For every creature you see in the wild there are countless more nearby, lurking just out of sight. Most times we don’t think about them, but at certain times in the backcountry we become more aware. And sometimes we wish we hadn’t. Ignorance is bliss after all.
Like the time in the Yosemite backcountry. I hadn’t seen another human in two days. I backtracked through the snow due to a swollen river, retracing my footprints, only to find fresh bear prints following my prints.
Or the time in Zion. My fourth night on the trail, when my head lamp caught two glowing dots looking back at me. My headlamp reflected off the retinas of something, but was not strong enough to tell me what it was. But my mind registered the spacing and equated it to something of good size. This happens fairly often in the dark of the backcountry.
And then there is any time you lay quietly in you tent and listen to the noises of the wilderness. You become very aware.
I had another of those experiences this past weekend in Congaree National Park. A few of them actually.
We visited relatives in the mountains of North Carolina over the long Labor Day weekend. I then took it a step further and was able to slip away from there for 27 hours to Congaree National Park in South Carolina for an overnight adventure.
It was 86 degrees and hot in the parking lot after my 4 hour drive. As soon as I reached the trail and the shade of the high canopy that the many towering trees provided, it was noticeably cooler, even comfortable. But the humidity was still high and I was quickly sweating.
I hiked over eight miles, enjoying the knees and coned trunks of the bald cypress trees. I tried to spot an alligator in Weston Lake that a hiker had told me about but saw large turtles instead.
The farther one hikes from the visitor center and the boardwalk the more overgrown the trails become. I found myself moving through narrow passages with overgrowth brushing both sides of my bare legs and I hoped that there were no chiggers as I was already scratching a dozen bites from the day before in North Carolina. I also had become aware that many spiders, some 2-3″ long, built their webs along the trail. Also, the trail was torn up in many areas. It reminded me of when wild turkeys scratch for grubs but on a much larger scale. I wondered if it could be wild pigs.
The River Trail reaches the Congaree River and runs near it for about a mile and a half. I spent the night in a flat dry spot off the trail, about 1/2 mile from the river. Hiking out in the dark I immediately noticed how many spider webs my headlamp picked up along and over the trail. I was fascinated and a little freaked out. I tried to take pictures of the spiders but failed in the dark. Even on the stem of the River Trail, which I had just walked the afternoon before, there many large webs over and around the trail – webs that I couldn’t have possibly avoided having not seen them. This meant the spiders likely rebuilt their webs every night after the hikers and animals went through. I ducked and dodged my way around the webs, sometimes going through accidently. I’d then wait to feel the crawling on the back of my neck as I looked ahead for the reflectors to make sure I was still on the trail.
While still on the River Trail, I heard an awful noise. It took me a moment to place it – wild pigs. There were more than one and maybe they were fighting. They sounded nearby. Wild pigs were not something that I wanted to run into on the trail, especially in the dark. I tried to capture some of their noises on my phone but they seemed to pause each time I started recording, as if they knew what I was doing.
I came to another web with a large spider and stopped to get a photo, but then the wild pigs started again. This time very close. They seemed to be just out of the reach of my headlamp. I took off more quickly. But the faster pace didn’t work well in the dark. I found myself crashing into the spider webs, which panicked me more. I was suddenly off the trail crashing through the brush in the dark. The pigs and spiders were working together! But if I were trapped in a Charlotte’s Web movie, this was a much more sinister sequel.
I stopped and calmed myself, found the reflectors, and got back on the trail. I proceeded at a brisk but controlled pace and soon the squeals receded in the distance.
Somewhere just before or after the Oak Ridge Trail Junction I clopped across a bridge over a creek and heard a great splash below. I spun my head beam down to catch something large moving quickly through the water and into darkness. A gator. Or I assume it was a gator. I couldn’t tell in that brief moment but I wondered what else would make such a splash getting in the water then move away so quickly.
After over an hour of hiking in the dark, I was glad to turn off my headlamp and hike in daylight. I reached my car a short time later having had a more intimate experience with nature – after all, that’s why I do it – and left behind Congaree National Park, where the wild pigs and spiders are in cahoots.