Canoeing Southern Swamps on Earth Day Weekend
By Dick Ambrose.
Earth Day weekend again finds us paddling the canoe trails of Congaree National Park. Last year was the first group outing in the park with 12 guys, who came from several gay outdoor clubs: Gay Outdoors, the Wilderness Network of Georgia, the Wilderness Network of the Carolinas, and the Wilderness Network of the Mountains. This year we had a group of 10 guys, from the same organizations as last year, all ready to go swampin’. On both trips, we spilt the group into two smaller groups, to lessen the impact on the area.
The Congaree is one of the newest national parks in the Southeast and is known for its big trees and isolated backwaters. At 22,000 acres, the Park is the largest contiguous tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the U.S….and once you launch your canoes at Cedar Creek Landing, there is no takeout until 20 miles downstream.
The vast majority of the Park is in the Federal Wilderness System, and is managed by the Park with minimal human disturbance. So, you really have to look for the few signs which designate the canoe trail along its route. These signs are very, very important…because two years ago, the small group I was with, was "temporarily turned around" on our scouting trip there. This resulted in our having to spend an extra night camping out, after we realized we had made a wrong turn. You have to paddle this trail to appreciate what I’m talking about. It’s a challenge sometimes. But, that’s what makes this outing a real adventure…using your best navigational skills, along with the best maps, and an occasional use of a GPS.
I was again reminded of another fun aspect of this canoe trail, which I had forgotten from last year…and that is mud! Being a rich bottomland forest, there is much deposition of suspended solids and decaying plant matter all along the waterways. In fact, this is probably the richest ecological area in southeastern U.S., due in no large part to the substrate the plant life grows on…rich dark soil and mud along the streamside. Now, this poses an interesting challenge for canoeists. About every mile and a half or so, for the first 7 miles of the trail, it’s necessary to portage around blowdowns over the trail. This means getting out of the canoe, unloading everything, carrying the canoe around the blowdown…and then loading everything back into the canoe again. Here’s where the mud comes in…it covers the stream sides. You can’t avoid getting it on everything in the process of portaging. You just learn to live with it…and clean everything off as best you can, at the day’s end. We all realized though, that if it wasn’t for the mud…we wouldn’t have the rich forest of the Congaree.
Camping out along the canoe trail is another great experience on this trip. Although the Congaree is a national park, there are no managed campsites along the trail. So, you camp where you want to…in a true wilderness setting. And, since the Congaree is out of the major flight path of airplanes and is far from any highways…there are only the sounds of the forest surrounding you. There are not many places in the southeast where that can be said. The only sounds at night are the Barred Owl…and an occasional wild pig rooting around, while daytime sounds come from streamside warblers, numerous woodpeckers, and an occasional kingfisher. This area comes as close to what our country looked like 200 years ago, as any place I have ever seen. And, we all got to experience it first hand on this special Earth
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