THE FROZEN SWAMP
As New Year's weekend rolled around, we were itching to spend some time in the woods. We needed to go backpacking, but the weather forecast in the mountains was for cold and wind and snow. For a change of pace, we decided to visit the Congaree Swamp National Monument near Columbia, SC. We had tried to do this trip twice during the fall, but had to cancel each time for various reasons.
The park floods on a regular basis, but I confirmed with the ranger that the water levels were unusually low. We drove to the swamp on Saturday morning, and stopped at the visitor center to pick up a permit. I requested a permit for backpacking, and the friendly ranger told me that I didn't need one - only camping requires a permit. After I clarified the meaning of backpacking, we were on our way with our permit in hand. On the way out, I noticed a visitor's log book with wildlife sightings. The list was impressive, with wild turkeys, bald eagles, and river otters among the highlights. We hoped to be so lucky.
We drove a short ways to the Kingsnake Trailhead. It was only about 20 degrees as we prepared our gear. Needless to say, there weren't any other cars at the trailhead.
We hiked across a bridge over Cedar Creek and into the woods. We followed what appeared to be an old roadbed that was built up above the level of the surrounding swamp. The scenery of the swamp was fascinating, especially since the standing water was all frozen. Only the flowing creek wasn't iced over.
After 30 minutes, we left the old roadbed and headed into the heart of the forest. We passed a number of sloughs full of cypress and tupelo. We had lunch at the edge of one that seemed to go on forever. We were enjoying the old growth forest, but the cypress wasn't the highlight. The kings of this forest were the immense loblolly pines. Hanging from the branches were curtains of spanish moss. Below the giants were holly trees and palmetto.
The trail eventually wound its way back to Cedar Creek. We followed the creek for a ways, looking for otters. We didn't have any luck though. We reached a junction with the Oak Ridge Trail, and followed it deeper into the swamp. Unfortunately, this trail was blocked with numerous deadfalls. Luckily the trail was well marked, or we never would have been able to follow it. Getting lost in this flat, featureless swamp was a frightening prospect, so we watched for blazes the rest of the way.
By mid-afternoon, we reached Wise Lake. After 7.5 miles, we were ready to camp. We had been searching for campsites, but hadn't seen any likely spots. The low areas seemed risky, in case the water rose. Finally, we found a lovely spot near the lake. We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and looking out over the ice.
That evening, we attempted to consume a dinner of red beans and rice with a little too much cayenne pepper. We were able to choke some of it down, but we had to supplement our meal with granola bars. Despite several mugs of cider, the cold drove us to the tent early that night. With temperatures well below freezing, we even let the dog in the tent with us.
We got up to a very cold morning almost 12 hours later. While I was cooking breakfast, I noticed a pain in my wrist. I took off my watch, and discovered a deer tick feeding on my arm. I've found plenty of ticks on me in the past, but this one was firmly attached. Christy had found one on her jacket the day before, but I was still shocked to see it in such cold weather. Needless to say, I removed it without following the proper procedures, and flung it into the woods. It left an ugly red welt which is still noticeable. A trip to the doctor on Tuesday didn't accomplish much, and now I'm waiting to see if I'll get sick.
After a rough start to the day, I was ready to do some hiking. We broke camp around 10AM, and followed a loop trail along the banks of Cedar Creek. Along the way, we passed several good areas for camping. After an hour or so, we reached the Kingsnake Trail and backtracked to our car. It was a nice hike on a sunny day, and it even warmed up a little for us that afternoon. We made it back to the car by lunch time, as we covered the 5.5 miles in about 2 1/2 hours.
Other visitor's wildlife sightings: wild turkey, bald eagles, river otters
Our wildlife sightings: 2 ticks.
It was a good trip, and I recommend Congaree to anyone who might be in the area. Call ahead to check on flood conditions though, and don't forget to watch out for the ticks. We're looking forward to going back, perhaps when there is a little more water and less ice.
Back to South Carolina
Back to Hiking and Backpacking Trip Reports
Please remember to Leave No Trace!