Sanctuary in the Swamp

…when life looks sandy and barren, is reduced to its lowest terms, we have no appetite, and it has no flavour, then let me visit such a swamp as this, deep and impenetrable, where the earth quakes for a rod around you at every step, with its open water where swallows skim and twitter…

~Henry David Thoreau, 1852

The words above were written over 150 years ago, but are still relevant to our times. For many people, the term swamp conjures up fearful images, or at least a place of snakes and mosquitoes, a place to avoid. For us, a swamp is a place of refuge, a place to quietly paddle with our thoughts, and to create a feeling of being connected to something wild and free. With all the difficult news these past few weeks, it seemed a great place to visit to recharge our tired batteries. We had three days with beautiful weather last week, so we headed to the Roanoke River for one of our favorite swamp outings – camping on the platforms run by the Roanoke River Partners.


Our route covered about 30 miles and two camping platforms (click photos to enlarge)

We decided on an ambitious circular route that traversed about 30 miles of creeks and the river, with our longest paddle on the last day.

Launch site on Gardner Creek

The launch site on Gardner Creek

We launched around 1:30 pm at one of our favorite spots, Gardner Creek. Our route included two camping platforms, both of which we have used on previous trips – Barred Owl Roost and Three Sisters.

fall color

Red maples add a fiery splash of color to the grays of the autumn swamp

fall color 1

The calm water and blue sky added to the serenity of the swamp along Gardner Creek

The paddle out was gorgeous, with fall colors scattered among the grays of the trunks and exposed bottomland muds. Along the way, we started seeing and hearing a number of the wildlife species that would be our companions for the next three days – anhingas, wood ducks, Eastern bluebirds, and the ubiquitous barred owls.

Barred Owl Roost platform

Barred Owl Roost camping platform, one of our favorites

We covered the 6 miles or so to the camping platform in about 3 hours and had camp set up by 4:30 pm, just in time for the evening serenade of barred owls to begin. Their hooting calls mixed with the squawks and grunts of a nearby roosting colony of great blue herons that were coming in for the night. The Barred Owl Roost platform never fails to produce a cacophony of swamp sounds, especially from its namesake rulers of the night.

night on the platform

Our solar-powered camp light casts a veil of light over our campsite

Darkness comes quickly this time of year, but the swamp at night is a magical place. We sat and listened to the many sounds as the day shift took refuge and the night shift came on duty. I walked out on along the tiny boardwalk and saw 5 crayfish in my flashlight beam, scurrying about in the clear water looking for something to eat, while no doubt hoping to avoid the talons of a hungry barred owl or the jaws of a cruising swamp fish.

sunrise on Barred Owl Roost

Sunrise in the swamp

butressed trunk

Twisted base of a tree near the platform

Owls called off and on all night and into the morning. Sunrise was chilly, and damp, with a heavy dew settling on our rain fly and anything else exposed on the platform or in the canoe. After a hearty breakfast, we loaded up and headed out for a long day of paddling.

morning light along Lower Deadwater Creek

Early morning light in Upper Deadwater Creek near the Barred Owl Roost platform

Once again, the soft light was beautiful as it eased through the gray pillars of tupelo gum and cypress trees. Patches of back lit colors pulled our eyes toward them as we paddled out toward the wider stretches of Devil’s Gut.

Cevil's Gut meets the Roanoke

Devil’s Gut meets the Roanoke

When you reach the Roanoke, it appears so vast, with the trees seeming to relinquish their hold on your attention, giving away that power to the brown waters and blue sky. The slight current helps your arm muscles and we proceeded to make good time as we headed down river about seven miles to the creek that would take us to the next platform.

River swamp

Riverine swamp along the Roanoke River

The river’s waters are much browner than Gardner Creek or some of the other tributaries to Devil’s Gut. It is wide with low flooded swamps on the north side and a variety of shorelines on the south, from high bluffs to flooded bottomland. All along our paddle you could see the high water mark left from the recent rains of Hurricane Matthew.

Paddling the Roanoke

Melissa paddling on the Roanoke River east of Jamesville (our rain fly drying in the sun in foreground)

Once we passed the scattered riverside homes and businesses of Jamesville, we saw few other signs of human presence for several miles. I like to paddle close to one of the shorelines in hopes of seeing wildlife, and to avoid any fishing boats that might be zipping up and down the river. But, there are places where your canoe may suddenly drag bottom in shallow mud flats that can extend far out into the river. The shallows often have dense growths of lily pads or other aquatic vegetation which attract fish, turtles, and other critters.

Muskrat feeding in river

Muskrat feeding in a water lily bed in the river (photo by Melissa Dowland)

At one such place, we spied something at the surface up ahead. It looked like a small mammal but seemed a bit odd in that its tail stuck out of the water at an angle. It dove, then resurfaced, tail again pointing skyward. It was a muskrat, apparently feeding on something in the shallows. It kept diving and coming back up in about the same place and didn’t seem to notice our canoe as we glided toward it. Melissa grabbed a few photos as I steered the boat. The muskrat finally saw us and disappeared with a quick splash.

large nest in cypress

Huge osprey nest in bald cypress near the Three Sisters platform

When we turned up Broad Creek, we left the expanse of the river behind and, once more, the swamp seemed to reach out to our canoe and embrace us. The creeks are full of fish, both large and small (some very large ones startled us a time or two as they swirled and splashed right next to boat). We saw a few boats with fishermen, and most had multiple lines reaching for the depths. I asked one man what he was catching, “a few striped perch”, he replied. I was not familiar with that species, so he explained that is the local name for crappie. Missing from our swamp scene this time of year is another type of “fisherman”, the osprey. They have retreated south for the winter, but will return next March to show us humans how it is really done.

Sunset at Three Sisters platform

Sunset from our platform

The Three Sisters platform is situated along the edge of a creek instead of being nestled back in a swamp like Barred Owl Roost. There is a massive bald cypress next to the platform and a thicket of vines and shrubs along the creek edge that is apparently a preferred roosting spot for several of the local song birds, many of whom scolded us as we sipped a hot drink on the dock. The loud kerplunk of a beaver tail slap signaled this was also their territory, and at least one of them kept us on notice that he was watching us by continuing those warning slaps off and on throughout the night.

Cypress Creek scene

The intimate beauty of Cypress Creek

The next morning we headed over to Cypress Creek, a narrow, winding cut-through that connects Broad Creek back to the Roanoke River, and makes this such a great circular route. I was a little worried there might be downed trees blocking the path after the recent storm, but, it appears enough boaters use this cut that people tend to clear out any obstructions. You are paddling against the current here, but it was negligible on this outing (I have paddled it in high water when it was an exhausting challenge). All along the mud banks we could see tracks of animals such as deer, beaver, and raccoon.

Young raccoon in tree

Young raccoon on tree (photo by Melissa Dowland)

And suddenly, there was one of the track-makers, a young raccoon scrambling along a low branch out over the water. It quickly reached the trunk, climbed a bit and then stared back at us. After a couple of photos, we paddled on, hoping its next encounter with humans will be as peaceful.

fall color 2

Swamp reflections

It is strange how we both are so quiet while paddling, often going 20 or 30 minutes without saying a word.I suppose it is part of the process of clearing your head and being connected to the place. It allows us to focus on our surroundings, to listen, and to see things we might otherwise miss. Perhaps there is something about the reflections of the forest in the dark waters that commands our silence and respect.

Gardner Creek

The swamp surrounds you in stillness and beauty

We finished our journey with a long paddle back up Devil’s Gut and Gardner Creek. Belted kingfishers rattled their disapproval and shared their acrobatic flying skills all along the way. More herons, more anhinga, a stunning bald eagle, another raccoon, and a surprise mink rounded out our wildlife sightings. We soon heard the road noise of Hwy 64, telling us we were back to civilization. But, for 3 days, our stresses and worries had been set aside by the silence and beauty of a sanctuary in a swamp. We will no doubt need to return in the near future for another dose of tranquility.

Species checklist:

Birds – Pied-billed grebe, anhinga, great blue heron, Canada goose, wood duck, mallard, bufflehead, hooded merganser, black vulture, turkey vulture, bald eagle, sharp-shinned hawk, red-shouldered hawk, red-tailed hawk, merlin, laughing gull, ring-billed gull, barred owl, belted kingfisher, red-bellied woodpecker, yellow-bellied sapsucker, downy woodpecker, Northern flicker, pileated woodpecker, Eastern phoebe, tree swallow, American crow, Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, Carolina wren, golden-crowned kinglet, ruby-crowned kinglet, American robin, Eastern bluebird, Northern mockingbird, blue-headed vireo, Northern cardinal, red-winged blackbird, common grackle

Mammals – Raccoon, muskrat, beaver, gray squirrel, mink

Reptiles and amphibians – Painted turtle, yellow-bellied slider, Southern leopard frog

6 thoughts on “Sanctuary in the Swamp

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