Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Last Look at Congaree

Well, I've posted for the better part of a week on Congaree National Park. It's a truly amazing forest. Acre for acre, it rivals any of the big-tree forests I've visited in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is high praise. In fact, the canopy of the forest in Congaree is probably uniformly higher than that of most of the old growth forests in which I've hiked in the Southern Appalachian high country. Which, again, is very great praise.

There's nothing that I enjoy so much as hiking cross country in a very old forest. They make you feel very small, which is a good thing, lest we think too highly of our insignificant little selves.

A whole day, twelve miles of hiking among the forest giants of Congaree National Park. It was a great experience. If time affords, I'll go back this year, before warm weather hits, and find some more of the champion trees I missed on that Saturday hike in the cold weather of a welcome winter chill.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Water Tolerance

Much of the Congaree is very wet. As I mentioned earlier, several times per year almost all of the bottomland floods. This is why the soil is so deep and fertile. No one could farm it for this reason, which is why the forest was never felled in favor of agricultural fields.

A cypress stand and a plain of knees.

The next time I go, I plan on finding the really big cypress trees and giving them a look.
Old cypress.

Some of the forest just never quite dries out.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Hand of Man

The nicest thing about the Congaree National Park is that there is little sign of the hand of Man. The only things you'll see of that type are the road at the entrance, and the visitor's center. After that, if you want to explore the park, you will do so on foot or by kayak or canoe. There aren't any other options.

There are trails, of course. Since the park bottomlands flood several times per year, a few of the trails are constructed of elevated boardwalks. These only extend a relatively short distance into the forest. Beyond those, the only man-made things you will encounter other than the trails are a few footbridges that cross various streams and guts.

The ENTS group assembles at the visitors center on a cold, bright, cloudless Saturday morning. (I should have brought a scarf!)

Early on along the first boardwalk.

Boardwalk ends, dirt trail begins.

Elevated boardwalk section not far from the world champion Loblolly pine.

One of a number of bridges in the park.

I watched a party of kayakers from the middle of the bridge.

The last bridge at the end of our twelve-mile hike.

Heading back toward the visitors center.

Park sign at the entrance.

Take off. Get lost in the nicest untouched forest in which I've ever been.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

And Sometimes They Just Fall Down.

Some trees live a very long time, but eventually they all die. Hurricane Hugo knocked down some champion trees in Congaree, and sometimes gravity and disease is all it takes. Along one of the trails we came to this huge oak that had fallen--probably just before autumn, since it still had leaves clinging to the branches, which indicates that it suffered the catastrophe when they were still green.

The downed giant. It had fallen across a creek and will, for the time, serve as a bridge.

It was sobering to see such a huge tree lying on the forest floor.

Here was our guide for the hike: Marcas Houtchings. He's a former employee of Congaree National Park, and now works for the City of Columbia Parks. He knew exactly where all of the big trees were located and how to get us there.

Toward the end of the hike, we used another downed tree to cross a gut, saving ourselves a little trail walking.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Invasive species are almost always a severe problem. Any time you introduce an animal or plant into an environment that has never known that creature or vegetation, there is room for trouble. Lots of it. By now, we've all heard horror stories of snakehead fish and fire ants and gypsy moths and chestnut blight and...well, the list is hideous and growing longer every year. You might not be able to see it, but the photo below shows some of the topical effects of a certain invasive species that is causing quite a lot of trouble in the Congaree National Park. What you probably don't notice is the churned earth on the left hand side of the photo, between the water line and the lighter colored dirt.

This is the handywork of feral pigs. And these are no ordinary pigs--not just livestock gone wild, as you may encounter here and there all over the south. These are a hybrid of such animals and Russian wild boar that were brought in some time back to afford hunting opportunities for sportsmen.

These pigs do a number on the forest ecosystem. They root around in the forest floor looking for anything edible. And pigs are about as omnivorous as anything around. Their appetites will handle as full a range of tasty comestibles as any bear. Plus, their feeding habits are far more destructive than any bruin.

They use those flexible snouts and dagger-like tusks and prodigious mass to plow up the earth like a biological machine churning its way through the bottom lands.
They will eat succulent sprouts. They consume any nut or acorn they can sniff out. These pigs will gobble up any snail, spider, beetle, ant, or grub or egg therefrom. Snakes are a tasty snack. As are salamanders, frogs, lizards and turtles; and the eggs that go with those critters. Any mammal or bird that gets in their way is on the menu, too. Anything, in fact, that they can kill--which is a considerable list when you understand that they have a set of extremely powerful jaws armed with great slashing teeth and enough mass behind them to rival bears. And, yes, they eat carrion, too.

The Congaree forest is having a tough time supporting new pine tree growth because so many wild hogs are in there eating the nuts before they can take root and grow. Basically, the hogs need to be eliminated. As the National Park Service has discovered in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, success can be had when battling the wild boar, but it will likely be a long and sustained fight to get rid of them. We'll see what happens.

The remains of a wild boar that we passed on the long hike. As you can see, they have more of the Russian boar about them than of domestic pig gone wild.

Tusks. Zowie!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Trees Who Walk and Other Strangeness...

They call them "walking trees"...

This is a "walking red maple". Yeah, it really does look like it stood up and started walking. Almost like one of John Wyndham's triffids. But it's not walking. It didn't get up and start moving around the forest. A religionist might tell you that some god put it there, just so. But that would be silly--like looking at it in the way of a moron rather than as a considering human. Much in the way, I suppose, people figured in the days before Charles Darwin.

Haha! The walking maple!!

What really happened was this:

The red maple started up on what we call a "nursery log". These are the fallen trees within a normal, healthy forest. Sometimes trees just die of natural causes. They weaken, fall down, go boom. When they end up in such a way, lying on the forest floor, (or along a waterway, as in this case), they often become haven to new saplings who end up on the body of the fallen tree. The dead trees form a great matrix on which to grow and thrive, providing a good habitat for the new trees growing along its girth.

In such a way did this red maple end up on a fallen cypress tree. We can figure that it was a cypress tree because this is prime cypress habitat and this maple obviously stood upon something that was very resistant to rot for a very long time, but which finally disintegrated under the constant attack of microbes and insects and weather. And cypress wood will resist these factors for a very long time, indeed. However, at some point, the corpse of that cypress nursery log finally fled into the earth and to the water and into the very trees who lived upon its body. The roots of the red maple, having gripped the cypress for so many years now stand astride merely the ghost of that absent nursery log. And it looks like nothing so much as if it is walking along the edge of the water.

(Tomorrow, the invasive who must go. Hint: They have great fangs and are scary.)

Sunday, February 22, 2009


I left early in the a.m. on Saturday morning to meet up with the ENTS group who were going trekking into the Congaree National Park to locate and map many of the big trees who live there. I found that I had time to stop for breakfast at an IHOP in Columbia and did so, downing a two-egg breakfast (over-medium) with three cups of coffee. Then I zipped on over to the National Park. Along the way, I marveled at the sparkling early-morning frost that covered everything in a glittering overlay. I would loved to have been able to pull over to take some photos of the sight of seeing these southern bottomlands coated in frost, but I didn't want to be late in meeting up with the ENTS group.

For the first time ever I drove into the park. For years it had been a designated National Monument. But in his last days in office, former Senator Fritz Hollings succeeded in having the 40+ thousand acres of virgin forest declared officially as a National Park, along with all of the protections that designation allows those lands. Asswipe RepubliKKKans always have the option of eliminating the protections of monuments, but it's much more difficult to mine a National Park. Thus, we can thank Senator Hollings for making it easier for us to enjoy Congree for many years to come.

Congaree is the largest continguous area of virgin hardwood bottomland forest remaining in North America. It is still with us in this state of preservation because of a few factors. First of all, most of it was owned by a single family. They were timber barons and did not refrain from logging it out of reasons of good intentions. Rather, it is a very swampy area and it was just really hard to figure out how to get to all of that timber and show a profit. So the owners kept it intact while they tried to figure out how to rape the shit out of it. In the meantime, they would go in and seletively cut the virgin cypress trees because that wood always had a super-high value and one could show a profit from the sales even when the cost of harvesting was otherwise prohibitive. There's still some great virgin cypress stands in the park, but only because those trees were bypassed due to flaws in the trees (ie, they were hollow or otherwise diseased).

The first thing you notice about the Congaree once you start walking around in it are the amazing numbers of gigantic trees. Everywhere you look you see enormous trees with vast canopies and staggering spreads. All kinds of huge trees: cypress, tupelo, overcup, cherrybark, loblolly, swamp chestnut, etc. and etc. Even holly trees grow to 100 feet here! This is what a forest can look like without humans around to fuck them up!

I would highly recommend a trip to see this forest. However, I would suggest that one visit it in the cooler months. As it is bottomland, there are areas that are permanent swamp. It even has oxbow lakes and "guts"--areas that never quite dry out and which are filled with stagnant water. This is prime mosquito territory. When those babies swarm, you don't want to be on the menu. So go hiking in these forests when the bugs are dormant. Now would be a perfect time to explore.

I also had the good fortune to be led around this place by Marcas Houtchings. He was a former employee in the park and knows every inch of the place, including where most of the champion and near-champion trees are located. He hauled us all over the place, from one tree to the next, tramping down official trails and bushwhacking cross-country when that was the shortest way. He didn't get us lost. And this is one place where you could really get lost. There are no hills so you can't follow one down the gravity well, and if you hit a body of water, it's as likely to be an oxbow lake or a dead-end gut as a moving stream. There is just a whole bunch of wild in this place, and you don't want to get turned around in it.

I aim to go back to Congaree National Park. The next time I go I'll probably be in a canoe or kayak. There are some huge cypress trees and other trees that are mainly accessed from the river and streams, so that's the best way to get to them. And I'll only be heading down when the mosquitoes are waiting patiently for warm weather.

PS: Click on these photos to embiggen them. These trees are amazing!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Tomorrow, Tomorrow...

I went to Congaree National Park today. Tomorrow, I will post much about it. For now, here's one photo of me with one of million jillions of giant trees who live there:

Me, with the world's champion Loblolly pine tree.

Thursday, February 19, 2009



When I was a kid I used to go tramping about the woods with my dad. He loved to go hiking, generally in places where there were no trails, and we'd often go exploring.

My dad was very good at tree identification. No, he was extremely good at it. We couldn't pass a tree when he wouldn't know what it was. Sometimes he would ID a tree by just its bark, which is often very difficult. And every time we'd go wandering around, he would point out this or that tree and tell me what it was. And then he'd explain to me how to identify it by its proper name.

And that information would go through one ear and out the other. Why? I'm not sure. I did love the woods, even back then, when I was just a little kid. But for whatever reason, I just never bothered to learn much about the individual trees.

Oh, I could tell you about forest succession, and explain some simple elements of forest hydrology; and I understood the roles some forest types played in certain ecological niches. But I couldn't really tell you how to tell an elm from beech.

Maybe I was having such a good time in the
forest that I didn't care for it to be turned into a classroom. Hell, I just don't know. But now that I'm older I wish that I'd paid more attention to my dad when he was trying to teach me how to know what kind of tree I was looking at when I passed it by.

Oh, well. Better late than never, I reckon.
This weekend I'll be hanging out with some of the East's best tree experts as we measure some of the world-champion examples of a number of hardwood and evergreen species here in the South. I'll post some photos and commentary when I return.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009





Gettin' anxious to head back to wild Florida.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Retirement Dinner

Last night I went to the retirement dinner for two of my co-workers. Brian Gless and Dave Debrosse are leaving the employment of the USPS forever on Februrary 28, 2009. So a bunch of their co-workers gathered last night at the local Hopps Restaurant to down a few beers and eat some food in their honor.

Both of these guys have been working for the USPS for decades. Both are former military. Brian served a few years in the Army and moved into the USPS after leaving the Service. Dave, on the other hand, retired not terribly long ago from Guard service where he achieved the rank of Colonel. But it's goodbye to the both of them. Here's wishing them a happy life in retirement.

Brian (on left) and Dave with their retirement cake.

Merely part of the crowd who gathered for the dinner.

The consuming of mass quanitities.