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Wildlife was abundant with many kingfishers, blue herons, ospreys and one giant flock of turkeys sighted. I stopped to camp on a sandbar on the east (Congaree National Park) bank at Congaree River blue trail mile 25. Some thoughtful soul left separate piles of kindling and small lengths of larger branches for campfire construction, which I left for the next paddler as I generally do without a fire when solo. Otherwise the site was pristine and peaceful, although I could have lived without the high humidity and voracious bugs! At sunset, the sun sneaked into view just long enough to light up the undersides of the low hanging clouds with pink and orange streamers of fire. I eventually fell asleep to the sounds of barred owls hooting and the gentle gurgle of the river.
The second day started with heavy fog, which soon burned off to reveal a brilliant sunrise. The day was perfect for paddling – sunny, 65 degrees and a light wind that kept me from overheating in my wetsuit. Again, I saw no one on the river all day, just birds and the occasional jumping fish.
I camped on a sandbar about a mile downstream from the Norfolk Southern railroad bridge and a mile upstream from the Highway 601 ramp (Congaree River blue trail mile 49). The previous occupants of this campsite were much less courteous – I cleaned up cans, bottles, discarded fishing line until I didn’t have any more room in the boat. None the less, I had a great afternoon fishing a small eddy in front of camp – pulled in 4 largemouth bass, at least a dozen wipers (white bass-striper hybrids) and several plate-sized white crappie. I released the latter after telling them they were really lucky I didn't bring my frying pan!
After another night of the barred owl serenade, I awoke to another perfect paddling day. I broke camp and headed for the Highway 601 ramp, where I was to call my wife to let her know my progress. Unfortunately, unlike on previous trips, my cell phone would not pick up a signal and so I waited around for about 2 hours before I found a friendly soul let me use their phone to call and check in. I then headed down into the Santee basin.
Just past the confluence of the Wateree and Congaree (the Santee), I saw the world-champion'est swimming banded water snake – he was headed upstream diagonally and made it across the entire river (a considerable distance even at relatively low water) in what seemed to me to be "snake record" time! Since I was not sure I would be able to find dry ground to camp, I kept up a good pace so I could make it to the State Park by nightfall if need be.
I hit Low Falls landing about 2:30 PM, where I stopped, bought a Coke at Low Falls Bait and Tackle and watched the local osprey pair fish and call to each other. Unfortunately, the wind picked up from the southwest toward the end of the day, making the open water crossing from the Santee channel to the Santee State Park boat ramp a bit more exciting than I had hoped for. Since my shuttle was not there yet, a very accommodating ranger helped me carry my boat to a campsite close to the beach.
After 70+ miles in the boat, the hot shower at the State Park campground felt really good! The trip overall was great, the staff at Santee State Park was extremely accommodating and the fishermen and random folks I met along the way (particularly at the Highway 601 ramp) were friendly and welcoming, even though I suspect some thought I had dropped in from another planet. Another bonus – I didn't hear a single political advertisement over the entire 3 days – ahhh bliss! I would definitely do this trip again – maybe next time going all the way down to Charleston – anyone want to come along?
The Congaree National Park website is also very helpful and has a link to the USGS Congaree River level monitoring site.
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