Photo by Mic Smith
Michael Dawson, director of the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, promotes the swamp with events such as night walks and kayak tours.
When taking the self-guided tour along the wooden boardwalk in Francis Beidler Forest, one naturally thinks about time, especially the past. It’s not hard to appreciate the way a swamp like this one can seem to slow time down. There is a beautiful monotony and stillness to the tannin-steeped black water, punctuated here and there by some natural event or observation.
Lizards will crawl out of the cypress bark. A crawfish will scuttle across the flooded leaf litter. A moccasin will slither up a dead log. A red orb-weaver spider will be spinning its nest across the boardwalk. Out on the lookout above Goodson Lake, kingfishers will fly by, and mudfish will roll the surface. In the spring, one may catch a glimpse of the sanctuary’s iconic yellow songbird, the prothonotary warbler.
And towering above everything are the ancient bald cypress trees, among them one that is 1,600 years old, the second oldest of its species in the world. One imagines it springing to life a century before the invention of the bow and arrow, a millennium before European settlement, and persisting through floods, drought, cold snaps and hot spells.
“This is what South Carolina, or at least whole parts of South Carolina, used to look like,” says Michael Dawson, director of the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, as he stops along the boardwalk to admire the cypress.
“Virtually every other square inch of South Carolina has, at some point in time, been changed by people,” he says. “We’ve cut the trees down for farms, for timber, for highways and roads, all the stuff we do. There’s only two patches of this kind of old-growth forest left in the state.”
One is the heavily trafficked Congaree National Forest, but the other is this lesser-known, 1,700-plus-acre gem, which also doubles as the state office for the National Audubon Society and has been designated a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service.
The swamp itself is commonly referred to as Four Holes Swamp but was officially named after the early-20th-century timber baron Francis Beidler, whose family liquidated his land holdings in the 1960s and sold a significant tract to a local Audubon chapter. Today, with its curio-filled gift shop and its 1.75-mile boardwalk, the center welcomes between 10,000 and 12,000 visitors annually.
The self-guided tour of the boardwalk, however, is just an appetizer for swamp lovers. On the first Saturday of each month, one can join an Audubon naturalist for a bird walk. On Fridays and Saturdays in the spring (March through May), one can take a two- or four-hour guided canoe trip through the swamp waters. Each month, a naturalist leads a night walk, where guests can experience the cacophony of the swamp coming alive in the dark. And on one Saturday each April, the Center hosts a special benefit called Wine & Warblers, in which guests can stroll the boardwalk with wine and hors d’oeuvres.
Dawson knows that he must keep up these efforts—acquiring more land, educating schoolchildren and the general public, encouraging scientific research, raising money through the gift shop and grants and the leasing of land to hunt clubs—in order to preserve these wetlands.
“Our gospel message is that here you’ve got this water filter, air filter, wildlife factory—a beautiful place to visit,” he says. “There’s this whole slew of values to wetlands. They’re far from worthless.”
The Audubon Center at Beidler Forest is located at 336 Sanctuary Road in Harleyville.
HOURS: Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m to 5 p.m.
ADMISSION: $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 6–12 and free for children under 6.
DETAILS: For more information, visit beidlerforest.audubon.org or call (843) 462-2150.