As we paddle through the deep, dark heart of Congaree National Park, an advancing front provides an ominous companion. Northerly gusts sweep through the massive boughs of this old-growth forest, building to a roar and swaying thirteen-to-sixteen-story-tall sycamores, maples, oaks, loblollies, tupelos, and cypresses toward our group moving beneath their long shadows. When one falls unseen somewhere nearby, a cannon crack resonates, making the smooth, brown waters of Cedar Creek vibrate and unequivocally answering an age-old question. One of our compatriots, Chris Vaughn, a forester and land use coordinator for Ducks Unlimited, paddles up from behind. He watched the tree fall. “It was pretty dang big,” he says. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen that happen.” Any nerves, though, are soon enough subsumed by awe as we slide down this meandering tributary toward the mighty Congaree River.
If the West boasts Sequoia National Park and Humboldt Redwoods State Park, then the East answers with Congaree National Park—the largest old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. Its 26,000 acres of alluvial floodplain lie just north of the thirty-million-year-old, sheer river-carved bluffs of the Congaree River, southeast of Columbia, South Carolina, and offer a jaw-dropping assortment of towering old-growth specimens, none more spectacular than the massive bald cypresses that rise from this oft-flooded landscape. It’s a primordial immersion into the true Old South, a South whose mossy forest canopy was once so dense that it blocked the sun, yet where the spaces between trunks are so great that it becomes easy to envision General Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion and his men navigating the deepest woods on horseback during the Revolutionary War.
Our kayak guide, veteran South Carolina naturalist Chris Crolley, points out that centuries ago, a silvery
fox squirrel might have traveled from Charleston through the Congaree clear to the Mississippi River without ever touching the ground. The leader of our group, John Emmett Cely, a biologist retired from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and one of the foremost experts on the Congaree, backs him up with numbers. “There were once fifty million acres of this old-growth bottomland,” Cely says. “Better than eighty percent of that has been cleared for lumber and agriculture.”
That same fate nearly befell this very forest. Only a remarkable grassroots effort by Cely and his friends turned the tide. “Really, it was just a bunch of dumb kids who didn’t know any better,” Cely says, “trying to save the world.”
At around five foot nine, John Cely does not cut an imposing figure, but he’s impossible to ignore. He’s fitter than just about any other sixty-six-year-old you’re likely to meet, a fact he attributes to countless hours of rod, paddle, and rifle time in the Cowasee Basin, the massive lowland that drains the Congaree and Wateree rivers into the Upper Santee Swamp and Lake Marion. Cely is the former land protection director of the Congaree Land Trust and a member of the Cowasee Basin Task Force, an organization working to protect the hundreds of thousands of acres of woods and water that surround the park. He knows the history of this place as well as anyone, living or dead, and happily shares his knowledge in a deep, middle Carolina drawl.
In the years following the Civil War, he says, wealthy Northern industrialists snatched up millions of acres of plantation and forestland along the South Carolina and Georgia coastal plains. Some wanted the land to hunt and fish. Others quickly liquidated their property after clear-cutting. Starting in the 1890s, Chicago’s Francis Beidler purchased 160,000 acres between Columbia and the Carolina coast for one to two dollars an acre. Fortunately, Beidler had been profoundly moved by the natural wonders he saw on a journey out west in 1875 and opted for a more conservation-minded approach. Rather than clear-cutting all his timber, he left stretches of old-growth forest selectively logged or uncut entirely.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, the prize tree for the Beidlers and other loggers was Taxodium distichum, better known as the bald cypress. Loggers referred to them as black, yellow, or red river cypress, but only because in different locations the wood would take on different colors. These trees occupy the same family, Cupressaceae, as California’s giant redwood, which Cely calls a “fourth or fifth cousin.” The biggest of the Congaree’s bald cypresses rise some fifteen stories, roughly half the size of an average California redwood. Cely wonders aloud just how close these trees might grow in size to California trees were they not tropically wind pruned every generation or so, or occasionally blown to smithereens by bolts of summer lightning. The detritus of these storm clippings litter the forest floor in the form of hulking branches that have lain for generations, owing to the cypress’s almost supernatural imperviousness to rot.
It’s the cypresses, especially, that our group sets out to explore, paddling over and beneath huge fallen trunks and occasionally portaging our boats through thick mud when tree falls block our way. Just off Cedar Creek, Cely points to several dead giants that were girdled by loggers to drain out their heavy sap but were never felled for varying reasons. They died a century ago or more, but the trunks still stand because bald cypresses sprout a fantastical root system that makes them nearly impossible to blow down. Roots become interwoven with those of nearby trees and then puncture the forest floor with otherworldly stalagmites of iron-hard wood, called knees.
Cely’s first introduction to the Congaree and its arboreal wonderland came through the writings of Harry Hampton, an outdoor columnist for South Carolina’s the State newspaper. By the mid-1950s, the Beidler family had turned the land that we’re paddling through into a private hunt club, where Hampton and his brother were both members. “Harry liked to fish and hunt, but he also loved this place for the trees,” Cely says. “Other hunters ridiculed him because he’d just come back here and look at them. They didn’t have the term ‘tree hugger’ yet, but that’s what he was.” As a sophomore at Clemson University in 1967, Cely came across a photograph that pictured Hampton with the majestic trees and asked the writer to take him for a walk around.
The walk would change Cely’s life. And the future of the Congaree.
Hampton was sixty-nine years old by this time, and he realized that the conservation torch needed to be passed to the next generation. The Beidlers had begun logging the land again, threatening many of the forest’s colossal pines and hardwoods: a 160-foot-tall cherrybark oak, a 170-foot-tall loblolly pine, and a 165-foot-tall sweet gum, to name a few. Cely and his young band of conservationist friends quickly formed the Congaree Swamp National Preserve Association in a tiny office on Devine Street in Columbia and got to work, presenting slide shows to Rotary Clubs and school groups across the state and organizing a massive campaign to convince their congressman, Floyd Spence, of the region’s worth. Amazingly enough, they succeeded. The result, the Congaree Swamp National Monument, was dedicated on October 18, 1976. Finally, in 2003, the land was set aside as a national park.
In 1997, Cely began a project that continues to consume him—a hand-drawn map of the winding waterway and surrounding forest that is so precise that National Park Service rangers not only offer it for sale but also use it themselves. “I was always feeling a little guilty about just looking around back here without any specific goal,” Cely says. “That’s very un-American. So I decided I needed something to show for all my years of wandering.”
A must for any serious park visitor, the map reveals these magisterial woods in astonishing and beautiful detail—hurricane blowdowns, Joe’s Lake, Butterfly Pond (with its own grove of giants), even soil damage caused by rooting wild pigs.
On our second morning, we break camp and follow Cely’s map to a naturally occurring flood canal called Stump Gut for a haul-out and hike up Huger’s Slough. Here we find a twin-trunked cypress twenty-six feet in circumference that stops us all in our tracks. One of its trunks died long ago and is hollowed out. With a boost, Crolley’s assistant guide Gates Roll climbs inside. “Be careful,” Cely jokes. “You might end up on the shoulders of the last guy who tried that.”
Once inside, Roll finds himself amid a set piece from The Hobbit. It’s spooky and deep, with its own knees rising from the trunk’s depths. A little farther up the gut sits a huge lightning-hollowed cypress that has become a refuge for tiny bats, as well as a cluster of cypresses known as the Seven Sisters. Most impressive are the ones Cely calls the Twin Sis-ters. They’re both nearly twenty feet around, twelve stories tall, and slightly bent over at the exact same angle thanks to a long-ago hurricane. No one knows the precise ages of these trees. It was once thought that they were less than a thousand years old until researchers for the University of Arkansas revealed that one nearby tree was fifteen hundred years old. “There are probably trees back here that are two thousand years old,” Cely says. “The other thing that’s amazing to me is that we’re so near Columbia and four or five hundred thousand people and all of that sprawl. But there’s just nobody. You’re on your own. Back here, nature is calling the shots.