Or Lil Henz goes to Congaree National Park.
Jenna’s Honors Capstone project for college is a study of anthropogenic change (man-caused change) in our National Parks. Part of the work is to research historical photographs taken within select parks then visit the parks for which photos were selected, return as close as possible to the locations where the photos were taken, take new photos, and compare the two to identify changes caused by man over time. An additional goal was to identify other small and large scale changes to the landscape and/or park features. Due mainly to the time available to do the work, Jenna selected only three parks to visit: Yellowstone, the first National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited park, and Congaree National Park, the second newest and possibly least developed park. Of course Jenna needed an assistant for the project and that would be me. Thus far my titles have included driver, navigator, camp cook and sherpa.
Our first destination would be Congaree National Park near Columbia, South Carolina. Of course, Lil Henz II likes adventures and wanted to go with us so we took him along. Wait, you don’t know who Lil Henz II is?! Click the link to check out Lil Henz’ introduction in my entry from May 2017.
I took Friday off so we would have plenty of time to do all the things we needed to do. Friday would be a travel day, our day to set up camp, round up some maps to learn the lay of the land, interview some of the park personnel and just chill out for a little while before hiking in to two separate destinations within the park on Saturday. We were out the door by 8:00 Friday morning. We needed to get gas and decided to stop at our local Chick-Fil-A for breakfast and make one additional stop to get Jenna a hat.
It was probably a good thing that we added in the extra errands before we hit the road because Jenna’s car started acting up after breakfast. Fortunately we were close to home and were able to shift our gear into my truck and keep moving. Only problem, the AC in my truck doesn’t work all that well…it was going to be a long, hot weekend. Despite being able to shift, adjust and get on up the road, something in the back of my mind kept saying “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”.
The drive to Congaree was uneventful if not a little hot and uncomfortable. We stopped to top off the gas tank and hit up a local sushi/hibachi restaurant in Augusta, Georgia for lunch where we found some surprisingly good sushi. We arrived at Congaree NP around 3:30, stopped in at the Visitors Center to grab some maps, watch the video about the park and talk with the park rangers before heading to our campsite.
We got our hammocks and tarps set up then set about doing a whole lot of nothing other than enjoying a cool breeze in the shade at our campsite.
By 7:30 we were getting a little hungry so we decided to ‘cook’ some supper. Nothing extravagant, just boil some water on a small camp stove to rehydrate a couple of freeze dried meals. As we sat at the picnic table eating our supper we noticed two young ladies and their dog stroll into the campsite adjacent to us and begin setting up camp. We didn’t think too much about it until an hour or so later when at least one guy strolled in dragging a cooler, which we’d later learn was filled with beer. This is where things began to go downhill.
By 10:00 it was evident that the beer was flowing freely and our neighbors were feeling no pain. They had also lost any awareness of their own volume that they might have had before they invaded the campground. Ten o’clock is also supposed to be the beginning of ‘Quiet Hours’ at the park campground. By 11:00 we had learned that their names were John, Elizabeth and Melissa and that their dog’s name was Hurricane. John, was the loud, obnoxious drunk and lounge singer. Elizabeth and Melissa were loud, needy/defensive drunks. Hurricane was the quietest of the bunch and made little noise other than occasionally barking at something that needed barking at. We found it a bit ironic that they would get on to Hurricane for making any noise louder than a whimper. We also learned that Saturday was Elizabeth’s birthday and that their camping trip also doubled as her birthday party. By 11:30 they were still going strong but we were trying not to be party poopers and hoped that by midnight they would start winding down. It wasn’t to be. Shortly after midnight they launched into a two-hour long conversation about the girls’ chest sizes and their insecurities derived therefrom. It also sounded that there might have been a visual inspection/comparison between the two young ladies but can’t say for sure, I was in my hammock under my tarp and by this time I really didn’t give a damn. The party continued for another three and a half hours with a brief intermission between 3:00 and 3:30 when Elizabeth made an executive decision that the group would gather up their chairs and head over to the parking lot to look at the stars. It was at this point that Jenna managed to go to sleep and I thought that I might be able to as well.
Nope. It would be my best shot at getting to sleep before daylight but alas, it didn’t happen.
By 3:30 the partiers were back and the party was back on.
As we were setting up camp Friday afternoon I toyed with the idea of not hanging up our tarps. We like to leave our tarps off whenever we can but that little voice in the back of my mind spoke to me again and said “Dude, set the tarp up, trust me on this”. Fortunately I listened. That little voice also told me to get the poly tarp out of the back seat of the truck to cover up the stuff on the picnic table for the night. Again, fortunately I listened.
No weather forecast that I had seen for the weekend prior to leaving home Friday morning had called for rain of any sort, much less severe thunderstorms, but rain and severe thunderstorms we got.
By 3:30 I could hear the partiers coming back from the parking lot. I also began to hear an occasional low rumble off to the northwest. As time passed the rumble became louder but seemed to remain mostly to the north of us yet close enough to cause a bit of concern. We finally got a few minutes of light rain and one very close lightning strike before the storm passed. We began to breathe a little easier. Our moment of relief didn’t last long as we once again began to hear low rumbles off to the west…but this time around the rumbles seemed to be coming from a more southerly direction. Not a good sign. By 5:00 the rumbles were getting closer and the wind was beginning to pick up. I shined my headlamp over in the direction of the picnic table and noticed a corner of the tarp on the table had blown up and flipped over and part of the tables contents were uncovered. Fortunately there was nothing on the table that rain could actually hurt but we still wanted to keep things as dry as possible. I got up, fixed the tarp and put our folded up folding chairs on top to hold it down just before the rain started to fall. The partiers simply got in their tent and pulled the beer cooler closer to the door. I hadn’t been back in my hammock for a couple of minutes when the storm began to show us what it had in store. It began raining sideways and the wind was blowing hard enough to pull the tarp on the table out from under the chairs. Once again I got out of my hammock to re-secure the tarp on the table. As I did, a Jim Cantore-worthy gust of wind whipped the tarp over my hammock hard enough that the stakes on the upwind side pulled free from the soft ground, exposing my hammock to the rain. I had just managed to secure my tarp when another gust pulled them free again. All the while lightning was striking way too close for comfort and the wind was tearing limbs out of trees and dropping them all around us. At the height of the storm I began to hear something that sounded like a freight train approaching. Fortunately the engineer finally blew the train’s horn at a crossing. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so relieved to hear a train horn before. All during the storm there was a lot of screaming and thrashing about going on over in the party tent. I’m assuming that was due to the storm.
By 5:30 the worst was over. By 5:45 the partiers were finally quiet…and I was soaked to the bone. Not wanting to get my hammock or quilts any wetter than they were, I pulled one of the folding chairs off of the table, opened it up, sat down, propped my feet up on the picnic table bench, turned off my headlamp and enjoyed the newfound quiet and the cool rain until daybreak when I could finally see well enough to begin doing damage assessment and control. Fortunately we had no damage, only a bunch of wet gear which would need to be dried.
By 6:30 Jenna was awake and we began discussing our options to accomplish our goals for the day and to tackle our new goal of getting our gear cleaned up and dried out. We ended up deciding to cut our trip short by a night, pack up early then try to get to the two locations that we needed to visit before heading home to begin the drying out process.
As we headed to the first of the two locations, we ran across a couple of park rangers clearing a tree that had fallen across the road. It was then that we began to understand just how dangerous the storm had actually been. One of the rangers told us that trees were down all over and when we told him where we were going he told us that a tree and power lines were down over the most direct route and that we would have to detour around. He asked us if we were camping in the park and we told him that we were but we were awake at the time the storm hit thanks to the party going on next door. The ranger called the second ranger over and asked us to recount the events of the night. The second ranger, who I noticed had a government issue pistol on his side, said that he would have a word with them after they got the road cleared. As we left the rangers, I noticed that the second ranger was driving a Park Service Law Enforcement pick-up.
Getting to our first destination, the location of a former cabin that was present before the park was created, for the morning was no easy task. There were trees down over nearly every road that could take us to the site of the cabin. Needless to say, it took some creative navigating in an unfamiliar area until we got lucky and found that the last road that could have possibly taken us to our destination was passable. A short hike took us to the spot that we finally convinced ourselves was the location of the cabin. A brick fragment found in the path leading from what we believed to be the former cabin site to the creek below gave us another hint that we were in the right place. Jenna had brought old photos of the cabin and its surroundings and we were able to match up a few existing trees to the trees in the photo…taken nearly 40 years ago. We later further confirmed that we were in the right spot by reviewing USGS topographic maps from the 1970s and 1990s online.
New photos were taken and we were on our way back to the truck and back the park Visitor Center to try to get to our second destination, the site of a former hunting camp. Unfortunately we would not be able to make it to the location of the hunting camp. Parts of the boardwalk below the Visitor Center were closed due to storm damage and the damage assessment along the park’s trails was not yet complete. The ranger at Visitor Center told us we could try to get to the site of the old hunting camp but it would be at our own risk. We debated for a few minutes but finally decided that it would be best to head on home to start getting our gear cleaned up and dried out.
We never knew what happened to John, Elizabeth, Melissa and Hurricane after we left. The rangers that we had talked to at the fallen tree saw us back at the Visitor Center later that morning and stepped over to tell us that that they had taken care of the issue that we had mentioned earlier. He didn’t say exactly how the issue was taken care of, just that it was, and we left it at that. Hopefully Elizabeth didn’t spend her entire birthday nursing a hangover…
Photo Creds: Jenna & Steve Davenport