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Tree huggin'

By Robert Cross
Chicago Tribune

Established as a national park: Nov. 10, 2003.

Location: central South Carolina.

Area: 22,200 acres.

Visitors: 107,114 in 2003.

Flora and fauna: old-growth bottomland hardwood forest, tupelo and loblolly pines stand out among 90 tree species. Several species of wildlife typical of the region include amphibians, reptiles, insects, birds and freshwater fish. White-tailed deer, wild pig, bats, rodents, gray fox and mink are among the mammals.

Entrance fee: none.

CONGAREE NATIONAL PARK, S.C. - Somewhere up in the canopy of leaves, a barred owl hooted: hoo-hoo hoo-hoo hoo-awww. Park superintendent Martha Bogle hooted right back and sounded like an owl herself. No answer. The owl, evidently, was in no mood for an extended conversation.

But a lot of other birds chatted among themselves - chirping, tweeting, warbling, whistling, cawing and shrieking.

"People come here expecting quiet," Bogle said, "and they�re surprised how noisy it can be."

Avid birdwatchers have counted 167 species flitting amidst the trees, building nests and raising the Congaree decibel level - everything from hummingbirds to meadowlarks to red-shouldered hawks.

Birds like to hang around trees, and the 57th national park, so designated only last November, is very much about trees, 70 species in all and some of them the biggest of their kind.

That the woodland creatures now congregate in Congaree National Park, rather than Congaree Swamp National Monument, probably makes no difference to them, but the new designation marks a triumph of sorts for a lot of people in the region.

Harry Hampton, founder of the South Carolina Wildlife Federation, along with Friends of the Congaree, had been working on protecting the area since the 1950s. Their first success came in the 1970s, when the area was designated first as a federal national natural landmark and then a national monument. Last fall, Democrats Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings and Rep. James E. Clyburn pushed through the national park legislation, which not only changes the name of the 22,200-acre site but authorizes the purchase of 4,600 more acres on the park�s southeast end.

"Harry Hampton saw that bottomland forests were quickly being decimated throughout the Southeast, and there was little time left," Bogle told me on the morning of our brief owl encounter.

Bottomland, or flood plain, is the low-lying terrain near rivers. Certain kinds of trees, such as cypress, tupelo and loblolly pine, thrive in the rich alluvial soil and, along the Congaree River, withstand an average of 10 floods a year with aplomb. A recent flood left high-water marks 20 feet up the trunks.

"There used to be 24 million acres of bottomland hardwood forest that started in the Chesapeake Bay and went all the way down the eastern part of the United States and around the Gulf of Mexico and all the way over into Texas," Bogle said. "In South Carolina, there were 1.2 million acres, and there�s about 12,000 acres left - 11,000 of those protected by this park."

Driving the 18 miles from the city limits of Columbia, S.C., to the park entrance, I could easily deduce what happened to most of those other millions of wooded acres from the Chesapeake to Texas. On South Carolina Highway 48, I passed lumberyards, gas stations, barbecue stands, small farms and scattered communities of two-wide mobile homes and one-story frame houses.

People found the trees profitable as raw material, or an obstacle to farming and commerce, so most of those bottomland hardwood forests disappeared.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Congaree Swamp proved less tractable when loggers tried to have at it. After they were chopped down and dried out, trees still would tend to sink in the narrow gullies, making harvest difficult. Summer heat and frequent floods discouraged the lumberjacks even further.

But friends of that particular forest couldn�t rest easy until federal protection put Congaree off limits to determined exploiters, who were starting to log using helicopters.

When I visited last month, the entrance sign still said Congaree Swamp National Monument. Funds for new signs were in the pipeline. The National Park Service has an option to buy adjacent lands, but that has to wait until money becomes available. Congaree National Park is a work in progress, as are most of its elder siblings. At least, "Swamp" will no longer be part of the official designation.

"Only about 20 percent of the park is true swamp," Bogle said. "Most of it�s flood plain. You can hike virtually any place in the park, 90 percent of the time."

Or better yet, visitors can paddle along Cedar Creek or venture into the Congaree River. Bogle and I did just that one morning with the help of chief interpreter Francis "Fran" Rametta. Bogle and Rametta wrestled a big green canoe off the Jeep roof, refusing to let their guest help.

We then slid the craft down a slope to a barely visible landing of concrete blocks. The superintendent and I paddled slowly down the winding creek, and Rametta went back to headquarters.

I saw the park at perhaps its most alluring, a silent place except for the sounds of nature, a beautiful place with graceful tupelo trees and their fluted trunks, or cypress with their colonies of "knees," those little bumps that resemble so many garden gnomes.

Rametta had told me the day before: "We don�t know why the knee exists. We think it could serve as a snorkel. It could be an anchor. It could be a buffet table."

It was Rametta who explained why he thought Congaree deserved to be a national park. "First, there�s the tallness of the trees," he said. "Second is the bio-diversity with 700 species of plants and 75 different species of trees. And the third reason, you�re seeing all around us. This is old-growth forest."

On Cedar Creek, Bogle and I watched turtles sunning on a low-hanging branch. We called out to a fisherman who wasn�t having any luck with the pirate perch and largemouth bass. We eased across downed logs and stands of brush. "You can imagine how hard it is to keep this creek open," Bogle remarked. "For one thing, the water fluctuates so much. It�s got a lot of trees on the banks leaning, and when it floods, they get undermined and go toppling into the creek."

She told me Cedar Creek has no cedars. "I think early settlers called the cypress �cedar� for whatever reason."

On a nearby bluff, we saw the giant loblolly pines rising above the fresh spring-green leaves of their neighbors. Funny thing about the loblolly. In the bottomlands, where water is plentiful, they don�t grow a taproot. On the bluff, they do. In September 1989, when Hurricane Hugo struck, a lot of the bottomland big trees tipped over, while most of the blufftop pines stood strong.

Floods aren�t a big problem, except for those toppling branches that occasionally block the progress of canoeists. "This is a flood plain, a real natural part of the ecosystem," Bogle said. "Our watershed is over 7,000 miles in size. It begins in North Carolina. Whatever water comes out of North Carolina - and it�s a lot - can end up on us."

Bogle has done a good bit of moving around the national park system over the years - from Great Smoky Mountain in Tennessee and North Carolina to the Florida Everglades to Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Colorado to South Fork National River and Recreation Area on the Tennessee-Kentucky border. "I�ve been here in Congaree longer than any place I�ve ever worked," she said. "Eight years."

She and Rametta are staying put because they say the park keeps offering new surprises. Rametta, who has been on the site 23 years, noticed last June that fireflies flash in a precise sequence. "They�re all synchronized," he said.

Not long ago, he saw seagulls repeatedly dipping into the water of the Congaree River. "I thought they were diving for bait fish, but when I got closer, it looked like they were diving and eating air. It turned out they were eating mayflies. The mayflies were hatching and flying up, and the gulls would eat the mayflies. Why in the world would a big gull like that eat a tiny mayfly? I had never seen that before in my whole life."

I said that certainly made for a short mayfly life span. He chuckled. "They only live three days, anyway, so what the heck."

Rametta said some of his friends in the Forestry Service ask him when he intends to leave Congaree. "I say to them, �when I know it all."�

The superintendent and I were nearing the end of our little paddling expedition, so she radioed Rametta and asked him to come back to the landing, about 10 minutes away, and help us put the canoe back on the Jeep.

We drifted awhile, listening to the birdsong, when suddenly a harsh hoo-hoo hoo-hoo hoo-awww burst from the vicinity of trees high up the ridge. Bogle cupped her hands around her mouth and hooted back a perfect imitation. And we heard an answer this time.

Bogle lifted her cap, scratched her head and said, "I believe that�s a Fran Rametta owl." And sure enough, there he came down the bluff with a big grin on his face.

IF YOU GO:

GETTING THERE: Columbia, S.C., the state capital, is 18 miles north of the park. Airlines serving Columbia include Northwest, United and US Airways. Bluff Road (South Carolina Highway 48) takes people the rest of the way, mostly past suburbs and countryside.

GETTING AROUND: Vehicles proceed only as far as the visitor center parking lot or boat landing sites, because 98 percent of the park is designated wilderness and therefore road-free. The interior must be explored on foot or by boat. Hiking trails cover about 37 miles, including 2.4 miles of boardwalk that loops through a diverse old-growth forest.

No boats are available in the park, but Columbia does have outfitters with watercraft for rent. No motors of any kind are permitted. Canoes and kayaks may follow a 7-mile marked trail along Cedar Creek or paddle on the Congaree River, which defines the park�s southern border.

Vehicle parking is available at boat landings near the end points of Old Bluff Road and South Cedar Creek Road, as well as the U.S. Highway 601 bridge, outside park boundaries.

LODGING AND DINING: Free camping permits are mandatory and available at the visitor center. An after-hours primitive campsite just outside the main gate and north of the visitor center has portable toilets. Another primitive area, Bluff Campsite, is east of the visitor center. Both sites have picnic tables and fire rings.

All other camping is strictly backcountry with no facilities. Campers must set up at least 100 feet away from trails, roads, streams and other bodies of water. No camping allowed within 500 feet of the boardwalk or park infrastructure.

Of course, one could stay at a Columbia hotel or motel and make day-trip forays into Congaree.

Aside from a soda vending machine and potable water at the visitor center (open 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.), the park offers nothing to sustain the weary traveler. A couple of home-style cafes in nearby Gadsden whip up barbecue or "meat �n� three" (meat and three side orders), but that�s the extent of dining choices. Campers and picnickers should shop for groceries or seek out a wider variety of restaurants in one of the larger towns, such as Sumter or Columbia.

ACCESSIBILITY: The visitor center, picnic shelter and primitive campgrounds are wheelchair accessible. Also accessible is the 2.4-mile boardwalk loop trail.

INFORMATION:Congaree National Park, 100 National Park Rd., Hopkins, SC 29061-9118; 803-776-4396; fax 803-783-4241; www.nps.gov/cosw

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