My wife and I have visited South Carolina a number of times in the past but we never took the opportunity to visit the Francis Beider Forest at Four Holes Swamp. After picking up some information at a state information centre we decided this was the year to take the trip down to Harleyville to have an authentic swamp experience at Beider Forest.
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Francis Beider Forest covers over 17,000 acres of Four Holes Swamp, and at its heart is a virgin stand of 1,763 acres. This unique sanctuary is maintained as close to its natural state as possible.
There is no attempt to attract wildlife to the boardwalk. No artificial plantings of any kind are done. And there is no removal of dead or overturned trees. The only exception is if a fallen tree has damaged the boardwalk and needs to be moved to do repairs.
This was the case when Hurricane Hugo ripped through this part of South Carolina on September 21, 1989 with winds of 150 MPH (241 kmph). About 3,000 feet (914m) of the 6,500 feet (1981m) of boardwalk at that time was damaged and had to be replaced.
The boardwalk is now approximately 1.75 miles (2.8 km) in length and contains 10 rest stops, two of which are rain shelters.
I knew nothing about swamps prior to our visit to Francis Beider Forest, and I had many misconceptions. The information at the sanctuary was very enlightening.
I learned that not all wetlands are swamps. A swamp is a flooded forest and to qualify as a swamp the trees must be standing in water for at least part of the year.
Swamps are not the buggy, muddy, smelly places I had in my mind. Since the water flows in swamps mosquitoes do not typically lay eggs there as they prefer standing water.
The abundant plant life acts as a filter and floods flush away decaying material which reduces smells. Swamps are not muddy since the floor is mainly hard-packed sand.
Alligators prefer deeper water and sunshine rather than the shallow and shaded swamp channels.The topography in swamps varies and has a direct impact on the type of vegetation found.
Palmettos grow on higher, dryer islands. Dwarf palmettos grow where there are transitions in elevation and they only survive in zones between higher, dryer ground and lower, wetter areas.
The Four Hole Swamp is a blackwater swamp. Its dark appearance comes from tannin, a natural leaf and bark stain. The water is actually quite clean and there is a station along the Beider Forest boardwalk where you can check its clarity first-hand.
The Beider Forest is composed of mainly Bald Cypress and Tupelo Gum trees. It contains the second oldest Bald Cypress tree in the world, estimated to be 1,500 years old.
The larger Tupelo Gum trees, those 18 inches (45.7cm) in diameter and more, are usually hollow. They often serve as nesting sites for a wide range of mammals, birds and reptiles.
The Bald Cypress trees have ‘knees’, the purpose of which is still a mystery to botanists.
Some are quite close to the trunk of the trees while others are a distance away. What is known is that presence and depth of the water around the Bald Cypress trees has a direct impact on the number and size of the ‘knees’ a tree may have.
Bald Cypress trees on drier land have fewer and smaller ‘knees’ than do those growing in deeper water.
My wife and I enjoyed the entire length of the Beider Forest boardwalk, including the observation tower at Goodson Lake. We were both stunned by the calm silence in the swamp. It was incredibly peaceful and even the faintest sound seemed to carry a great distance.
While I did not find Beider Forest to be particularly photogenic during our winter visit, it was well worth the trip just to experience the feeling of solitude and to learn about the swamp. Depending on the season and conditions a number of activities are available including kayak and canoe trips, as well as walking tours.
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