The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten.
~Sigurd F. Olson
Two weeks ago, we had a chance to paddle the Black River with our friend, Jerry, and a great group of other folks he had gathered for a planning trip for one of his upcoming museum public programs. We jumped at the chance, having been in the past and knowing what a great swamp experience the Black River has to offer. We decided to spend the night before at Jones Lake State Park to get us closer to our launch site early the next morning.
I was a bit surprised, and frankly, disappointed, when we pulled into the campground at Jones Lake. They have cleared out the campground and areas surrounding each site of all underbrush and made large drive-ins to each site that will accommodate RVs. I don’t mind the new driveways, but the clearing of all the low vegetation just makes it a wide-open campground with no privacy screening, especially on the outer loop. Luckily, there were few campers and we isolated ourselves in the far corner. Maybe this is helpful for managing the periodic prescribed burns at the park, but I miss a little privacy at our site. But, to be fair, one great addition to the campground is a new bathhouse – much needed and appreciated.
After setting up camp, we hiked the 4-mile Bay Trail that circles Jones Lake. It is an interesting hike in that it passes through some beautiful Longleaf Pine forest and then puts you into a boggy habitat dominated by Atlantic White Cedar and Loblolly Bay.
– Longleaf Pine (just past the grass stage) along the Bay Trail at Jones Lake State Park (click photos to enlarge)
-Wild Turkey track along the sandy ridge portion of the Bay Trail. We also saw fox tracks and Fox Squirrel tracks, but none of the track-makers.
-The grooved trunk of Loblolly Bay (left) and the more finely patterned trunk of a nice Atlantic White Cedar (right) along the Bay Trail
-The tannin-colored waters of Jone Lake
The boggy portion of the Bay Trail is beautiful, with many large Atlantic White Cedars, though it looks like the forest has sustained a great deal of wind damage in recent years as evidenced by the mish-mash of downed trees all along the trail. Our wildlife highlights were seeing our first Blue-gray Gnatcatcher of the year and watching some Cedar Waxwings feed on berries.
-A nice flock of Cedar Waxwings greeted us along the shoreline
– Cedar Waxwing stretching for a Smilax berry (photo by Melissa Dowland)
The next morning we were off to Henry’s Landing on the Black River. After transporting some vehicles to our take-out point downriver, our group launched a flotilla of boats (mainly kayaks) onto the dark waters and headed downstream in what looked like a promising day of sunshine (as was predicted).
-Heading downriver from Henry’s Landing
Before long, the sun disappeared and gray skies and chilly temperatures dominated the day. But, no matter, we had good company and plenty of interesting sights along the way.
-A tree trunk hammered by Pileated Woodpeckers
My photos on the river were all taken with an iPhone and I converted the cypress trees and scenes to black and white as I think it pays tribute to the stately nature of this forest.
-Gnarly trunk of a Bald Cypress along the Black River
The first couple of miles are on the main channel of the river, but you eventually get to a point where you head into the swamp known as Three Sisters. This is the home of the true stars of the Black River, the ancient Bald Cypress trees.
-Another ancient cypress in the swamp
Studies have shown there are many trees in this swamp over one thousand years old. And a few years ago, Dr. David Stahle, a scientist studying tree rings and climate change, again visited the swamp looking for trees older than those he had cored back in the 1980’s. Back then, the oldest was believed to have lived over 1600 years. On his last trip, he was guided into the Three Sisters area, and saw trees he believed were much older. A core from one was analyzed back in his lab and dated that tree at 2,624 years old! That makes that cypress the fifth oldest known tree in the world.
-Astounding knees and trees as we paddle through the swamp
Paddling amongst these ancients is humbling…what have they seen? What storms have they survived? Jerry reminded us they they probably experienced huge flocks of Carolina Parakeets feeding on their cones before those beautiful birds went extinct. Perhaps Passenger Pigeons one darkened the skies over the trees when millions of them roamed the East before disappearing forever. And what of the stories of other humans that may have paddled these tea-colored waters in the past couple of thousand years?
— A short clip of the scenery as we paddle through the Three Sisters area, home of the ancient Bald Cypress trees along the Black River
-Convoluted cypress knee
I have paddled and walked in many swamps in my time, but the cypress swamp along the Black River is different and magical. And the abundance, size, and diversity of shapes of the cypress knees are unlike anything I have seen elsewhere.
-Jerry called scenes like this a “knee-scape’…an appropriate name I think
The knowledge that you are paddling through one of the oldest forests on Earth makes it even more special, and really makes me want to go back very soon (and hope I can find my way through the maze of knees and trees).