May the Forest Be With You

Hiking into the forest
Hiking into the forest

After a strenuous day hiking in the Okefenokee Swamp, we were glad to arrive at Jolly Acres Campground in St George,  a beautiful rural area of South Carolina’s lowcountry. We set up camp, made dinner and went right to bed.The next day started off with a lovely gift from the owner of Jolly Acres.  Arnie was out puttering and hanging with Cracker, the African Grey. Mr. Horne approached him with a plastic bag and presented us with three wonderful homemade sweet sausage. He explained that he has them made by his butcher once a year and keeps them in the freezer to share with campers. What a welcoming gift that was! Even though sausage is not on our normally vegetarian menu, we could not pass up such a treat and planned a great spaghetti feast later that evening.

Jolly Acres has wide expanses of fields that take them seven hours to mow! It is very pleasant here under the tall pines. they have a terrific laundry room, good wi-fi, a cute duck pond and spacious sites. If you are looking for a stopping off place on the snow bird route to Florida, we highly recommend Jolly Acres. We had a very comfortable and pleasant  stop over here.

We had planned to give ourselves a quiet day today before we strike out for the drive to Virginia tomorrow. However, a brochure in the office caught our eye and we thought we would drive over to the Francis Beidler Forest and have a little walk in the Audubon Center. It looked off the beaten path, but only about a 30 minute drive into Harleyville.  We anticipated a nice short afternoon visit to this nature setting and we do love those drives that take us off the beaten path.

Over the river and through the woods we went and finally, after winding through some isolated backwoods roads and past some desolate abandoned homes, we stumbled on the Center.  We were beginning to think that our GPS must be lying to us once again and that nothing of any interest could be located this remotely. We were wrong! Check it out at http://sc.audubon.org or visit them on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/BeidlerForest

Driving down a long gravel road, we finally arrived at the Audubon Center at Beidler Forest. We were pleasantly surprised to arrive at a really nice modern facility here in the lowcountry. It is one of Carolina’s premier natural sites, 1800 acres with 1.75 miles of completely handicapped accessible  boardwalk that winds among ancient cypress trees and takes you deep into the heart of this unique forest. It is a great bargain for a day hike at $10.00 for adults, $8.00 for Seniors, AAA members, Active Duty Military and Vets. The educational component for school children is wonderful for helping local kids understand the beauty and value of where they live. If you visit, be sure to ask about their Guided Bird Walks, Canoe/Kayak trips and Night Walks. This is the largest remaining forest of its kind in the world and we felt so privileged to be able to explore it. Here grows the world’s largest remaining stand of virgin Bald Cypress in the Tupelo Gum swamp.  While it is definitely away from any urban area, it is so worth the trip. GPS leads you right to it, so getting there is easy.

As we opened the door from the reception area and stepped out into the Forest, we were met with melodic songbird calls. A Piliated Woodpecker’s red head was bobbing up and down alongside the boardwalk as he foraged for his lunch. This is his work below.

The work of a Pilated WoodpeckerThe Audubon Center if fully handicapped accessible.

The first thing that we noticed was how different this place was than the Ockefenokee where we hiked just the day before. This is flooded forest, but much dryer with incredible exposed Cypress knees that look like Druid circles waiting for dusk to worship.

A swamp is a flooded forest vs a marsh which is flooded grassland.
A swamp is a flooded forest vs a marsh which is flooded grassland.
The blue sky penetrates and reflected on the swamp.
The blue sky penetrates and is reflected on the water

This tree was smiling at us.

This tree was smiling at us!

An amazing tall straight pine
An amazing tall straight pine

Over three hundred species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibian and fish call this sanctuary home, so we were eager to get going. We began our walk, trying to be very, very quiet to increase the chances of seeing some of the wildlife. We were alone, the only people on the walk and in awe of how pristine and truly wild this place is. We walked along meandering blackwater streams beneath thousand-year old Bald Cypress trees that we had to crane our heads back to see. They reached towards the heavens straight as rulers becoming a part of a distant tall canopy. We hope that the sound of the breeze through the stillness is something that will stay with us forever.

We had not gone far before we spied this little fellow. He’s about two days old.

And this fellow is a juvenile also, as indicated by the blue tail. He is a skink.

Young skink

As he matures, he will lose that iridescent blue tail.

Over 70 species, reptiles and amphibians are well represented at Beidler Forest. It is easy to spy dozens of snakes, turtles and lizards from the boardwalk. The only venomous snake regularly seen in this swamp is the Cottonmouth although it is home to Timber and Pygmy Rattlesnakes too. It is unlikely that the casual visitor would spy any Rattlesnakes.  Most of this habitat is too shady to be desirable alligator habitat, but we did see a biggee at Goodson Lake sunning himself along the bank. Today we saw Spotted Turtles and Eastern Box Turtles enjoying the Carolina breeze while  sunning themselves on fallen logs too.

The pond where we saw the American Alligator on the bank.

Goodson Lake. You can see the gator on the bank in the distance on the left.

A special treat was sighting a beautiful doe feeding on the vegetation. Later, one of the staff shared with us that she has a fawn with her, but we could not see the baby as it was so well camouflaged.

Equally as fascinating as the wildlife, is the vegetation. Within the Francis Beidler Forest you can find 1,800 acres of old growth cypress-tupelo swamp forest. Nowhere else in the world can you go to experience this habitat. The Center provides a comprehensive list of all of the trees, shrubs, plants and ferns. Merry Christmas, this is a holly tree!

Merry Christmas......it's a holly tree

There are over 20 medicinal herbs that grow here too! It was fun to try to find them all. Along the way we came upon the Meeting Tree. What a great way to hold any kind of meeting if you want them to be productive and inspirational too!

The Meeting TreeWhat a wonderful place t hold any kind of meeting. Under a thousand year old Cypress Tree!

A curiosity is the abundance of Cypress knees, those knobby protrusions that spark the imagination. They look like hobbits, cartoon characters, druids. They resemble abstract art, sculpture and form. They make you stop and stare to be sure of what you are looking at. In some areas, you could smell the earthy aroma of mushrooms. We were going to cook spaghetti for dinner, but these mushrooms probably would give us a tummy ache or worse!

Cypress kneesMushrooms growing on a fallen branch

IMG_4120Two old tree swamp nerds in front of a 1000 year old cypress tree.

This was the only giant cypress tree to fall during Hurricane Hugo. All of the others stood their ground as they have for over 1000 years! As Cypress trees age, they hollow out at their core. The staff built steps so that school children can go see what the interior looks like and what lives in there too! This forest has colonies of bats who like to make the hollowed out trees their home.

The only giant Cypress to fall during Hurricane Hugo. As Cypress trees age, they hollow out at their core. The rangers built steps so that school children can go see what the interior looks like and what lives in there too! This forest has colonies of bats who like to make the hollowed out trees their home.

By the time we exited the forest we were stunned to realize that we had just walked for over three hours! We went out for a little walk and just kept going! Our spirits were lifted, our souls energized and our knees killing us! Thanks to David, Barbara and Shelly and all of the hard-working staff who support this Non-Profit and make the preservation of this precious place possible. They are welcoming and informative!

As the sign says, “It’s a Swamp Thing!”  Tomorrow the landscape changes and we are on to Fries, Virginia, Great Smokey Mountain National Park to see what Chance Encounters await us there.

IMG_4129

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