SPECIAL REPORT: Congaree National Park

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

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So what does an Oakland County Parks Nature Education Writer, AKA Wilder Side Naturalist, armed with a pen and camera do when traveling? Explore wildland trails, that’s what. Nature exploration is incurable; it’s a knowledge-seeking, boots-on-the-ground pleasure that reminds me that all things in nature are connected. 

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Moonshiners, bootleggers, escaped slaves and Revolutionary War rebels all sought and found refuge in the great bottomland hardwood forest that is Congaree National Park. The park is a swampy habitat for alligators, rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths. Barred owls and bobcats live there too. Mysterious splashes in murky shallows may be from river otters, white-tailed deer, a black bear or perhaps an ornery wild boar with attitude. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo came churning ashore causing mass destruction and chaos throughout the park. Enormous loblolly pines crashed to earth between lichen draped branches of bald cypress trees, the keystone species of this not so dismal swamp. While scars from that great storm remain, new life has spawned as dappled sunlight reached the seasonally flooded understory.

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The landscape is wild and unforgiving for those that wander off the marked trails. However, with a bit of preparation and a stop at the trailhead visitor center, a tree-hugging, bird-watching, nature-loving fan of the wilds like me, is a little kid in a colossal candy store. That’s even when the temperature hovers just under three digits and spiders, half the size of a closed fist, dangle in glistening webs at face height. This is the world of Congaree, a landscape like no other, with a dark, almost intimidating magnificence that lures visitors into nature adventuring on the wilder side of Columbia, South Carolina.

Congaree National Park would not exist if not for the meandering Congaree and Wateree Rivers that span the floodplain and nourish this vast ecosystem. The park encompasses and protects over 26,000 acres of old growth bottomland forest, the largest habitat of this type in North America. Most of those acres are designated as wilderness and visitors will find a kaleidoscope of colors, sounds, scents and smells 365 days of the year. Although a section of the boardwalk remains closed after trees over two centuries old crashed down in a storm last winter, a novice hiker needs to stay on the marked trails and everyone needs to practice situational awareness.

Early on Tuesday morning, two hours before the visitor center opened, I was on the trail greeting the new day as cicadas buzzed like minute chainsaws from bald cypress trees. I was in awe by the size of one park giant bald cypress that boasted a 27 foot circumference! With water levels down, I observed cypress knees protruding from the rich soil and murky waters, offering perches for frogs and dragonflies. A five-lined skink with its brilliant blue tail streaked across a fallen log just as a Pileated Woodpecker blasted away on a snag. I just may have to return to Congaree this autumn to paddle a kayak down her hidden creeks and perhaps undertake a back-country off-trail trek armed with a map, compass and my hammock tent. For there is no cure for the dual ailments of wanderlust fever and nature adventuring.

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Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Parks. schechterj@oakgov.com

Visit DestinationOakland.com for information on all 13 Oakland County Parks.

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