COLA Q+A with a Park Guide at Congaree National Park

Gabby Alban is a Park Guide at Congaree National Park. Read on to find out why several staff members at Congaree are featured in the credits of The Princess and the Frog, the items she never leaves home without, and what to do if you see a snake on the trail.

In honor of National Park and Recreation Month, we’re asking Gabby some questions like what other parks she loves, what he never leaves home without, and what her favorite piece of local trivia is.

What’s your name, title, and 3-5 things you want people to know about you?
My name is Gabby, and my actual title is Park Guide! People are often surprised to learn that a lot of the rangers you meet in national parks have official titles other than Park Ranger. I am part of the Division of Interpretation, Education, and Visitor Services at Congaree. Before coming to Congaree last year, I worked at Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park and Charles Pinckney National Historic Site in the Charleston area. I’ve worked for the National Park Service for about three years, and previously worked for city and state parks elsewhere. 

What’s your favorite thing to do at Congaree during your free time?  

I like canoeing Cedar Creek whenever I have the chance. It’s such a great way to experience the park, and so quiet. I especially like the area just downstream from Bannister Bridge Landing.

Hit us with your favorite piece of local trivia:
Learned this recently! Some of the artwork for the film The Princess and the Frog was inspired by areas within Congaree National Park. Members of our staff are actually featured in the credits.

What’s your name, title, and 3-5 things you want people to know about you?
My name is Gabby, and my actual title is Park Guide! People are often surprised to learn that a lot of the rangers you meet in national parks have official titles other than Park Ranger. I am part of the Division of Interpretation, Education, and Visitor Services at Congaree. Before coming to Congaree last year, I worked at Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park and Charles Pinckney National Historic Site in the Charleston area. I’ve worked for the National Park Service for about three years, and previously worked for city and state parks elsewhere. 

What all do you do as a park guide at Congaree National Park?
I respond to visitor inquiries and requests, process backcountry camping permits. I frequently walk the trails and talk to visitors. There are special projects and other responsibilities — it varies based on what’s going on at the time. One day I might be compiling visitor use statistics, and the next learning how to safely relocate venomous snakes. I’m on the park search and rescue team, and close to gaining wildland fire certification. Then, I’ll be able to participate in prescribed burns.  

What’s your craziest critter story?  

Once there was a young bobcat underneath a low section of the Boardwalk. It was a busy day, and several visitors reported hearing it and seeing it move beneath their feet. I only caught a glimpse of it but heard it well enough when I went to investigate! We ended up closing off a small portion of the Boardwalk until it left. 

 What’s your favorite season in the park?  

Summer. With the high heat and humidity you have to really prepare before you visit, making sure to bring plenty of water for you and your pets. But, I think it’s worth it. Everything becomes so green and wonderful in the floodplain. We have wildflowers here, too, that can be seen. 

What’s your favorite thing to do at Congaree during your free time?  

I like canoeing Cedar Creek whenever I have the chance. It’s such a great way to experience the park, and so quiet. I especially like the area just downstream from Bannister Bridge Landing.

Other than Congaree, what’s your other favorite National Park? What’s your favorite SC State Park? 

Assateague Island National Seashore. It was the first beach and probably first National Park Service site I ever visited. It’s fantastic there. South Carolina has an awesome state park system! There are so many sites that I’d like to visit but haven’t had the chance to. I like Sesquicentennial State Park a lot. Being relatively close, it’s recommended often to visitors. 

Top 3 things you never leave the house without. 

Heading to work I always have my watch, a pen, and sunglasses.  

What are your sunscreen and bug spray recommendations? 

I recommend sunscreen with a higher SPF. I don’t often use bug spray, unless I anticipate going off trail. Whatever works best for you! 

Any tips on utilizing “leave no trace” principles?  

Really plan ahead of time so you can know the place you’ll be visiting and what to expect there. Don’t hesitate to ask questions if you’re unsure about something.  

If you’re originally from the Midlands, why have you stayed here? If you’re not, what brought you here? 

I’m not from South Carolina, but have lived in the state for a few years. I moved from the Lowcountry to the Midlands to work for Congaree National Park! 

Hit us with your favorite piece of local trivia:
Learned this recently! Some of the artwork for the film The Princess and the Frog was inspired by areas within Congaree National Park. Members of our staff are actually featured in the credits.

What’s an improvement you’d like to see in Columbia?
I really like Columbia, there seems to be a lot to see and do. Also, it’s easy to navigate. I do wish there was less litter, but that’s not an issue specific to the Columbia area.

Share a high + low from your day or week.
This was actually last week, but a child out on an elevated portion of the boardwalk dropped a toy off the side, and I was able to climb down and get it. That probably doesn’t sound that dramatic, but the ground beneath was not solid. The mud there, actually Dorovan Muck, can be surprisingly deep and difficult to get through. But, there are roots and high points you can step on if need be. Low was having to tell someone who drove quite a distance that we do not currently sell America the Beautiful passes. It happens sometimes. 

Tell us about an obstacle you’ve had in life and how you overcame it.  

I used to have a difficult time public speaking. But, it’s an important part of being an interpretive park ranger. I realized at some point that if I really cared about what I was saying, and really believed it was important, it wasn’t so difficult.  

What rare birds call Congaree home? What advice would you give birders trying to see a rare bird at Congaree?  

Congaree is an Important Bird Area, there are so many unique species! Some people hold out hope that the likely extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker could be seen here. That would be so incredible! If looking for a specific species, find out some of their habits and preferences. Though much of the park falls within the floodplain, part consists of upland pine forest. These different habitats facilitate a wide variety of species.  

What are some tips on what to do when you see a snake?  

Leave it be, and if it’s on the trail, turn around. Most snakes you encounter here are harmless, but we do have three venomous snakes confirmed in the park: copperheads, cottonmouths, and canebrake rattlesnakes. If you can get a photo from a safe distance, do it! You can always identify it later.