By Neal Polhemus
On Saturday November 3, 2018, we left from Columbia a little early in order to arrive at the visitor’s center as the doors opened. We needed to update our backcountry camping permit so that it matched the days we planned to be in the park. The morning air was cool and filled with anticipation as we made our way along the lower boardwalk – the familiar cypress and tupelo greeted us, standing tall like octogenarian sentinels. The motionless water of the muck swamp was a rich coffee black. As we passed by Wise Lake, the western low-lying flat was a dull emerald green, somewhat faded from its shiny summertime glisten.
Oak Ridge Trail carves a well-trodden path through the forest, tracing a natural levee pushed up by a former river channel. We stopped briefly to visit a few of the champion trees along the trail. First was the champion Shumard oak with its distinctly shaped acorn, and its neighbor, the bitternut hickory. The hardwoods produced a bumper crop of acorns this fall. In a several places, it seemed like there were multiple layers of acorns, of varying species, piled up together strewn across the ground.
Our plan was to follow Oak Ridge Trail to Bridge G that crosses over Boggy Gut, one of many ancient waterways in the floodplain, and then off-trail meandering in a southwesterly direction towards the river. We headed south skirting past Hog Pond and several shallow flats. For a short way, we traced the path of a well-worn game trail. Among the deer and hog tracks were several coyote prints, stealthy hunting prey; rarely seen during the day, we heard them later that night calling to each other, echoing like a siren across the floodplain. I was convinced they were still in the park somewhere near the bluff.
We quickly disappeared into the thick forest. The seemingly impenetrable canopy blotted out the sun as we weaved between ancient towering sweetgums, navigated over fallen trunks and along fading ridges of high ground. Deep Jackson Gut is one of the few waterways in the park that truly reflects its descriptive moniker. One of the first guts to flood the park, the banks of Deep Jackson are often steep and slippery, and rarely is there not several feet of water racing east towards Frenchman’s Pond. We searched and were fortunate to find a shallow pinch in the gut with a high sandbar that made for a relatively dry crossing. But the rain the night before made the bank of the gut as slick as glass, making any solid footing practically impossible. Before I knew it, I was crashing to the ground, backside covered in a layer of fresh mud, but no worse for the wear.
South of Deep Jackson, the towering even-age sweetgum stands are breathtaking. Acre after acre, nature has perfectly regenerated a grove of mighty hardwoods. Reaching up to the heavens, their grey bark is reminiscent of modern cement-clad skyscrapers. The reddish-orange fruit of the christmas cherry contrasted brilliantly against the changing green and brown shades of the forest.
After a few hours we made the former boundary of the Brady tract. From 1967-1978, the tract was logged heavily, though several large swamp chestnut and cherrybark oaks can still be found. Select cuts over the last century left several scattered champion hardwoods, though many have succumbed to ravages of time. On the lower end of the tract, nearest the river, regrowth has been slow. Easing into the parcel was a jarring visual shift in the canopy and tree composition from the Beidler forest. Small young hardwoods dominate the old agricultural fields.
Only a short way into the tract a discolored aluminum ladder lay strewn on the ground, formerly attached to a deer stand in a nearby tree. Before it was acquired by the park, the Brady tract was owned by a group of Richland and Sumter County hunters. I have yet to discover the name of the hunt club.
The former road, active since at least the 1880s, paralleling the river cut wide across the tract; it was easily discernible and made for easy going. We stopped for a moment at the historic Brady cattle mound; coming from the north we were opposite a large borrow pit, now more like a deep moat, prevented a deeper exploration for the moment. For about 90 years, a two-story wooden barn for hay storage sat atop the mound surrounded by a barbed-wire fence; more recently there was a hog trap.
Artifacts of the property’s former agricultural heyday were evident across much of the tract. We observed a dozen or more cedar and persimmon posts that once marked the boundaries of fields. These hardwoods were especially sought after by farmers for their disease resistant properties. Many had been in the ground for more than fifty years but their condition belied their age.
Heading east we came across two picnic tables much to my surprise. John stated they were placed there by the park in the mid-2000s when a team was putting together a river/creek trail guide. The tables made for a central location for the team to congregate since the nearest public landing was twenty-plus miles upstream. River runners putting in near Columbia sometimes use them as a camping area. I plan to use these tables again in future. Plus, they made for a lovely spot to stop and have lunch and take in the sights and sounds.
We continued east a short way and found an agreeable spot to make camp on the edge of a former field about twenty yards from the river. It was prime real estate since there were no large trees obstructing our view of the river. Looking south we could see the sharp bend in the river, cutting deep into the earth.
With daylight fading we quickly erected our tents and set out again, crossing an old landing and a deep anonymous gut leading due north to ‘4 Points’ and back into the old-growth forest. We walked along a former fence line that delineated the northern boundary of Wise Island, and meandered our way towards the location of Starling’s Mound and the site a former Santee River Cypress Lumber Company’s timber camp.
Starling’s Mound was a former Native American cultural site of some stature. In April 1982, the park’s first ranger Guy Taylor found several large pieces of pottery and noted a “black line… approximately seven feet below floodplain level” on the eroded river bank. Remnants of the mound remained until about 2012. We hoped to make out any signs of the former cultural site but the river has eroded the bank completely, leaving only our imagination to ponder what once was. Thousands of years ago where the river formed an advantageous levee for human use, was no more – swept away downstream, likely lying at the bottom of that monstrosity Lake Marion.
Along the way back I noticed several large sections of old woven-wire metal fencing still hanging onto fallen posts and a few selected trees; yards of barb wire dangled a few feet off the ground. The legacy of agriculture is evident in the floodplain if you look for it. But most pleasing was the discovery of a large towering green ash. We measured it at 15.5 ft c., about a quarter-mile from the river, near the fence sections. Nearby is the state record ash. Definitely a tree worth monitoring in the future as the park continues to produce record trees of remarkable height and breadth.
Back at camp we set to making dinner and shared stories as night overtook us. Our menu – two hot-water specials! Organic matter reduced to flakes, defying recognition as anything resembling food, with a fifty-year expiration date – good till 2058! Can’t be all that bad for you? Right? Only a few stars appeared overhead but the fact that only faint silhouettes could be seen mattered little. We chatted away as though we were sitting on fine-leather recliners sipping 18-year-old Scotch.
After a short slumber we awoke to the song of a black-throated blue warbler and the pecking of a hungry yellow-bellied sapsucker. Behind our camp, and along the nameless gut were a dozen or so fence posts, the former eastern property line of the Brady tract, that traced north for about a half mile. Beautiful man-made symmetry; a fleeting attempt to bring order to the wilderness.
Around 9:30 we heard a boat puttering up river in our direction. A quick wave, a rope thrown up the bank, and Andy and Dave disembarked. Soon we were off again. We trekked north in search of mysterious man-made canal hiding in the swamp. Before this weekend, no one had documented the existence of the canal, save Andy and members of his family. Did we really discover anything new if others already knew it existed? Or does it come into existence only when the right or a certain number of knowledgeable persons are informed?
Navigating through the forest is pure magic. On the opposite bank of an old river flat were a dozen immature American white ibis less than a year old still dawning their grey feathers, their distinct snowy finish yet to appear. They paid us no mind; an empty stomach guided the hunt for a crayfish or inattentive minnow. Spectacular site. For unknown reasons the ibis does not generally flush when humans appear tramping through the swamp as other waterfowl often do, much unlike the summer duck that takes flight at the slightest sound.
As we trekked on, we came across a former liquor still site. Lightly covered with leaves were two fifty-five-gallon steel drums, each with multiple ax-shaped holes in the side. Whether it was a park ranger, sheriff, or ATF agent who discovered them was unclear but it was evident they did not want them used again for manufacturing illegal liquor. Spend enough time in the forest and one might conclude that the park was once a moonshine production facility where manufacturing the mythical elixir was on an industrial scale.
We stopped for a few minutes to have a bit of lunch and consider our path of discovery, having thus far, proven unsuccessful. Where was this canal? We checked the wind, took a bearing and headed east. Seeming to have been hiding behind a grove of gum trees, we discovered the canal, having missed it earlier in the morning by 50 yards or so. It just goes to show how dense the forest is sometimes and how deceptive the swamp can be even when things appear to be right under your feet. What a massive structural feat of modern engineering. The tons of earth removed from the swamp was staggering. But we didn’t observe any mounds or borrow pits nearby or adjacent to the canal; it stretched 1,200 ft long, about 20 ft wide, practically straight as an arrow, along an east-west axis running parallel to the river. What are its origins? Who built it? When? So much more research to be done.
We walked the full-length of the canal awestruck; towering hardwoods and big holly trees were off in the distance, and nearby the canal. This seemingly untouched stretch of virgin-forest was such a treasure to explore. Big and bigger trees pushed upward into the canopy as we marched. We measured a holly tree standing over 6.1 ft, a giant for the species, located south of Little Lake gut. The state-record holly, also in the park, is only eight inches larger. With daylight fading we headed south towards the river. As we trekked, Andy shared stories about his family’s multigenerational history with the land and often forgotten cultural relationships with the swamp before it was a park.
Back at camp we made dinner and considered the day’s activities and new discoveries. Few things are more amazing than discovering a new cultural feature in the swamp nearly fifty years after the park was founded. Needless to say, this would be an incredible feat even if it were in a recently incorporated part of the park. But the canal is deep in the heart of the Beidler tract – the very core of the park’s original 15,000 acres. Here there are no elevated boardwalks; no trail markers; no street lights to guide you home.
Humans have used the floodplain for thousands of years. Since the mid-1700s, European colonists inhabited the park continuously growing crops and grazing cattle. Even so, it’s fair to suggest that less than a handful of visitors ever venture into this part of the park- the core of the Beidler tract – where the dense canopy shades out the sun, where shadows dance like marionettes, where the only voice you hear is the one echoing in your head.
As we began to retire for the evening, a light rain fell from the heavens, completely un-forecasted; it continued throughout the night, pounding against the rainflies stretched tight over our tents. The arrhythmic patter of light rain and heavy cascading downpours from the saturated limbs over head was hypnotic. In the morning we discovered that all was wet but none had made it inside. After having breakfast and breaking our soaked camp, we headed west along the river levee of the Brady tract for about a half mile, and then meandered northwesterly towards the bluff.
Our return route was a bit more westerly than northerly. We hit Deep Jackson gut further west than expected, requiring some off-the-cuff navigation strategizing. The rain the previous night had swollen the gut considerably; it was no longer a slow-moving stream but a formidable waterway. With the water up to our knees, we made a measured crossing and soon made the familiar Oak Ridge trail.
As the trees grew thinner and the canopy opened up over the boardwalk revealing civilization, the Visitor Center, I was conflicted and dismayed. Here I could wash the mud from my hands and face. Yet here too was the end of this adventure in the forest. New strangers to meet and greet; a 1970s model pickup truck grumbled in the parking lot, its exhaust poisoning the air – peace and solitude fleeting much too quickly. “Forget this world. Let’s turn back. We can do it,” I shouted or so I thought. Just a whimper – only audible to my soul’s ear.