It was hard to tell if it was smoke or fog. Eastbound on I-26, one-dollar gas station coffee in hand, I drove for one hundred miles under tall pillars of gray and white clouds obscuring the winter solstice sun. A thin, gray haze spread across the highway, hanging like a shroud over the crawling cars.
I'd heard that the November wildfires, clustered on the North Carolina border, had been contained and nearly extinguished, but not before destroying over 66,000 acres of national forest, including parts of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The gateway town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee was also badly damaged. I wondered if the dreary haze in my path could be the remnants of that weeks-long blaze, thinning out as it made its way across the upstate of South Carolina and toward the coast, fading to ephemeral vapors over the sea.
But I didn't smell smoke. Assuring myself that it was unusually omni-present fog, I fiddled with the patchy radio, looking for signal. No luck. I slid in a CD and cruised on.
I intended to spend the solstice hiking in the Pisgah National Forest, near Brevard, North Carolina. Perpetually drawn to mountains, I reasoned that a summit hike to Sam Knob would befit this day of fleeting light and longest night. I would get higher than the clouds, closer to the sun's retreating rays. I would stand 6,000 feet tall and look out and over, as though I could observe the Earth's curvature as it spun 23 degrees, southern hemisphere titled to the sun, northern hemisphere angled away, banished to winter's breath.
Instead, I spent the solstice in a swamp (well, that's not technically correct. More on that later.)
As I readied my daypack that morning, I made the last minute decision to forgo the mountains and finally experience a place I'd been neglecting: Congaree National Park.
Two hours south of Spartanburg, it was always close-by but oft-forgotten. It is one of the least visited national parks, with only 120,000 annual visitors (although, this number plunged to 87,000 in 2015, due to extensive flooding and closures, mostly from Hurricane Joaquin.)
One of the first things to understand about Congaree is that it is technically not a swamp (although it can certainly feel like it as you squish through mud, with birds screeching overhead, snakes and gators lurking out near or in the river.)
Congaree National Park is actually a floodplain, which is a low lying area near a river that is periodically covered by water throughout the year. A swamp is permanently covered with water.
I ventured out for a big loop of the park's trails. Congaree encompasses 22,000 acres, much of which is accessible by canoe. Unfortunately, my spontaneous daytrip meant that I wasn't able to get out on the river, but I was still able to explore on foot.
Congaree has a 2.4 mile elevated boardwalk to deal with the seasonal flooding and allow visitors to still experience the park. There are also wilderness trails that get you off the beaten path and into the "backcountry." I opted to do the boardwalk and step off for a 4 mile loop around Weston Lake, in the wilderness boundary.
The boardwalk has numbered, self-guided interpretive sites that teach you a little bit about the park. There are a few historic landmarks, like the old gin mill used by moonshiners in Prohibition, sunken into the ground and partially hidden from sight, but still visible from the boardwalk. There are also markers that provide ecological information about the different species of trees and wildlife.
Winter is typically a time of extreme flooding at Congaree, but the water level was low and the mud was not too deep. It was a chilly start but soon warmed to the mid 50s.
Congaree relies on the mighty Congaree River, and also the lesser Wateree River. Seasonal flooding deposits nutrients in the floodplain and creates fertile ground.
The park is known for its incredible biodiversity. You can find river otters, snakes, bobcats, and dozens of birds.
But Conagree is particularly special because it is home to some of the largest specimens of southern trees. Deemed "champions," some of these trees soar over the average tree canopy in the park, which is a still-impressive 100 feet.
But the NPS website reveals some sobering statistics: South Carolina rivers were once bordered by over a million acres of old-growth floodplain forest; now only 12,000 acres remain and 11,000 are preserved in Congaree National Park. Still, Congaree contains the largest expanse of old growth, bottomland hardwood forests in the country.
For nearly three hours, I walked, snaking through cypress, sweetgum, tupelo, and loblolly pines.
No reptiles, otters, or other river dwellers crossed my path, just birds screeching overhead.
Fleeting streaks of light filtered in through the tree canopy, coloring the muddy water with strips of blue and green. Congaree was my 13th National Park, and one I'd like to return to, next time by canoe, so I can trace the waterways that define this place.