Paddling & Not Paddling Southeastern National Parks


“He didn’t like it at all,” said the woman, nodding to her companion. “But he’s from Washington.”

As if that explained that. We were standing in front of their campsite at the pleasant Poinsett State Park, on the forested coastal plain in South Carolina. I’d spotted their trailer with recreational kayaks during a morning walk. So, I stopped by to ask these two sixty-something paddlers if they’d gone to nearby Congaree National Park, where my wife and I planned to paddle tomorrow.

“I hated it,” clarified the man bitterly. “Don’t even bother going.”

“Well, they should still go,” protested the woman. “I mean, it is a national park.

The man made a sour face and shook his head, as if the two of them were a pair of cranky travel agents, arguing about which worst case scenario was right for us. At my urging, they eventually explained that, after putting in at Bannister Bridge, they had encountered several downed trees in the channel long before reaching the old growth forest. After portaging a few times, they gave up and returned to the put-in. Then they drove down to a lower access point and paddled an out-and-back on lower Cedar Creek. That part was free of portages, but they didn’t really like that one either, neither the creek nor the scenery.

I thanked them for the info, which I inwardly questioned, and returned to our site. After years of talking about visiting Congaree, we’d finally made it the first stop on a month-long road trip around the Southeast. From everything I’d read, the little-visited Congaree is supposed to be a park worth paddling, which certainly contradicted the account from these two. That said, most people know how subjective anyone’s opinion can be, so we had to see it for ourselves.

But first, we planned to mountain bike the trails at Poinsett. We’d already become friends with the retired camp host, an avid mountain biker who often found himself the only weekday rider on the park’s twenty miles of singletrack, built and maintained by area riders from Midlands SORBA. So, we hopped on our bikes and hit a series of fast and fun cross-country trails that wound through an impressive forest in the High Hills of Santee.

My wife liked the trails. I liked the trails. Our host loved the chance to share his own private trail system. After the singletrack, he took us past the park’s small lake, where I had to slam on the brakes to avoid a huge cottonmouth that seemed just as surprised as us that we were having so much fun.

After lunch, my wife and I fell asleep in our gravity chairs inside our bug shelter. The truth was, after many pandemic-related challenges, this was our first major road trip in several years, and we were out of practice. By late afternoon, we’d rallied enough energy to drive to the nearby college town of Sumter. We threw a round of disc golf at Dillon Park and rewarded our efforts at the pleasantly surprising three-story Sumter Original Brewery in the historic downtown. All signs were pointing positive, so maybe Congaree would turn out to be better than the two naysayers had suggested.

Low but runnable was the report from the young ranger at the Congaree visitor center. Cedar Creek was at three feet on the gauge near Gadsden, SC, and we’d probably have to portage a few times. She didn’t seem too concerned, though her stated preference was paddling it around four feet when most of the wood was underwater. I mentioned it might be best to return at higher water, and then she threw me for a loop. Paddle much higher than four feet, she warned sternly, and we’d probably end up having to be rescued. Wait, what?

When I asked her why, she sputtered a bit, surprised at my direct rebuttal, and explained that the currents might be too powerful. We’d probably flip, lose our boats, and require evacuation by first responders. Basically, she implied we were Tourons of Congaree if we even considered it. We might as well wear beer helmets and 1990s roller blading pads, I thought to myself.

This situation—conflicting information about paddling in a park, and from park staff no less—was starting to feel somewhat familiar. Truth is, not everyone who works in a park knows their park that well. Nor do they often have much if any experience paddling, which leads to a double whammy of trying to sound authoritative while also discouraging people from trying anything out of the ordinary.

So, we decided to first hike through the old-growth forest, scout this creek, and learn how dangerous this flat-as-eff swamp could possibly be. Full disclosure, we have lived in a swamp for years now. Near the Waccamaw River, where I’m one of the few regulars who picks a watery direction, paddles for miles, and definitely enjoys it. I see plenty of old growth cypress, with their pointy bald knobs emerging from the surrounding blackwater. Fish jump, woodpeckers dart, and deer wade through the shallows. I’ve come to enjoy paddling the swamps, and there aren’t that many of us out there.

Our “scout” through the old-growth forest in Congaree was awesome. It was mostly walking on boardwalks with a few miles of dirt paths, the latter of which probably becomes impassable mud after rain or high water. The bald cypress and water tupelo, with their triangular bases, were very impressive. The loblolly pines rose to heights around 150 feet, like a half-sized Redwood National Park for the humid Southeast.

The creek, well… At three feet on the park gauge, there wasn’t much of a creek. There were sections of stagnant water that sometimes disappeared under log piles or soil before reappearing elsewhere. In one particularly cluttered segment, the best option was probably to portage boats along the trail for a quarter mile to get around.

Since stick gauges measured in feet are so subjective, and CFS isn’t seemingly available for this monitoring location, it’s hard to know how different four feet—or even the death flow known as five—might be. But, in all honestly, there is so much woody debris and downed trees, I’m not sure what it would be like. Given we live about two hours away, I may come back someday at higher levels to find out.

In the meantime, we decided to drive downstream to the lower put-in for an out-and-back. Of course, more exertion in the heat meant more struggling. First, I drove to the wrong access point, then backtracked to the right spot. We carried down and tried paddling upstream into the old growth but encountered a massive tree blocking the channel. So, we turned downstream for a few miles, which was pleasant but nothing exceptional compared to other swampy creeks we’ve paddled. The bald cypress and tupelo rose scenically overhead. The gar detonated off our bows. A few other paddlers were out there, and each of us seemed to be ok with it. Just not Gauley Fest or FIBArk level ok with it.

We left Congaree feeling like it was a walking-through-cool-trees kind of park, which we liked. Paddling was possible, depending on water level, but not a destination to plan a boating trip around. And that’s fine. That’s how many of the parks turn out to be.

Last winter, we had a similar but different experience at Everglades National Park in southern Florida. Now this one is a paddling destination for many. With only a few days, we wanted to do two short trips to see how we liked it. Given recent hurricanes, we stopped at the visitor center for updates. Inquiring about conditions at Nine Mile Pond produced only wide eyes and blinks. I came away with nothing beyond a paper map brochure and a false sense of security that everything was fine.

Our first day, we walked the trails and boardwalks through a fascinating gumbo limbo forest (which just sounds like Florida) and alligator-filled wetlands at Royal Palm. Then we mountain biked the Long Pine Key Trail through the pleasant Pinelands ecosystem. The next morning, we toured an old Nike missile site and walked short boardwalks along the main park road, viewing the famous River of Grass, the dwarf cedars, the mahogany hammocks. The Flamingo area was pretty buggy, so we started paddling early—or what we thought was early—on the five-mile loop at Nine Mile Pond. Maybe the name is more like a heat index, because it sure felt like paddling nine miles.

We paddled through intriguing mangrove tunnels for the first mile-and-a-half. Navigation was fun and easy, and it took a half hour. The next three miles were like paddling under a hot sun through soggy cereal, given the dense mats of periphyton algae. This part took three hours. During that time, we learned that the water trail markers had been disrupted by past storms and only partly fixed, making them hard to find and adding to the delays. Sometimes markers would go 10, 11, 12, and so forth, at roughly hundred-foot intervals. Other times the markers would go 54, 55, 55a, 55b, 55c, and onward, with the distance between them becoming increasingly longer, perhaps an eighth to a quarter mile.

After this happened several times, the sun was getting low, and we were getting worried. We had a compass and headlamps but didn’t want to be paddling through the Everglades after dark. Then the markers went weird again.

“It’s that stupid A, B, C thing!” blurted my exasperated wife. I kicked myself for not starting the morning off with the paddling and doing everything in reverse.

Finally, the periphyton mats ended and the markers returned to whole numbers. The final mile was in open blackwater pools and mangrove tunnels again. The trip was saved with a lovely sunset on the water that we otherwise would not have experienced. We took out at dusk and hurried back to camp and onward to dinner in town.

The next day, we drove over to Chokoloskee Bay and ferried through tidal current into the 10,000 Islands. These small mangrove islands offered some fun mid-tide eddies to hop, which I really liked. But the speed was a little swift for my wife. Given we were out on our own, we stopped after a few hours. I came away from the Everglades thinking that I might come back for a multiday platform-camping self-support trip someday, but my wife wasn’t as convinced. The scenery is subtle and not too different than where we live.

We both felt the same, however, about paddling with manatees a few days later. This happened at a very touristy state park in Ocala called Silver Springs. There we paddled a spring-fed river, floating over dozens of manatees with a hundred other folks in rental kayaks. Still worth it. Plus, we found our own unique experience amid the mayhem when we broke away from a growing crowd shadowing a herd. We soon found ourselves paddling along with a solitary manatee for ten minutes, just the three of us.

Silver Springs, and its population of herpes-infected macaques, released by a wacky boat captain to create a tourist attraction—yes, you read that right—was probably a one-time visit. But there are more spring-fed rivers filled with manatees in Ocala National Forest to explore. That’s where we’ll head next.

“The current moves about five knots,” said the ranger at the visitor center at Mammoth Cave National Park. Equivalent to just under 6 mph, this claimed speed would make Kentucky’s Green River the second fastest in the world after the mighty Amazon River. No surprise there. The day before, another ranger on a guided cave tour told me to expect solid class II to II+ that becomes class III at higher levels.

From everything I had heard, including from some regulars in the campground, we should expect a pleasant float stream with decent current. Regardless, the two rangers rattled me enough to definitely wear a PFD, bring a throw rope, and briefly consider—but ultimately leave behind—helmets. And, of course, we had a great run. We paddled into a river-level cave. We saw bald eagles, ducklings, and some huge turtles.

On another day, we rode our mountain bikes onto the vehicle ferry and crossed the river. On the other side, we looped several fun mountain bike trails in the park backcountry. All in all, this was an excellent national park with a wide range of mellow and worthy adventures. Touring the cave was interesting. Hiking the trails was solid. Paddling the river was cool. But it was a float trip, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

When it comes to paddling the parks, you just never know what you might get. And the Green River through Mammoth Cave National Park was definitely not a flood-stage flow event meeting an incoming tsunami. Coincidentally that’s the concept for my upcoming apocalyptic screenplay. With the paddling-centric story, you guessed it, unfolding in our nation’s finest parks. Whichever they may be.