On a lime green day, my daughter and I set out to spend the morning on Cedar Creek in Congaree National Park in Hopkins, SC.
I pushed off the bank in my kayak first, and watched as she climbed into hers. For just a second, I held my breath when she shoved off the soft mud into the blackwater creek, and as she found her balance on the water.
She and I had been paddling before, many times: while searching for fossils, while looking for dolphins, while admiring waterfalls, while exploring the marshes, lakes, creeks, and harbors all over South Carolina. But in every one of those cases, we had been in a double kayak, where I sat in the back, my middle-aged ballast keeping her securely in the boat and out of the water. And now she was on her own, 11 years old, free from me and doing just fine.
We put in at Bannister's Bridge on the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail, a 15-mile trail that is traversed by kayak or canoe, rather than on foot. A paddle on Cedar Creek allows you to see the park from an entirely different perspective than hiking through the forest on a dirt path or walking through the swamp on an elevated wooden boardwalk allows you to do.
Water is what makes Congaree the place it is. The park is famous for its massive champion trees, trees that are the largest of their species ever found. Congaree has such an unusual concentration of these champion trees because it was too hard to log there over the centuries. The constant flooding and receding of floodwaters from the Congaree River and creeks like Cedar Creek made the ground too soft, and the trees too heavy, to be effectively logged like other places. Congaree is the largest remaining old-growth bottomland hardwood forest east of the Mississippi, and it is a place completely shaped by the blackwater running through it.
To explore it from one of its creeks, its water stained the deepest brown from the organic material slowly, slowly, slowly decaying it in it, turning the surface of the placid swamp water into a black mirror, is to understand in a different way what this place is. And to explore this obviously ancient landscape with your child, no longer so young as she paddles under the massive trees, their trunks hugely swollen in the standing water towered above her little boat, might make you understand the passage of time in a different way too. It moves so fast, and so slowly at the same moment.
The call of a barred owl echoing over and over in the canopy led us down Tupelo Gut, an offshoot from the creek that is sometimes navigable depending on water levels, and sometimes dry. A bough of a tree arched low across the waterway like a green rainbow. My daughter paused in her paddling and reached up to try to touch the leaves curving above her.
I pulled up next to her. "You know," she turned to me and said, "when I was little, I would have thought this place was magical. But now I see it's beautiful."
The national park does not rent out boats, but you can rent kayaks and paddles at outfitters in nearby Columbia, like Adventure Carolina and Palmetto Outdoors. Palmetto Outdoors also offers guided tours in the park. On weekends in the spring and fall, the park offers a canoe tour program down Cedar Creek. The program is free, but wildly popular, and because of the heat in the summer and cold in the winter, is only offered during some times of the year. Register at www.recreation.gov. And of course, if you have your own gear, you may use that as well.