January 23, 2011

Swamp Trip to Congaree National Park

January 16 - 17th, 2011

Thanks to Dr. MLK Jr we had a nice long weekend to explore one of America's lesser known National Parks. Congaree National Park is one of the most recent additions (2003) to the National Park System and is not heavily visited minus a few locals. This trip started due to Lisa's strange obsession with swamps and canoeing. Raleigh has the benefit of short trips to the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and the deep blue Atlantic Ocean but Lisa wants the greenish brown stagnant water and erie, creaking and slumping trees that fill the swamp marshes characteristic of the South East. So we went...into the swamp.

Chloe was not informed that she was not coming with us. This did not stop her from trying her cutest poochie looks and antics to accompany us. A 90lb 1 year old Bernese Mountain Dog who doesn't like water and refuses to sit still meant Chloe was not coming. No matter how cute she looks in the car. Poor baby she likes the trips.

If we wanted to canoe on this trip we had 2 options; rent a canoe for $50 near Eastover, SC (nearest city to Congaree National Park) or pay $24 at the NCSU Outdoor Adventure office. Keeping true to our cheap budget travels we decided to use the NCSU canoe and pray it stayed on the Jeep for the 4 hr drive to South Carolina. Due to liability, the Outdoor Adventure staff would not help tie the canoe to my Jeep. Using three tiny blue straps I latched the 16ft canoe to the top of my Jeep. The entire ride down 95 and into the park was accompanied by a loud howling coming from the canoe. It was so loud I had to put ear plugs in and even that couldn't drown the noise from rattling my eardrums to the point of explosion. Somehow the sound of a jet airplane on top of our car didn't phase Lisa as she slept peacefully in the front seat. There are 10 different entrances to the Congaree National Park however, only one is open year round. We played the game of driving to each entrance before finally finding the right one on the 5th try. Finally, no more HOWLING..

Once we took our ceremonial "picture at the sign" we rushed to the visitor center to get a camping site for the night. Seeing that it was a holiday weekend we needed to get a site before they filled up. Since the park is not heavily visited they only have several camping sites unless you want to head into the swamp / wilderness for a night of fun. We were lucky, the weather was quite cold, hence the low mosquito rating, and they had plenty of sites available.

Retying the canoe every 60 miles meant we had to hurry if we wanted to set up camp, hike, and have some wonderful backcountry pantry dinner with a fire of course. Congaree is known for its elevated boardwalk that traverses the 24,000 acre swamp / flood plain ecosystem.

So many options....

One reason Congaree was designated a National Park is that is it home to the largest cyprus and loblolly pine trees in North America. This Loblolly Pine tree is 157 feet tall!

Lisa just can't seem to get her arms around this Loblolly with a 15 ft circumference!

The reason these "champion" trees are still around today is that the swamp / wetland prevented these large trees from being logged. Luckily, we are able to see these trees today. This picture below is actually inverted.

The boardwalk loop dropped us off to a beautiful, black motionless pool of water called Weston Lake. Cyprus trees line the banks and drape over the water with moss dangling from their branches.

The boardwalk was fairly lengthy and we had to stop to pet some poochies along the way which meant darkness was sweeping over the park. We raced back, gathered some downfall and prepared dinner (opened the bag).

Lisa and I quickly began our normal argument of the best way to start a fire. Lisa has her heart set on setting up the standard boy scout tepee while I focus on finding pine straw and start small. This time I won and Lisa had to settle for the small, sustainable fire that Leave No Trace would have been proud of. Backcountry Pantry dinners are so delicious. We scarfed down a 3 course meal of beef stroganoff, vegetable medley and cheesecake. All of a sudden the temperature plummeted 20 degrees and we quickly retreated to our sleeping bags in the nice warm tent. Or at least I thought it was nice and warm. The temperature dropped to the teens as Lisa and I fell asleep at 7:30!! It was a pretty standard Lisa and Chris camping session with Lisa making bathroom trips every hour on the hour while I listened to the swamp creatures exchanging noises all night. Finally, daylight! While Lisa snoozed in the tent I headed out to pick some fire wood and pine needles for a quick fire and a delicious breakfast. Our tent was completely frozen over so when the fire finally caught Lisa ran out of the tent with a blanket to warm up by the fire. Once again Backcountry pantry didn't disappoint with raisin oatmeal and chipotle scrambled eggs.. but no coffee. Immediate caffeine headache for me.

Satiated and warm we packed up and headed to Cedar Creek to embark on our much anticipated canoe trip. The way Lisa talks about canoeing would make you think she has canoed every major river, creek, stream, lake and ocean in the world.

Quickly I found out that this was her first creek/river canoe experience. She has only canoed 2 - 3 times and each time involved a calm lake. Almost immediately we began to spin circles as if practicing an off beat dance on the heavy green water. Lisa just sat in the front enjoying the scenery unaware that hitting trees and spinning circles is not the best way to travel in a 16ft canoe upstream! She looks so innocent at the start here.

The creek was well marked with Canoe mileage signs located every quarter mile. Evidently someone in the signage department thought brown signs 20 feet up the trees would be appropriate for swamp travel. This picture is cropped and you still can't see what it says.

Watch as Lisa takes us up river!

We were the only ones on the creek for MLK jr day and it was very peaceful. A good break from school and work. Eventually we figured out a good system for canoeing and Lisa led us the last 2 miles without too much damage to the park!

The bald cyprus trees and their "knees" lined the shores of the creek. They are quite beautiful in their own swampy kind of way.

After hiding out in the swamps of South Carolina it was time to head back and get CHLOE!

Tired from the canoe battle down Cedar Creek Lisa is ready to kiss the swamp goodbye.

BUT.. before we could leave we had to carry the canoe 100 yards to the car and put it on top. Lisa was struggling to keep the heavy canoe up so we ended up taking that 100 yards in 10 foot intervals. After our painful progress we then lifted the canoe over our heads and mounted it on top of the jeep. All tied up and ready to go I began to prepare myself for 4 more hours of jet engine howling and watching Lisa snooze the day away. By a gift from God that damn canoe was silent the whole way home. Unbelievable. The drive back felt much quicker and enjoyable overall.

Chloe, though happy we were back, let us know that she would be accompanying us on all future trips. She has put her paw down.

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Originally from Strongsville, OH, I spent 8 years in Raleigh, North Carolina and have since recently moved to Missoula, MT. I have been a runner all my life and have recently started pursuing ultra marathons. Any excuse to be outside and on the trails.