My First Visit to Congaree

April 18, 2014.  Today is an anniversary of sorts. It was on another Easter weekend forty-seven years ago that Harry Hampton took me on my first trip to the Congaree, when I was nineteen. He was sixty-nine at the time and I thought of him, well, as an old man. And now it’s come almost full circle, and I am only three years younger than Harry when he first brought me here in 1967. But I don’t feel like an old man; therefore, I am not, and I suspect Harry felt the same way. I’ve been blessed with good genes and work on maintaining fitness that has allowed me to enjoy the freedom and blessings of the outdoor life.

I’m standing in the middle of where he brought me then, a place I later dubbed “Sweetgum Hill.” It’s a ridge of high ground (“high” being a relative term in a floodplain) between Hammond Gut and Wise Lake, just east of the Oak Ridge/River Trail. There were a lot of large gums on this ridge in ’67, with the largest being fifteen feet in circumference, followed by a couple of fourteen footers, several more between thirteen and fourteen feet, and a good number of twelve footers scattered in-between. The big ones are now mostly gone, having succumbed to old age, wind storms, lightning strikes, and insects. The largest now standing has a circumference of 13.9 feet and is 131 feet tall. Like nearly all of the Congaree sweetgums, it has a beautiful growth form, a straight, columnar trunk without a blemish or limb for seventy-five feet.

The sweet gums here seem particularly vulnerable to wind throw, perhaps because they are more exposed growing on a ridge between two low areas?  Only last year the largest then remaining, a beautiful 14.5 footer more than 130 feet tall, toppled over, taking a twelve footer with it.  Nine years ago some sort of localized windstorm or micro-burst hit this ridge, and in one fell swoop knocked down four twelve footers at once. These four sweetgums grew so close to one another they appeared to be almost a solid wall of wood. They were one of my favorite special places in the park, and it was saddening to see them all go at once.

Obviously, with so many large gums “exiting” the canopy, there is now a lot more daylight showing through here than forty-seven years ago. In fact, this ridge appears much like other parts of the Park after Hurricane Hugo came through twenty-five years ago. With all the daylight now reaching the forest floor, I expect to see young sweetgum saplings growing up in the sunlight, but so far the canopy gaps have been captured by almost pure stands of young pawpaw. These trees colonize a canopy gap in such thick clumps that it is tough for other seedlings to follow.

A young Congaree blogger, ca. 1975, poses by a 15-foot circumference sweetgum shown to me in 1967 by Harry Hampton at “Sweetgum Hill.”

A young John Cely (l) and Richard Watkins stand by a column of sweetgums at Sweetgum Hill, ca. 1978. photo by Charles Wharton.