Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Cold Day in Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park – 1/4/14 – 4 miles

The first Saturday of the new year, I wanted to kick things off with a good, long, strenuous, why-do-I-do-this hike.  But it’s turning out to be an unusual winter around here, extremely cold temperatures, more snow than usual, some impassable roads and, more significantly, no solo hiking for me in the NC/VA mountains.  I enjoy hiking alone, but I don’t think I would enjoy an injury waiting for rescue in a remote location in the cold.  Safety first.

Feeling both melancholy and antsy at these limitations, I looked southward to the closest national park, which I am embarrassed to say I have never visited:   Congaree National Park, 90 minutes via interstate.  Why haven’t I been here? Well, because it really is a swamp area, summer is NOT the time to check this place out (mosquitoes, bees, snakes, the occasional alligator, and humidity that will make you scream in anquish) and in the other seasons there are so many other places to go.  But today looked like the perfect day.

Congaree Swamp National Monument became Congaree National Park in 2003.  It is the first and only national park in South Carolina and at nearly 27,000 acres is the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States.  Waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers periodically swell the floodplain.  The park includes 25 miles of hiking trails, 2.4 miles of boardwalk, and a canoe trail along Cedar Creek.    The Visitor Center is well worth your time. 

At the parking lot I was a little surprised to find that it was still chilly (35 degrees) but my daypack was well stocked with shirts, gloves, a fleece jacket and even a neck gaiter.  I knew I wouldn’t be generating much heat on the flat trails so I layered up.

The very nice and extremely knowledgeable lady ranger at the VC explained to me that most of the park is flooded in winter and trail access is limited, so my hiking wasn’t going to be extensive.  The Low Boardwalk Trail was probably underwater past the halfway point.  Well, let’s see how far I can get.

From the back door of the VC I walked on the Low Boardwalk, took a left turn at the wrong time, got myself reoriented and scratched my head over what to do next.  I didn’t want to be finished before I started.  Looking at the trail map again, I took the next right turn onto Sims Trail and found myself  walking on solid ground.  Boardwalks are nice for keeping your feet dry, but the railings separate the hiker from getting up close to vegetation.  I met a fellow hiker coming the other way who reported only one small flooded spot on Sims, then the lower boardwalk was impassable.

Dwarf palmettos, something you only see in the low country, bright green standing out like flowers among bare branches of winter.

Guess I’ve gotta go through it to stay on the Sims Trail

Cypress trees and cypress knees in swirling current.   

I think cypress knees have personalities.  What is their purpose?  Do they help provide structural support during floods and high winds?  There are many theories and no one knows for sure. Read this article and report back.  

Yes, the water at the lower boardwalk intersection was deeper than I cared to venture so I turned left, heading toward Weston Lake.  Still more boardwalk, but rising gently high above the ground.

At the Visitor Center I picked up a copy of the Park’s Boardwalk Guide which corresponds to 20 points of interest along the main boardwalk trails.  I learned about Dorovan muck, snags, switch cane and where the word cane break originates.  The guide even notes the remains of an old still (yes, the kind used to make alcohol.) 

Number 11 on the guide indicates that this loblolly pine is over 150 feet tall, a former state champion.  My daypack is laying at the foot of the tree.  Do you like its “elephant toes”?

Congaree is a birder’s paradise even at this time of year, featuring a constant chatter.  Someday I will learn to identify bird songs.  As for visuals, I spotted a red-bellied woodpecker and heard several of them pecking away looking for lunch.

Spanish moss dripping from the trees

I continued in a loop onto the Elevated Boardwalk, removing me a little farther from the trees and palmettos but giving me a broader view of this protected ecosystem.  In total I walked for about 1.5 hours in Congaree National Park, a lovely way to spend the first Saturday morning of 2014.  I am appreciative that our country deems it important to preserve all types of wild places, not just the biggest mountains and the broadest vistas.  Cypress knees are a wonder of nature, too.

Y’all come!

"In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous." ~Aristotle

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