By Joy Bonala firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike Dawson is retiring after 38 and a half years working at the Francis Beidler Forest near Harleyville. Over the decades his role evolved from naturalist to center director and manager at the National Audubon Society’s 18,000-acre bird and wildlife sanctuary.
His job responsibilities changed day by day, season by season. Working in Four Holes Swamp never got dull for Dawson because the job was “incredibly diverse.”
“There’s no such things as a typical day,” Dawson said.
He said he enjoyed managing the land, organizing controlled burns, leading canoe trips and night walks.
“It’s just been a great career run,” Dawson said.
One highlight was rebuilding the boardwalk that stretches over a mile into the world’s largest virgin cypress tupelo swamp forest. The original boardwalk was built in the 1970’s by Norman Brunswig and three others. When the time came to replace it, Dawson did a lot of research before selecting a tropical hardwood called kumaro. It is naturally rot resistant, has no chemical treatment and will last for decades.
“If it lasts 60 years it will have paid for itself in spades,” Dawson said.
The 1.3 million dollar project took 13 months to finish, it was completed in 2014. Dawson personally built the rain shelters and rest areas that are attached to the boardwalk. Because of the boardwalk, visitors can easily stroll through the forest while watching out for birds, tree frogs, snakes and even alligators.
Beidler’s handiwork is visible all over the center and boardwalk. He has a passion for carpentry and woodworking- something he will devote more time to during his upcoming retirement.
Land Manager Mark Musselman said many people don’t know it but Dawson even built the large handles on the center’s front doors. He made them from cypress and tupelo wood and shaped the pieces like trees. A snake cage, book store display, pole barn, even an aviary all built by Dawson.
“All of these touches are him,” Musselman said.
Many of the forest’s oldest cypress trees are within arm’s reach of the boardwalk. At least 40 of them are over a thousand years old. Two years ago Beidler Forest held its first Cultural Heritage Day. The event gave visitors a chance to learn about the Native Americans, Revolutionary War soldiers and enslaved African Americans who encountered the same trees that stand in the swamp today.
Dawson said his staff has always done a great job of interpreting the natural history of the forest but they’ve only recently began understanding how much human history is also hidden in the swamp.
“It’s too bad we didn’t get on to this earlier in my career because I’m really enjoying the exploration of it,” Dawson said.
He has boxes of pottery shards that were found throughout the swamp. And plenty of projectile points that have been dated to 6,000 B.C. Dawson said the swamp was a good location to hunt and fish, it had drinkable water and plants used to make medicines.
Runaway slaves often took refuge in the swamp, a history Dawson has only recently studied on a deeper level.
Dawson learned of a man named James Matthews who was born around 1808 on a plantation near Four Holes Swamp.
Matthews would often flee to the swamp to hideout and heal after a beating. While there he met other slaves in a maroon community. Finally Matthews escaped bondage by making it to Maine where he told his story to an abolitionist newspaper.
He specifically referenced Four Holes Swamp and spoke of the maroon communities he met there.
Dawson has a sister living in Maine, while visiting her, he found Matthews gravesite in Hallowell, Maine.
Moving forward from slavery the swamp saw cypress logging in late 1800’s and then whiskey makers hid their stills in the swamp during the prohibition era. Locals hunted and fished the area up to present day when visitors enjoy bird watching, canoeing and kayaking.
Dawson said the full story of human uses over the centuries is unique and has only barely been explored.
“I’m sorry I’m leaving at a time when we’ve discovered that,” Dawson said. “It’s been fun to research.”
He plans to stay involved as a volunteer after his last day in mid November.
“There’s too many things about this job that I love that I will miss,” Dawson said.
Many people will remember there was one cypress tree in the swamp that was hollow and used for a fun, educational purpose. It was located very close to the boardwalk so Dawson built steps leading to it and a platform so that visitors could actually go inside the hollow tree.
Once inside, a visitor could see clearly all the way out through the top of the tree, to the sky. Dawson said three or four adults could fit inside or about half a dozen kids.
“It made me sick when I came out after Hurricane Matthew and it had fallen,” Dawson said. “Because a gazillion kids have had their pictures taken (inside).”
When it fell during Hurricane Matthew, the cypress tree landed on the boardwalk but luckily did not break it. Dawson used a chainsaw to clear the part resting on the boardwalk. He let the rest lie where it landed.
For the most part, Dawson said they let nature take its course in the swamp.
“If a tree falls, let it rot, if an animal is sick, let it die,” Dawson said. “We don’t intensively manage the majority of the swamp.”
“Nothing is permanent out here,” Dawson said. “Hugo taught me that.”
Hurricane Hugo brought down so many trees that it destroyed fifty percent of the boardwalk.
“The lesson we’ve learned from Hugo is that this forest has been shaped way more by hurricanes and other one-hour natural disasters rather than thousands of years of time,” Dawson said.
“The forest is always in a state of recovering from the most recent hurricane.”
However, Dawson does help that recovery along. Musselman and Dawson have worked to restore the native Longleaf Pine tree ecosystem to Beidler Forest. They planted hundreds of acres of longleaf pines knowing that the effort wouldn’t have visible results for decades.
Musselman said he and Dawson have shared a vision to make the forest a better place each day.
“Each day is small incremental changes,” Musselman said. “You don’t always get to see the fruits of your labors directly.”
Over the years Dawson helped buy more land, adding more acres to the beautiful, protected area.
He’s helped grow the forest’s size from under 5,000 acres up to its current 18,000 acres.
“He’s seen a lot of growth and change,” Musselman said. “He’s had a real passion for this place and a desire to make it better.”