The story of an adventure through the giant and undisturbed forests of Congaree National Park.

Story and photos by Whit Bronaugh

Congaree is home to the champion swamp tupelo; a challenge to find in the park’s extensive old growth stamp tupelo forest.

For the second time in 30 minutes my way was blocked by a swamp. But what did I expect? I was bushwhacking to find the biggest swamp tupelo. I could have gone straight ahead, following my compass bearing, but I would have emerged on the other side looking and feeling like my amphibious ancestors of 375 million years ago. Although just 15 miles southeast of Columbia, South Carolina, this forest conjures such primeval thoughts.

I made the detour, accompanied by an entourage of biodiversity bent on making a substantial and unauthorized withdrawal from my private blood bank. A few of them paid. Dearly. But most got away with enough of me to ensure that the Mosquito Meter at the nearby Congaree National Park visitor center would soon rev up from borderline Severe, through Ruthless, to War Zone as spring turned to summer. After circumventing the swamp, I forced my way through dense stands of switch cane where, I found out later, I picked up a couple hundred chiggers that also wanted, and got, a piece of me.

Now, given sufficient motivation, I can complain about the hardships of wilderness travel as well as any city slicker, but I reserve a special place for the biting and stinging hordes. They are Mother Earth’s ultimate rangers. How much of the old-growth forest of Congaree National Park, I wondered, would be left if these guardians had not been on the front lines?

As it stands, very little eastern old-growth forest of any commercial value survived the wave of logging that characterized most of American history. Recent estimates by the Eastern Old Growth Clearinghouse place the total at about one million acres, less than one-third of one percent of the current forest cover east of the Great Plains. Well over half of the remaining old forest is found in just three areas: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Adirondacks of New York, and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota each has over 200,000 acres (312 square miles) of uncut forest. Most other tracts of virgin forest are much less than 1,000 acres, often less than 100. So the 11,000 acres of old growth forest that cover half of Congaree National Park represent one of the crown jewels of eastern forests.

The Congaree is even more special than its size alone would indicate. Most eastern old growth is tucked away in less accessible coves, on steep slopes, or at higher elevations in the mountains. Old forests on flat lowlands are exceedingly rare. Congaree National Park contains the largest remaining area of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. Period.

The national champion loblolly pine.

Another distinguishing feature of the Congaree is that many of its trees literally stand above all else. According to the Eastern Native Tree Society, based on direct tape drop or laser measurements by Will Blozan and Jess and Doug Riddle, Congaree boasts the tallest known specimens of 15 species! Emerging above the canopy layer is a loblolly pine that looks down on everything from 167 feet, just 18 feet shy of the Boogerman white pine in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the tallest known tree in the East. Among the other first-place record holders for loftiness in the canopy are a sweetgum (157 feet), a cherrybark oak (154), an American elm (135), a swamp chestnut oak (133), an overcup oak (131), a common persimmon (127), and a laurel oak (125). No wonder Congaree is known as the “Redwoods of the East”!

And, like the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats, the environmental conditions that have created such airy crowns have also nourished exaggerated stature in the sub-canopy and understory trees. Nowhere else are you likely to find a taller swamp cottonwood (115 feet), winged elm (104), American holly (91), Carolina ash (82), American hornbeam (68), pawpaw (53), or possumhaw (44). Congaree also has the second-tallest common baldcypress (141 feet), sugarberry (108), and water-elm (65).

With so many records in the height category, you might suspect that Congaree harbors many champions, and you would be right. American Forests’ big-tree point formula (circumference in inches + height in feet + one-fourth of the crown spread in feet) favors open-area trees that express their growth mainly in the girth of a relatively short trunk. Even so, Congaree is currently home to six national- and 23 state-champion trees. For every three square miles, there are two champion trees. The park is so rich in big trees that when a champion falls, there is usually a nearby contender to take its place.

The area was first surveyed for champion trees in 1977 by Dr. Chuck Gaddy, who located 30. In the following 16 years many of these champs were blown down or severely damaged by storms. Then, in 1993, Dr. Robert Jones surveyed the park and found 27 new champions. The current national champions of Congaree, all new since Jones’s initial survey, include possumhaw, water hickory, loblolly pine, laurel oak, swamp tupelo, and sweetgum.

After four miles of trail and a mile of bushwhacking past the two swamps and through the switch cane, I waded a muddy, boot-sucking stream. The Congaree is a wetland forest, and indeed it seems like water is everywhere. There are very few places in the park where you can travel more than a half-mile in one direction without having to cross a pond, lake, creek, seasonal channel (locally called a gut), slough, wet flat, or muck swamp. It is an aquatic and terrestrial maze that constantly changes. About 10 times a year there really is water everywhere as the Congaree River rises to flood the entire area.

Finally, drenched in sweat and bugged by bugs, I found the champion swamp tupelo growing on the bank of a small muddy creek deep in the heart of Congaree. Swamp tupelos growing in water typically have a swollen base that tapers rapidly within 10 feet to a trunk that may be several times smaller in diameter. The 337-point champion grows in a location only temporarily flooded, so its five-foot-thick trunk tapers only gradually, soaring 80 feet to the first major limb. Massive though it is, one gets the impression, walking through these woods, that perseverance and a good supply of bug spray are all you’d need to find a bigger one.

The next day I located the biggest loblolly pine, growing conveniently only a few dozen yards off a trail. For someone accustomed to associating pines with the mostly dry climates of the West or generally upland habitats in the East, it was surprising to find the champion loblolly with flood debris around its base, growing less than 20 feet from baldcypress knees. The champion is the very same aforementioned 167-foot-tall, tallest loblolly pine. It looks down on one of the highest temperate forest canopies in the world, and towers more than 100 feet above the understory crowns of American holly and pawpaw.

The former laurel oak national champion.

I next visited a former-champion laurel oak after a three-mile hike. My arrival was heralded by the dueling Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all? calls of barred owls. While photographing a view up the trunk of the laurel oak, I had to step back to allow an eastern ratsnake to enter its shelter in the base of the tree. During my several forays into the Congaree forest I also saw plain-bellied and brown watersnakes, eastern mud turtles, pond sliders, snapping turtles, broad-headed skinks, longnose gar, white-tailed deer, marsh rabbits, six species of frogs, and 60 species of birds. With spring in the air, the only time I couldn’t hear the symphony of birdsong was during the percussion of storms. At night, at least seven species of frog took up the chorus.

Preliminary surveys of the park list 30 species of mammals, 170 birds, 32 reptiles, 30 amphibians, and 49 fish. The rich diversity of insects is hinted at by a Park Service brochure that tantalizingly lists, but says nothing about, 159 species of resident beetles, mostly of the predacious diving, crawling water, or water scavenger type. And let’s not forget the 21 species of mosquitoes, some of which I helped propagate. Such a cornucopia of wildlife is itself indicative of the health and old growth status of the Congaree forest.

On my last day in the park I paddled a canoe 12 miles, round trip, in search of the biggest sweetgum. Having grown up in a home bracketed by sweetgums with their star-shaped leaves and spiky spheres of fruit capsules, I was particularly curious about this tree’s growth potential. But no sweetgum I have ever seen even hinted at the behemoth that grows near Cedar Creek in the park’s trackless, eastern wilderness. As if its remote location made for insufficient privacy, this shy giant is largely hidden in plain sight by a dense understory of pawpaw and American hornbeam, and a three-foot-thick shroud of poison ivy that encases the trunk from near eye level to about 90 feet up. Frustratingly, most views of the crown are obscured by the champion’s neighbors. You have to mentally piece together scattered glimpses of small sections to fully appreciate its size. It’s like seeing a monstrous shape in a thicket: “What is it?” “I don’t know, but it’s big–really big.”

National champion sweetgum tree.

I circled the tree several times from different distances to find two perspectives that together inspired jaw-dropping reverence. The trunk at breast height stretches a tape 203 inches, for a diameter well over five feet. From another spot, a section of the tree’s crown showed several huge branches, one about three feet in diameter, that were bigger than my normal concept of a sweetgum trunk.

The tree’s reported height of 160 feet, if accurate, would make it the world’s tallest sweetgum. But what really sets the tree apart as an old growth forest giant is the overall structure. You can find big lower trunks and large limbs on much shorter open-grown trees, but only in an ancient forest will you find such a huge-limbed crown elevated on a redwood-like trunk with the first branch nearly 100 feet above the ground.

The biggest sweetgum and the other champions of Congaree are great examples of how big old growth forest trees differ from big open-area trees. Their age and structure combine to create forest characteristics that make old-growth forests very different from the vast majority of modern eastern forests. Hike through Congaree and you will often find downed logs randomly oriented, sometimes crisscrossed, and in all stages of decay, many of them too large to step over.

You will see dead standing trees, or snags, and the hammering and drumming of woodpeckers will be more prevalent than in younger forests. All nine species of eastern woodpeckers can be found in the park, including the endangered redcockaded. Undoubtedly the likely extinct ivory-billed woodpecker was a former resident.

There will be tree-fall gaps, trees of all ages and sizes, and pits and mounds created by toppled trees. The bark of old trees is much deeper and textured, their crowns are flatter, and their trunks are often twisted and buttressed. There is an openness, often described as cathedral-like, that allows you to see deep into the forest. With a naturalist’s eye, or a pack full of field guides, you will discover an exceptionally rich biodiversity. Congaree has 15 species of shrubs, 23 vines, and 81 trees including 15 species of oak. On your next hike in a “normal” eastern forest, see if you can find any of these features.

Increasingly, we recognize the scientific, ecological, evolutionary, and aesthetic values of old-growth forests, but this is a modern sentiment that flowered near the last possible moment. Historically, old growth was seen almost exclusively as a feared or derided barrier to agricultural progress, or as a commodity to be harvested with little regard for, or awareness of, the consequences. Fortunately, the Congaree Swamp has been naturally protected from conversion to agriculture by the unstoppable floods of the Congaree River that forms its southern boundary (apparently, the Army Corps of Engineers was busy elsewhere). But by 1905 much of the area had been acquired by Francis Beidler, owner of the Santee River Cypress Lumber Company. Most of the floodplain was still protected by inaccessibility, but for a while loggers ringed trees near the larger waterways to let them die standing. Later, after these trees had dried, they were cut and floated to mills downriver. But in the perpetually dank atmosphere of the swamp, many trees retained enough moisture to sink anyway, never to be recovered. Loggers gave up by 1915, leaving most of the virgin forest intact.

National champion swamp tupelo.

In the 1950s, Harry Hampton, a prescient newspaper editor and outdoorsman, led a one-man campaign to protect the Congaree Swamp as a natural preserve. Unfortunately, his tireless efforts fell on deaf ears. But in 1969, when high timber prices suddenly made logging the swamp economically feasible, Hampton’s idea was taken up by a grass-roots campaign that soon resulted in the designation of Congaree Swamp as a National Natural Landmark. In 1976 it became protected public land as the Congaree Swamp National Monument. Since then the Congaree has been designated an International Biosphere Reserve (1983), a Globally Important Bird Area (2002), and our second newest national park (2003).

It used to be that 10-foot-diameter sycamores, 150-foot-tall tuliptrees, 200-foot-tall white pines, and 1,500-year-old baldcypresses were a relatively common feature of eastern forests, and old growth areas were extensive. Today, thanks to American Forests, you can see national-champion trees scattered about the country that approximate the growth potential of our eastern native trees. And thanks to the foresight and selfless action of a small number of people, you can still see small, protected enclaves of old growth that convey the true biological and aesthetic potential of our eastern forests. But if you go to Congaree National Park, you can see it all.

Whit Bronaugh hails from Eugene, Oregon.

This article was published in the Summer 2009 issue of American Forests magazine.