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SC 7 Expedition aims to protect beautiful places in Palmetto State



Despite the brutal mid-July heat enveloping Congaree National Park, there were big smiles and cheerful chatter as dozens trekked several miles through the old growth bottomland hardwood forest — stop No. 4 on a monthlong tour of seven of South Carolina’s natural wonders.

The tour is part of the South Carolina 7 Wonders Expedition, a 350-mile hiking, rafting and kayaking journey designed to highlight precious natural resources while also bringing greater awareness to the impact of global climate change.

For Abbey Stevens, project coordinator with the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor, the expedition was a way to share the appreciation for nature that she initially discovered as a University of South Carolina student when she interned for the Department of Natural Resources. The 30-day trip gave her the chance to share that appreciation with others in her home state – even on the most humid days.

“July is a challenge in more ways than one, but we are so happy to get to do it. It's the best job ever. We get to visit so many amazing areas, including the Jocassee Gorges and the ACE Basin which National Geographic named in the list of 50 of the World's Last Great Places,’” says Stevens. “We have such a beautiful state and I hope those that are getting out to see it will ask themselves, ‘How can I live in a more sustainable way? How are we affecting our ecosystem?’ It's so important that we protect that for future generations.”

That’s exactly what UofSC professor Tom Mullikin, who created and led the SC7 Expedition, likes to hear.

“I knew that if we did it in July, people would talk about it,” says Mullikin. “I knew they would say that guy is a freak for planning this when it is so hot, but they say that any press is good press.”

6 people ride in a raft on the chattooga river

Participants in the SC7 Expedition raft on the Chattooga River.

 

 

Mullikin and the S.C. National Heritage Corridor identified seven places around the state with extraordinary ecosystems three years ago. They created the South Carolina 7 Wonders Expedition using the Palmetto Trail as the spine of the trek, which runs from the mountains to the sea.

Starting on July 1 in Oconee County, the group visited Sassafras Mountain, Jocassee Gorges, the Chattooga River, Congaree National Park, the Edisto River, ACE Basin and Bulls Island. The tour ended in Charleston July 30 with the group planting a smart reef that will provide a habitat for vulnerable marine ecosystems.

Furman Miller, Midlands region trail coordinator for the Palmetto Trail, says he is happy to see more people getting off the beaten path. “The trail goes through all sorts of environments like mountains, swamps, cities, parks and recreation areas,” says Miller. “It covers this huge range of different environments showing off the diverse ecology that we have here in the state.”

After Louisiana, South Carolina has more rivers, lakes and streams feeding the ocean than any state in America. As temperatures on earth rise, more of that water evaporates, leading to stronger downpours increasing the risk and severity of flooding. Storm drains and natural tributaries clogged with trash can drastically grow those flooding hazards.

cypress trees grow in the congaree national park

Congaree National Park — South Carolina's only national park — was stop No. 4 on the SC7 Expedition.

 

Mullikin, a professor in the university’s College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management, is an ecotourism and sustainability expert who chairs the S.C. Floodwater Commission created by Gov. Henry McMaster in 2018.

People hiking through densely wooded area

This was the third year for the SC7 Expedition and the first time with “family expedition” opportunities.

“We need to keep the waterways clean to avoid flooding and to remain healthy. The health impacts of failing to take care of the environment is where we see ecology meet epidemiology,” says Mullikin. “Tons of plastic is going into the ocean is breaking down into microplastics and becoming a part of the food chain.”

He says that an estimated 8 million to 10 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the ocean every year, so the SC7 group scheduled cleanup days along the route.

Stevens says that the SC7 group worked with the lieutenant governor’s office and PalmettoPride to tackle litter.

“They went out and cleaned out a culvert and found gas cans and mattresses. It was flooding the entire area because the drains were so full of trash,” says Stevens. “Hearing the impact on that community just from taking one day to go clean that out is just incredible.”

This was the first year the adventure was open to the public on certain days. Lisa Ballesteros joined the group for the first time to hike the Congaree National Park trail.

“It was a great bunch of people who really care about nature and South Carolina,” says Ballesteros. “I’ll be back. I love the outdoors and I had a great time.”

The College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management is currently working on ways to have more students involved with the SC7 expedition in the future. The journey reached the finish line on July 30, but Mullikin says the conservation efforts must continue the other 335 days of the year.

“We need to take better care and I hope that people will help clean and protect the most beautiful places in the world so we can pass it on to the next generation,” he says.

“Here are tangible things you can do. You can help us clean up. You can help us plant trees. You can help by getting out to enjoy the outdoors and teaching your children about the environment.”

 

3 students stand along a ledge in a waterfall

UofSC professor of ecotourism Tom Mullikin hopes the SC7 journey inspires people to get outdoors and gain a deeper appreciation for the mountains, waterfalls, swamplands and coastline found in South Carolina.

 

Banner image: Sassafras Mountain is one of South Carolina's Seven Wonders. The others are: Jocassee Gorges, Chattooga River, Congaree National Park, Edisto River, ACE Basin and Bulls Island. Photos by Marie Goff @Travel Notes and Storytelling.

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