August 27, 2014. I’m walking south this unseasonably cool morning on a long-vanished roadbed through the swamp. More than two hundred years ago there was a primitive road here, the road that led to General Isaac Huger’s ferry over the Congaree River. Huger is better known today as a famously mispronounced street name in downtown Columbia rather than as a Revolutionary War hero.
After the war the General was given bounty land in the Congaree for his services to his country. In 1786 the General Assembly awarded him a concession to operate a public ferry across the Congaree River, located about six miles upstream from McCord’s Ferry, which had become abandoned after the war. Unfortunately for Huger, McCord’s Ferry was later put back into service, and the two ferries, only six miles apart, became direct competitors. Huger’s Ferry operated for only five years before shutting down in 1792. The only evidence of his ferry today is the earthen bridge ramps at Running Lake and at a small gut close to the river. Interestingly, these bridge abutments are now on the National Register of Historic Places. Former park ranger Guy Taylor told me back in the 1980s, during very low water, he saw the remains of what appeared to be bridge stringers at the old bridge crossing at Running Lake.
It must have made for an interesting buggy ride through the swamp on a late winter afternoon in 1790, when the ferry was still operating. The crossing at Running Lake would have been forty feet over cold, deep water. Did the driver dismount and lead his horse(s) across the bridge?
Perhaps the travelers would have heard the call of gray wolves, still present then, or seen a tawny-colored mountain lion leap across the narrow road bed, or perhaps an ivory-billed woodpecker in swift, strong flight through the bare hardwood canopy, or a flock of lime-green Carolina parakeets feeding on cypress balls high in the canopy. What would the traveler(s) have done about lodging and meals at this hour of the day? Was there an inn or public house nearby to put them up? They still had a long ride in front of them if going to Columbia, nearly thirty miles away. That trip today which takes less than thirty minutes would have taken most of the day by buggy in 1790.
The old ferry road follows a natural ridge of high ground on the edge of Tom’s Slough on the west. This large slough supports a cut-over stand of second-growth water tupelo, the trees noticeably smaller than those in other sloughs in the park. The original trees were probably removed later in twentieth century after the virgin cypress had been cut.
The yellowed tupelo leaves are falling thicker now than they were a week ago and give the slough a preview of fall to come. It’s interesting that the tupelos are one of the last trees to leaf out in the spring, but one of the first to start losing foliage in the fall.
I follow the ridge, and imaginary ferry road, to Big Pine Island. This was a beautiful spot thirty years ago, with cathedral-like pines, sweetgums, and cherrybark oaks towering over an open, park-like understory. This changed dramatically when Hurricane Hugo’s winds blew down some of the pines and oaks. Since then, wind, ice storms, and beetles have removed more of the canopy. Now the island is a jumble of downed logs, grape vines, and thickets that make it difficult to walk more than twenty-five feet in a straight line. There are still some nice pines on the south end of the island, although I notice three standing close together that have pitch tubes on their lower trunks, a sign of a pine bark beetle infestation (the beetles usually win).
There is no question in my mind that Big Pine Island was formerly cleared or partially cleared at some time in the past, perhaps as a cowpen or as some agriculture field. As with nearly all of the old-growth pine stands in the park, this one has no young pines growing up to replace the dead and dying ones, and its fate now seems destined to eventually become a stand of pure hardwoods.
I continue south. Pig sign is everywhere, in the form of rootings, wallows, and rubs, the latter consisting of blotches of mud at the base of tree trunks where, after the pigs have wallowed in a mud hole, they rub themselves against a tree, leaving a mud mark against the trunk. I’ve told myself that when I encounter a mud rub three-and-a-half feet or more high, I will start taking up golf.
I soon come to the overflow that drains from Toms Slough eastward into Running Lake. Water levels are low right now, and the overflow is shallow and narrow and full of debris, mostly old dead leaves and sticks from previous high water. The remains of an old beaver dam occur at its narrowest point. I see movement in the shallow, clear water in the form of a three-foot cottonmouth swimming in a lazy, fish-tail motion, head held high, tongue flicking. This is the first cottonmouth I’ve seen all year. The clear water highlights the olive-brown-and-black dorsal pattern that blends into black on the tail.
For me, cottonmouths are not attractive snakes. Some lack much of a color pattern and are nearly all black. Others I’ve seen are almost blonde. Regardless of their color, they are still unappealing, lacking, for example, the deadly beauty of a large rattlesnake. Cottonmouths are famous for holding their ground when approached, rather than fleeing as most snakes tend to do. And their trademark signature is the wide-open, white mouth which stands out against a dark background of swamp mud and debris, and from which the snake gets its name.
The cottonmouth senses my presence and moves off into a debris pile. I continue south towards Joe’s Lake, my destination for the day. On the way I pass an overcup oak with a very large buttress, measuring 22.2 feet in circumference. This is the largest I know of in the park, and could very well be a new state record. Unfortunately, this tree is living on borrowed time. It is hollow at the base, has an old lightning scar down one side, and a thin, sparse, unhealthy canopy. I will be surprised if it’s still alive five years from now.
I arrive at Joe’s Lake a little after noon. A great blue heron flushes at my presence. The lake is low, about four-to-five feet below winter water levels. The water is stagnant, with a thin, greenish film on it. After the heron leaves, the only signs of life I see are a few cooters sunning on a log and large dragonflies patrolling low over the water’s surface.
The lake is long and narrow, about 1700 feet by 100 feet, and runs east-west between Toms Creek and Running Lake. Like Tom and Sam(p)son, we don’t know who Joe was – perhaps an early trapper, huntsman, or cattle drover who worked this area before the settlers got here in the mid-1700s. The earliest date I’ve got for the name of the lake is on a plat from 1802. There is also a Joe’s Branch (now called McKenzie Branch) nearby that feeds into Tom’s Creek, as well as a Joe’s Island on the Wateree River.
I sit on a log at the edge of the lake and have a pack of nabs for lunch. Besides the usual pig tracks at the muddy edge, I see a good number of coon tracks and a few shed wild turkey contour feathers. All is quiet and still in the swamp – no crows or red-shouldered hawks calling, no sounds at all – even the cicadas are taking a break. The skeets are too, as I’ve hardly seen one all day.
I walk west on the north side of the lake. At the middle-western end, significant shoaling has taken place, much more than I remember when I was last here. Impressive deposits of mud and sand have filled in parts of the lake and are growing young sycamores, ash, red maples, water elms, box elder, and buttonbush. Smaller cypress trees are abundant. My take on this kind of thing is that once it gets started, it is almost irreversible. This is a text-book case of ecology and geology in action. The fate of all ponds and lakes is to fill in eventually, usually gradually over many hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Joe’s Lake, probably a former river channel, lost the scouring action of the river when abandoned and has been gradually filling in ever since. But something in the past few years has greatly hastened the process, and it now appears that within my life time much of the lake could disappear.
For some reason the trees around Joe’s Lake don’t get very big. I am unaware of any hardwood logging that took place here in the twentieth century. Could it be the soil? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s soil survey for Richland County, the soil in this area is Tawcaw silty clay loam, the most common soil type in the Congaree floodplain. It is not nearly as fertile as Congaree loam, and may explain, in part, the smaller tree sizes.
It’s time to head back to the ranch. I see a monarch butterfly on the way back, flying low through the forest. This is a signal that fall migration for more than just birds is getting underway. And speaking of butterflies, I’ve seen very few of Congaree’s signature species, the zebra swallowtail, this summer. There were only three seen on the June butterfly count. In 2012, twenty-two were counted; in 2010, there were ten, while in 2008, fifty-six were counted.
As I re-cross the overflow, I pass near my cottonmouth friend curled up on a debris pile not far from where I left him four hours ago. I pass several laurel oaks and overcup oaks with fresh green acorns on the ground underneath them, many with squirrel gnaw marks. It’s shaping up to be a good year for acorns – and squirrels, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, red-headed woodpeckers, feral hogs, and lots of other swamp critters (it actually turned out that 2015 was a bust for both oak species; only swamp chestnut oak and cherrybark oak produced any acorns to speak of).