Cham­pion of cham­pi­ons

Con­ga­ree Na­tional Park pre­serves a for­est of record-hold­ing trees

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY CHRIS­TINE DELL’AMORE

“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.

CHRIS­TINE DELL'AMORE

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.

JA­SON O. WAT­SON/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

PAUL BARNES/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

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.

CHRIS­TINE DELL'AMORE

NA­TIONAL PARK SER­VICE

JEFF LEPORE/ ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

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.

JA­SON O. WAT­SON/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

AURORA PHOTOS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

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