The Dark Side of the Swamp

November 25, 2015.  The swamp, including the low boardwalk, has been partially flooded these past few days. The Big Flood of 2015 has continued now, with minor ebbing here and there, for almost eight weeks. The most recent flooding finally subsided on November 17, with the Congaree dropping below fourteen feet at the park. It eventually fell to nine feet on November 19, but then shot up a whopping seven feet in less than twenty-four hours and is now running at sixteen feet. What causes these dramatic, almost tidal-like, water fluctuations? The answer lies upstream at the Lake Murray Dam on the Saluda River, as well as smaller, upstream dams on the Broad River. On November 22 and 23, the South Carolina Electric and Gas Company released a wall of water eleven feet high from the Lake Murray Dam. Fluctuations are not as dramatic as on the Broad, but since it’s a bigger river, a pulse of four feet may be equivalent to eight feet or more on the Saluda.

I arrive at twilight (about the time of moon rise) for a full-moon stroll on the open portion of the high boardwalk. However, it will take an hour or two before the white orb starts showing through the bare trees. I hear a few barred owls calling briefly, far away, when I first arrive, but an hour later the swamp is eerily quiet.

A few years ago then-superintendent Tracy Swartout made what I think is one of the best decisions the park has made in its nearly forty-year history when she decided to open it twenty-four hours a day. This has allowed us to view and experience an entirely different side of the swamp, the night world, a little-known and still mysterious realm. We humans are not endowed with adaptations for the dark, and for much of our long history the night has been something to fear and avoid (and still is for most people). Much of this has to do, I suspect, with our poor night vision. We feel more vulnerable after the sun goes down and are nearly blind to possible threats around us. Night sounds are different from day sounds. Some of them may trigger ancient, long-suppressed memories embedded within the far recesses of our mind that date back to the African savannah, when predators stalked us in the dark.

Darkness for humans is a time to hunker down in a secure location and restore our bodies through sleep. But much of the natural world comes alive at night and there may be more activity then than during the day. One of the last frontiers is piecing together the many puzzles and secrets of the nocturnal world of life.

Urbanized man has so flooded the nightly sky with light and sequestered himself from nature after hours that many people have never had a decent view of the heavens on a clear night, much less experienced even part of a nighttime outdoors. Everything about the dark world of Congaree is interesting and new. Simply sitting on a boardwalk bench and listening to the sounds of the night and watching the sky open with a glittering brightness is an exciting experience.

The most iconic of night sounds at Congaree belongs of course to the barred owl. At certain times of the year the park has organized nighttime “owl prowl” walks to introduce the public to the amazing repertoire of this most characteristic of the swamp’s nocturnal denizens. But there are many other voices out there too (especially during the warmer months) which include chirping crickets, croaking frogs, and the loud pulsing of katydids. Mammals sometimes make their presence known: snorting deer, yipping coyotes, caterwauling raccoons (almost guaranteed to raise a few neck hairs), and the bird-like chirping of foraging armadillos. Sometimes there are sounds of unknown origin – a disconcerting rustling of leaves; the snap of a twig (what’s that?!); or a sound coming from a critter that you’re not sure has fur or feathers.  But often there are no sounds at all – just long periods of absolute black silence. Sometimes this can be the most disquieting time of all, a reminder of our nocturnal vulnerabilities and that we are merely visitors who have overstayed our welcome.

The moon has finally started clearing the trees as I turn to leave, bathing the boardwalk and surrounding forest in a silvery brightness. I hear the distant whistle of the 9:30 Kingville train. The coyotes hear it too and briefly let loose with high-pitched yips and howls coming from the direction of the primitive group campground.