Updated: Aug 29, 2022
Sunday, 1 May 2022, Congaree National Park
If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.
— Amit Ray, spiritual teacher
I had visited this park once before, twenty years ago, when we knew it as Congaree Swamp National Monument. A friend and I spent little time there, enough for a moment in the Visitor Center and a short walk on a boardwalk trail on a wet, drizzly day. This time, I would spend a couple days exploring the park.
This watery park cries out for exploration by canoe. The park website suggests four trips, and the one calling for a night of wilderness camping appealed to me:
Cedar Creek to Route 601 Landing - ~20 miles, 12-14 hours
As the creek winds its way towards the Congaree, it travels through some of the oldest forest remaining in the park. Here you can see immense bald cypress and towering tupelos dripping with Spanish moss. Cedar Creek makes a sharp bend to the left where Horsepen Gut enters the stream, approximately four miles from the landing. Three miles beyond this point is Mazyck's Cut, where Cedar Creek enters the river. A wooden sign post points the way and three trail markers guide paddlers to the river. Once on the river, you can make a leisurely float downstream to the Route 601 Landing.
Note: This trip is best done as an overnight trip. To camp in the backcountry, you must obtain a backcountry camping permit, which is available at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center during normal operating hours. As of the Summer of 2020 there are a couple of significant portages between Elder Lake and the Congaree River.
No solo wilderness for me! I had a old buddy from work who lived near Columbia, a fan of paddling, who thought it sounded like a fun adventure. (Step right up for the Senior Tour of the Congaree!) Since I had overloaded myself myself with work on my upcoming May and June park trips, Sandy graciously took care of most of the details for this wilderness jaunt. He found a canoe to borrow, got an extension for his pickup to carry it, and rounded up supplies. We both called the park rangers while arranging the backcountry camping permit, trying to determine whether our expected campsite lay within zone 8 or 10.
Yesterday, after picking me up at the airport (following two flights delayed by four hours and two hours), Sandy displayed all the goods he had collected. "See, I'm prepared!" he said. "My son loaned me his six-person tent, I got a backpack stove and dehydrated food - ready for freeze-dried lasagna? - first aid kit, dry bag, hatchet, sleeping pad, flare gun - all the essentials!" We made a run to Walmart to fill in my essentials - crocs, a dry bag, fresh fruit, more bug spray - and I then treated him and his wife Tracy to all-you-can-eat BBQ for dinner.
Time for the float! We loaded up early and set off to collect his son. Scott would take the truck home after dropping us off, then meet us at the takeout tomorrow twenty miles downstream. First stop: the Congaree Visitor Center. The 'Mosquito Meter' at the entrance sat at 2 (moderate) on a scale of 1-6, which heartened us. (I had read horror stories online that said during the summer, you're dead meat the moment you leave your car.)
The creek level had dropped steadily since flood stage ten days ago, and now read 2.77'. Seemed a bit low, but when we checked with the ranger to activate our backcountry permit, she handed us a map and said to have a good paddle.
The Cedar Creek Canoe Access was a five minute drive further. We lugged the canoe and gear a hundred yards to the put-in, where a group of kayakers out for a half-day tour had just launched. The banks were still muddy, and Sandy quickly decided his shoes would impede him, so he slipped them off and stashed them. My new crocs suited me fine in the muck.
We arranged our bags so our legs could move freely, got our paddles ready, said farewell to Scott, and shoved off into the barely-moving water. Scott hurried to the trail bridge over the creek so he could take our departure photo - and we were off!
The day was warm (in the low 80s), but the shade thrown by the abundant trees kept us comfortable. Surrounded by green, we felt a world away from everyday life. "Hey, Sandy. Since we're out exploring, do you want to be Lewis or Clark?"
"You're the leader, you be Lewis. I'm happy as a Clark."
At times we caught a slight current, then it would go still again. Mosquitos largely avoided our bug-spray-soaked bodies. Fish jumped from the creek ahead of us. "Look there," Sandy/Clark called out. "Swimming across the river with its head up - a water moccasin." Thankfully, we would only spy a couple of those.
Time slowed as we floated down the creek. It wandered back and forth, snaking its way through the park. A dragonfly kept us company, landing on my legs then flying off. With no landmarks, it was hard to gauge how far we traveled - only that the maps said we had 6.5 miles of creek before reaching our shortcut to the river.
Before long we caught up to the day-trippers. As we passed them, we could hear the guide talking about the park, and his voice tailed off as we rounded the next bend. Silence again.
Soon we reached a branch in the creek. "Which way, Clark? I don't see any trail signs."
"You're an explorer, Lewis! You don't need no stinkin' sign!" We both looked around, and Sandy eventually saw a trio of 'Canoe Trail' signs, high up on a tree. But they didn't point out which way to turn.
The voice of the kayak guide solved our dilemma. "Here come the day trippers. Let's ask the guide." He pulled up and pointed out the trio of signs: "Keep looking for these to confirm you're on the right path. They're closer to the left branch, so head that direction. How far are you going?"
"To Mazyck's Cut today," I replied, "then Bates Bridge tomorrow."
"You picked a good day for it. You should see, I'd guess, four portages along the way. There'll be a big sign at the Cut."
"Can you tell us how far we've come?" Sandy asked, handing him our map. The answer: not as far as we'd hoped.
It didn't take too long to reach portage 1, a downed tree blocking the creek. I hopped onto the shore, picked myself up after slipping in the mud, and paced off 45 yards to where we could put back in. The terrain was reasonable, and despite the weight of the loaded canoe, we got back into the water on the far side.
"Glen, is this trip on your bucket list? Are you dying and didn't tell me?"
By the time we recovered from that slog, here came portage 2. This time I paced off 35 yards, which we surmounted as before. "Two down, two to go!"
Soon another tree had fallen, laying bank-to-bank. "It's above the water, Clark. I think we can scoot under if we duck real low." We did have to back up once when Sandy's life jacket caught on the tree, but we floated free on try 2.
Get ready for portage 3! This time I could see no good access to the bank near the blockage, so we had to paddle upstream a short bit. That pushed the portage to 70 yards, so we carried our bags first. Another misstep in the mud landed me on my keister again.
"You all right, Lewis?"
"Ample padding, Clark. It's all about having ample padding." We manhandled the canoe forward with no more incidents, and took off again.
Despite the difficulties, our moods stayed high. We continued to joke around:
"Take that you monster! ... Lewis, I just whacked a spider - must have been 2-3 inches across!"
"Darn, Clark! Shoulda handed him the paddle and made him work for his ride!"
We kept looking around our watery wilderness. Clark pointed out another swimming critter ahead of us: "Look there! a river otter!" At several points we wondered if we'd lost the trail, then another Canoe Trail sign would appear.
The guide had lied - there were more than four portages awaiting us. For some, we could simply hop off the boat and push it over, other times we could push small logs out of our way. We passed the four-hour mark, a goal I thought would take us to the shortcut, and still no Cut.
Portage 10 or so concerned us; three logs blocking the creek, each about ten feet apart. We must have taken 10-15 minutes to best it and get back in the boat. Seconds later we rounded the bend - and our hearts fell. Sticks and logs stretching for a ways, mingled with bottles, plastic bags, even a boogie board, greeted us.
"This must be the unmaintained section of creek mentioned on the map, just past the Cut," Sandy concluded. He pulled out his phone, went to Google Maps, and confirmed his guess. Somehow we'd just missed the turnoff.
Where was it? How could neither of us see have seen it?
A degree of panic crept into our frustration. "I think I should call the park ranger, get their input." I pulled out my phone. "Oh, hell. Visitor Centers always close at 5:00, and it's nearly 6:00." Damn, we paddled for 7 1/2 hours and only went 6 1/2 miles? "Great. What now," I wondered aloud.
"I don't know. It's your trip, you decide."
I considered things for a moment, but found it hard to concentrate. "Maybe I should call Tracy, see if she can find a local number we could call. What's her number?"
I called her. "Things are not going real well."
"What's wrong?" We could both hear the concern in her voice.
"For God's sake, tell her I'm alright!" Sandy pleaded.
I gave her a recap, and set her to work. She called back minutes later. "You need to call 9-1-1 and give them your info."
I did, as Sandy called Scott. The dispatcher took my info and said they would contact DNR and NPS. Soon DNR called back. "Is anyone injured? Are you in danger? We're at Lake Murray - it would take us six hours to reach you. Do you have a flare gun?" (Unfortunately, we had left it in the truck, figuring it would just be dead weight.)
By this time Sandy had taken a screenshot of Google Maps and sent it to Scott, so we had him forward it to DNR. Next, Chief Ranger Jason from Congaree NP called (thank the Lord we weren't in a wireless wilderness!) to offer his help. I forwarded a screenshot to him also, who replied that it did look like we missed the Cut.
"I don't know how me missed it," I told him. "Is there a sign there? Does the cut disappear at low water levels?"
"I couldn't say, I'm not very familiar with the creek at that point. We hardly ever get people paddling the creek to the river."
We agree that no one could possibly reach us before dark, so we would set up camp and look at our options - reconnoiter the land - in the morning. (Later we would find out that Scott called DNR back and chewed them out for not immediately sending a rescue team. It took them a few minutes to convince him we'd agreed to that plan.)
Luckily we had an easy time pulling the canoe to a shelf safely above the creek (in case creek levels rose from the forecast storms tonight). Though the thick woods limited our options, we did find one grassy area large enough to lay out the tarp and tent. The animal tracks we saw in the mud concerned us, since we'd heard about the wild boars which called the park home.
Sandy rolled out the tarp, unfolded the tent, then shook the tent bag. "Where'd Scott put the poles... Do you see any poles?"
A quick call to Scott confirmed that the poles were safe and secure at his house. Now what?
I had to praise Sandy's foresight. He pulled out the skein of parachute cord he'd packed, tied one end to a nearby tree, ran it through the tent loops, tied it to another tree, and cut it with the hatchet. With the remaining cord, he tried the same with the other tent loops, but fell short of reaching a tree to tie it to. "I give up," he said, dropping the line and walking away.
I picked it up, looking for a solution. Eventually, I made a kluge that would slightly raise our tent ceiling, leaving us with a minimal home for the night. Then, as the first rain drops began falling, we scrambled inside. Listening to the light rain outside, I could see the light was fading. I had to ask. "You still thinking of cooking?"
"Did you say cook? It's raining out, and we sure can't cook in here." He took a few packs of Lance peanut butter crackers from his pocket. "Good thing I have Lance in my pants!" He tossed me a pack, and I offered to share my grapes. I now appreciated that extra helping of BBQ I'd eaten last night.
Luckily the 'storm' consisted only of a few sprinkles and no winds. (I shudder to think of what strong winds would have done to our lean-to.) We lay at opposite ends of the tent, with the sagging roof keeping us largely hidden from each other.
After writing in my journal, I doused my light and slept fitfully. Dreams of free C-store hot dogs, endlessly rolling - like logs on Cedar Creek - endlessly grilling, kept me on edge. Sandy focused on the animal noises outside and kept his light on all night, hoping the boars would give us a wide berth.