Champion of champions
Congaree National Park preserves a forest of record-holding trees
“Let’s be real quiet and listen,” the park ranger says.
Sprawling treetops sway 15 stories up. The wind ripples through the branches like ocean waves. Woodpeckers, warblers and scores of other birds sing, their sounds stitched together into a never-ending avian orchestra.
The coffee-colored creek laps at our canoes as a sad reality soaks in: We’re surrounded by the biggest swath of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the Eastern United States.
These 11,000 acres have evaded the ax and plow since large-scale logging started in the 1880s, obliterating up to 50 million acres of American forest within five decades. Ancient trees fell along coasts and major rivers. Here in the vast, tangled wetlands of Central South Carolina, logging was more trouble than it was worth.
So these giants stood, mostly forgotten, until the 1950s, when journalist and conservationist Harry Hampton recognized the value of the remaining old growth and worked to preserve it. In the 1970s, when the threat of logging loomed anew, a public campaign led
to the establishment of Congaree Swamp National Monument, named after the Congaree River that winds through the park. The Congaree were a native people who, according to archaeological evidence, had been in the area for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.
In 2003, the monument became the 26,000-acre Congaree National Park, a little-known haven of meandering waterways and champion trees a short drive from Columbia, the state capital. The largest of its species, a champion is judged on a points system of three criteria: height, trunk width and crown spread. Congaree has more of these trees than any other place in North America. Five of them are national record-holders; more than 20 claim state records. Those include a loblolly pine that’s 15 feet around and 167 feet high; a cherrybark oak 23 feet around and 162 feet tall; and an American elm 17 feet around and 130 feet high. More superlative trees probably are out there in the dense forest, yet to be measured; even the known champions require a map and an intrepid spirit to find.
“It’s like going into a time machine and seeing how this part of the country used to look,” says Gregory Cunningham, our guide on a tour through the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail.
The canoe trail — and actually most of the park — is designated as federal wilderness, which means no development or motorized contraptions such as chain saws allowed, leaving nature as pristine as possible.
On a cool April Fools’ Day morning, we meet Cunningham and our fellow paddlers at the trailhead parking lot, where he cautions us just how wild it is.
“This isn’t a Disneyland kind of thing,” he says. He isn’t joking. April is snake-breeding season, and Congaree has 21 species — most of them nonvenomous. But “you will see snakes,” he says. Family members exchange nervous looks.
The top reason most canoes flip are snakes or spiders falling into boats, he continues, but we would be fine by avoiding “swamp pinball”— bouncing from riverbank to riverbank — and staying midstream, where snakes are less likely to dangle overhead.
I’m worried about mosquitoes. Fortunately, the park’s official mosquito meter registers a 1.5 (mild) out of 6 (war zone). Plus, I feel lucky to be here. When I called the park on the morning of March 1, the first day of public registration for seasonal canoe tours, almost all the tickets for April 1 were gone.
I can see why as my husband and I climb into our dark-green canoe and push off into the peaceful forest. We glide between massive, moss-covered trunks, ducking under low-hanging limbs — swamp limbo, Cunningham calls it. A gigantic brown bird — a barred owl — flaps between tightly spaced trees.
Cunningham pauses our regatta to point out a barely perceptible elevation change — rod-straight loblolly pines, sweetgums and water oak are clustered on slightly higher ground while bald cypresses and tupelos are partly submerged.
“That’s really the neat thing about this park,” he says. “Even though you may only go up a foot or two in elevation, that changes the forest type completely.”
All around us, bald cypress “knees” poke out of the water, still-mysterious roots that probably stabilize the tree trunk. Congaree and Catawba peoples made canoes from the hardy, rot-resistant tree, which can live 1,000 years and was dubbed “wood eternal” by loggers.
Many have found refuge in Congaree. In the 1800s, African Americans escaped slavery from nearby plantations and formed maroon communities deep in the wetlands, where few people venture. “For many people, this forest was freedom,” Cunningham says.
“For many people, this forest was freedom.” Gregory Cunningham, Cedar Creek Canoe Trail tour guide, on Congaree National Park’s history of supporting maroon communities of escaped slaves deep in the wetlands during the 1800s.
Today, it’s the domain of river otters, bobcats and adventurous humans such as my fellow paddlers Amantha and Steve Moore of Massachusetts, who tell us that they have set a recent retirement goal of visiting the 417 official National Park Service units. (Mine is less lofty: Visiting all 59 national parks.)
“In New England, if you hike all the 4,000-footers, they say you’re peak bagging,” Amantha says as we oar side-by-side. “This is park bagging.”
The creek abruptly widens into Dawson’s Lake, an oxbow created when the Congaree River changed course a long time ago, isolating a U-shaped section of water. Silvery clumps of Spanish moss drape over tree branches, their many shades of green mirrored in the water like a Monet. Dozens of water striders, a type of aquatic insect, twirl atop the glassy surface.
As the first tour of the season, we hit the inevitable snag: A downed tree smack in the middle of the water trail. Cunningham finds a detour that requires navigating around twisted roots and fallen logs — a skill dubbed swamp slaloming
Cutesy expressions aside, Congaree is mostly not a true swamp, which requires a forest to be wet year-round; these forests, called bottomlands, are only wet when the Congaree and Wateree rivers seasonally flood, bringing vital nutrients to animals and plants in the floodplain. This ecological process, combined with a long growing season, is why Congaree’s trees get so darn huge. Floodplain forests are not only nice to look at, they absorb a lot of rain, easing the impact of floods on towns and cities. They also recharge aquifers and provide homes for an incredible array of wildlife.
Some of that wildlife — notably reptiles — creeps out of the woodwork as the day warms.
A yellow-bellied slider, a colorful freshwater turtle, perches on a log, waving its clawed feet in the air — “turtle yoga,” Cunningham quips.
On the opposite side of the creek, a thick, brown snake with dark stripes suns itself on a branch, easily three feet long — and probably, I find out later, a nonvenomous brown water snake. I paddle enthusiastically over for a closer look, forgetting that my husband also is in the canoe. (Cunningham calls these “divorce boats,” since couples often disagree on, shall we say, navigational strategies.)
As we muscle back to the trailhead at a rhythmic clip, leafy canopies arcing over our heads, I think about how the public so reviles swamps and wetlands, especially now. I get that they’re mosquito-ridden and brimming with unpopular creatures. But they’re also hauntingly beautiful places that protect us and, in the case of Congaree, serve as a reminder of just how great America’s forests used to be.
In South Carolina, a canoe cruises Dawson Lake, an oxbow in Congaree National Park created when the river changed course and isolated a U-shaped section of water.
TOP: The canopy over South Carolina’s Congaree National Park is full of bald cypresses and tupelos. ABOVE: An owl is among the incredible array of wildlife inside the park’s confines. LEFT: On Dawson’s Lake, the many shades of green are mirrored in the water like a Monet.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Children put on their field goggles at Congaree National Park in South Carolina; the mosquito meter lets visitors know the severity of conditions involving some of the park’s less-popular inhabitants; a luna moth stretches out on the trunk of a tupelo; a camper sits by his cooking fire at a park campsite.