Swamp Stroll Gets Dangerous

It started out lovely, as they all happen to do.  Our camping visit to Congaree National Park in South Carolina began perfectly.  The campground was deserted, the mosquito meter was on low, and the temperature was pleasant.  Little did we know that an innocent hike would become potentially life threatening.

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Both of us have been primitive camping and hiking since before we could walk.  We were well prepared with several layers of clothes, first aid, compass, water bottles, map, flashlight, knife, multi-tool, emergency fire making equipment, water purification, extra batteries, a German shepherd, and a gps.

We decided to do a loop known as the Oakridge trail.  Download a trail map here:Congaree trail Map page.

A simple 5 hour hike through the swamp.

Bad Decision #1

It was in the high 40′s with a bit of chilly wind as we were hiking through behemoth cypress and tupelo trees. When a bit of swamp crossed our path.  No problem, just take off your shoes, cross the water, wipe off your feet, and return shoes to proper location. The crossing was slippery, cold, and wet.  The dog didn’t care.  This was our first bad decision. Thus:

Bad Decision #2

Several miles after the short crossing, something a bit larger got in the way.trailmarkers

The other side could not be seen.  The smart thing would have been to turn around now.  We looked at the map and found we had nearly completed the entire loop.  Turning back now would put us back in camp several hours after dark in near freezing temperatures.  We would also be crossing the water in the dark.

It was decided to continue along this mass of water in hopes that we would find a narrower crossing or the other trail that it should meet up with in a half mile.

Continuing North with the water on our left, we came face to face with the major creek running through the park, Cedar Creek.  Several hundred feet wide and over our head deep.  This became impossible crossing number two.  Even in warm weather I would not brave this as swamp mud can sink you down over your head.  A person could become immobilized under water and dead very soon.

That led me to:

Bad Decision #3: Trusting the GPS

My gps claimed the trail crossed to our side of the water about a mile from where we were stading.  This was easy to believe as we had crossed many bridges throughout the day.  I confidently headed straight ahead with Cedar Creek on my left.

Giant wild boars grunted and dashed through the leaves as the sun sank.  We had nearly completed another loop inside the first one made by the trail and should be back to where we crossed the water earlier in the day.  My husband stopped at a creek stretched in front of us insisting the trail was just on the other side of this very steep banked deep water crossing.  I did not believe him as my gps said the trail was somewhere on THIS side of the water.logacrosscongareeA giant tree had fallen across the water, he wanted to brave it.  A fall in would have left a person drenched and exposed to hypothermia on the hike back.  The map said a large bridge crossing was to our south, if we could just get to that we could see it in the dark easily and get back to camp.

I marked the fallen log on my gps and we continued. We were nearly back to were we crossed the water earlier and would find our trail again when, yes another bit of water was in our way.

Trusting Intuition

We could be weaving our way around fingers of water all night long just to get back to the water crossing to be made in the dark and bitter cold. Once found we would have a two hour hike back to camp. My husband mentioned the log crossing. For the first time that day, I made a good decision.  I trusted him.

We crossed in the dark with our amazing german shepherd between us.  The trail markers were less than 50 feet ahead of us.  We were saved.

What We Didn’t Know

We could have died.  It was 30 degrees that night.  My husband was quickly becoming an expert fire maker with his flint and magnesium.  If the trail was not on the other side of that log, my husband was going to make a fire and we would camp for the night.  Hypothermia can kill at temperatures well above freezing.  With a fire, we could live.

What was it that we didn’t know?  That the swamp was in flood stage from rains days before in the mountains to the northwest.  The spot we were stuck in the night before was underwater by the next day.  Our fire would have been drowned, we would have been soaked, lost, and very possibly dead by morning.

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What We Learned

Gps’s give only a vague idea on where you are.  Do not trust it, but use the information it gives WITH a paper map.  Learn to use a map and a compass.  Note where you are at all times by paying attention to the distance you have walked, your surroundings, the distance you will need to walk back, and reference this with what you see on the map.  As prepared as we were, we were just lucky. Very, very stupid, but very, very lucky.

The Wiki on Hypothermia

 

Wandering about in the Winter Woods

The staff and friends at Reptiles Alive have a great time hiking in the winter.  While many of the warm weather loving reptiles are hidden away, other wonders of the natural world reveal themselves. Last week, while my brother Will Seitz was visiting from his home in Volcano, HI, we went for a hike down Difficult Run to the Potomac River in Great Falls, VA.

You might not think about it, but poison ivy is still around in winter. Poison ivy is deciduous, so it loses all its leaves in winter – but BEWARE – the bare stems and vines still contain the poisonous oil that can cause itchy rashes in many people. This fuzzy looking vine might look fun to touch, but trust me, don’t do it!

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Lichen is a combination of plants and fungi living together. You can find lichens growing on rocks and branches throughout the forest. The gray tree frog is a native frog that has camouflage to look like a lichen. The tree frogs are hibernating now, but lichens are out for you to enjoy.

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There are many native plants that produce berries, but there are also certain landscape plants that have escaped and begun to grow in the wild. Some of these exotic plants can out-compete native plants, which can create problems for native wild animals.

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We had a GREAT time at GREAT Falls! The winter is an awesome time to get outside and take a hike in the woods.

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Calvert Cliffs Expedition

We have only one day off together. That means a trip to somewhere close. Today we head out to Calvert Cliffs in Southern Maryland:

http://www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/southern/calvertcliffs.html

With only a two mile hike to the fossil filled beach, it was a treat.

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We saw many frogs and other critters along the boardwalk. Caroline looks like she is about ready to go skipping. Tra-lah-lah-lah.

It was in the perfect 80′s. The boardwalk comes to an abrupt end. We have two miles ahead of us. Some fantastic scenery. And something possibly never seen before!

Can you find the turtle on the log in this picture?

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Can you identify that turtle?  Me either, that little guy is WAY too far away.

Keep your eyes peeled on the other side of the walk or you might miss a HUGE worm snake.

Worm snakes (Carphophis amoenus) have tiny little eyes and look very much like a giant worm. The worms know the difference though. These snakes dine on worms! They even have a little spike on their tail to help push those wiggily-iggly slimy little worms in their mouth. Sssssslurps up!

Caroline fondly calls the worm snake and the next snake, LBS’s “little brown snakes.”  They may look the same, but they are very different.

Smooth Earthsnakes (Virginia valeriae) spend most of their time underground, they are fossorial.  They love to snoop under logs, boards, and rocks for yummy earthworms.

Does that sound like another snake?

Wormsnakes lay eggs like typical snakes.  Earthsnakes give live birth.  Visually, wormsnakes have pink bellies and a blunt snout.  Earth snakes have longer snouts and their scales include black specks.

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Ringneck snakes are one of my favorite snakes to find.  When you first see them, they look like just another LBS.  If they get nervous, you get a surprise!  A brilliant yellow, orange, or red belly flashes into view as the snake flips and coils on the ground.

So far we have had amazing luck.

Now we are at the beach.  I am amazed at how blue the water is here!intcalvertcliffbeach

Gorgeous!intbeachfoot

These two pictures were sent to all my friends at work, to taunt them.

We get to play during the normal work week when there is no one around.  I love being alone out in the wild.  I imagine during the weekends, the beaches are filled with people looking for fossils.  You can have as many as you find on the beach.  Cool!

 One guy we met found several shark teeth and even a few fossilized dolphin teeth.

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Back on the trail, this little skink ran right out in front of us.  What is with these lizards?  Every time we see one I swear they are playing chicken on the hiking trail.  Are they making bets with other lizards to see how close they can get to a hiker without getting stepped on or caught?  Three worms for three inches!

Check out the huge ear on this guy!

On our way back, several people going the other way told us to watch out for the copperhead in the middle of the trail.  It was battling another snake, we swear!  Yeah, right.  For one it is most likely a non-venomous brown snake.  We doubted there was even another snake in the vicinity. Boy were we wrong!

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Racer eating a copperhead

A northern black racer has wrestled and killed a bone fide copperhead snake.  Then, he began to eat it.  We stared in amazement until he slurped down the last of his tail.  Down like spaghetti.

Whoa!

Hemlock overlook on a cold day

Early spring may sound like it is too early to look for herps. Salamanders and frogs are a plenty this time of year. Make sure to pack your rain gear, shoes that can get wet, and a warm coat. Get ready for some fun!

It is the best time to spot amphibians by the hundreds coming out of hibernation to lay eggs in vernal pools.integgmassh2oThe best day to look for amphibians is on a warm day right after a good rain. Listen for frog song the night before. If you hear a racket, the next day is a good day to go out. (Of course if you are willing to brave the rain and dark, that night is a great time to see some frogs.) Don’t forget your flashlight.

This is a picture of an egg mass with the tadpoles already hatched. The eggs are encased in a gross, gooey, slimy mess to protect them from predators and the elements.

One of our favorite places to look for animals is along the Occoquan River. In addition to reptiles and amphibians, you are likely to spy a hawk, turkey, beaver, and various gorgeous plants.

intredsptnewt02Our adventure started a short walk from the parking lot at a small pond. Hundreds of red spotted newts (Notophthalmus viridiscens) were breeding in the water and even walking right across the path.

The female you see here still has her cloaca decended. (That is the yellow spotted thing under the tail behind the back legs.) She may have just bred. The male entices the female in the water with undulating vibrations of his tail, wafting a beautifully smelling hormone into the female’s nostrils. Then he deposits a spermatophore or sperm packet in front of the female. The female will carefully pick up the spermatophore with her cloaca and use its contents to fertilize her eggs. Females may mate with up to thirty different males in a season!

She will attach the mildly toxic eggs one at a time to underwater vegetation. The tiny tadpoles will hatch in a few weeks, but they don’t stay tadpoles for long. Babies quickly metamorphosis into aquatic adults.

Then things get strange. Some of the aquatic newts will change again, into a land-dwelling creature known as a red eft. The fire engine red efts look nothing like their aquatic parents. The little creatures will boldly amble across the forest floor for many years with little concern of danger. They secrete a nasty tasting toxic mucus if anyone dares to tangle with them! Efts finally will change back into their aquatic form once they are done exploring the world above the water. (Hold on to shorts everyone, I am still looking for a red eft to take a picture.)

intjeffshimmylog01Be prepared for a bit of adventure. Sometimes trails and bridges get washed out with early spring rains and flooding. Looks like we took a bit of a wrong turn here. Shortcut!

Shimmy Jeff, shimmy!

Boy that water sure looks cold.

Also be prepared to check out some awesome remains of old houses. Usually only chimneys and foundations survive. I am always impressed when I find a partially organized pile of rubble. What would it be like to live in such a small stone structure?intstonetinydoor01

(Come to think of it, it is probably a lot like my dorm room in college. Except, bigger and with better heating.)

Hours of a nice hike, crisp air, and lots of mud were rewarded with a fit body, huge appetite, a two lined salamander (Eurycea bislineata) I think, and a friendly cat.

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intcvorngcatlaughCheers!