvertently flushed from these coverts have exited in the opposite direction.

I’m looking at a two-and-a-half hour paddle back up Cedar Creek to the landing. The sun is starting to sink in the western sky, and the swamp is still and peaceful, marred only by the loud, periodic “ker-plopping” of early falling, olive-sized water tupelo fruits that hit the water as if someone dropped a pebble from twenty feet up.