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Knee-Deep in Nature: Congaree National Park

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A flooded (and fun to explore!) Congaree National Park during the winter. Image credit: Jonathan Irish

On photography, Jon once gave me a tip I'll never forget: "Sit, wait, and let the photo happen in front of you. Then capture it." I was told basically the same thing about experiencing Congaree National Park by a plain-clothed volunteer ranger I sniffed out while walking on the boardwalk. "See any wildlife?" I asked as we passed. "The wildlife are very shy here," she said. "They have s right to be. But if you sit on one of the benches for five, maybe ten minutes, they will come to you -- the entire forest will open up."

We brought our muck boots with us because the floodplain had opened up, as it does this time of year, swallowing the iconic boardwalk pathway that leads away from the visitor center. We were in for a muddy, mucky adventure. But this is not a swamp. Ranger Scott made it clear that this is not a swamp, but a dynamic river floodplain running through an old growth forest of naked Cypress trees. When the waters flood in from the adjacent Congaree and Wateree Rivers, nutrients and sediments sweep in with them nourishing the ecosystem that is home to a diverse habitat of birds, amphibians, fish, reptiles, insects, and mammals. With all of that in mind, we walked carefully on.

Photographer Jonathan Irish exploring Congaree National Park. Image credit: Stefanie Payne

We trekked the boardwalk knee-deep in water, thankful to be there when it was cold and mosquito-free; and at the end of the boardwalk, we hiked on to a series of trails. In terms of miles that day, we didn't get very far. It's not about the length of land that you travel, though, but of the value of what there is to explore. There is much to get distracted by, fallen Cypress trees so enormous that they must have shaken the Earth when they hit the forest floor, reflections of the trees precise in the stillness of the water, all of it ripe to be explored and photographed. As mentioned in our Great Smoky Mountains article, the benefits of traveling during off season are astounding. If we felt as though we had the Smokies almost all to ourselves, we knew that we had Congaree to ourselves. We were the only people out there that day. Seriously, we checked.

Stefanie Payne wandering on ancient fallen Cyprus trees. Image credit: Jonathan Irish

When we set off on this project, we knew we would be exploring incredible parks during the winter and would miss opportunities to capture and share perfect sunsets, vibrant foliage, flora and fauna, and other beautiful moments. For a photography-based project, that is of course not the ideal scenario. But we had the BEST time. We didn't see much wildlife when we were there, nor did we see wildflowers, or drops of sunshine or rainbows, but the plain-clothed ranger was right -- when you stop and listen, the whole forest opens up and you can hear every breath of wind, every branch twist and fall, every tiny bird whistle and chirp.

One can't stand still forever, though. On to the next!

Hiking stick medallions from Congaree National Park. Image credit: Stefanie Payne

8 parks down, 51 to go! Image credit: Stefanie Payne