Congaree National Park – An accessible wilderness area

20150210SCCONG 021AI’ve been zigzagging the Carolinas the last few days.

I’ve been to the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail meeting, revisited Guildford Courthouse National Military Park and Cowpens National Battlefield and met with a couple of editors. Yesterday, I went back to Congaree National Park outside of Columbia, South Carolina.

Some would call Congaree a swamp, but technically it’s a floodplain forest. When it rains, the Congaree and Wateree Rivers flood. Then the water recedes. The park protects old-growth bottomland hardwood forests. It boasts champion trees,  such as water tupelo and loblolly pines but it’s the bald cypress that are most impressives with their characteristic knees.

In the visitor center film, a visitor says that “you can almost hear the trees grow.” It sounds poetic until I get on the trail. I hear a wonderful chorus of birds, without the overwhelming sounds of crows. Though Carol Gist, the volunteer behind the desk at the visitor center, assures me that she had seen crows in more remote parts in the park, none were squawking overhead today. Crow mobs are the gangs of the bird world.

I walk the boardwalk and continue on Weston Lake Loop Trail. Once I get off the boardwalk, I have the park to myself. I keep trying to get a winning picture of the trees, water and bald cypress knees, but the sun isn’t out. It all looks brown and gray.

I’ve come back to Congaree to get a couple of questions answered.

Did the park have alligators? Yes, but they’re not likely to come up where the visitors walk. I didn’t see any.

How did the park get saved? That’s a longer story.

Like every other piece of ground in the Southeast, people have been here since prehistoric times. First, the Congaree Indians hunted game. De Soto, the Spanish explorer, passed through the area. Europeans settled here, though it was a tough place to farm and keep livestock. African-Americans, who escaped slavery on nearby plantations, created maroon settlements. The impenetrable tangles of roots and trees provided a feeling of safety from slave owners. Later, moonshiners found refuge in those same trees to make illegal booze.

20150210SCCONG 044ALogging wasn’t easy here but trees in this bottomland hardwood forest were valuable. Francis Beidler, whose lumber company owned most of the bottomland forest, only cut down trees for about ten years, ending in 1914. But in the late 1960s, as lumber prices shot up, landowners started logging again.

Harry Hampton, a local journalist and outdoorsman, had been advocating for the protection of the majestic trees and floodplain environment since the 1950s. Finally, the National Park Service bought land from the Beidler family and most of the rest of the owners followed suit. There are still a couple of inholdings, including a hunting club on the far eastern side of the park.

Over 80% of the park is now federally designated wilderness area, which is amazing in a park so close to urban sprawl. That means that the park can’t build roads or structures. Once you park your car, the only way to get around is by foot or boat. The champion bald cypress and loblolly pines are forever protected.

It’s a three-hour trip from Asheville, so it’s more driving than I would do in a day. But if you can camp-very primitive- the park is worth a couple of days.

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