River Musings

June 11, 2015.  The air is thick with humidity this morning, and there’s fog in the bottoms and low areas. I’m walking along the old Bates Ferry Road (later developed by the park as the Bates Ferry Trail), a one-mile straight stretch of old causeway from US 601 to the Congaree River. It was constructed in 1923, when a new bridge was erected over the Congaree River, and was in use for twenty years, until 1943, when another bridge farther south (where the current one is located) was built over the Congaree.

The old causeway was built to withstand all but the highest flooding, and the borrow pits from whence the dirt to build the causeway was removed are still evident. They are now small ponds that hold water year round and provide good habitat for frogs and toads and other wildlife that need water during dry spells. Lots of thickets and shrubbery, beneficiaries from abundant sunshine, grow along the sides of the causeway and make for good birding. And a variety of butterflies find a home here as well.

The deer flies are out in force this morning and sometimes mosquitoes too. They don’t really relent until I get to the end of the road at Bates Bluff, overlooking the river. After enjoying the view and open horizons, I turn west and cross the old logging bridge at the inlet to Bates Old River (now dangerous and closed to foot traffic since much of the planking is missing and rotten). As I submerge myself back into the dark forest, the deer flies and mosquitoes welcome me like a lost friend.

Norfolk-Southern Railroad Bridge on the Congaree.

I walk down the old logging road that hugs the river as far as the Norfolk Southern Railroad tracks. The river emerges into view again, and I hear a boat coming up river. The boat, a large one with two young men in it, has a big four-stroke outboard motor. These four strokes are amazingly quiet and make half the noise of the old two-stroke engines that you could hear coming down the river a half mile away.

A colony of cliff swallows has built forty or so of their gourd-like mud nests under the new railroad bridge over the river. This would have been a noteworthy sighting a half century ago when cliff swallows first started nesting in South Carolina along the upper Savannah River. Since then they have spread east and south and now cover much the state. Before cliff swallows, this bridge had barn swallows nesting under it. Barn swallows are another relatively new breeding species for the state, beginning with the middle of the last century, and like cliff swallows, they have spread rapidly throughout the state thanks to bridges and highway overpasses. Unlike the more gregarious cliff swallow, barn swallows are often solitary nesters that will use the eaves of porches, outbuildings, docks, and boathouses to hold their mud-constructed nests.

Cliff swallow nests under the US 601 bridge.

I continue walking the old log road westward beyond the railroad through young forest cut over thirty years ago. It is more grown-up in places than the section east of the railroad and has several spurs and dead-end branches that can confuse a first-time hiker. It eventually goes all the way to the original park boundary of 1976, a boundary of old-growth forest clearly demarked like a straight edge from the second-growth forest to the east. This old boundary line runs at a 60º angle all the way from the river to Running Lake Slough, and dates back 250 years to an original 1766 land grant of 800 acres for Susannah Jones.

A summer sky on the Congaree at Bates Bluff.

Four sweat-drenched hours later, I make it back to Bates Bluff at mid-afternoon. A soothing, light breeze from the river provides relief from the heat, and the afternoon clouds are shading the scorching sun. Best of all the bugs are at bay and I lean up against a tree in peace and watch the river go by.

The famous tropical ornithologist and philosopher Alexander Skutch suggested that humans are attracted to rivers because they provide a unique, pleasing combination of permanence and change, two opposing, conflicting traits that we struggle with throughout our lives. Skutch also suggested that one of our primary reasons for being is to enjoy the beauty and loveliness of a natural world that is overflowing with splendor and magnificence.

It certainly seems to me that in a world filled with what is almost a glut of jewel-like hummingbirds (the second-largest bird family in the New World, with more than 300 species!) and other birds of every imaginable color combination (think painted bunting and paradise tanager), as well as thousands of gaudy butterflies, flowers of every color, shape, and description, not to mention lofty forests, rolling plains, picturesque mountain ranges, and lakes and oceans full of incredible life, that there almost has to be the guiding hand of a Divine Providence that provided this overabundance of natural riches simply for us to enjoy. Skutch had that rare ability to find and enjoy beauty in both the aesthetics of nature as well as possessing a scientific mind that delved into the secret lives of birds to find more beauty in their behavior and biology, and to share this knowledge with others.

I have to agree with Skutch that there are few things more peaceful and pleasing than watching a coastal river on its long voyage to the sea. And not far behind me I’m surrounded by a big forest of amazing beauty, mystery, and complexity that offers a lifetime of endless enjoyment.

I finally arise, put my musings aside, and head back to my car parked a mile away next to the U.S. 601 causeway. After nearly eight miles of walking, I see only one “no-shoulders” at what should be the height of snake season, a non-poisonous red-bellied watersnake.