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We had rented two 16 foot canoes from an outfitter in Columbia and arrived at the Cedar Creek canoe access point off of South Cedar Creek Road on the north end of the park at around 10:00 am Saturday morning. Our plan was to follow Cedar Creek to the Congaree River on the first day and tackle the Congaree River on the second day, ending at Bates Landing under the bridge on Highway 601 where we had parked another car. It's the perfect route for a two day trip.
We carried the canoes down a very short path and into the swamp where we were immediately attacked by hordes of unrelenting mosquitos. They are vicious at the Congaree but we expected this and had brought tons of bug repelent (100% deet and those little buggers won't come anywhere near you). The access point was tremendously rutted up by wild boars. Mud was everywhere and tree trunks were scraped clean of their bark. The boars at Congaree are out of control and everywhere along the banks of Cedar Creek you will find much of the same muddy, rutted-up patches of earth.
We launched the canoes and leisurely paddled down the creek amongst a beautiful canopy of cedars draped with Spanish moss and enormous lobblolly pines. For the first hour or so, we saw a couple of other casual kayakers and a guy fishing on the bank but by around 11:30 we were deep into the swamp and didn't see another soul until the next day when we merged onto the Congaree River. Cedar Creek is beautiful and a little eerie. We saw several water moccasins and other types of water snakes swimming with their heads above water. I was surprised to see how fast they can move. We also saw hawks and herons and several deer along the shore resting in the shade of trees who were so timid that they didn't bother to move when they saw us. They would just casually watch us float by with mild interest but no fear. My friends Paul and Nick, who were in the other canoe (I was with my brother J.D.) swear they saw a boar break from the shore and run, but I didn't see it.
We were told to be careful to keep to the correct creek as there are many different waterways that feed into or out of Cedar Creek. You don't want to get lost out there, trust me. In the swamp, you have no sense of direction and without a compass you could wander around in circles for days. At certain times of the year, the creek floods or recedes, sometimes making it difficult to tell which way to go. But we had no trouble with the water level.
We got "lost" once. Well, maybe confused is a better word. We were sure we were supposed to take a certain path at one point but the trail sign pointed us in the other direction. After a short debate, we decided to follow the sign, only to have our path blocked by a huge fallen tree. We questioned our decision and backtracked for about an hour back to where the sign was and took the other path a short way to find that it was blocked as well. More debate followed and it got a bit heated but in the end, we decided to follow the path that the sign told us to. We had expected to have to portage at some point and decided that just because the creek was blocked, it didn't mean that wasn't the right way to go. Our course was correct and an hour and a half after pulling our canoes out and stomping through the mud around the fallen tree, we were dumped out into the much larger Congaree River right at sundown. The sky was orange and reflecting over the wide river and we all hollered with joy at getting through Cedar Creek.
The entire creek had been peppered with fallen limbs and logs and manuerving around everything, dodging venomous snakes and constantly being unsure of our location, we where a bit relieved to have finally reached the river. The day had been one hell of an awesome adventure and we were looking forward to tomorrow. We knew the rest of the trip would be a cakewalk on open water.
Most of the bends along the Congaree River have large sandbars on them. You will not find anywhere along the river to camp other than these sandbars as the vegetation along the shore is way too thick and in most places, too steep as well. We found a good sized sandbar to make camp on and pitched our tents. We relaxed as the sun went down, cooked our dinner and had a couple of beers before turning in. It had been a great day and tomorrow we would hit the open river.
We awoke to find that the water level of the river had for some reason risen overnight and had come dangerously close to our tents and canoes. We counted our blessing that it didn't get to us or even worse, wash our canoes downriver and leave us stranded. Aside from that, we took note of the snake tracks in the sand that slithered all around us and had a good laugh. The humidity was unbelievable. The whole river was grey with fog and everything was wet with humidity. We loaded the canoes back up and pushed off down the river after breakfast.
The rest of the trip was easy, with open water and few difficulties except for the sun and heat. Stupidly, none of us had brought sunscreen and I got burned pretty badly. The river was mostly clear of other people until about noon when we began to see many motorized bass boats cruising up and down the river, presumably all coming from Bates landing. Then we began to see people on ski boats anchored on sandbars having entire picnics and blasting their radios. The closer we got to Bates landing, the more weekend sun worshipers we saw. It was strange having been so isolated for a day and half, being completely at peace with nature and then to come upon so many people and so much noise.
Once we crossed under the railroad tressel we knew we were getting close and a few hours later we arrived at Bates landing, our destination. It was madness. There were more people than we could count, loading and unloading motor boats. There were SUV's and trucks everywhere, and people with coolers and dogs and the whole rush of civilization was right there.
We looked like we had been through hell. We were smelly, sunburned and caked in mud and here were all these dainty weekend city people looking at us like we were crazy. The trip was over and it had been amazing. It was all that I had wanted it to be and more. Congaree National Park is a great place to canoe or kayak.
To familiarize yourself with what you are getting into, do a quick internet search for Congaree National Park. All of my previous experience was in southern Appalachia, and the Congaree is vastly different and significantly more rugged and difficult. The Congaree River itself isn't bad, but paddling Cedar Creek can be a bit stressful, not because of white water, but because of the many obstacles in your way, including lots of fallen debris blocking your way, mud, heat, bugs, snakes and other minor annoyances.