Turning a Trip Into a Pilgrimage

posted in: Pilgrimage Stories | 21

Water reflections in "Turning a Trip Into a Pilgrimage"

Our goal was to make a longer trip into wilder lands. We had gone on local day trips, but, because of Covid, this would be our first adventure in a year, since last February. We were drawn to explore South Carolina again. We usually seek out water and wildlife on the coast above and below Charleston. This time we would be looking for birds and for whatever other wildlife we could find on inland rivers and wetlands.

My soul needs immersion in natural landscapes with their native plants and animals. I also need to honor their sacredness. That’s easy when we pilgrimage to Ireland, because those lands have been marked as sacred for millenia with hilltop passage tombs and stone circles. The waters are acknowledged as sacred with holy wells. But my culture did not teach me how to revere nature, and, like many of us colonists, I have struggled to find ways to do so.

I longed to find a way to make this trip into a pilgrimage by giving something back, in gratitude, to the spirit infusing each place we visit. Longing can be both an uncomfortable and a blessed state. I have learned that if I can honor the longing and tolerate the discomfort of not-knowing, the creative solution that my soul is seeking will be revealed. Gradually, an idea for a small rite arose to honor the plants, animals, land, and waters we might encounter.

My husband and I would be traveling alone this time. For our ritual we would each write a spontaneous phrase of praise on a square of brown, unbleached paper towel, fill it with birdseed, tie it with linen string, and hang these offerings from a tree branch or place them under a shrub. I wondered if perhaps these words of gratitude, strung together at the end, might make a poem, or perhaps a chant.

We were encouraged by the Carolina Wetlands Association to explore Congaree Swamp. We had to put this trip off for a couple of weeks because of rain, until we could see some clear days ahead. Reading Wild South Carolina, recommended by a friend, we realized if we drove down through the towns in our own Sandhills region, Southern Pines and Aberdeen, we could continue south and stop at South Carolina Sandhills sites like Cheraw State Park and the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge on our way to Columbia, where we’d stay while visiting the Congaree. In the midst of the trip we realized that all of the subsequent places we would visit were also in the Sandhills eco-region. So, we followed the arc of the Sandhills through North and South Carolina to Georgia. The Congaree and Savannah Rivers cross it. Water would emerge as the central theme of the trip.

The Sandhills are a fast-disappearing habitat, replaced by agriculture and development. Nestled just below the fall line, the Sandhills are wedged between the upland Piedmont and the low Coastal Plain of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. They were formed eons ago when clay, gravel, and sand, carried by rivers and streams down from the eroding mountains, were deposited on the coast line. They are the remnant eolian (wind-blown) sand dunes left behind when the oceans retreated. Seeing the open forests of longleaf pine, the early settlers originally called them “pine barrens.” They are anything but barren. Over a thousand species, many unique to the Sandhills, have been found in the region. I have an abiding affection for these sandy inland habitats, because they are closely related to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey near where I grew up.

Atlantic White Cedar

Our first stop was at Cheraw, South Carolina’s oldest state park, named after the Cheraw Indians who had lived in this area. Blessings upon them. It was developed by the young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1930. It was too cold, and we weren’t dressed for canoeing on the creek that runs through the Atlantic white cedar swamp, lined with carnivorous plants, that feeds Juniper Lake, but we walked the boardwalk through some of the longleaf pines and white cedar trees that surround the lake.

Cheraw, Atlantic White Cedars
Atlantic White Cedar

We seldom see white cedar stands now, because they have become so rare. Logged out, their wet habitats ditched and drained for agriculture, only about five percent remain. Efforts are being made to restore them to a few appropriately wet and boggy places. Tall, stately, dense evergreens, they made a lasting impression on me as a youth. I grieve their disappearance.

My father grew up in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. These northern Pine Barrens share many similarities with our southern Sandhills, such as sandy uplands of pines and oaks, dark red, tannin-stained “blackwater” swamps and seeps and creeks, and many colorful species of orchids. They both have wet, peaty sphagnum bogs filled with carnivorous plants, which eat insects to survive in the nutrient-poor soil. The pitch pine forests of the Pine Barrens and the longleaf pine forests of the Sandhills are both fire dependent communities. They can retain their great diversity of plant species only through natural lightning or controlled burning, carried out by the indigenous inhabitants, early settlers, and today’s conservationists.

We lived on the adjacent barrier island, Absecon, in a town called Atlantic City.  My dad frequently took us into the piney woods. We camped at Lake Lenape and swam in the red “cedar water” of Lake Absegami. The island and the lakes were named after the Absegami tribe of the Lenni Lenape, whom we had replaced on these lands. Back then I didn’t know to honor these original peoples of the land, but will do so when we pilgrimage there in future. Ducking under and being enclosed in clear redness was a mystical experience. At Absegami we walked the trails of this wetland forest of red maple and sweet bay magnolia around the dark, mysterious, white cedar swamp. We canoed on the Wading River’s blackwater, glowing scarlet in shafts of sunlight. The Wading River tributes to the Mullica River which flows into Great Bay Estuary, where my grandfathers clammed and oystered (and ran rum to secret places during Prohibition.)

“Cedar Water”

We saw cranberries growing wild along the red creeks and cultivated in large cranberry bogs. My father told me they had to protect all the surrounding waters, because cranberries could only grow in pure, clean water. I liked that idea so much, I think that’s when I became an environmentalist, on the spot. Dad told me it’s also called “sweetwater,” and that it used to be taken on ships because it would last so long. We ate the wild huckleberries and blueberries that flourished in the forest and saw them growing in rows on sandy blueberry farms. Commercial blueberries were first developed here in these Pine Barrens. There arose in me a deep sense of wholeness in experiencing the wild plants, continuing to grow free in their original habitats, alongside the ones cultivated in fields and bogs. At harvest time we saw the cranberry growers flood these bogs and all the berries float to the top in a sea of red.  I remain proud that New Jersey produces the third largest crop of cranberries and the fifth largest harvest of blueberries in the US while protecting the Pine Barrens as an International Biosphere Reserve.

Longleaf Pine

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Nest Longleaf PineTree in "Turning a Trip Into a Pilgrimage"
Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Nest in Longleaf Pine

At the Carolina Sandhills NWR we immersed ourselves in the longleaf pine forest. Before I ever saw longleaf in the wild I was fascinated to learn about them in the years I spent as a tour guide at the NC Botanical Garden. As a conservation garden it features plant collections from the state’s Mountains, Piedmont, Sandhills, and Coastal Plain regions. A young longleaf pine looks like a shiny green clump of grass for up to seven years while it grows a long taproot to reach down to water. Then it shoots straight up, in a juvenile stage, to raise its growing stem up out of reach of the periodic fires. Longleaf pines can live up to five hundred years. When longleaf pines get old enough to get soft in the middle, families of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers can drill their nest holes into them. While they’re at it, they also peck holes that exude sticky sap that drips down the tall trunks to repel snakes and other predators.

Longleaf used to be the dominant forest of the whole southeast, covering ninety million acres. Now only about three million remain. The virgin longleaf forests were all logged out for their lumber, for the tar and pitch necessary for ship building, and for the turpentine created from their sap. The many endangered plants and animals, like the red-cockaded woodpecker, that are dependent on this longleaf ecosystem, struggle to survive. Great efforts are being made to restore longleaf for them, but it’s harder to restore what’s been lost than to conserve what little still exists.

At the refuge we walked on trails crossing red “blackwater” seeps. Although we saw few native animals or birds in this time in-between winter and spring migrations, between hibernation and awakening, we were startled when two huge, pitch-black, non-native wild boars crossed in front of us.  We gazed up at a number of the refuge’s hundred-plus longleaf pine red-cockaded nest trees, each marked by a white band, looking like giant candles with wax dripped all around them.

Making the first of our little birdseed offering bundles, we write in it that we give thanks for

 bright green, tall longleaf pines,
 red-cockaded woodpecker homes,
 animals hidden and unseen.

Congaree Swamp

What we didn’t take into account in planning the trip was that all that rain up in North Carolina meant that all that rain down in South Carolina would result in flooded rivers. The 22,000 acre Congaree National Park encompasses the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the US. The highlight, the centerpiece, of the whole trip was to be hiking on trails through this swamp forest. I eagerly anticipated what I imagined would be a fascinating walk, first on the high boardwalk, then on the low boardwalk deep into the swamp. But when we arrived we found out that all the trails were flooded, inaccessible, including the lower boardwalk. We just stared at it disappearing, benches and all, down into the dark waters.

Congaree Swamp, Upper Boardwalk
Congaree Swamp, Lower Boardwalk

Saw palmettos, usually on land, made beautiful pointy fan reflections in the waters.

Saw Palmettos reflected in water, Congaree Swamp, in "Turning a Trip Into a Pilgrimage"
Saw Palmettos

Walking on the upper boardwalk, a young woman who had recently been re-stationed from Texas to South Carolina started tagging along with us. She had seen us looking at the many red-headed woodpeckers, quintessential birds of forested wetlands. She was especially fascinated by the call of the pileated woodpecker and wanted to learn the other species we were watching. While we were pointing out to her the neat lines of holes around a newly flowering red maple, a yellow-bellied sapsucker obligingly flew right up above us and began pecking more holes to drink the rising sap. Suddenly the loud warbling call of the red-bellied woodpecker sounded nearby. We listened to the low, booming voice of a female barred owl, answered by the higher voice of her mate, and explained that it is mating time for these two. A flock of pine warblers, yellow-rumped warblers, and ruby crowned kinglets passed by, voraciously eating something, first at one tree then another. We are not good “birders,” that’s for sure, but seeing whatever wildlife inhabits a particular habitat brings us into closer intimacy with the mysterious life of each natural place.

Red-Headed Woodpecker in "Turning a Trip Into a Pilgrimage"
Red-Headed Woodpecker

Making our offering bundle, we tie it on to a low branch, out of sight, giving thanks for

 watery boardwalk, woodpecker haven;
 my heart overflows like the waters.

A Confluence of Rivers

There is something archetypal about the confluence of rivers, about seeing that place where what is smaller and separate combines and becomes more powerful. Reading that Columbia is built on “three rivers,” I wanted to experience their joining. On the partially flooded Riverwalk in West Columbia we stood amazed at the power of the Saluda and Broad Rivers churning together to form the Congaree. There, between many islands, the water racing over mostly-unseen boulders was far faster and more roiling than mere “rapids.”  I was fascinated by these swift, swollen rivers, so we continued on to experience the Saluda at Saluda Shoals Park and the Broad River’s islands and big round, dark boulders at the Columbia Riverfront Park. There we stood mesmerized watching two geese braving the rapids in the evening light that turned the waters lavender.

Two geese braving lavender rapids, Broad River, in "Turning a Trip Into a Pilgrimage"
Evening Light: Canada Geese Braving Rapids of Rocky Shoals, Broad River

Researching them, I learned that these are not just shoals, which are defined as sandbars and shallows, they are rocky shoals. These rocky shoals are most extensive near the fall line where large rivers such as the Saluda, Broad, Congaree and Savannah have moved rock and boulders from the piedmont onto the coastal plain.

River shoals were a fascinating new habitat for me. This was one of those lovely kinds of trip surprises that we hadn’t planned for.  We crossed from South Carolina into Georgia near Augusta to experience the Savannah River, which runs along the border between them. We climbed down along a lovely creek lined with our first glimpse of this spring’s white Atamasco lilies, yellow trout lilies, and budding trilliums. At the Savannah Bluffs Heritage Preserve, we stood at the foot of the tall rock bluffs and saw most of what are the river’s last remaining shoals. Rocky shoals are an endangered habitat. They used to be quite common, but very few remain, because most were drowned by dams.

Rock bluffs, person, trees, Savannah River in "Turning a Trip Into a Pilgrimage, Earthsanctuaries.net
Savannah River Bluffs

At the shoals of each of these rivers there were sign boards that said they are home to a unique, endangered plant community that includes the rocky shoals spider lily. The flowing water carries its seeds to crevices in the rock where they lodge, protected, and form, or used to form, great colonies. Groups are trying to conserve those that are left. I’ve seen expanses of a different species of these white spider lilies growing on wet flats beside a couple of North Carolina streams. I’ve drawn their delicate white flowers. Intricate and beautiful, each flower only lasting a day. But, for now I will have to dream of seeing them in some mid-May growing in huge colonies amongst the rocky shoals and churning rapids of some future river.

box turtle on left of tree, anole on the right in Turning a Trip Into a Pilgrimage
Box Turtle and Anole

Placing our offering behind a rock, we give thanks for

creek, lined with wildflowers, leading down to rapids,
anoles at the river, box turtle with the anoles,
below the bluffs, above the rocky shoals.

Continuing to seek water, we decided to explore several wetlands near the South Carolina/Georgia border. The folks at Silver Bluffs Audubon Center on the Savannah River maintain large impoundments of shallow waters with the fish and crustaceans that long- legged, hefty-billed, wood storks wade amongst to eat. No wood storks had arrived yet, but on the banks of these pools we saw the slides of otters and their white scat, composed entirely of little fish bones and scales and pieces of the shells of crabs and crayfish. A pair of eagles (who will also eat those fish) were on a nest in a nearby pine. An ibis stood on a tall post like a scout waiting for his friends to arrive for the banquet. Five black and white bufflehead ducks cruised in a V making white patterns on the still water, turned red in the sunset. We were amused that no matter which way they turned the male always put himself in the lead.

Otter Scat
Five bufflehead ducks in sunset reddened water in "Turning a Trip Into a Pilgrimage

Wood storks used to build their multi-nest condos in tall cypress trees throughout southeastern swamps and wetlands, but are now threatened, limited to a few places in coastal South Carolina Georgia, and Florida. Wood storks are revered in European mythology as harbingers of birth and of spring. In Egyptian mythology, storks returning in spring are believed to be the souls of people coming home. We know that in countries, in villages, in tribes where an animal is held sacred it is more likely to be conserved.

Placing our little bundle under a bush, we give thanks for

 basking ibis, black and white ducks floating
 in sunset-reddened waters;
 such quiet, peace, and beauty.

 While the Audubon Center consists of thousands of acres of restored longleaf and other forest types along the river, the three other wetlands we visited are in the midst of towns. Each of these conserves habitat for wildlife that would otherwise be removed from their homes. They all provide education on how plants and trees provide clean waters that benefit people and animals. One is a natural cypress swamp, another is a bottomland hardwood forest, and the third is a park with a fascinating series of restored wetlands featuring native plants that filter rainwater to keep pollutants out of the nearby river. We were surprised to see a pair of usually secretive wood ducks swimming near a path with people jogging by.

Wood Ducks
Yellow-Bellied Sliders

I’m wondering if any of the materials or programs at these educational centers teach that our waters or plants or animals are sacred. Maybe so, because the psychological as well as physical benefits of being in nature are becoming more widely recognized and appreciated. It is only a matter of time, I hope, before our health and the survival of nature are once again realized as mutually dependent spiritual realities. Meanwhile, to complete our little rite of spring, we gather together our words, strewn out there in the little offering bundles, and imagine them as a song of praise to wild South Carolina:

In the sandhills we give thanks for
bright green, tall longleaf pines,
red-cockaded woodpecker homes,
animals hidden and unseen.
In the swamp we give thanks for
watery boardwalk, woodpecker haven;
my heart overflows like the waters.
Along the river we give thanks for
creek, lined with wildflowers, leading down to rapids,
anoles at the river, box turtle with the anoles,
below the bluffs, above the rocky shoals.
At wood stork ponds we give thanks for
basking ibis, black and white ducks floating
in sunset-reddened waters;
such quiet, peace, and beauty.
At urban wetlands we give thanks for
people caring, wood ducks cruising,
great blue heron preening long courting feathers,
for spring.


Text (C) 2021 Betty Lou Chaika, Photos (C) 2021 Betty Lou and David Chaika

See Miracle at Pocosin Lakes in which a group of wildlife lovers makes a ritual pilgrimage in winter to honor North Carolina’s glorious swans and snow geese.

Places to visit:

Cheraw State Park

Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge

Congaree National Park

Savannah River Bluffs Heritage Preserve

Silver Bluffs Audubon Center.

Brick Pond Park

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21 Responses

  1. riverdave

    thank you for sharing your view of the sandhills betty lou. this winter suki and i have also been exploring the sandhills, focusing on the streamhead pocosin in southern pines region and the bog pocosin around the carolina bays in the bladen lakes area. lots to learn and enjoy!

    • Betty Lou Chaika

      Thanks, rd. I would so love a deeper exploration of these pocosin habitats. I’ve been in them, but not nearly enough. They carry a richness and mystery to me that I can’t quite explain.

  2. Ione Linker

    Wonderful! Sounds like a great trip itinerary!! Thanks, Betty Lou, for making the trip, and for writing about it!! Love to you and David, and Blessed Spring Equinox! ione

    • Betty Lou Chaika

      Hi Ione, great to hear from you! Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed the trip. And blessings to you, too, on however you get to celebrate Spring Equinox this year.

  3. Dana

    Beautiful, Betty Lou. Thank you for sharing this adventure and the blessings of gratitude you shared with the lands, waters, and their many inhabitants!

  4. Hart Pillow

    I so enjoyed my vicarious journey which you and David provided in this writing. The photographs are beautiful and give me an appreciation of the beauty and the diversity of the natural world. I hope to visit Temenos Garden along with Bernie in a couple of weeks! Blessings for you!

    • Betty Lou Chaika

      Thanks for coming with us, Hart! I admire people who are pilgrimage organizers. So many times I have been sad not to have others with us, like you. But I’m happy I might see you in the Garden!

  5. Laurie Lindgren

    Dear Betty Lou and David,
    You provide a tremendous service to us stay at homes by going on these pilgrimages and then “translating” them for us through words and images so that we can experience them “vicariously.” (Thanks for that word, Hart!) You honor both ends of the spectrum, the natural habitats and their denizens and us back in urban life who haven’t had a chance to go there. Thus your respectful journeys are helping the world to become whole again by uniting the two ends of these poles.

    I especially loved hearing about your early experiences in New Jersey. And the varieties of terrain (including watery!) that you encountered. And how did you incorporate the sighting of the wild boars into your Sacred Tale?

    Thanks again for these excursions!

    • Betty Lou Chaika

      Thanks, Laurie, for vicariously vacationing with us! Yes, I feel “called” to try to do my part to repair broken connections between us urban folks and the wild natural world that we may feel estranged from. You do this service, too, in other forms. Those NJ experiences in the Pine Barrens are burned into my memory and were seminal for the love-work I do now.

  6. ann loomis

    This piece really spoke to me, Betty Lou, not only because I grew up in the Sandhills of NC but also because Cheraw, SC, is where some of my first cousins grew up. I visited Cheraw State Park with them many times over the years. Like you, I grew up with pine trees and still feel a deep kinship with them. The swampy, dark water and cypress trees also speak to my soul. See, I told you we were “soul sisters”!

    • Betty Lou Chaika

      Yes, childhood environments, especially ones that are so distinctive, so full of beauty and mystery, and of myriad details that capture the imagination can make a big impression. It’s pleasing to know that we are kindred spirits who share love of these dark waters and cypress swamps. Growing up, were you aware of longleaf pines?

      I also wonder if this stimulation of imagination by nature is one reason we are Jungians.

      • ann loomis

        I love your “wonderings” about whether this stimulating of imagination by nature is one reason we’re Jungians. I’d add to that “Celtic Jungians.” The dark waters of the Lumbee River are symbolic of the Celtic Underworld for me, and the cypress trees root me in the feminine. There’s a lot of magic down there!

        • Betty Lou Chaika

          Yes, I love this conversation. This is what I value most: The real, material nature, valued for itself, plus the spiritual metaphors and meanings that connect us to nature and to each other.

  7. Margot Ringenburg

    Thank you, Betty Lou, for this vivid recollection of a recent springtime pilgrimage through a sacred landscape. In it, you describe a confluence of waters. Your posts are so anticipated and enjoyed, in part, because they, too, are a “churning” and joining of two separate forces: the imparting of knowledge and the spirit that seeps into your writing through your choice of words and thoughts. As your father bestowed upon you the seeds of a long-lasting love for the simple and sensual pleasures to be discovered and enjoyed in nature’s landscapes, may we attempt to do the same for those who follow us. Wonderful photos–and intermittent sharing of the phrases of praise!

    • Betty Lou Chaika

      Margot, I very much appreciate your attentive reading and encouraging support for my writing. Yes, my desire is to join these two streams — observance of the physical details of nature and what I sense is the spirit animating it all — into a river of gratitude for this beautiful Life we are given.

  8. Nancy Corson Carter

    I’m so glad I found this story/poems/photos treasure that you wrote of Betty Lou! You and David have such wide-open attention for the sacred. I felt I was with you and am grateful!
    Peace, Love,
    Nancy Corson Carter

  9. Nancy Corson Corson Carter

    oh dear, I wrote & then it disappeared…
    just to say I loved what you shared, Betty Lou, and felt I’d been companioned in a pilgrimage, truly…
    Many thanks to you & to David,
    Nancy CC

    • Betty Lou Chaika

      Nancy, both came through. Thank you for journeying with us! I dare say you have been on pilgrimages and written accompanying poems far more eloquent than these humble offerings!

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