December 11, 2014. Today I’ve put in my kayak at South Cedar Creek Landing for a two-night camp in the swamp. The weather couldn’t be better – at noon it’s in the upper 40s, with brilliant blue skies, low humidity, and a slight touch of breeze from the northwest. It’s the kind of ideal day for chopping wood, digging fence posts, and other types of hard, manual labor. The only down side is that it’s going to be cold tonight, with lows forecast to be in the upper 20s.
Cedar Creek is at ideal levels, 2.9 feet, and black as tar. I see only one bank fisherman at Dawson’s Lake; he’s been there for about an hour and caught one small bream, but hopefully the weather and surroundings make up for the lack of fish.
My destination is the south side of Cedar Creek, just east of Horsepen Gut. This area, referred to as the Indian Pond compartment, is one of my big tree search areas. It’s almost a three hour leisure paddle away. On the way down I flush about sixty wood ducks, some in pairs, others in small groups, with the largest consisting of a dozen birds.
I stop for lunch at the “canal,” an artificial cut made across the narrow neck of the “Big Bend” of Cedar Creek. The canal is shallow, but I make it halfway through before encountering an impassable log jam and have to do a short, easy portage.
At the lower end of Elder Lake I encounter four river otters. They make my day. One has hauled out on a small log with some sort of sunfish for a meal, but I can’t make out which kind. The otters make short underwater swims, then pop their heads up nervously, giving off snorts and hisses while checking me out. Soon, they disappear upstream and we part ways.
The beavers now have two dams on this part of Cedar Creek: one at a narrow bottleneck just below Elder Lake; the other, helped out by a fallen maple, a little north of Horsepen Gut. The water levels are high enough that I’m just able to get over them without portaging.
I arrive at my destination a little after 3 PM. The sun is already low in the sky, and after setting up camp, I don’t have any time left for exploring. With a nice log backrest, I observe my surroundings. At 4:55 I see a squirrel high in the canopy above me, having a last minute meal of the fruits (drupes) of a sugarberry tree. The squirrel feeds for forty minutes, until 5:35 (sunset is 5:17), then turns in for the night in a cavity near the top of a green ash a hundred feet away. Another squirrel, perhaps its partner, has already preceded him.
Supper tonight is freeze-dried spaghetti – very tasty and filling. It doesn’t take long for night to envelope the swamp. I hear turkeys squabbling briefly about roost sites over Cedar Creek. Just before turning in at seven I hear a loud crack, almost like a gunshot, coming from the direction of Cedar Creek. It takes me a second before I realize it’s the tail slap of a beaver, probably alerted to my presence. It lets loose with another loud slap, which travels some distance in the still, night air, followed up shortly by a third.
December 12, 2014. I’m up well before dawn this chilly morning. It’s cold enough to turn the respiration moisture on the inside of my tent fly into thin sheets of ice, but I stayed quite toasty in my down bag. I can’t get the cap off of one of my water bottles to make coffee because it’s frozen shut. But the other cap pulls off, and I’m soon swallowing hot gulps of refreshing, black liquid. I estimate it’s about 28º. I’m wearing five layers of clothing: a cotton T-shirt, a cotton turtleneck, a fleece shirt, a fleece pullover, and a fleece jacket. I’m warm enough and think the inventor of fleece should be awarded a Nobel Prize.
My fingers and toes, however, are not far off from being cold. Normally I can do something about my fingers, but it’s hard to add another layer to your tootsies. My new Muck boots are rated from “sub-freezing to 85 degrees”. Not sure how far below freezing “sub-freezing” is, but, at least for the time being, the boots are doing their job.
I’m used to doing without a campfire and often don’t have one, even when allowed. But campfires do come in handy for social occasions and are a necessity in bitterly cold weather and when a body is wet. I miss them the most on a freezing morning like this one.
After breakfast, and three cups of coffee, I depart camp for a big tree hunt. My squirrels from last night are nowhere to be seen.
Indian Pond has been dry for some time now as are the little guts and sloughs leading out of it. I get as far as Hank’s Gut, then head westward. On the way I encounter a “sounder” of pigs, consisting of several sows, juvenile pigs and small piglets. Some of the piglets and juveniles are calico-colored with dark blotches on a white or tan background. I also find a recently deceased raccoon on the ground. It’s in good flesh, without a blemish, so I have no idea what caused its demise.
I get as far as Horsepen Gut, which is shallow and full of downed trees, logs, and limbs. I then cut back east to admire the large sweetgums to the south, southeast, and west of Indian Pond. In a forest of big sweetgums, this area has the best of the biggest. I find a sixteen-foot circumference gum, but it has lost the tallest part of its canopy, as have many in this area, to various windstorms and is only 110 feet high. Nearby is a fifteen-footer with a more intact crown which measures 125 feet high. Since most foliage has fallen, I’m able to get an unobstructed view of the base of the tree and its canopy and am able to use my laser range-finder to determine height. I continue northwest and find more big gums: a 14.2 footer with a broken top; a 14.1 footer with a mostly new top measuring 115 feet tall; a 13.4 footer, 128 feet tall; a 13.5 footer, but unable to determine the height because of obstructions. The tallest sweetgum I measure today is 133 feet high (and 13 feet in circumference).
Although I’ve seen these monster gums many times over the years, I never tire of admiring them. To cap the day off, I find a cluster of large sweetgums, six within fifty feet that all add up to nearly seventy feet of circumference.
As I head back to camp, a small group of hen turkeys takes to the tree tops, but it’s too early for roosting. I suspect something spooked them, maybe me. The grand birds look rather foolish and ungainly perched in trees. After a few minutes, they fly off in ones and twos, still looking rather cumbersome in flight, but not as awkward as perched in a tree.
I arrive back at camp a little before four and settle in with a cup of hot tea. The weather has warmed up to the upper 50s, and a lone cricket is chirping in the sunshine. At 5:15 my squirrel from yesterday is back in the same sugarberry tree, feeding on drupes as before. Its companion is nearby, closer to the green ash den tree. The sugarberry-eating squirrel stays out five minutes later than yesterday, turning in at 5:40 PM, again preceded by about five minutes by its partner.
By six it’s dark in the swamp, and as I prepare to “cook” freeze-dried beef stroganoff (I’m definitely eating well on this trip), I hear loud, blood-curdling howls coming from a coyote not all that far away. It’s just one animal, but I hear more howling and yipping in the distance. Almost as quickly as it starts, it ends, and the swamp goes quiet again. I don’t hear anymore coyotes until long after going to bed. It’s interesting that I have seen only four or five coyotes, all singles, in the swamp in the past ten years, yet it’s not uncommon to hear them at night in the park.
I wish I knew more about their biology. Coyotes evolved in western prairies and semi-wooded landscapes and have been spreading eastward, a process linked to the clearing of eastern forests, for more than a hundred years. So how does the “prairie wolf,” as early naturalists and hunters called them, fit in with the dense swamp forests of the Congaree? What impact has the swamp coyote population had on the gray fox (I can’t remember ever seeing a gray fox in the Congaree, but surely they are here). Has there been any significant coyote predation on young pigs to reduce their population growth?
Biologists have recently been talking about a “new” animal in the northeast and eastern Canada, the “coy-wolf,” a larger-than-usual coyote with wolf genes. The theory is that as coyotes spread eastward through southern Canada, they began inter-breeding with the small, remnant population of surviving wolves in Ontario and northern Minnesota. Normally, coyotes and wolves are bitter enemies, and wolves kill coyotes every chance they get. But, some biologists speculate, there were so few wolves remaining that they started mating with coyotes instead of killing them. Interbreeding has apparently been underway since at least the late 1800s when observers first started noticing a darker, larger coyote sometimes called the “northeastern coyote” or “brush wolf.” Recent genetic testing has determined that about a fourth of northeastern coyotes sampled are carrying wolf genes.
Whatever it is, it has made itself at home in the northeastern U.S. and is moving south. Our South Carolina coyotes have been here since the 1970s, being first reported in counties along the Upper Savannah River Valley. Apparently brought into the state by houndsmen, some of these captive coyotes later escaped. Concurrently, however, a wave of coyotes was spreading eastward on their own into South Carolina without any assistance from humans. In a remarkable feat of colonization, coyotes became well-established in every county in South Carolina over a thirty-year period. The extraordinary adaptability of coyotes, perhaps helped along with a little wolf DNA mixed in, has now allowed them to occupy just about every habitat niche in North America.
The northeastern coyote might not be the only one carrying wolf genes. Our South Carolina coyotes during their long eastward march may have picked up DNA from a remnant population of red wolves in east Texas and western Louisiana.