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Congaree Trip Report

The "Monument"

I've seen the sign on the interstate many times, Congaree National Monument. I never considered hiking at a monument. I walked around the Washington Monument and was impressed by the Jefferson Memorial but I didn't consider them hikes. That is until I got an e mail from a friend. "You've got to see the big trees" was the message. I'm a sucker for old growth stands of trees so I loaded up the car. Most associate "Virgin" Timber with remote areas in the mountains. The bottomlands of South Carolina has huge tract of un spoiled land not far from Columbia, so  I quickly drove the 98 miles down I-77 to the bottomland wilderness. The Congaree National Monument is actually a wilderness area that is set aside by an act of Congress. It administered by the National Park Service with the purpose of preserving it for future generations. 

Controlled Burn

As I pulled into the ranger station, I noticed the charred woods. The ranger inside told me about a controlled burn to "cleanse" the forest. He said "Lightning doesn't strike in Columbia and burn all the way here, anymore" He added with a grin "They put it out before it reaches here". Now the park service has to use controlled burning to do what nature once did.

The trees that surrounded the welcome center were not that impressive but the butterfly garden was. There was a little area with native plants that were labeled with a description. Very pretty and informative. I could tell I was going to like this place!

Seclusion

After obtaining my back country permit, I threw on the 'ole Mountainsmith pack and headed down the trail. I decided to take the boardwalk to the Weston Lake Loop trail. The ranger told me that the Kingsnake Trail sees the fewest visitors so that's where I headed. The short 8/10 of a mile on the high boardwalk was very pleasant. 6 feet above the forest floor gave a unique perspective. The trees looked different from this angle. I passed a dozen or more causal walkers. Just out for an evening stroll, you can imagine their surprise when a fully geared up backpacker came trucking down the walk! Most were dressed in casual wear and had never seen a backpacker before. Or so it seemed! 

At Weston Lake the trail into the wilderness leads to the left. The trail was flat and much softer than hiking on the boardwalk and the big trees came into sight immediately. The park service has installed footbridges over water crossings, this proved to very handy at times. No sense in getting completely muddied up. After another mile I merged with the Kingsnake Trail.

The ranger was right, this was a wilderness area. So different from the mountain backcountry but just as appealing. Giant Bald Cyprus lines the trail. Huge Loblolly pines everywhere. Truly a breathtaking experience. 

Old Growth Furniture

I set up my tent in a flat area next to a giant fallen pine. A great table, as I learned years ago in the Smokies. Fallen giants make great furniture. As dusk approached thousands of birds settled in for the evening. The sounds of their calls were deafening. As the shadows fell and darkness creeped slowly into the forest the sounds of the birds slowly subsided. The Bard Owls started their calls shortly after dusk. Occasionally you could hear the loud and un-nerving shrieks of the screech owls.

As the darkness surrounded me, I decided to light my small backpacking lantern. Because a trip to the wilderness heightens my senses, it can be difficult to concentrate on reading. The sounds, scents and the solitude can be overpowering at times. Sometimes it is nice to read a good book while camped in the wilderness, so I thought I'd give it a try. 

The Owls

After lighting the lantern, I noticed that the owls started to "hoot" even louder. So much so, it was distracting. I turned the lantern off and the cries subsided. After a few minutes, I lit the lantern again. The owls began their objections almost immediately. Too distracted to read, I extinguished the flame again. The cries stopped! I couldn't help myself, I had to light it again just to see if the owls really didn't like my lantern. Again they shrieked their disapproval! I turn the lantern off for the last time. After all, it is their house.

Without reading material, I drifted off to sleep. There is nothing quite like the deep sleep that hikers experience in the wilderness. The combination of tired muscles and solitude create a peaceful atmosphere that allows a deep sleep. 

Solitude

Just before dawn, I woke up. After fixing a hot cup of mocha, I walked to a foot-bridge to watch the sun rise. As the rays filtered through the forest I could see a light mist rising from the swamp.  The mist gave the forest a "pre-historic" look and it seemed as if  a dinosaur might poke its' head out of the undergrowth! At that moment I realized that the forest was all mine. I had not seen a soul since I left the boardwalk the day before. True solitude. As I stood there among the giant moss draped trees I wondered why I hadn't hiked here before.

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