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.
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.
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.A 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.
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.
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