Posts Tagged ‘Swamp’

Entering the PrimevalEnvironmental advocates can sometimes be heard to say “Make Earth Day everyday”. Well, we are going to heed their call and continue highlighting National Park areas that examine the glories of conservation, preservation, and sustainability. Today we move across the country from California’s Muir Woods to another park that boasts oversized trees: South Carolina’s Congaree National Park.

Congaree NP is home to North America’s largest, at 22,000 acres, intact floodplain forest. What that means is a great diversity of tall trees, a swamp-like feel, lots of birds and even more mosquitoes.

In the late 19th century, there were 52 million acres of old-growth floodplain forests in the southeastern United States. In just 50 years, logging companies harvested nearly all of these forests. Today, Congaree NP’s 11,000 acres of old-growth floodplain forest make it the largest example of this ecosystem in North America. The second largest old-growth floodplain forest totals just 2,000 acres.

Congaree NP’s excessively wet climate initially protected it from logging interests but in the 1950’s, conservationist Harry Hampton launched a passionate campaign to save this precious example of the earth’s natural past. A bitter fight between conservationist and loggers ensued, ending when the Congress set aside the land as Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976. Congaree NP became an International Biosphere Reserve in 1983.

Click Here to Read More about Congaree National Park.


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Not a SwampEvery ten years or so Michael’s family has a reunion. All the descendants of his great grandmother (mother’s side) gather somewhere in the greater Reading, Pennsylvania area. Last weekend was that weekend and a good time was had by all, especially we caught up with the many people we hadn’t seen since – well – we were traveling across the country on a two year trip.

In honor of our family reunion http://www.usa-c2c.com is looking at Park Sites that recognize great families. On Monday we highlighted America’s most accomplished and distinguished family: the Adamses. On Wednesday we began our look at the family Cupressaceae.

Um, who is in the Cupressaceae family? War of 1812 admirals? French-Canadian voyageurs? Winter Olympics heroes? Poets? None of the above. The Cupressaceae family is also known as the cypress family and includes two distinctly American flora: the towering sequoia and the redwood trees, the tallest living things on earth.

Family reunion attendees learn many things. 1) There’s more than one branch to every family reunion tree; 2) Sometimes attendees come from all over the country; including some you might never have even seen; 3) Often these separate branches know each other very well; 4) Sometimes these other branches share a resemblance to your side and sometimes they don’t; and 5) Every branch deserves its fair share of the spotlight.

As you might have guessed the Sequoia line is only one part of the Cupressaceae family. They have a slightly shorter but much more prolific set of relations: the Cupressus branch or the Cypress branch. Unlike the Sequoia branch who has isolated themselves in California (and who can blame them) the Cypress branch has scattered themselves all over the world. While its dainty members can be seen in decorative parks and house gardens don’t be fooled. The Cypress line is strong and sturdy, and well adapted to both fire and water.

One of it’s famous family members is the knobby kneed bald cypress, seen throughout the American southeast and often draped in elegant Spanish moss. The bald cypress is a park highlight from Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve to Texas’ Big Thicket National Preserve. But we especially enjoyed the boardwalk system of Congaree National Park which allowed us to get up close and personal with their watery habitat.

Congaree’s other trees don’t reach the heights of redwoods and sequoias but they are some of the tallest specimens east of the Mississippi. So maybe, while at the Cupressaceae reunion, Congaree’s bald cypresses won’t feel as intimidated by their tall California cousins as Florida’s bald cypresses might.

Click Here to Read More about Congaree National Park.

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Richland County, S.C.
Visited: October 21, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 266 of 353
NPS Website

Entering the PrimevalWHAT IS IT?

Home to North America’s largest, at 22,000 acres, intact floodplain forest. What that means is a great diversity of tall trees, a swamp-like feel, lots of birds and even more mosquitoes.

BEAUTY (6/10)

Trees of all types tower above and a life-providing musty stench fills the air even in the dry, cool season. Woodpeckers hammer away above and numerous wood warblers appear to the patient eye. Bald cypress trees are everywhere. Their familiar knees sprout up amid the recessed plains and meandering streams.

Still, Congaree NP’s beauty takes some convincing. The trees are some of the tallest east of the Mississippi but they do not feel overwhelming, perhaps because of the vast undergrowth and multiple canopy levels. Why did loggers destroy this precious natural ecosystem with such revolting abandon? Maybe it was not stunning enough.

In the late 19th century, there were 52 million acres of old-growth floodplain forests in the southeastern United States. In just 50 years, logging companies harvested nearly all of these forests. Today, Congaree NP’s 11,000 acres of old-growth floodplain forest make it the largest example of this ecosystem in North America. The second largest old-growth floodplain forest totals just 2,000 acres.

Congaree NP’s excessively wet climate initially protected it from logging interests but in the 1950’s, conservationist Harry Hampton launched a passionate campaign to save this precious example of the earth’s natural past. A bitter fight between conservationist and loggers ensued, ending when the Congress set aside the land as Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976. Congaree NP became an International Biosphere Reserve in 1983.

In 2003, the word swamp was dropped from the Site’s name (making the title ecologically accurate) and it became a National Park. Visitation numbers and interest spiked proving that marketing matters even in the National Park Service.

Elegant FriendCROWDS (5/10)
We skirted around several small groups of walkers on the low and elevated boardwalk trails. Their loud whispers and echoing clompety-clomp feet made bird watching tough. Their ubiquity made photography difficult.

The easy solution is: take the longer, more isolated, non-boardwalked Weston Lake Loop, Oakridge and Kingsnake Trails.

Congaree NP feels like a wildly remote swampy nowhere, but actually sits just 20 miles to the southeast of South Carolina’s capital, Columbia. No National Park is closer to a State Capitol building. South Carolina Route 48 (Bluff Road) runs right past the Park’s entrance and stretches from Interstate 77 (near Columbia) to U.S. Route 601.

An accessible 2½-mile loop boardwalk trail takes you from the Visitor Center into the soaring trees of the floodplain forest. If you are slightly adventurous, additional trails lead into the primordial madness. Canoe put-ins and Bannister Bridge and Cedar Creek allow for further exploration. The great majority of the Park, however, is an unreachable, murky wilderness.

The bookstore is nice but consists only of nature identification handbooks. The Park’s history and beauty, like the land whose memory it protects, feels forgotten.

COSTS (4/5)
Entry is free.

Ranger-led events like canoe trips and “owl prowls” are limited to weekends and reservations (up to six weeks in advance during spring and fall) are required for most.

Looking UpTOURS/CLASSES (4/10)
There is an introductory film at the Visitor Center. It is safe to say it is forgettable, as neither of us can remember what it was about.

Displays in the VC alert viewers to the headlines and controversy surrounding the now protected old growth trees. An exhibit named “Great Trees or Coffee Tables?” chronicles the activism that saved what remains of the bottomland forest.

Other NPS wetland areas we have visited are still under threat from loggers and developers, despite their status as federal lands. We wished there were more opportunity to interact with Rangers to learn if this is the case with Congaree. There is only so much a two-dimensional display can say.

FUN (5/10)

The accessibility of boardwalk trails is both a blessing and a curse. Elevation gain minimal to non-existent – good. Dry feet – good. Safe place to perch while taking pictures of bright green snakes – all very good. However, because short boardwalk trails are so accessible, they tend to be more crowded than average trails. We found the boardwalks filled with people who would not usually embark out into what was once termed a swamp. This can lead to loud voices and bottlenecks on the narrow planks.

Enjoyment at Congaree NP is also directly proportional to the Site’s “Mosquito Meter.” On a scale of 1 (all clear) to 6 (war zone), the day of our visit scored a 1. Our stroll along the boardwalk trails was nearly bite-free. Had the meter climbed to 3 or higher, we cannot guarantee that we would have ventured into the forest.

Not a SwampWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (3/10)
We enjoyed our time at Congaree NP and should have taken the longer, more isolated walks. But geez, how much level, dense, tall forest do you need to see to get the picture? We arrived too late in the day for woodland birds and were disappointed at the lack of swamp-related birds and alligators. The Park means it when they say the Park is not a swamp.

Does Congaree NP merit the high-security ecological protection that a National Park distinction brings? Emphatically, yes. Should you alter your South Carolina vacation away from the Golf Coast and into Congaree NP’s interior? Not at all. Congaree NP feels outrageously out-of-place in all aspects when compared to other National Parks.

TOTAL 40/80

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Currie, N.C.
Visited: October 18, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 263 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Grease is the WordWHAT IS IT?
Site of a February 27, 1776 Revolutionary War battle that preceded the signing of the Declaration of Independence by more than three months. The Patriot victory ended British authority in the North Carolina colony.

BEAUTY (4/10)
Two trails lead through Moores Creek NB’s 80+ acres. The Tar Heel Trail takes you amid soaring longleaf pine trees that are used in the creation of tar and turpentine, North Carolina’s primary economic source in Revolutionary times, hence the Tar Heel State.

The History Trail weaves through reconstructed Patriot Earthworks and to the infamous Moores Creek Bridge. The creek is mildly swampy and surprisingly narrow. Why exactly did the Loyalists have to cross here and here alone? The remainder of the History Trail passes Monuments that remember the Loyalists, Patriots and the first president of the Moores Creek Monument Association.

In the winter of 1775-76, both the Carolinas and the South, in general, were undecided in revolutionary spirit. A few were vehement American patriots and some were loyal to the Crown. Most were waiting to see which side would be successful first; the Carolinians were very pragmatic. Who would have guessed?

Eager unresolved eyes watched when, in February 1776, a regiment of 1,600 Loyalists marched across Carolina towards the port town of Wilmington and a rendezvous with British warships. The English knew the South’s ambivalence and believed if they conquered the Carolinas they would suppress the rebellion began in Massachusetts the previous April.

The Loyalist’s march necessitated a bridge crossing at Moores Creek, 20 miles to the north of Wilmington. 1,000 Patriots understood the Redcoats’ route and raced to be the first to Moores Creek. The Patriots got there first.

Monument Valley
With the Loyalists camped just a few miles away, the Patriots dismantled the bridge and greased the girders. Nature smiled on the Patriots. That morning, a thick fog masked the trap. Loyalist after Loyalist fell into the water ambushed by rifle fire. 70 Loyalists were killed or wounded while the Patriots lost only one man.

Their decisive victory brought a wave of patriotism to the Carolinas. Loyalist property was seized en masse and the British sympathizers were banished to Canada. The British invasion was stopped before it even began. Just three months later, the North Carolina delegation at the Continental Congress became the first colony to vote for Independence from Britain.

CROWDS (6/10)
We were the only people there.

We are still unclear why all 1770’s roads to Wilmington passed through this part of the turpentine woods. If you visit this remote Tar Heel hamlet, you will be confused too. The Port of Wilmington has not moved but its sprawl is inching closer to Moores Creek every day. If you are coming from Port City, take U.S. Route 421 north for about 20 miles until you reach North Carolina Route 210. Turn left (west) onto 210 and the Battlefield should appear on your left in about three miles.

From Interstate 40, take Exit 408 (Rocky Point). You should be on NC 210. Take 210 west for about 15 miles and you should see the NPS facility. You could probably reach the Park Site in a quicker fashion using unmarked back roads. We tried this option, however, and got lost.

The Visitor Center is currently under construction so a teaching trailer currently houses the bookstore. The good if not overwhelming selection of Revolutionary texts contains more books about other Carolina battles than Moores Creek. But really, how much can you say about such a short fight?

COSTS (4/5)
It is free.

The Ranger on duty in the trailer seemed startled by us. Is visitor traffic at Moores Creek that slow? Another Ranger mulled around in a side office poised to help. We think. Neither helped us understand the pre-Declaration of Independence fight that well but heck, there were two of them and two of us.

Tar Heel ZoneTOURS/CLASSES (3/10)
We two Pennsylvania travelers had no idea a Revolutionary War battle occurred in North Carolina months before the colonies formally seceded. We had only a vague idea that the Southern colonies experienced any of the War. Everything we learned at Moores Creek was new and a shock to our historical reference points.

The 30-year old cartoon film and the confusing Ranger were a poor introduction. We began to sort things out via the Park brochure and the History Trail’s wayside exhibits but achieved a better understanding only after visiting Carolina’s other Revolutionary War sites. In the meantime, our chronology and perspective were a bit off.

FUN (4/10)
The story of Moores Creek reads more like fraternity prank than a War. The Patriot men greased a bridge, wore kilts and saw only one casualty. The story also presents a villainous opposition, the Loyalists, true to the Crown and downright un-American.

After spending the previous week trolling Virginia Civil War battlefields where deaths numbered in the hundreds of thousands, a fight where only 40 died (Loyalists, even) feels almost light-hearted and fun. The good guys won, too.

Before our trip, the Wilmington, N.C. area elicited thoughts of the venerable WB Network show Dawson’s Creek and the twice-made horror film Cape Fear, not a decisive Revolutionary War battle. We assumed Moores Creek (and four other Carolina sites) honored Civil War battles. We were off by almost 100 years.

Nonetheless, Moores Creek NB was the least remarkable of the Revolutionary War sites and recommended only to the most hardcore Patriot historian. The knowledge that the battle happened is good enough for us; we did not need to see the famous bridge, now reconstructed and crossable.

TOTAL 38/80

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near Gould, Ark.
Visited: August 29, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 240 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

They’re EverywhereWHAT IS IT?
Site of one of France’s earliest permanent New World settlements. For almost 200 years, from 1686 to 1863, the Arkansas Post was an important city but now nothing remains.

BEAUTY (5/10)
The Park is a murky peninsula, surrounded on its wide sides by the bayou, its tip pointing towards the Arkansas River. The sky shines a hazy grayish blue, reflecting the waters’ dark dingy tint. Trees grow in the water. Fields of lily pads float everywhere amidst lime green algae and yellow lotus flowers add an unseen color and a delicate beauty. Snowy Egrets fly above skulking alligators, multiple dragonfly species hover incessantly, mosquitoes swarm and yearling deer race through the ruins of an early Arkansas town.

It is hard to believe this abandoned bayou backwater could ever have been an important place, but for nearly two centuries, it was the center of European life in the Arkansas region. In 1686, the French built a fort, establishing a trading post and solidifying control of the Arkansas River. The River’s flooding, Chickasaw war parties and British raiders continually forced the fort to be moved.

In 1763, France cedes the region to the Spanish, who soon after establish a presence at Arkansas Post. British soldiers attack the Fort in 1783, during the American Revolution, because Spain has sided with the colonists. France regains the territory in 1800 and sells it to Thomas Jefferson as a part of the Louisiana Purchase. Arkansas Post becomes capital of the Arkansas Territory in 1819 and the Arkansas Gazette (still the State’s major newspaper) begins publication.

Six Flags Over ArkansasIn 1821, Little Rock becomes the capital, the paper moves and the population shrinks from 1830 to only 114. The town is all but dead. The penultimate nail comes in January 1863, during the Civil War, when Union gunboats destroy the Site’s newly built Fort and mercilessly shell the town. Nothing remains. Nature deals the final blow through erosion and the changing course of the Arkansas River. All that remains are alligators, deer, dragonflies, wild turkeys and lotus flowers.

CROWDS (6/10)
Just us. We wish we could have spotted some alligators. Maybe if the sky had not been overcast.

The N MEM is located in the bayou country of southeastern Arkansas, about 60 miles from Pine Bluff and 100 miles from Little Rock.

From Pine Bluff, take U.S. Route 65 southeast until the town of Gould. Wind your way through the back streets of this tiny town along Arkansas Route 212. Once you hit U.S. Rte. 165, turn north (left). In about 5 miles, turn east (right) onto Arkansas Rte. 169. Rte. 169 will lead you through the bayou and to the Park.

If you would prefer to stay on larger roads, continue on 65, past Gould, and to Dumas. From Dumas, take U.S. Rte. 165 for 15 miles until Ark. Rte. 169. Turn right and you will soon be there.

Bayou Country

The bookstore has a sparse, but well thought out and interesting selection of merchandise for sale. Jaw Harps, reprints of the two Harper’s Weekly’s that mention the Arkansas Post Civil War battle, reprints of the first issue of the Arkansas Gazette, a cute canned Alligator (stuffed animal in a can, not a meal) and ceramic mugs stamped with the fleur de lis. Cool books include an Arkansas traveler’s 1819 journal, a book on the Indian gun trade, Alan Taylor’s American Colonies and a history of the Arkansas Post written by a Park Service employee.

COSTS (4/5)
The Site is free.

One kind Ranger looked happy to see us; it was a dreary, rainy midweek day and few people were venturing to this bayou ghost town.

There are a few neat displays in the Museum and the film, while superficial and hokey, is watch-able. The Park holds no interesting secrets and no spellbinding historical revelations. The Site does an able job with its limited material. The Site provides a terrific bird checklist that even lists the specific areas of the Park to look for each bird.

FUN (3/10)
We would have had more fun of there were alligators. We cut our pleasant, but humid, walk around the Post Bayou Nature Trail short because the rain started to come down in droves. The thick trees were not going to provide a sturdy canopy for long. The old townsite was anticlimactic, consisting of only one or two ruins. The climate, ruins, scenery and colonial history reminded us of Georgia’s Fort Frederica NM. We did not have much fun there, either.

Photogenic ThreeWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (3/10)
Only if you have a thing for French colonial history. We have heard good things about the newly opened White River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center located about 30 miles to the north in St. Charles. The White River NWR is close to the Cache River, the place where some ornithologists believe they found the ivory-billed woodpecker, an elusive bird species thought to have gone extinct. We had our binoculars on and ears open at Arkansas Post but saw and heard nothing.

TOTAL 40/80

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southern Florida
Visited: January 2, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 132 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Sunset View Over the Lake

729,000 acres consisting primarily of cypress forests. This large expanse of land serves as a watershed to the Everglades National Park, Big Cypress N PRES’ neighbor to the south.

BEAUTY (7/10)
The wild beauty of lurking American alligators dominates the Park’s murky canal water. These magnificent ancient beasts are everywhere. The surrounding bald cypress forests teem with sunning anhinga and every native North American wading bird. Even the wretchedly ugly and endangered wood stork soars above. The wet prairie landscapes are uneventful but therapeutically calming after time spent driving through Miami.

Big Cypress swamp’s primary role, both ecologically and as a National Park Unit is to be an unspoiled source of water into the Everglades. It was designated a Park Unit in 1974 shortly after an explosion of land development, oil speculation and economic exploitation severely threatened Big Cypress and in return, the health of the Everglades.

Since then, the Park has been the main location of the Florida Panther’s rise from near extinction. Dozens of Panthers now roam the Preserve.

Hello FriendCROWDS (8/10)
We always feel giddy while driving on the Tamiami Trail through the Preserve. Anglers and giggly tourists line the canal. Gators and wading birds are everywhere. There is a constant air of enjoyment. Nearly everyone driving the route stops at the Visitor Center asks questions about wildlife and wonders about the mysterious Florida Panther. We found the VC as crowded as any park we have been to.

The nearby Monument Lake campground, however, was not crowded at all, amazing given that the nearby Collier-Seminole State Park campground was full and cramped to Andersonville-esque proportions. We had a lovely time at Monument Lake. Campsites along a paved road circle a modestly sized, gator-infested lake. Once the sun starts sinking, the entire campground starts walking around the road, which at this point resembles a giant running track. Smiles and light conversation abound. This was the most pleasant and friendliest campground yet.

The Park is simultaneously very accessible and uniquely prohibitive. South Florida’s two primary east-west routes pass through Big Cypress N PRES.

Interstate 75 (a/k/a the Everglades Parkway c/k/a Alligator Alley) passes through the Park’s northern section but offers no access to the Preserve. It is a toll road, no exits are allowed and tall barbed wire fences prevent any spur of the moment excursions.

If you want to enter the Park, you must take the southern route, U.S. 41 (a/k/a the Tamiami Trail). The Visitor Center stands at the road’s halfway point, 50 miles east of Naples and 50 miles west of Miami. You can hike the Florida Trail from the VC to both the north and south. Ask ahead about how much water covers the Trail.

The Tamiami Canal parallels the two-lane Tamiami Trail through the length of the Park. The Canal provides visitors with constant bird watching, fishing and alligator spotting. A few unpaved roads provide access to more remote section of the Preserve. ORV use is allowed in parts and is the primary vehicle used for people who choose to hunt in the Park.


Conveniently separated into three main shelves: flora, fauna and history and children’s. Birders and those in search of wildlife get primary attention here. Big Cypress knows its audience. Also among the selection are River of Grass and Voice of the River, tributes to Florida’s wilderness written by Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Relaxing by the LakeCOSTS (4/5)

The Site is free.

Sites at the lovely Monument Lake campsite cost $16 per night. The campground is 8 miles west of the Visitor Center and only a few hundred yards north of the Tamiami Trail.


During our half dozen or so trips into the Visitor Center, there have always been at least two volunteers and one Ranger on duty. Often two and even three Rangers have been there to help out and answer questions. The most interesting staff member posted behind the desk was a firefighter taking a break from administering prescribed burns at the Park.

While we were stamping our National Park Passport Book, a staff member saw a Jimmy Carter NHS stamp and asked about that Site. We told the person how wonderful the Site was and how much respect we had for the president. Their response was, “well, I’m not supposed to tell you this but everyone seems to know anyway.” “What could it be,” we imagined. “President Carter is here today. He’s just a mile down the road at Clyde Butcher’s Gallery on vacation.” “Thanks.” we said as we rushed down the Tamiami Trail hoping to catch our second glimpse of Jimmy in two weeks.

But it was not to be. He was in the back having lunch. We asked the Secret Servicemen to tell the president how much we enjoyed his Sunday school lesson two weeks ago. We are sure they obliged.

We enjoyed the 15-minute introductory video shown at the Visitor Center. The film packs a strong educational punch even though it must have been made just a short time after the Park’s opening in 1974. Charts explain the watershed and short clips identify many of the Site’s wildlife. The film tells you what you will see and shows you things you are hoping to see. Michael heard loud gasps from everyone in the theater, even his wife, when the legendary ghost orchid appeared on screen. Who knew it was such a big deal?

Frequent Camp VisitorWe have found that many of the older films, Big Cypress’ included, focus on educating the public. The newer films tend to be fancy public relations-oriented pieces short on information and long on pretty pictures.

While the older films stand the test of time, the older museum exhibits do not. Big Cypress is no exception. The Museum displays are woefully inadequate given the large amounts of tourists the Park receives. We had little room to move. The centerpiece display is a stuffed Florida Panther that was tragically killed along the Tamiami Trail by a speeding car.

Rangers give sporadic talks and walks during the season. The crowds at Big Cypress N PRES are mostly transient spur of the moment visitors. The Park is not a destination Site, more of a place to break up the drive from Miami to Naples. The lack of Ranger activities is not surprising.

FUN (9/10)
The drive through Big Cypress on the Tamiami Trail is one of our favorite things about Florida. Where else does a major highway take you straight through otherwise untouchable swamps and forests? Driving through Big Cypress N PRES reminds you that despite all the development and expanding civilization, at its heart, Florida is totally wild.

When we came to Florida a few years ago for a cousin’s wedding, we took this drive almost every day. We couldn’t stay away. Little has changed this time around.

Cold-BloodedWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10)
It is the middle of winter and gators and green vegetation are everywhere basking in the sun, as are we. Do you really need convincing? When you do come, be sure to drop into Clyde Butcher’s Photo Gallery and Shop located just a mile east of the Visitor Center. Known as the “Ansel Adams of the Swamp”, his black and white photos perfectly capture the many moods of south Florida’s wilderness. You will be following in the footsteps of a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

TOTAL 57/80

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near Beaumont, Texas
Visited: November 29, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 120 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

The Big ThicketWHAT IS IT?
Biological crossroads where the southeastern swamplands, eastern deciduous forest. Midwest prairie and pine savannas meet. The Park consists of nine distinct land units, a few of which are connected by two river corridor units. Roads and towns weave through the parklands; it is hard to believe that there are 97,000 acres of parkland among the outer reaches of suburbia.

BEAUTY (7/10)
In some of Big Thicket N PRES, the result of the clashing eco-zones is a dark stew of mysterious swampland. We were enchanted on are walk along the boardwalks of the Kirby Nature Trail in the Turkey Creek Unit of the Park. Rain fell above us, caught on the floral canopy above. The dark black waters of the surrounding swamps dutifully reflected the large oaks and beech trees. Despite the overwhelming visual evidence, Big Thicket does not feel like the swamps of the south. There are few palmettos, less green and more browns. It almost feels like a wet, overrun Pennsylvania forest.

UNESCO named Big Thicket a World Biosphere Zone in 1981 because of its unique floral and fauna diversity and also because its existence remains severely threatened by oil exploration. The Park contains four of North America’s five species of carnivorous plants and is a birding hot spot. We were lucky to see the elusive Bachman sparrow. Gab is confident of our spotting, Michael is doubtful.

The discovery and drilling of oil is tantamount to Big Thicket and the surrounding area. Oil was first discovered at the famed Spindletop site, located a few miles from the park, on lands that were probably once similar to the site’s environs. Presently, Big Thicket has become the centerpiece to a Sierra Club lawsuit that accuses the Bush Administration of surreptitiously changing the drilling rights in the National Parks.

SwampCROWDS (6/10)
We enjoyed a wonderful solitary walk through the marshes. We might have enjoyed hikes through other Units had the specter of gun-wielding deer hunters not frightened us away. A team of SCA, a conservation Peace Corps, youth lingered in the Visitor Center while waiting for Park Service canoes to do scientific testing. We were jealous. It was refreshing to see the SCA kids doing environmental research instead of their usual NPS perch as fee collectors. Research work rather than customer service should be the emphasis of their internships.

The Big Thicket N PRES Visitor Center is located about 30 miles north of Beaumont, Texas and Interstate 10. Beaumont is 80 miles from the sprawling metropolis of Houston. Parts of Big Thicket are as close as 4 miles from Beaumont. Other Units are as far away as 60 miles.

This may sound confusing. Big Thicket is not one park. Its 11 spindly units resemble gerrymandered congressional districts; they all hug creeks, rivers and bayous. If you have a canoe, the Park is your oyster. Silent sojourns through the dark marshes sound spectacular to us. Without a canoe, your choices become somewhat limited. The hikers unit, Turkey Creek, provides a wonderful boardwalked path through the Big Thicket. Hiking is possible in only three other units. Be sure to bring mosquito repellent.

Since the park is a National Preserve, hunting is allowed in the other units. We arrived during deer season and did not dare travel outside of the safe Turkey Creek haven. Oil drilling occurs in the Big Sandy Creek area and has become a flashpoint. The companies have breeched their contract by taking too much oil. The hunters are angry and want their peaceful park back.

Standard fare at the Big Thicket bookstore: books identifying local plants and birds, a children’s section and some regional information on Texas. Nothing exceptional, except for the stuffed toy armadillos.

COSTS (4/5)
Park entry is free. Hunting, backcountry camping and fishing are all free with a permit.

Four nearby outfitters provide canoe rentals.

How come we always seem to arrive at sites on the Rangers’ day off? Big Thicket was no exception. Nonetheless, we received gobs of attention from a cheery, knowledgeable volunteer. We are sure the Ranger in the back room, who had come to do computer work on her day off, would have verified the volunteer’s able answers.

Large Carniverous PlantTOURS/CLASSES (7/10)

The Big Thicket N PRES VC does a terrific job at explaining the complex ecological crossroads that is the Park. Numerous fun, interactive displays highlight each of the biological regions. The exhibits are delightful and educational for kids and adults alike. Michael especially enjoyed sticking his hand in the massive human-sized Pitcher Plant replica. For a second, he felt like he was in a Star Trek episode and was in grave danger.

The Visitor Center also provides tons of mimeographed handouts whose topics include birding hot spots, carnivorous plants, hiking trails and even an auto tour. A number of videos are available for viewing. The only downside to the Park’s educational opportunities is the lack of Ranger talks. We had seen pictures of a canoe-led Ranger talk and got excited. These tours no longer take place.

FUN (7/10)
We are really enjoying our time spent at the National Preserves. Big Thicket is no exception. The ability to hunt on the land is one of the things that sets Preserves apart from Parks. The ability to utilize private contributions in creative ways seems to be another. Trails through Big Thicket are primarily over boardwalks. Almost every boardwalk has been dutifully maintained by a local Boy Scout group or business. A wooden plank below one’s feet commemorates each effort.

We contemplated canoeing, but there were thunderstorms in the forecast. The boardwalks got us plenty close to the dark, swampy waters. No feral pig or javalina sightings for us, which is just as well. They look pretty mean.

Did we mention Gabby’s spotting of the Bachman sparrow? It doesn’t take much to get us novice birders excited.

Communities around Big Thicket N PRES know what a treasure they have in their back yards. Hunters rely on Big Thicket for bountiful game; the Park relies on the hunters to control the nutria and feral pig populations and to canvas the sprawling units and report on the wildlife they encounter. “We couldn’t do it without them,” remarked the volunteer. A hunter reported the first brown bear in the Preserve last year. Hikers and canoers both enjoy hunt-free areas set aside for their use. Two hikers spotted a panther (local speak for a mountain lion) on a hike earlier this year. The Preserve’s doubting wildlife expert went out for a closer look and was not disappointed.

There is a wonderfully symbiotic relationship between the Preserve, hunters, hikers and canoers. There is room for everyone who respects the land and helps to preserve it. Let’s hope they can all unite to combat the latest drilling intrusions. Update: They did!

TOTAL 50/80

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