“Be careful as you pass under the canopy; if you bump the branches, a snake might fall into your boat.” While strapping our canoe to the Jeep, the staff at the rental shop bestowed upon us some good advice from many years of experience. We had plenty to think over on the way to the river: listen for the Barred Owls at night, wait for the full moon to light the river for a night paddle, keep the dogs close to avoid a feral hog attack.
But for all the preparation and advice, nothing quite captured the majesty of Congaree National Park. In South Carolina, the National Park Service protects this unique and ancient bottomland, dominated by cypresses and harboring a diversity of life. Within minutes of launching from South Cedar Creek Landing, I was awestruck and knew that this was an incredibly special place. The surroundings imparted a sense of quiet and stillness, heightening my perception of quick bursts of feathers, intermittent bird calls, and the soft rustle of leaves from the tree tops. I sometimes felt that even the sound of my paddle hitting the water was too loud and disturbing the peace.
Dwarfed by the cypresses and without the noise of urban life, we were paddling through a different world in a long-past era. Coming around a bend in the river, I thought I ought to see dinosaurs lift their heads from the water to watch us approach. Indeed there are some giants in this ecosystem; Congaree is home to several champion trees, or trees that are the largest representatives of their species. Here scientists have measured six national champions, including Loblolly Pine and Swamp Tupelo, as well as 25 state champions.
No less impressive were the abundant reptiles. At one time, we saw six turtles and four snakes all sunning within a 10 meter radius of each other. The best sighting was the first: a long, large female Brown Watersnake rested on a log just above the water. We slowed to take photos, and kept our distance so as not to disturb her. After a couple minutes, we spotted a small head poking out of the water, and bee-lining from downstream straight to the log. This smaller male joined the female on the log, keeping body contact, and slid himself over and along her, then vibrated his body a few times. Despite his best efforts, the female seemed disinterested in his advances, and soon slipped into the water and away.
Never before had I seen so much action from snakes, and the wildlife sightings continued to please. A pair of Pileated Woodpeckers flew along the river past us, and a very vocal Great Blue Heron honked nearby. Toward evening, spiders awaited prey in nets illuminated by gold light. More slender than its city-dwelling relatives, a raccoon emerged from some logs and foraged in the water with its dexterous hands.
No sign of feral hogs, but, near nightfall as we paddled upstream to our campsite, I did spot a snake one foot above my head, its belly scales spilling over the sides of the thin branch it rested on. I ducked and pulled my arms and paddle in; this snake was definitely not falling into our boat.
Our one-night stay was far too short to really take it all in. I already have an idea to paddle the entire length of the park, and hope that next time I’ll see an alligator, armadillo and river otters!