May 24, 2014. It has been a while since I’ve been on the River Trail. This, along with the Bates Ferry Trail at the east end of the park, are the only park trails that actually take you to the Congaree River. It’s a pretty good hoof, ten miles if you do the entire loop.
I arrive at the parking lot at 9:15 AM. The weather this morning is ideal for walking – low humidity, cool temps, and a light breeze. This is Memorial Day weekend, and I suspect there will be a good number of visitors.
Once on the south side of Cedar Creek I start seeing a few jewelweed, Impatiens capensis, with their striking orange flowers, about eight to ten inches high, blooming along the trail. This is a wonderful native flower [and close relative of the garden variety Impatiens] and very much sought after by hummingbirds, especially in the fall. The plant juices are also an old-time remedy for preventing poison ivy rashes. Jewelweed gets more abundant the closer you get to the river, where it is also heavily browsed by white-tailed deer. It’s found growing in patches with other interesting herbaceous plants, such as Asarum canadense, wild ginger, and Southern shield fern, Thelypteris kunthii.
I see on the path a few spent blossoms of another great hummingbird flower, trumpet vine or trumpet creeper, Campsis radicans. The blooms have fallen from the tops of the trees where the vines grow to receive maximum sunlight. This vine is one of the most abundant in Congaree, and the large, twisted blonde trunks can get quite large, eight inches or more in diameter.
There is a fair amount of ripening pawpaw fruits on the abundant pawpaw trees I pass by. The fruits are about one and a half to three inches in length, and will be bigger and ready for eating in about ninety days.
As I get closer to the river, two tree species start becoming abundant, spicebush, Lindera benzoin, and box elder, Acer negundo. Spicebush, a small understory tree, is one of our great native plants and deserves a lot more attention from the nursery business. The aromatic foliage turns yellow in the fall, and the female plants produce attractive, shiny red fruits that the birds relish. The tree books consider spicebush a shrub and omit it from their texts, but it is definitely a tree, albeit a small one, in the Congaree. Most have multiple trunks, with the largest stem running about two inches in diameter and seven to ten feet tall, if you can find a straight one, since most of them flop over. Right now the search is on for a state champion spicebush. I do find a pretty respectable one close to the river that is nearly three inches in diameter and twenty-five to thirty feet tall. The national champion spicebush is located in North Carolina and is a whopping seventeen inches in circumference (about five inches in diameter), and thirty-two feet tall!
Box elder, a member of the maple family, is considered a weed tree by foresters, taking up space that could be used by more valuable species. It does have rather “weedy” habits, if you will, being a fast grower, but becoming brittle and falling apart as it ages. I measure one growing on the edge of Boggy Gut that is nearly eight feet in circumference, which is large for this species.
In a small clearing by the trail I spy the leaves of winged sumac, Rhus copallina, sprouting from the trunk of a tree on the ground that had snapped off near its base but left with enough of a wood connection to barely keep it alive. I can hardly believe my eyes when I realize that this prostrate, half dead tree, six inches in diameter and forty feet tall, is a sumac. The trunk appears similar to pawpaw, which is probably why I never paid it any attention. I never dreamed the lowly, weedy sumac could attain proportions like this. The national champion, located in Mississippi, is four feet in circumference, more than a foot in diameter, but about ten feet shorter. I wish that I could have seen my sumac when it was standing tall.
I veer off the trail to check out the state champion [and potential national co-champion] cherrybark oak. Sam Porth and I measured this tree about fifteen years ago. It has a massive, flared base, as do all the large cherrybarks, supported by seven major buttress flukes that extend four to six feet out from the trunk. The distance between flukes varies from two to four feet. I feel confident that this tree, 25.5 feet in circumference, is approaching maximum size for a Congaree cherrybark. All of the large ones are top heavy, with huge, umbrella-shaped crowns (this one has an average crown spread of 140 feet, a figure equal to or greater than the heights of many of the trees in the swamp!) and are susceptible to wind throw with their shallow root systems. Over the past twenty years I have seen many big cherrybarks end up on the ground in Congaree, and this grand tree in front of me is unfortunately living on borrowed time.
I take a sit-down break, leaning up against a beech tree with a nice back rest on the edge of Pearson’s Pond Gut. It’s approaching mid-day, but there is still a fair amount of bird activity. Cardinals are about, and a beautiful male hooded warbler sings temporarily from a low perch within twenty feet. In the background are the usual singing titmice, Carolina wrens, and red-eyed vireos. The real stand-out call this time of year belongs to the yellow-billed cuckoo. I’ve always thought Hollywood missed the boat for not using the exotic, jungle-like calls of the cuckoo as sound tracks for their Gothic movies.
A white-eyed vireo is having luck catching perched dragonflies for lunch. They provide a nice meal for the small bird, which has to work at subduing the dragons before choking them down. The wings, having no food value, are discarded and not eaten.
I am now within a quarter mile of the river and from this point on start seeing lots of fresh pig rootings. Off to my right, through the dense foliage, I see a tree with dark, almost black, diamond-checked bark. I look at the foliage to confirm my initial identification – yep, it’s a black walnut. They are rare in the floodplain, probably because it’s too wet, and are almost invariably found on the higher ridges close to the river. This walnut is 5.4 feet in circumference, a typical size for the Congaree.
I decide to turn a few logs to see what’s underneath – there’s no telling what you might find under a Congaree log. My first is quite rotten and I spot a large shiny black beetle, the horned passalus, or bess beetle or patent-leather beetle, Odontotaenius disjunctus. Its glossy black color and large size, almost as long as its scientific name, make for a striking appearance.
I find under another log a southern toad, Bufo terrestris. This is the common childhood toad for everyone over fifty. Back then they were found around every home in the suburbs. In our case we could almost guarantee finding one in warm weather in the recessed, below-ground crawl space vents. Sometimes we would hear the male toads calling from these subterranean chambers. It has been years since I’ve seen a toad in the suburbs, and its disappearance is a real shame and another lost link with nature and childhood.
I finally arrive at the Congaree River around 4:00 PM (I started at 9:30 this morning so am obviously in no hurry). It’s fairly low right now, reading 5.5 feet on the USGS gauge near the park’s western boundary. At low water the Congaree runs a nice greenish color, the color rivers ought to be. At high water though, it contains so much sediment and clay washed in from its extensive mountain and piedmont watershed that it almost turns red.
At low water most of the big sandbar on the inside bend of the river is exposed. Sandbars are attractive to people I guess in the same way beaches are. They make good fishing and camping spots or just a place to laze around and watch the water, the sky, and the rest of the world go by. You do have to be careful camping on river sandbars, however, especially those with upstream dams. Fluctuations can happen quickly when the power companies decide to release water (I have seen the Congaree, for example, rise more than ten feet in a twenty-four hour period).
I remember camping on a nice Wateree River sandbar years ago that went under water late in the night after we had gone to bed. Our first warning that something wasn’t right was from wet feet in our sleeping bags and seeing our cooking gear floating away. Fortunately we had tied up our canoe.
It’s now late afternoon and time to head back. The cool morning air has given way to a warm and humid afternoon. Mosquito activity has picked up a little. As daily temperatures and the humidity increases in anticipation of the hot summer ahead, the swamp is producing new signs of fungal growth everywhere. And just ahead, growing head high out of a half rotten red maple limb, is one of the most perfect and classically-shaped mushrooms I’ve ever seen. There are two of them, side by side, and another, in the button or egg stage, on the way. The white stalk, covered at its base by the volva, a cup-like structure surrounding the base of the stalk, is three and a half inches long and topped off with a most exquisite bell-shaped, off-white cap covered with fine fuzz. The gills underneath the cap are free, meaning they are not attached to the stalk. I take several photos for identification purposes. It doesn’t take long, leafing through my field guides at home, to find the name that belongs to it, the silky sheath, Volvariella bombycina. It’s one of the agarics, a large family of mushrooms that includes the notorious amanitas, the so-called “death caps” and “destroying angels.” The silky sheath, however, is edible, having a “mild, pleasant” taste according to the guide books. I have never been that confident in my fungi taxonomic skills, and my wild mushroom gastronomic sampling has been confined to morels; I leave this one for the squirrels to sample.