Fall foliage along Milltail Creek
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
Dare, Hyde Counties
Merchants Millpond is an archetypal southern swamp—bald cypress and water tupelo rising from stained water, Spanish moss dripping from tree limbs akimbo, spadderdock and water lily floating on the surface and beneath, alligator and ancient gar hunting in the dark.
Despite appearances, Merchants Millpond is a recent invention, less than 200 years old, the consequence of a dam built to drive gristmills on Bennett’s Creek. The gristmills are gone but the swamp remains.
The rules at Merchants Millpond State Park stated the park didn’t open until 8:00 am. Sunrise, one of the best times for photography, was around 6:45. I split the difference. There was no gate across the park road and no park rangers. There was no one at all, not on the shore or on the water. I was the only person in existence. In Summer, the place is crowded with tourists.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. It was a March morning, sunlit but cold, the temperature barely above freezing.
I’ve lived in North Carolina only a few years and become fascinated by swamps even more recently. I’ve wondered about that fascination. Swamps aren’t classically picturesque places where you would want to have a picnic. They’re wet, buggy places weighted with cultural baggage.
In the psychogeography of imagination, a swamp is a place both fearful and alluring, fecund and chaotic, a peripheral place, a refuge for outcasts, outlaws, and monsters.
For the Puritan colonists of New England, swamps were evil. They were dark and demonic places that defied God’s good order. For a Puritan, God was a field properly fenced, plowed, and planted. A swamp was none of those things. It was a refuge for wild Indians.
In 1675 the Puritans’ survival was tentative. Native tribes had resisted forcible assimilation. United under a tribal leader the Europeans called King Phillip, the wild Indians were winning King Phillip’s War. Twelve colonial towns had been destroyed, many more damaged; the economies of Plymouth and Rhode Island were gutted; a tenth of all eligible male colonists were pressed into military militias.
The militias chased King Phillip’s forces around the countryside but were unable to deal a decisive blow. The natives appeared without warning, killed indiscriminately, then vanished into the swamps where the militia became bogged in the muck, bitten by snakes and insects, and lost in the tangled foliage where a blunderbuss was a less effective weapon than a hatchet. Their enemy knew the swamps intimately and traveled without hindrance.
It wasn’t until December 1675 when the swamp froze that the militias were able to enter King Phillip’s stronghold. They burned it to the ground, including women and children still alive. It was called the Great Swamp Fight.
The war left an imprint on the incipient American culture. Geography assumed a moral character. There was godly land…and there was the swamp.
On that early March morning, mist rose among the boles of cypress and tupelo. Winter rains had raised the level of the pond. Water lapped at what had been high ground and formed new channels through the bare trees. Morning sunlight, filtered by mist, reflected from the surface like glass shards.
At the end of the pond opposite the landing, Lassiter Swamp braided Bennett’s Creek into countless channels. The creek inundated old-growth stands of cypress and tupelo draped with Spanish moss and resurrection ferns. The slopes above the creek were dominated by beech forest.
The high water made navigation challenging. There were so many channels it was difficult to choose. Water usually moves sluggishly in southern swamps but runoff from weeks of rain had created a noticeable current. The strongest current always follows the deepest channel. After losing my way numerous times and backtracking, I found the current and followed it, first upstream, then down. The way back was much easier.
When I returned to the landing hours later, my truck was still the only vehicle in the parking lot and still not a ranger in sight. There is something to be said for Winter paddling in popular places.