We rounded a corner of the Boardwalk Loop Trail
in Congaree National Park
, and a strange vertigo set in. Looking off through the giant cypress and tupelo trees, I couldn't see where the ground was. Some sort of trick of the light in the late afternoon: the towering trees stretched down as far as they stretched up. The perfectly still, black water the trees stood in reflected those trees perfectly, and there was no way to tell where the water stopped and where the air began. There was no horizon. Just perfectly straight lines as far up and as far down as you could see and a boardwalk stretching straight ahead into the swampy forest. It was hypnotic.
Thankfully, I had a nine-year-old boy with me to shatter the illusion. He ran up the boardwalk shouting at the top of his lungs and flung a stick into the water. He and his sister had been examining an enormous Golden Orb Weaver spider waiting on its web somewhere behind us.
In response to his caterwauling, a pack of college kids somewhere else in the forest began howling. Jimmy and the group of young men (whom we ran into later) howled and hollered back and forth to each other until I made him stop. "People are trying to enjoy nature out here," I said.
"But we are enjoying nature. By yelling in it."
His father choked on a laugh.
"Find another way."
So the two kids ran off down the boardwalk. There were at least another dozen spiders to find, some as big as my palm, on webs that stretched between trees and lit up in the rare shafts of sunlight that filtered through the dense canopy. There was a mouse hiding underneath one of the beams of the boardwalk, little green lizards running down the handrails, and millipedes as big as your finger curled around twigs. There were woodpeckers drilling holes in trees, but we only heard them echoing through the swamp and didn't see any.
And of course, there were the trees. Enormous loblolly pines as wide as all four of us lined up, water tupelos tapering gracefully into the sky, and the eerie knees of bald cypress trees poking up through the water. The remarkable trees of Congaree are, in fact, what saved this place. They are so enormous that they were impossible to log -- too big to drag out overland and too heavy to float out down the Congaree River. And so this place remained untouched while the rest of the virgin forests of South Carolina were logged. Congaree is the largest remaining tract of old-growth hardwood bottomland forest left in the United States. Congaree has the largest trees east of the Mississippi, with 25 champion trees -- meaning the biggest tree of its kind yet found.
Finally, we arrived at Weston Lake, a small oxbow lake that was once a curve of the Congaree River but was cut off after its floodwaters had receded, hundreds or perhaps thousands of years ago.
A little turtle lay sunning itself on a dead tree jutting into the water. After staring at the water for a few moments, we were able to make out long-nosed gar, a fish like something Dr. Suess would draw, floating just under the surface of the water. The last time we'd been at Congaree, we'd seen an enormous alligator snapping turtle lurking under the observation deck that extends a little bit over the lake, but he wasn't there this day.
The Congaree River breaks its banks and fills this floodplain forest 10 or so times a year. It's flooded now, and this makes it an especially magical time to visit. But it also means that water lapped at the edges of the boardwalk and seeped up through the lats. The kids jumped up and down to make the water slosh through and over the boards. At some point in the Loop trail, however, we had to turn around. The boardwalk was completely flooded and impassable.
But the deep flood also led to those beautiful optical illusions of never-ending trees. Well worth the trade-off, the kids and Alex and I all agreed.
Congaree National Park is located off Old Bluff Road in Gadsden, just outside Columbia
. Directions are here
. The Boardwalk Loop trail begins at the Visitor's Center. Admission to the park is free.
Take a few minutes, if you can, to walk all by yourself down one of the boardwalk. In the heavy silence, you can hear to the distant plunks of branches falling into the still water and the hooting owls.
Also, bring insect repellant. Lots of it.