Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Down the Congaree

This was the type of trip that is intensely satisfying to look back on.  I can laugh about it and think, "Wow, we did that!"  But in the moment— it was HARD.
It took days of paddling and countless portages to finally make it to this gorgeous sunrise.
My friend JJ and I went for a 4 night/5 day kayaking trip on the Congaree River “Blue Trail” for about 40 miles from Rosewood Landing near Columbia, South Carolina, then up Cedar Creek through Congaree National Park for another 7 miles.  (see JJ's trip report at JERMM's Outside)
Thick mud at the put-in should have been a warning.
The first day was peaceful being out on the water.   A sandbar campsite, the chorus of crickets or frogs, and then coyotes calling back and forth across the water.
Sandbar on the Congaree River.
Three things took this trip to another level.  It nearly reached type 3 fun.

First there was the rain and freezing cold.  I couldn’t manage to generate enough heat while paddling to stay warm.  My glove and shoe systems, sufficient for backpacking, were not adequate for the cold-weather kayaking, and my fingers and toes were numb for much of the time.  I believe that comfort is not the point of an adventure so that's not necessarily a problem, but I also know it takes its toll, sapping energy, and can quickly lead to hypothermia.
Paddling in the rain and cold.  Photo by JJ.
Even with the cold, it was still fabulous to be paddling day after day.  Watching the tree-lined banks passing by, seeing more birds, and the bright red buds of the red maples (spring is near!).  It was also heavenly to end each day hanging in my hammock, wrapped in warm down quilts, toes finally thawing out (what a treat to be able to feel one's toes!), listening to raindrops on the tarp and later the owls and woodpeckers and other wild creatures.
Resting in my hammock.
 The second thing that happened on this trip was that I got more sick than I’ve ever gotten while out in the backcountry.  On the third day at lunchtime, I told JJ I felt like I couldn’t paddle any more.  So we called it a day and I collapsed into my hammock.  Fever, nausea, likely dehydration, total lack of appetite.

 The cool thing was that I learned that I could actually recover OK out there.  My hammock is the ideal place to rest, so by the next morning, I got up ready to paddle.  I was really low on energy and unable to eat much for the duration of the trip, but I found out that I could still manage.
Downed trees across Cedar Creek- time for another portage.
The final thing that really took this trip to another level of difficulty were the downed trees across the creek that we had to portage around on the last pull up Cedar Creek.  There were so many that I lost count.  It ended up taking us one and a half days of hard work to reach our car at the Cedar Creek Canoe Access.  For a "paddling" trip, there was a lot more sloggy through the mud carrying heavy kayaks than we bargained for.
Hauling the kayaks up and down steep muddy banks.
Working that hard, life takes on a intense focus.  Everything is totally in the moment-  one foot pulled out of the mud (that mud had some strong suction!), next step a few inches up the bank, then lift the kayak up, then set it back down (gently!).  Never thinking of anything not immediately of concern. 
JJ figuring out how to move the kayaks efficiently up the creek.
Even though it was tough going, the overwhelming beauty of the area, plus the fabulous company, made everything worthwhile.  Cedar Creek was absolutely gorgeous with cypress knees, colorful lichens on gnarled and ancient trees, woodducks and great blue herons.
One last surprise...  On the last night, nearly asleep, I heard a voice out of the darkness.  It was JJ.  Would I like some hot soup?   It was quite possibly the most delicious soup I’ve ever tasted!  I hadn’t been able to eat much all day, but that soup completely hit the spot.  Ahhh, bliss!
Overall, this was a really satisfying trip and I'm so glad to have "survived" it- we got to see some really inaccessible places and see lots of wildlife and birds, and we MADE IT! 

For more information:
Congaree River Blue Trail - NPS map and more info here.

Congaree National Park- pick up your free backcountry camping permits before you head out.  The Cedar Creek canoe trail is only partially marked, and has numerous portages right now, so I wouldn't recommend doing the trip we did.  The rangers said that they try to clear it once a year, but there are funding problems so call ahead (also ask about flooding and weather/ bugs/ snakes).  Or, stick to the hiking trails which were fabulous and that I enjoyed a lot on a previous trip to see the big trees.


  1. Wow, what a crazy trip! Being sick while out on an adventure isn't ever fun, glad you recovered quickly.

    The Congaree is somewhere I've always wanted to go, along with the Okefenokee.

  2. The Congaree is really an incredible place. I really enjoyed walking the trails last time and the wildlife is something else.

  3. Found your blog from PCT thread on HF. Really nice! Glad you made it through and learned that you could recuperate while on trail. Two questions: do you think you were experiencing hypothermia, and what IS that soup JJ made? Homemade or purchased. Looks good, I'd like to put that into the mix of meals :) thnx. Beth

  4. Hi Beth! Great to hear from a fellow hammock hanger! I'll have to ask JJ about the soup mix- I think she said it was Lipton's potato soup from a dry mix. It's definitely going in my mix too. And I don't think it got to the hypothermia stage, but the cold hands/feet are cause I wasn't keeping my Raynaud's syndrome under control. Thanks for the comments! :)

  5. What a trip! So glad I go to do it.

    Beth- the soup id AlpineAire creamy potato cheddar

    Joan- the other soup is Lipton cup of soup creame of chicken, sold in most grocery stores

  6. Joan: well that explains the down booties in your gear list. :))). Very cool that you don't let it slow down your backpacking pursuits. Ps love the hiking skirt version 2!

    JERMM: thanks so much! We are getting so much snow up here in NJ that it has stopped my training hikes for over a month now, so I have been doing usual winter season things like DIY and meal testing to keep from going stir crazy. Been adding potato flakes to Lipton dry soups with some success but haven't seen these two yet.

  7. What a great trip report on the Congaree. I really love that place. Sorry to hear you got sick but glad you recovered. What doesn't kill you...


    1. Hi Swampfox! It really is an incredible place! I totally agree. :)