Congaree National Park in Winter: Probably Not a Great Idea.

First off, I want to apologize for not posting for a few weeks. As I mentioned in a few past articles, I was dealing with the last stages of my mother’s cancer. She passed at the beginning of February and I just couldn’t write, both psychologically and because of all the business I had to attend to. I’m back now though and I promise I’m up off the mat for good.

                For several of the early years of my legal career, I rode the circuit across the rural hinterlands of Virginia, hopping from court to court like an up and coming Abraham Lincoln. I had no choice but to resort extensively to Apple Maps to find some of the courthouses, jurisdictions that might have had a thousand people in the whole county. I used to discover strange, relic cabins, fossils of an older America and have the strange recurring thought that there was someone whose whole life was this forgotten corner of the country, yard strewn with plastic riding toys and old cars. Winding my way down the narrow country lanes of South Carolina, being led mysteriously and inscrutably toward Congaree National Park, I was reminded of those days. I also asked myself the old question after each seemingly quixotic turn: how could this possibly be the best way to get anywhere?

                It was raining steadily, and the other question I had to ask myself was whether there was any point in visiting Congaree in the winter, during a heavy rain. The park is no longer called Congaree Swamp; the area is technically a bottomland floodplain, but it’s still low-lying, wet, and untraversable when it floods. This was not an ideal time for a visit.

                We knew better. My son and I listen to Parklandia, a podcast about a couple who travel the country in an RV, trying to visit all the national parks. When I googled what the guys look like, I found a picture of them standing by the entry sign to Congaree National Park. My son and I got a picture at the same place. On a side note, as we were listening a few days ago, he asked me out of the blue whether the guys were brothers. I said no. Then he asked why, if they’re not brothers, do they hang out together all the time. I’m a lawyer, I know when I’m being led. I considered ways of phrasing it. He had gotten upset at the same-sex kiss in Star Wars. I don’t know why. Maybe it just upends his ordering of the world? But I couldn’t think of anything clever, so I just told him, “They’re gay, dude.” He quietly reflected on that. Anyway, the Parklandia guys told us not to go to Congaree in winter, but the fact is that this was the time we had to be there. After my mother’s funeral, my son, myself, and my brother were taking a long road trip back toward New Mexico. I have a lifelong goal of visiting every national park and have to take the opportunities I can get. Who knew when we’d be in South Carolina again?

                So, we arrived at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center in a constant, driving, chill rain. Apart from a departing bus full of kids on a field trip, we were the only ones there. In the center, we learned right off that most of the trails were flooded and inaccessible. Oddly enough, the Congaree River was actually below flood level. It was the smaller Cedar Creek that was inundating the park today. But the boardwalk was still above water, so we were happy to hike that. I love boardwalks. They allow you to move through a forest without disturbing anything, and especially to get close to wetlands, which are full of life. Back in Virginia, my favorite park to visit is Huntley Meadows, which has a several mile-long boardwalk that traverses a floodplain teeming with snakes, waterfowl, beavers, and turtles. Congaree is a very different environment. Huntley Meadows is an open waterway with no tree cover in the wetlands. This forest is completely covered in huge trees. In fact, Congaree has the largest concentration of record-breaking trees (called Champion Trees I learned) in the eastern United States. The highest loblolly pine, sweetgum, cherrybark oak, and lots of others are here. For centuries, it was just too difficult for loggers to get to the timber here because of the wet conditions. By the time the technology was developed to manage the terrain, the Sierra Club was in full force, stepping in to save the forest from destruction.

                What I really wanted to do in Congaree was rent a canoe and explore the forest up close. Unfortunately, the park hasn’t set up anything to allow rentals, so the only option would be to own a canoe, or to somehow rent in Columbia (about 20 miles away) and transport to the park. We didn’t have the time or means to do that, so we were stuck with only the portions of the park covered by trails. I would really like to put out a call for the park service to set up canoe rentals. This could be more manageable for people of modest means, and it’s really the only way to properly see the forest. (Cue the sound of me stepping off my very small soapbox).

                We settled for the trails. Even in the rain, which was heavy enough to obscure my vision as it dripped into my eyes, the forest was beautiful. Little stands of palmetto crept up heroically from the water. I was surprised not to see cypress knees, which are my mental image of a southern swamp. The rain shut down most of the wildlife. A few of the smaller birds braved the weather, as did a surprisingly large concentration of cardinals. The bright red stood out in the bluish grey that dominated the rainy forest. The little birds were active, hopping around the smaller trees. I think they’re less troubled by rain, as they can get protection under leaves. Sadly, we did poorly at identifying them. Aside from a few flashes of yellow, they seemed to be the ubiquitous LBJs (Little Brown Jobs) that I can never differentiate: warblers, creepers, wrens? Who knows?

                Our path came to an end at Weston Lake, which was supposedly the home of an adult alligator. We looked but saw no sign. His Mesozoic brain, more clever than our Cenozoic ones, had him denning up in the rain and cold. At the lake, there were two dead ends. One was a viewing platform at the edge of the clearing. We did spot a few mallards soldiering on in the rain, but nothing else. The other dead end was a continuance of the boardwalk. My son and I splashed on a bit into the forest, hopping over some shallow flooding, but found that the wooden path disappeared underwater. It looked like the unnatural boundary on a video game map. Or maybe we needed to find a magic item that allows underwater breathing, or a crank that opens a sluice gate. I considered equipping Dracula’s Rib then kneeling for thirty seconds, but instead we hurried back to the car. The rain was getting into our poorly waterproofed clothes, and it was getting colder. We’ll be back someday when I level up.

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