Tales of Trees

Congaree National Park in South Carolina protects the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the United States.

By Paromita Pain

September 2018

Tales of Trees

Paddling through Cedar Creek, a backwater stream that flows through the heart of Congaree National Park, is the best way to experience the park. (Jtmartin57/Courtesy Wikipedia)

The first word that comes to mind about Congaree National Park is “majestic.” Spread over 10,600 hectares in central South Carolina, the park preserves the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. For kilometers, it celebrates the lofty pine and cypress trees, which have stood in the area for years.

It was designated as the Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976 because much of the park lies within the floodplain of the Congaree River and is subject to periodic floods, which occur approximately 10 times a year. As the National Geographic reported, “After the monument gained national park status in November 2003—and dropped the unappealing ‘s’ word from its name—the number of visitors each month increased significantly.” The park has been designated a wilderness area, which means it has had the time to grow relatively undisturbed by human interventions. It is also an International Biosphere Reserve, a Globally Important Bird Area and a National Natural Landmark. Congaree is one of the three places in North America where synchronous fireflies can be seen for a brief two-week period, between mid-May and mid-June. Legend and nature

The park is named after the Native American tribe, Congaree, which lived here before dying out in the 18th century because of smallpox epidemics. Then, the timber industry threatened to take over, knowing the age-old cypress could be sold for good profit. But the area’s remoteness and lack of navigation saved it from decimation.

There is more to Congaree National Park than its natural offerings. It is also a place of tales and legends. For example, the cypress trees’ trademark small, lumpy growths around the base of the trunk are believed to be forest elves, who dance at night throughout the woodland.

Hiking and more
Visitors come to Congaree National Park for a variety of activities. The park is extremely green and the quiet is mostly broken by woodpeckers and the enthusiastic singing of bull frogs. Wildlife like deer, otter, feral pigs, bobcats and owls are also abundant here. Park rangers often take visitors to hear and spot barred owls and learn more about the trees, especially the fungi that grow on the cypresses. Besides exploring the hardwood trees, fishing, and canoeing and kayaking on different creeks, visitors can enjoy the park’s variety of hiking trails.

The park has over 40 kilometers of hiking trails and nearly four kilometers of boardwalk, and can be experienced either on foot or by boat. The Boardwalk Trail starts at the park’s Harry Hampton Visitor Center and is very popular, says a center guide. Most visitors who want a feel of the park take this, before venturing on to the other longer hikes.

The Boardwalk Trail in Congaree National Park, which starts from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and leads into the old-growth bottomland hardwood forest.

The Boardwalk Trail in Congaree National Park, which starts from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and leads into the old-growth bottomland hardwood forest. (Miguel Vieira/Courtesy Flickr)

The walk has “stops” pointing out to hikers the different aspects of the trail and the must-sees. The boating trail can be used to explore Cedar Creek. Maneuvering through the labyrinth of trees can be exciting. There are no hilly areas, but there are some bridges. Most of the trails are on flat ground, so dogs and other assistance animals can be taken along. But, as the visitor center guide says, “Some of the grounds can be wet and swampy. So, we caution visitors to be careful.” The center offers maps of hiking trails with descriptions of the vegetation. Many ranger-led activities make the park easy to navigate. For young visitors, the Junior Ranger program is a great way to learn about the forest.

Community connection
Congaree National Park believes in working with local communities to ensure that more people get involved with its activities and work together to protect natural habitats. In September 2017, the park celebrated National Public Lands Day with a community bike ride, offered as part of the nationwide “Bike Your Park” day, for visitors to take in the pastoral settings of Lower Richland County. In 2017, the park staff collaborated with community members and participants from the nonprofit organization Friends of Congaree Swamp to start work on a new park trail to provide access to the Bates Old River and other natural features.

Traveling to Congaree National Park in the warm months can be difficult since most wetlands breed mosquitoes. Spring and fall are the most popular seasons among visitors.

Paromita Pain is a journalist based in Austin, Texas.


Tides and Tigers

Like Congaree National Park that protects hardwood trees, the Sundarbans is home to mangrove forests, one of the largest in the world. It is part of the world’s largest delta, formed by the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is also home to the endangered species of the Bengal tiger; the only mangrove forest in the world to have them. Over four million people stay here.

Sundarbans is one of the world’s largest mangrove forests.

Sundarbans is one of the world’s largest mangrove forests. (Suman85/Courtesy Wikipedia)

Sundarbans National Park in West Bengal covers over 2,500 square kilometers of the 4,262 square kilometers of the Sundarban forests in India. It got its name from one of the mangrove plants known as Sundari. The park works with local communities, teaching them antipoaching techniques and ensuring that no human interference deters the protection of these precious tigers. Controlling man-eating tigers is an important aspect of their work as well. But the terrain of the Sundarbans does not make this easy, as a delta, rivers and different streams and watercourses form a network of complex channels. It is almost as if the roots of the mangroves hold the delta together, while protecting different types of fish and other life forms.

The Sundarbans, with its unique ecology, provides a safe habitat for about 260 varieties of birds, threatened species like estuarine crocodiles and the Indian python, and monitor lizards and the king cobra. —P.P.


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