The next morning, the rain was gone, which was good news for us, because we were going on a hike.
During our first visit to South Carolina, John and I had visited Congaree Swamp National Monument, just outside of Columbia, and had hiked the Boardwalk Trail - a 2.4 mile loop on an elevated boardwalk. Though it was a beautiful hike, it was a miserable experience for us, because it was bitterly cold that day, and Mary cried the whole time in her stroller. We later learned that she had a severe ear infection that was being exacerbated by the cold wind.
Since our last visit, in 2003, Congaree Swamp National Monument had changed its status and was now known as Congaree National Park. When we heard about that on the news, we said to each other, "We should do that again, next time we go to South Carolina. Hopefully, we can have a better time!"
And so there we were, back in South Carolina, and getting ready once again to hike Congaree Swamp.
All conditions were favorable that morning. Although it was a very cold morning and the forecast high was only going to be in the 50's, the rain had cleared and the sun was going to shine for most of the day. We also managed to get to Congaree National Park very early that morning, which meant that we could conceivably be done hiking before Mary melted down, typically at 11:00 a.m. That said, we opted to do a little longer hike this time: the Weston Lake Loop, a 4.6 mile loop that would take us to Weston Lake and back. The trail was completely flat, which meant that we would have no problem getting Mary to hike it.
Our adventure began at the Congaree Visitor's Center, just after 8:00 a.m. The park had just opened for the day, and already, the ranger was out talking to a group of school children before taking them on a hike. We broke past the group of kids and went inside the Visitor's Center, where we received a map of the trails in the park and a Junior Ranger book for Mary to do. The book was a little bit advanced for her - it was written more for an eight year-old - but she was still grateful for it.
As soon as we left the Visitor's Center, we stepped onto the Boardwalk Trail and immediately began our hike. The Boardwalk Trail started out about twenty feet above the swamp, then very gradually descended to where it was on level with it. We followed this for seven-tenths of a mile and, along the way, we pointed out to Mary some of the unique features of the swamp.
The Congaree Swamp is really the flood plain of the Congaree River, which created an ecosystem similar to a swamp. One of the distinct features of this ecosystem is how the trees survive in the wet soil. Throughout the swamp, there are "cypress knees", which are really part of the trees' root system; these "knees" keep the roots aerated and allow the tree to continue to stand despite the wet conditions in which they live. They would otherwise, just blow over.
We also pointed out to Mary some of the various birds and animals that live in the ecosystem. Congaree Swamp is full of birds and other arboreal animals. We spent quite a bit of time during that first half-mile listening to the birds and trying to figure out what they were. We also saw a few squirrels and lots and lots of bugs.
After seven-tenths of a mile, we reached the junction with the Weston Lake Loop Trail; from there, we kept going straight, and the Boardwalk Trail continued to the left. A few hundred yards later, the boardwalk ended, and we were soon walking on a dirt path - okay, a mud path. (It had rained for two days straight.)
As we hiked along the path, we came to a tree that had some sort of fibers hanging off of it; it looked like it had hairs! Mary was so amused by these that she stood in the middle of them and wrapped them around her head, like they were her own hair.
After a half of a mile on the mud path, we came to Cedar Creek and the trail junction with the Oak Ridge Trail; there was also a spur trail that took us to Wise Lake, a pretty little lake that branched off of the Cedar Creek. Next to the lake, we found a tree that grew at an angle over the lake; we climbed up this tree, as far as we could go, and took pictures of each other on it.
For the next 1.2 miles, we followed Cedar Creek through a dense cypress-tupelo forest; the trail was still flat as could be, and Mary was hiking very strong. In fact, she was very happy throughout the hike; this was a good thing.
We soon came to the next trail junction, where the Oak Ridge Trail rejoins the Weston Lake Loop Trail. From there, it was only eight-tenth of a mile to the lake. Along this stretch of the trail, we found some very old, very large cypress trees. Some were so large that, even with arms outstretched, the three of us could not completely encircle the tree. They were just that big!
As we reached Weston Lake, around 10:00 a.m., we found ourselves back on the elevated boardwalk again. The Weston Lake Loop Trail ended at a flight of stairs that put us back on the boardwalk, about twenty feet above the swamp. Once on the walkway again, we turned right and followed a spur to the Weston Lake Overlook.
Weston Lake, like Wise Lake, was a pretty little lake that was formed from a tributary to Cedar Creek. At the overlook, there were benches where we could sit a spell and rest while enjoying the silence at the lake.
We only sat for five minutes; then, it was time to finish the hike. We still had a mile and a half to go, and we could tell that Mary was getting tired. She had done very well for the first three miles; we were about to push her for another 1.6, which was more than she could usually do.
But she did it, and with only minimal complaints! What a girl!
After our hike was over, we bypassed the Visitor's Center and went straight for the car; it was lunchtime, and we were supposed to meet Lotte and Richard for lunch. As soon as we got into the car, we called them to let them know where we were, and they told us where to meet them - at a little place near the University.
Lotte and Richard were already there when we arrived; they were inside, already having a beer. We sat down and joined them for a few drinks and told them about our hike. We also told them about our experience boating in the rain and about not being able to pay for the gas. "I wouldn't worry about it," Lotte said. "It probably happens all the time." They were pleased that we had put some gas in the tank, but Richard said that it probably wasn't necessary. "The gas gauge always shows less gas than it actually has in the tank."
We had a very enjoyable lunch with Lotte and Richard, during which time we made plans for the next few days. Lotte really wanted to spend a day with Mary by herself, so we planned to meet up with her in the morning to do the Riverbanks Zoo with her. Then, she would take Mary home with her, and John and I would go see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which had just opened in theaters.
We also discussed Thanksgiving; Lotte gave us all the details about dinner and told us what time to show up. "Bring wine," she suggested, when we offered to pick up something to contribute to dinner. That sounded good to us!
At 2:00 in the afternoon, we left the restaurant and started driving back to the Lake House. Although the day was still young, we decided to call it an early day. For the rest of the afternoon, we stayed at the Lake House and relaxed...
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