Updated: Aug 29, 2022
Monday, 2 May 2022, Congaree National Park
I couldn't say the night refreshed us, but we awoke ready to face the day. Yesterday, Ranger Jason had suggested we scout for a simple route to the river. "Many people get tired of all the portages and just haul their canoe through the woods." In the light of day, though, we knew that wouldn't happen - the woods were nearly too thick to even walk through to find nature's lavatory, much less haul a canoe and gear.
Another call to Jason provided no magic bullet. He would soon head to the visitor center, where he could assemble a team, but that would take time. Meanwhile, we would do our best to portage back upstream. After folding the tent and tarp, and reconstituting the freeze-dried scrambled eggs and biscuits and gravy (the lasagna would have to wait for another time), we got on the water at 8:30.
The creek level had dropped further, adding to our challenge. Back at the three-log blockage, we plotted out our attack. If we lift it over here, push it there, move that limb and squeeze through the gap... Nothing like heavy lifting to get the day off to a fine start.
We bested that, and somehow pushed our boat under the next log, when... voila! a narrow side channel we'd overlooked yesterday came into view. We also saw the generic Canoe Trail sign hidden on a tree opposite it.
However, Sandy's Google Maps still pegged us shy of Maczyk's Cut. Was it a false hope, or a result of GPS inaccuracy?
I could see a current flowing into the Cut - matching the current into the unmaintained section of creek - so I insisted on trying it. It took a sharp turn to enter it without getting wedged on a log, but we succeeded... and quickly found another blockage. "I don't know, Lewis. This doesn't look maintained either. Let's go a bit further back up Cedar Creek." So we returned to the trail marker.
We then paddled up creek (with the lower water level, we had little current to fight) a hundred yards, checked Google Maps, and found we had passed the cutoff. "Damn, Clark, it must be invisible!" Downstream, upstream, there was no other branch.
Beaten down, I called Ranger Jason again. "We could try the narrow channel again, but we're very concerned about getting off the creek without KNOWING this is the way." Jason responded that he had a crew ready to head to Bates Bridge. In the interim, maybe we could enter the side channel, hop on shore, and bushwhack on land to determine if it did indeed lead anywhere?
We again made the tight turn and looked for an access point. On both sides, the banks rose steeply, a muddy mess we could never climb... but I spied one less-steep cleft in the cliff. I nosed the boat as far in as possible, crawled out, promptly plopped onto my arse again, but managed to scramble up the slope to flat ground.
Leaving Sandy with the canoe, I struck off. I struggled to stay close enough to the edge to look for any creek constipation, but not so close to risk a cliff slide. I had to step across downed logs, push aside branches, and yank away vines grabbing at me, but I slowly made progress.
After a few minutes, I spotted another, wider channel flowing into our channel - thank God I was on this side, and not blocked by the merging stream! And what's that I glimpsed ahead? I eagerly pushed on until I had a clear view - the river!
All told, it took me ~20 minutes to complete the trek and get back to the canoe. Sandy had grown very worried - he'd imagined every noise as me falling again. He tried calling out for me, but his shouts were drowned out by the sound of alligator jaws snapping shut around me - oh, wait, that was my dream from last night.
We had only one more small blockage to deal with. It took a couple of minutes of pushing small logs away, but we worked ourselves free. When we merged with the other cut, the channel doubled in width. At 11:00, with the river now directly in front of us, the relief washed cover us. I set down my paddle to call Jason with the news, but before I could connect, the rescue boat with three NPS rangers motored into our channel. "Hello there! Glen? How're you doing?"
"Fantastic! We made it!"
"That's great. Anything else you need from us?"
"No, we should be good. Thanks for your help. I'm sure you needed a search and rescue practice exercise today to keep your skills sharp, right?"
They wished us well on our remaining easy float, ten to twelve miles down the Congaree River. It had a more consistent current - we could've let the river deliver us, but paddled away to get there faster.
No rapids here, just a wide open expanse with trees on either side. With a temperature in the 80s, the beating sun would heat us up, then clouds would give us a break and a cool breeze would wick away our sweat. We figured the glops of sunscreen, mixed with the marinade of bug spray, on top of several layers of mud, would give us protection from the elements.
I tried to slip into forest-bathing mode - see how the greenery on the north side differs in shade from the south side? Is that a river otter slicing through the water? Oh, it's two, no, three of them!- but I found it hard to loosen up when I anxiously looked around every bend, waiting to see the promised Bates Bridge we would take out at.
We didn't talk much, but still tried to keep the mood light. "Damn, Clark! We shoulda asked the rangers if we were in zone 8 or 10! Now we'll never know!"
Again, there was nothing to gauge the passage of time (except for the aches emanating from our knees, our hips, our shoulders). I finally checked my phone at 1:30, using Google Maps to estimate our remaining time. Another 90 minutes or so.
With a half hour left, we came upon a large sandbar at a sweeping bend of the river. "Let's stop here, Lewis. Gotta get out of this thing."
We took a welcome break for 15 minutes. While Sandy walked around, I called Sue to update her on our outing.
When Scott, waiting at Bates Bridge, saw us hove into view, he started waving and shouting.
He greeted us with a pair of large, cold Powerades - better than any champagne would have tasted. We filled him in on the details as we drove to his house.
It felt good to finish.
Later. Of course, you've heard the phrase, "Someday we'll laugh about this." For us, 'someday' started that night over dinner. We ribbed each other and laughed over the events on the creek. Tracy joined in the fun, joking, "Sandy, if you'd taken the flare gun, you could've shot the wild boar with it!"
I added, "Then you could have skinned it with your hatchet!"