It’s not often you have the opportunity to paddle in a primeval forest surrounded by1,000-year-old cypress trees untouched by the hand of man. South Carolina rivers were once bordered by more than a million acres of old-growth floodplain forests. Today, only two stands remain in the state — at Congaree National Park
and in Francis Beidler Forest
Owned and managed by the National Audubon Society, Beidler Forest
lays claim to the world’s largest stand of virgin bald cypress and tupelo gum trees. When the water level in the floodplain is high enough, the Audubon Center offers guided canoe trips through this ancient forest, located within the Four Holes Swamp.
In the spring, canoe trips are offered on a regular basis Friday through Sunday. Four-hour trips are scheduled each of the three days at 1 p.m.; two-hour trips are available at 9 a.m. Saturdays.
I booked a tour on a recent May weekend with Audubon Center guide Sarah Todd. We set out from a remote landing on Mellard Lake, one of the swamp’s “holes”. Paddling through this open section of blackwater, surrounded by dense, undisturbed vegetation, I felt totally removed from the rest of the world.
After just a few minutes, we entered the woods, thick with 100-foot bald cypress and tupelo gum trees. Rather than the eerie silence I expected, the forest was alive with the sounds of nature — the loud, ringing “tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet” of Prothonotary Warblers, the flapping of a white ibis winging it across the water and the distinctive “Who-cooks-for-you?” spring courtship call of a Barred Owl.
As we wound our way through the swamp, we spotted more wildlife — a fishing spider perched on a cypress knee, a young yellow-bellied slider turtle, flittering dragonflies and a half-dozen brown water snakes, some swimming in the water, others nestled in trees.
Our guide Sarah pointed out other natural attractions. She showed us a Pecky Cypress tree that had fallen, revealing the odd-shaped pockets that form throughout the wood. She explained how resurrection fern shrivels up when it dries and comes back to life when it rains. And she told us how Prothonotary Warblers use the liverworts growing on cypress knees to line their nests.
With the water level decreasing as we come to the end of spring, navigating through the swamp proved to be a bit tricky. In one spot, we had to make a three-point turn to get through a particularly narrow section of the trail. The swamp opened up again as we reached Singletary Lake.
It helps to have some paddling experience to canoe or kayak Four Holes Swamp. Not only do you need to maneuver through narrow passages, you have to steer clear of trees covered with Poison Ivy. But it’s a trip unlike any other in the Lowcountry and so worth the navigational challenges.
Cost is $30 for adults ($15 for children 8 to 18) for the four-hour excursion; $20 for adults ($10 for children 6 to 18) for the two-hour trip. The price for the tour also includes admission to the Beidler Forest boardwalk.
Reservations are required in advance. These trips are popular, so you’ll want to book early. Call (843) 462-2150 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to reserve your canoe. The forest is located about an hour from Columbia and Charleston off Interstate 26 in Santee Cooper Country
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