March 31, 2014. I am heading out this morning for a two-night backpack camp. Camping is the only way to really experience the total swamp. Daytime visits are just that – visits, and after all, you are missing half of the swamp’s daily cycle, the nocturnal side, the time when many of the swamps’ denizens – owls, bats, raccoons, opossums, deer, coyotes, bobcats, pigs, and others – become active. Because of our limited night vision, we cannot explore and discover the nocturnal swamp like we can during the day. At night it’s more like sitting on the sidelines, waiting and listening, and hoping maybe to piece together little bits of evidence, such as tracks and scat, when day and visibility return, to understand the nighttime story.
After a two-and-a-half mile hike down the old logging road to the river, now full of downed trees and limbs from the February ice storm, I set up camp on the east side of Ridge Gut, just north of the large 1975 clearcut in the middle of the swamp. The first rule of camping in the swamp is to check the overhead – look up carefully for any rotten limbs or half dead trees that could fall on your tent – with you in it. In such a dense forest, though, it’s hard to be completely clear of every possible “widow-maker.”
The day has warmed up, and I see nearly all-white falcate orange-tip butterflies nervously flitting by low over openings and canopy gaps in the forest. They are among the first spring butterflies in the Congaree. Only the male has the orange wing tip, which is sometimes hard to see unless at the right angle.
The red buckeyes are fully-leafed out and in bloom, just in time to serve migrating hummingbirds a dose of badly-needed nectar. The handsome plants with their red, tubular flowers and dark-green palmate leaves stand out in a forest that is still more winter than summer. They are not common in the swamp and usually found growing in isolated patches on the higher ridges. As would be expected, they attain respectable sizes in the Congaree, with some specimens being nearly fifty feet tall and sixteen-to-eighteen inches in circumference – not bad for what is normally a bush or small understory tree elsewhere.
After a freeze-dried supper I look forward to the dark side of the swamp showing itself. The sun is now low in the west, and it’s starting to cool down. At dusk, with only a trace of red sky left, I hear a gobbler sounding off from its roost in a cypress flat across the way. I think the turkey is responding to the calling barred owls that are getting warmed up for their nighttime endeavors. I hear at least five or six owls in the general vicinity – two are close, and the sounds these owls produce are nothing short of fantastic. One call, that I dub the “lunatic laugh,” sounds to me like something you would hear in one of those B-grade black-and-white horror movies of the 1950s. It will make you jump out of your skin, especially when the owl is right on top of you in the dark.
I sleep OK the first night. After midnight the owl chorus diminishes, but there is one persistent fellow who keeps calling a single “who-oo-oo,” almost with a question mark at the end, like he’s lonely or looking for someone.