The weather was predicted to be good for the Monday after my escape from Bay Tree State Park, so I decided it was the perfect time to again travel southwest and to do some hiking. Having visited five of the six Carolina bays located within State Parks, I thought that I should visit the last one – Lake Waccamaw.
Because I would have to travel a good distance to see Lake Waccamaw, it made sense to add another regional destination to my agenda. I decided on a stop at land owned by The Nature Conservancy – the 15,722-acre Green Swamp Preserve.
Green Swamp Preserve is best known for being home to a large number of orchids and carnivorous plants. As it was the wrong time of year, I had no expectation of seeing any of these special plants. Instead, I thought I would use the opportunity to hike the 2-mile trail and treat the outing as a sort of reconnaissance mission. I could scout out the terrain and try to determine what a visit during the warmer months might be like.
I reached the Green Swamp Preserve parking lot by driving 18 miles south of Bolton on NC-211. (According to online directions, folks traveling from Wilmington will find it to be 5 miles north of Supply.) I arrived at 8:00 a.m., and the sky was clear, the air slightly chilly, and the place was deserted. In other words, conditions were perfect for exploring.
Located beside a water-filled borrow pit, the parking lot was spacious and dry. Across the highway was the area that I later learned is called “Big Island.” Online sources indicate that many Venus flytraps can be found there during the summer.
The Green Swamp trail was marked with red blazes and began as a road that bent southeast after leaving the parking area. Soon the path narrowed as it moved through longleaf pines to a short board walk that provided passage through a very soggy area to the “Shoestring Savanna*.” It was clear that this area would be an excellent spot to see plenty of carnivorous plants in the warmer seasons as the remains of many pitcher plants were everywhere.
The trail continued through the “Stringbean Savanna*,” a very wet strip of pocosin, and into the “Beanpatch Savanna Lobes*.” These savanna areas were thick with dead grasses as tall as six feet. The blazes were sparsely distributed, and although it wasn’t terribly difficult to find my way, I imagined it would be rather challenging at times when the vegetation was growing.
Eventually, after a stretch with unusually frequent blazes, the markers ended, although a visible path continued through an additional pocosin and another savanna area. I moved a short distance through yet another area of thick pocosin vegetation before my imagination could no longer visualize any trail, and then I turned back. Along the way, I just barely spotted a yellow-bellied sapsucker high in a pine.
Online opinions about the abundance of carnivorous plants at the preserve vary considerably, with some saying they are easy to spot and others saying the area is virtually depleted due to poaching. I suspect that the former opinion is more accurate and that with very little effort one could spend many hours spotting lots of good stuff during the summer months. In fact, I doubt that one would need to walk very far past the boardwalk to consider the trip to Green Swamp very worthwhile. I plan on returning in May and bringing plenty of insect repellent with me.
*The names of these areas were provided by the sign at the trailhead, but their exact meaning was not obvious to me.
Lake Waccamaw State Park
As planned, I had spent two hours at Green Swamp, and after the 30-minute drive north I arrived at Lake Waccamaw State Park.
The lake is named after the Waccamaw Siouan Indians known as the “People of the Fallen Star.” This epithet derives from the Native American belief that the lake was formed after an enormous meteor struck the earth. The meaning of the name Waccamaw is unknown because, except for just a few words, the language of these indigenous people was lost as the result of social interference and massive population losses in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Covering almost 9,000 acres, Lake Waccamaw is the largest natural Carolina bay lake in the Bladen Lake Group. The pH of the lake is considerably higher than that of most other bay lakes because much of the source water filters through a limestone bluff located at its northern shore. Because of its relatively low acidity, the lake is home to an unusually large number of aquatic lifeforms. In fact, some of the native species are found nowhere else in the world.
Although boating and fishing are the primary attractions of Lake Waccamaw State Park, it also features about seven miles of hiking trails through the forest at the southern end of the lake. My plan was to walk the Lakeshore Trail to the dam – the source of the Waccamaw River. I expected to reach the dam by noon, and on the way back walk the Sand Ridge Nature Trail, the Pine Woods Trail, and the Loblolly Trail before calling it a day.
A strong, cold wind was coming across the lake, so the water was very choppy and I was glad that I was wearing a woolen cap to keep warm.
Lake Waccamaw was almost always in view from the Lakeshore Trail. Because the path was very sandy, I was not able to move very quickly. In addition, once I got beyond the group camping area, the trail turned very muddy, and the extra time required to navigate the muck slowed my progress even more. At the wettest spot on the trail (at about the halfway point) a boardwalk had been constructed to ease the passage of hikers, but this had been mostly destroyed and getting through the area was very difficult.
Once the trail became a bit drier, movement was slowed along a stretch where many trees had fallen across the path. Because I often needed to climb over, under, around, or through these uprooted trees, I became especially behind-schedule and fatigued. Looking on the bright side, however, I did enjoy some flowers at the tops of the fallen trees that would have otherwise been too far away to see.
By 12:30 p.m. I was somewhat discouraged because I still had not reached the dam. At that point I began playing a favorite mind game I call Let’s-Just-See-What’s-Around-The-Next-Bend. If the game can be repeated often enough, one’s goal is eventually achieved. Funny (especially given what happened later) that I rarely play the Turn-Back-Now-Before-It’s-Too-Late game.
The final portion of the trail ran along a part of the shoreline where massive amounts of debris washed aground. At spots, the plastic soda bottles, beer cans, and shattered bits of recreational equipment formed a covering so thick it was difficult to see the earth. In one place I raised my eyebrow (can’t recall if it was the left or the right one) and wondered what circumstances led someone to abandon a jet ski in the trees.
Finally, at 1:00 p.m. I reached the end of the trail and took in the view of the dam. Just beyond, an unbroken series of private homes lined the shoreline as far as the eye could see. A walk that I expected to require no more than an hour-and-a-half had taken 2.5 hours, and I was feeling tired and hungry. After a brief rest, but moving very slowly, I turned around and prepared to mentally check off the “Trash Area”, “Fallen Tree Area”, and “Muck Area” boxes as I doubled back along Lakeshore Trail.
It wasn’t long before my mind became preoccupied with thoughts of the lunch waiting for me at the car: yogurt, cornmeal muffins, and warm soup. Soon, however, I was jarred from my reverie by the sound of something large moving through the trees up ahead. I had only just caught a glimpse, but I thought it might be a wild hog, and kept moving at a steady pace hoping to catch up with it. In no time, I saw it again, only briefly, but long enough to be convinced it was a feral swine.
I wanted to get a picture of the animal, but quickly realized that no matter how quietly I tried to approach it would keep moving out of sight every time I got close. It was then that I had a second, more important realization – I was no longer on the trail.
The trail was well-marked and pretty obvious, so managing to loss it was quite an accomplishment. Then again, the ground in the area was firm and many clear “paths” ran in an easterly direction, so it wasn’t too difficult to believe I was simply on an alternative trail.
I kept moving ahead, avoiding soggy areas and thick brush, but before long realized I was moving farther and farther from the lake and away from the trail back to the parking lot.
At this point I should have simply doubled back to find the place where I had lost the trail, but I didn’t. Instead, I convinced myself that I could force my way northward through the swamp and back to the trail. It was slow going because most of the ground was covered with a dense layer of vines and brambles. At times I became so entangled that it was exhausting just getting unstuck, and often when I tried to support my stumbling mass by grabbing onto tree branches, the dead limbs simply disintegrated and I fell to the ground. It wasn’t long before I regretted my decision not to retrace my steps, but it was too late – I had gone so far into thick vegetation that I would never be able to find my way back.
Unfortunately, things only got worse as I moved on. It became impossible to keep to my course and avoid soggy ground. When my left foot sank so deep that my boot filled with swamp water, I tried to leverage myself up with the right leg, with the immediate result being a second bootful of scummy liquid.
After that, I was feeling quite crazed and desperate, and my movements got more frantic and clumsy, and remembering the picture of the alligator on the sign for the park did nothing to help keep me calm. My memory of exactly how I eventually made it back to the trail is not clear, but I know it involved a lot of thrashing about, sinking up to my knees in sludge, tearing my hands and pants in several places, and losing my woolen cap to the stinking quagmire.
My return to the trail was at a point just west of the busted up boardwalk. I was relieved to be back on course, but also felt cold, wet, and weary, and I still had a good distance to walk. When I got back to the campgrounds, I had no more intentions of exploring the other trails, and made a beeline for the State Park Drive.
As I stumbled along toward the car, a memory of a guy I knew at Villanova popped into my head. He used to occasionally hand out pieces of paper about the size of business cards. The slips of paper included a drawing of a puzzled-looking fellow whose head was surrounded by question marks. The only words printed on the cards were, “Are you stoned, or just stupid?”
Sadly, if Steve Kling had handed me one of those cards at that moment, I could not have attributed my ordeal to the former.