Congaree National Park is our nation’s newest national park and is located along the north shore of the Congaree River, about 30 miles south-southeast of Columbia, South Carolina, and about a four hour drive from Atlanta. It contains almost 11,000 acres of old-growth floodplain forest, part of the largest remnant of such forest remaining on the continent!
This is the preferred habitat of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which was long thought extinct but was rediscovered in 2004 in Arkansas. Birders are now seeking the ivory-bill in the Congaree Swamp, which has many of the giant sweet gum trees on which it prefers to feed and where it was last seen in 1935. The Park contains one of the tallest forests east of the Mississippi with many giant sweet gums, swamp tupelos, bald cypresses and magnolias.
The Santee River Cypress Lumber Company cut millions of board feet of virgin bald cypress from the Congaree floodplain from 1888-1915. The average age of the cypress logs that came through its mill was about 600 years, but one log had 1600 growth rings! Loggers of that era took only the best cypress. Hollow and crooked trees were left behind. Fortunately, enough cypress survivors were left behind to get an idea of what this cypress grove once looked like. The tallest bald cypress found in the Park these days is 148 feet.
Our group of six met on Saturday, November 10th, near the Park’s Headquarters when it opened at 8:30 a.m. After a short tour of the interesting nature center, we got a backcountry camping permit, which is free and allows a maximum of six people to camp together on Park land. After running a 16 mile shuttle along paved roads, we put in at Cedar Creek Landing, about 4 miles from the Park Headquarters, at 11:15 a.m.
We paddled four open canoes. Allen Hedden & Dawn Southern and Rhett Butler & Rachel Gates paddled tandem canoes, and Arthur Wade Lucas and I were in solo canoes. Also with Wade was his black dog, Luke, an 80 pound Labrador Retriever/ Rottweiler mix, who did wonderfully on his first canoe trip.
Our first day’s trip was down lower Cedar Creek, a beautiful, clear, intimate stream that flows through the heart of the National Park and is classified as Outstanding National Resource Waters. It usually was shallow, about 30 feet wide, and well shaded by the towering, dense forest. However, it occasionally broadened and deepened in areas reminiscent of Minnies Lake in the Okefenokee. The water level was low, 2.18 on the USGS gauge in the Park, and getting through was s o m e t i m e s challenging, particularly in the more heavily laden canoes. The Park’s staff and volunteers have labored hard to keep this narrow canoe trail on Cedar Creek open, and I only had to step out of my canoe once to get through. We saw a great deal of wildlife, including a coyote, deer, an otter, beaver, turtles, and numerous water fowl and raptors.
We reached the Congaree River, through the swift, exciting Mazyck’s Cut, at about 4:30 p.m. We quickly made camp on a long, broad sandy beach on river right, across from the creek outflow. Since the public trust in South Carolina extends to the ordinary high water mark for floatable waters and the beach was well below the river’s high water mark, we were still able to camp on public land.
Both days were dry and virtually cloudless, and it got cold quickly after the 5:30 p.m. sunset. We chose to camp outside the National Park, which prohibits back-country fires, so as to legally enjoy the very welcomed campfire on the beach. We shared gourmet food and beverages and great camaraderie by the fire; marveled at the star-filled, moonless sky; but nevertheless were all in our sleeping bags by 9 p.m.
On Sunday we paddled the 12-13 miles to the U.S. Hwy. 601 bridge on the large, wide-open Congaree River, part of the 50-mile Congaree River Blue Trail beginning in Columbia and dedicated by American Rivers on June 2. The USGS gauge a short distance upstream of our campsite read .86, a low but very ample level giving us a 1-2 mph current and good water quality. We ate lunch on a wide beach by an impressive old railroad bridge and got to our take-out about 2:00 p.m. Image our surprise when our cars were not there! We had left the cars by a bridge over an old, cut-off meander of the river about 3 miles up the highway. Two local octogenarians came to our aid and drove us in the back of their pick-up to our cars, so that I was still able to get back home to Gainesville for dinner by 7:00 p.m. We had a wonderful trip with a great group of friends.
Allen has posted photos of our exploits at http:// canoeist.smugmug.com/gallery/3836718#221911180. Information about the Congaree National Park, including details of paddling trips, is available at www.nps.gov/cosw.
By Roger Nott
From The Eddy Line, January 2008