Sunday, February 22, 2009

C-C-C-Congaree

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!

3 comments:

GULAHIYI said...

I was able to make a quick stopover at Congaree last year and it is truly amazing.

I've been wanting to get back there when the water is up, so that I could canoe around more.

Yes, it probably gets rather buggy there in the warmer months.

Thanks for the report.

josh kelly said...

JRS,

Beautiful photos and a nice account of your trip. I think you have exagerated the acreage of "virgin" forest at Congaree. The entire park may be in the neighborhood of 40K acres; I've heard closer to 11K acres for the stuff in old-growth condition - still the largest contiguous tract of OG bottomland hardwood forest in the U.S.

HemlockMan said...

Josh: Yes, you're probably right. I'll make some editorial changes.