Sparkleberry Swamp on upper Lake Marion is part of the 1,600-acre Upper Santee Swamp system. Named for the abundance of sparkleberry trees (Vaccinium arboreum) that surround the swamp’s high waters, the swamp differs from many other cypress-tupelo swamps in South Carolina in its heavy volume of water. While other swamps have periods of being flooded and dry, with water levels varying throughout the creeks and channels, Sparkleberry Swamp maintains a high level of water that makes it a popular destination for avid paddlers. When Lake Marion was created in 1941 by damming the Santee River for the Santee Cooper Hydroelectric Project, Sparkleberry Swamp transformed into a flooded forest, thanks to the damming of the river.
The result of the high water and pristine swamp is an ecosystem teeming with more than 150 bird species, including at one time the largest colony of yellow-crowned night herons in the eastern United States. In fact, the high bird count in Sparkleberry Swamp led to its designation as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society. Alligators also enjoy the habitat of deep and open water, which provides the reptiles with ample space to swim beneath its surface undetected. Fishermen also appreciate the living waters of Sparkleberry Swamp, which make for prized catches of catfish and bass.
Vegetation rises from the swamp, which lends to the healthy population of fish and other aquatic fauna. Bald cypress trees (Taxodium disticum), with their majestic, buttressed trunks, and black tupelos (Nyssa sylvatica), with their dark, ovoid fruit, grow prolifically throughout the swamp, providing markers for paddlers and habitat for wildlife both below and above the water’s surface. For instance, ospreys nest in the tops of the old swamp trees, where chicks are safe from predators and adults can have an unobstructed view of dinner below.
Despite its popularity and unmatched beauty, Sparkleberry Swamp – and Lake Marion itself – are endangered by the looming threat of toxins entering the waters. A mere 1,200 feet from the swamp lies the Safety Kleen Landfill, a 279-acre dump containing industrial waste separated from the environment by a liner. The landfill opened in 1978 and closed in 2000 after filing for bankruptcy; since its closing, the hazardous-waste site has sat neglected, its liner deteriorating each year. Private funds to maintain the landfill evaporated with Safety Kleen’s closing.
The toxic material also has the potential to contaminate the drinking water provided by Lake Marion and adjacent Lake Moultrie. Because of the many potential risks of the landfill leaking into the waters, the state is exploring ways to fund maintenance of the dump and the swamp, including installing barriers between the landfill and the waters and pumping out toxic material that may seep into the waters, all efforts that wold require tax funding. Routine testing at the lakes so far indicate no hazardous materials are present in the waters.
Sparkleberry Swamp is also the same area threatened by the possible construction of the Briggs-DeLaine-Pearson Connector, a controversial bridge project that would connect the communities of Lone Star and Rimini. These two communities were separated by the creation of Lake Marion in the early 1940s. While aimed at spurring economic development in the region, the project has also received a lot of criticism for potentially damaging a pristine natural area of South Carolina. Even though in 2007 the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control denied permits to allow the bridge to go forward, the issue could reappear in the future.
While the swamp is used and appreciated by many species of flora and fauna – including human beings – the modern-day issues of waste management and transportation infrastructure loom over its unadulterated waters. But for now, canoes, kayaks, and waders are the only way to view the untouched beauty of Sparkleberry Swamp.
Reflections on Sparkleberry Swamp
Contributor Cynthia Parker describes Sparkleberry Swamp: “Sparkleberry Swamp, also known as the Upper Santee Swamp, is located at the northern end of Lake Marion, in Sumter County. It’s not far from Pinewood. Sparkleberry is an ecological jewel revered by birdwatchers and sportsmen alike. Gorgeous scenery abounds, with a canopy of tupelo, ash, and majestic bald cypress providing habitat for numerous species of birds, reptiles, and four footed creatures. The area is open to the public with a boat ramp and a parking area.”