Monday, June 18, 2012

Congaree National Park

Water moccasin basking along Cedar Creek in Congaree National Park - © Mac Stone
Three years ago during the spring season I worked as a canoe guide and naturalist in Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest. You've heard me brag about this place countless times but that's because it's one of the more magnificent places I've ever been. I remember feeling like I was part of a team, not just because I worked with other dedicated people in the same building, but because we were constantly trying to find new recruits for Four Holes Swamp. We had to earn the adoration of each wary soul that walked through our door because we wanted to be the darling of the lowcountry, the gem of the sodden bottomlands. This might have been an easy feat if we were the only ones promoting large tracts of cypress and tupelo swamp, but there was another nature reserve only an hour away with a bigger budget and a wider audience also offering boardwalk tours, canoeing, and large old-growth trees: Congaree National Park. In my three months of living only 45 minutes away, I never took the time to visit the park; partly out of spite, partly out of a swelling pride, but mostly because Beidler had everything I needed. I didn't realize it at the time, but I had been chugging the Beidler Kool-Aid for so long that when I left for the Everglades in the fall of 2009 and ran into a former Congaree National Park seasonal, we got into a heated debate as to who's swamp was better. We had both been trained in the arts of tour-guiding and we knew our tag lines well. I would say, "We have the largest stand of old growth tupelo and cypress swamp in the world, enough said." Heather would then retort with "Well, we have the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the world." And there we stood, proud, stubborn, and divided.

Old-growth cypress and tupelo trees along Cedar Creek in Congaree National Park - © Mac Stone
Such quibbling over semantics may seem petty stuff, but even years removed from our dutiful posts we were still elbowing for the top spot as South Carolina's premier swamp. A week ago, I finally decided to put their words to the test and see what Congaree was all about before the summer heat rolled in. I readied my kayak, loaded my equipment in dry bags, and drove two hours South to the National Park. I wrote my former Beidler colleagues confessing my treasons and begging their forgiveness. This rivalry runs deep. I was immediately impressed having just spent the last two and a half years working in Everglades National Park and paying the $16 to camp at Flamingo plus a $5 entry fee to find that Congaree was completely FREE! 26,500 acres at my complete disposal, without so much as a dollar spent. 

Brown watersnake - © Mac Stone
I put in at Cedar Creek and planned to paddle until finding a comfortable place to set up camp. I was immediately blown away by the amount of snakes sunning on the branches and fallen logs that stretched across the shallow blackwater creek. 

Colorful cottonmouth at the base of the tupelo tree - © Mac Stone

It was herpetologist heaven. By the day's end, I counted 43 snakes: 33 brown water snakes, 8 moccasins, and 2 red-bellied watersnakes! One of the first ones I saw was a small cottonmouth brilliantly colored (pictured above) from having just shed its skin. My timing wasn't great, though, and at 3:00 PM in the swamp, the light can get pretty harsh. I waited around for a passing cloud and had my tripod ready. Thankfully it was patient enough for me to get close with a wide angle lens and attempt a 3-second exposure. I used a polarizer to take off the glare from its scales and a warm reflector to add fill light to the tree. Will all my movements the snake finally fled, which made for a nice blur effect (see thumbnail to the left). 

Wise Lake, Congaree National Park - © Mac Stone
Along the trail I found several nice compositions of spindled tupelos and arching branches near Wise Lake. Prothonotary warblers darted in and out of hollowed trees and cypress knees and below the canopy darkness came quickly as the sun set. With low water levels, feral pigs had rooted the grassy banks to a muddy pulp so I decided to find a nice place for my hammock instead of dirtying up my tent. Just around the bend proved a perfect spot. 

Primitive hammock camping along Cedar Creek - © Mac Stone
Soon, all manners of shrieks, chirps, and buzzes filled the spaces between the trees and leaves, bouncing off the water and surrounding my hammock. For a moment, laying still and looking up to the canopy I thought a pair of barred owls had perched right next to my head they were so loud. Lightning bugs beaconed green flares - staccato flashes through the limbs as if a meteor shower rained overhead. I was overwhelmed with a peaceful oneness in this ancient swamp and a surprising comfort settled over me. I'm sure Hernando de Soto felt the same when he first arrived to Congaree in 1540. Even with the lullabies of frogs and crickets, I was restless in my hammock, my creative side burning to find out what the scene looked like from the other bank. Grabbing my flashlight, I mounted the camera on the tripod I had set earlier for the composition above and started a series of long exposures painting the trees and creek banks of my airborne campsite. 

Self-portrait hammock camping - © Mac Stone
Exhausted, I finally fell asleep by 1:00 AM, a deep, calm sleep. I don't know if I would or could compare this place to Beidler Forest. They are two different ecosystems and too unique to pit against one another. Regardless, I think competition is healthy. South Carolina is all the luckier to have two of the world's most impressive tracts of lowcountry relics within an hour of each other. I say let them duke it out, I'll gladly allow them to vie for my affection. 


  1. Excellent shots and wonderful pictures.

    Adventure Games

  2. Great shots and cool story...

  3. Great stuff Mac. Braver man than me.

    1. I doubt that Joe! You handle much riskier situations on daily basis than I would even dare to venture.. :)

  4. I now work in Congaree National Park as a seasonal myself and this is a magnificent place. Having spent some time in the lowcountry as well, I have never heard of this competition between the two places. However, great story and even better pictures. Keep up the good work and come back to visit sometime.

    1. Thanks Lester, I definitely plan on coming back this fall. I don't think there's any actual competition in the proper sense, maybe just something I conjured up as a prideful employee.. you know?

  5. Do you know much of Alachua county was settled by Planters from South Carolina? The Historic Haile Homestead was built ( with help of enslaved people of color ) by a transplanted sea island cotton planter from Camden South Carolina. The Hobcow Barony on the coast of South Carolina has an interesting history-- South Carolina and Florida are linked historically.

  6. Great shots and great story. Would you give me permission to use your photos for our environmental educators of sc annual conference? We are holding it at Congaree this summer. Our website is Thanks!