Journalist • Photographer

Bobby Magill is a journalist and photographer based in Port Jervis, NY and Alexandria, Va.

Melancholy and fried cameras at Congaree National Park

My first photography expedition was to Congaree Swamp National Monument in February 2000, when I was taking an intro to photography class at the College of Charleston and wielding a Canon Rebel G 35mm camera loaded with a roll of Kodak Tri-X black and white film. I remember being bummed that I'd just been dumped by a guy I was interested in, and Congaree Swamp was just melancholy enough in the middle of winter and far enough away from Charleston for the trip to be a satisfactory antidote.

When I was finished in the darkroom a few days later, I remember being equally bummed that Congaree Swamp was a terrible place to blow through a roll of black-and-white at such a beginner's skill level. The problem then is the problem I have today without the correct equipment (I invariably forget the tripod or am unable to bring it): There's too little contrast in the winter and the place is replete with contrast in the summer, and the forest canopy makes handheld photography at a low ISO quite a challenge.

A week ago, my grandfather died, and so a long walk through the Congaree woods, now a full-fledged national park, seemed like a great escape from family after the funeral and a great reason to stop wishing I were back home in Colorado.

For those uninitiated to some of the more obscure South Carolina wonders, Congaree National Park is one of the nation's newest national parks, established in 2003 after existing as dirt road-bound national monument since the 1970s. The park, just downstream from the Fall Line below Columbia and now featuring a huge visitor center and lots of asphalt, protects some of South Carolina's biggest trees and densest cypress woods, whose knee-studded floors flood several times a year when the Congaree River is high. Much of the park is virgin woodland and is some of the best habitat in the Southeast for a plethora of bird, reptile and amphibian species. Congaree, which isn't really a swamp, ranks up there with the famed woods of Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp and Altamaha Delta, South Carolina's ACE Basin and Beidler forests and, perhaps, the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina.

Today's hike along Congaree's boardwalk, punctuated here and there by newly-repaired sections that had previously succumbed to falling trees, reminded me that in 2009, I fried a camera at Congaree. Jacob and I had planned an afternoon hike at the park on our way from Charleston to Athens, Ga., on a weeklong trip back to our hometowns. At a trail junction two miles or so from the trailhead, we decided to extend our hike by more than four miles. Under clear blue skies, but able to see the sky only directly above us through the towering forest canopy, we were stupidly ill-prepared for long hike. Soon, we found ourselves sprinting through the woods in a torrent of rain and dodging lightning bolts (simultaneous flash and boom), one of which struck the visitor center and knocked out the power. At one point, I had to dodge a falling tree, which, thankfully, failed to fall all the way to the boardwalk below. Without rain gear to protect it, my digital camera was toast.

I lost a camera, but, man, it was fun losing it.

It's fun photographing Congaree's forest, a place with cypress knees and tree stumps that are easy to anthropomorphize with even the slightest imagination. Check it out:


Cypress knees scattered about the floor of the forest at Congaree National Park. ©2011 Bobby Magill
Southeastern baldcypresses' trunks taper toward the water. ©2011 by Bobby Magill