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Saturday, March 11, 2023

Hiking the Weston Lake Loop Trail in Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park is a relatively little-known national park in South Carolina. Some reports show it as the 10th least visited national park in the nation. Certainly when we settled into camp at Santee State Park in South Carolina, we had forgotten all about Congaree National Park and didn't realize it was only a 45 minute drive from where we are camped.  We found it by luck as we searched for a good hike in the area.  Our search turned up the Weston Lake Loop Trail in Congaree and, because it is a national park we hadn't visited, we had no trouble getting excited about trying it!

If it is symbolized by anything, Congaree National Park is symbolized by its champion old-growth trees characteristic of Bottomland Hardwood Forests:

Bottomland hardwood forests are found in broad lowland floodplains along large rivers and lakes. They are occasionally flooded, which builds up the alluvial soils required for the gum, oak and bald cypress trees that typically grow in this type of biome. The trees often develop unique characteristics to allow submergence, including cypress knees and fluted trunks, but cannot survive continuous flooding.  Typical examples of this forest type are found throughout the Gulf Coast states, and along the Mississippi River in the United States, but the bottomland hardwood forest that is home to the tallest old growth pines and cypress trees has been preserved at Congaree National Park.  It is also the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the United States. 

The park received its official national park designation in 2003 as the culmination of a grassroots campaign that began in 1969.  It has an unique character that is captured in this painting by Stephen Chesley:

We felt that spirit as we stood at the entrance gate to the Boardwalk Trail in the park.  The gate reminded us of gates to Japanese gardens:

It is Spring, and the trees are starting to show their fresh green leaves.  Here, the leaves contrast with the blackened soil of areas of the park where rangers have been conducting prescribed burns to reduce the risk of wildfire:

Spring is now also evident in the yellow-spray patterns of pine pollen on the water above the Dorovan muck.  The boardwalk takes you across dark-colored mud, a mixture of clay and old leaves. This mud, called Dorovan muck, is eight feet thick and plays an important role in the health of the floodplain.  It filters water, traps pollution, and turns pollutants into harmless compounds. By filtering water, it helps keep the floodplain and the associated lakes and rivers clean.

Over the years, Congaree National Park has boasted the tallest known specimens of fifteen different trees, including a 167 foot loblolly pine, which we will discuss later -- the National Champion Loblolly Pine.

"Champion Tree" is a designation afforded to selected trees that are special or superlative because of the combination of their height, size and significance. The designations in the US are recorded in the National Register of Champion Trees, which is a list of the largest tree specimens found in the United States as reported by American Forests to the public. A tree on this list is called a National Champion Tree. Congaree National Park has one of the largest concentrations of champion trees in the United States.

Well, Kathy always loves to hug big trees, but she gave a Champion Hug to this Champion Tree!

Our hike took us around the Boardwalk Trail and then on the Weston Lake Loop Trail, which starts at Weston Lake, a shallow lake formed in a deeper section of the bottomland swamp.  While dramatically different than the surrounding, tree-covered swamp floor, the lake was relatively small and relatively unremarkable.  Although it appeared dirt-laden, it bears an abundance of fish.

The wet areas of bottomlands and swamps in Congaree are typified by large cypress trees and water tupelos, a tree similar to cypress but without the unique "knees" that surround most cypress trees.  In contrast, the higher, drier areas are characterized by loblolly pine, maple, oak and sweet gum.  We are experienced in hiking in higher areas, and we know the usual hazards:  rocks and roots are the chief threats, and we call them Rock Gnomes and Root Gnomes.  These gnomes leap up and try to trip a hiker without warning, and it's important to maintain great vigilance against them.

But today, we discovered a new type of gnome on the trail -- a Knee Gnome!  It is a cypress knee growing up in the middle of the trail where it oughtn't not to be.  They're supposed to only be in the immediate area around a cypress tree -- not by their lonesome looking for trouble on a hiking trail.  In the photo below, Kathy keeps a newly-named Knee Gnome from leaping up into the air:

Having discovered these new gnomes, we stood alert for more as we continued along the trail.  To our surprise, we were treated to a sight that few hikers ever see -- a gnome nursery -- a place where those pesky gnomes, be they Rock Gnomes, Root Gnomes or Knee Gnomes, are born and nurtured until they are mature enough to venture out on the trail by themselves and challenge unwary hikers.  

Here is the first-ever photograph of a Knee Gnome Nursery:

And, you may ask, what happens to gnomes when they get old, perhaps too tired to continue their leaping, tripping ways?  Well, again, we were lucky enough to take an unprecedented photograph of a Senior Knee Gnome who is clearly too tired to rise up and terrorize hikers:

But enough of the dark side of hiking.  Now to the wonderful side.

You recall our discussion of Champion Trees, and that Congaree National Park is home to the National Champion Loblolly Pine.  Well, as it happens, our pre-hike research found a trail guide for the Weston Lake Loop Trail, produced by Friends of the Congaree, which revealed the National Champion Loblolly Pine's true, hidden location and described the route we must take, along an unmarked trail, to find it.

And so we did.  Kathy persuaded the National Champion to have his photo taken with her, and he obliged.  He was, however, unwilling to give us an autograph.

These Champion Trees are larger than you can imagine.  A hugging picture can help you understand their girth.  A pose with Kathy and the National Champion can help you imagine their height.  But to truly understand their size, you must get deeper into the subject.  And so Kathy did.  She was so deep that the camera could barely pick out her smiling face at the other end of this hollowed-out, fallen giant:

This one might be a champion, but we're not sure of what.  Perhaps of telling scary monster stories to those baby cypress knees sitting in the swampy muck at his (ahem) knee:

And if monster champion trees weren't enough, we came across a "Walking Maple."  According to that trail guide from the Friends of the Congaree, a winged red maple seed landed on a tupelo or cypress stump years ago, and extended its roots over and through the old tree stump. The stump eventually rotted away, leaving only the maple trunk and its pedestal roots.  Who would have thought?

Our trail eventually brought us around to Cedar Creek, which is deep enough for paddling canoes or kayaks -- although the Park Service warned in the Visitor Center that, due to a large number of fallen trees in the creek, numerous portages are required and that, therefore, Cedar Creek is not suitable for any but the most expert paddlers:

We saw no animals in our visit, other than a couple of squirrels.  There were, however, some flora that graced the trail.  The first we saw was this unusual and interesting fungus growing on the trunk of a recently fallen tree:

Here, some beautiful, golden-colored wildflowers have thrived in the protection of another fallen tree:

These beautiful little paw paw flowers showed us all their stages of development as, we guess, the paw paw trees were starting to strut their Spring stuff:

This blossom had fallen to the trail, and seems to be from a plant common in bottomland hardwood forests, because people have found them in Louisiana's Chicot State Park, but we were not able to find its name.  That didn't impair its beauty, though:

We have visited other swamps -- notably Okefenokee and Everglades -- but we've never visited a Bottomland Hardwood Forest swamp, nor learned as much as we did on this visit about cypress, water tupelo, walking maple, and, of course, those grand Champion Trees!

May our next adventure be as bountiful.


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