Millpond Meander

This is everybody’s dream swamp…

~A.B. Coleman (the man who donated Merchants Millpond to the state for a park)

Over a week ago, Melissa and I managed a two night get-away to one of our favorite state parks, Merchants Millpond. I think Mr. Coleman was right, this may be everybody’s “dream swamp”. It combines an open millpond dominated by Tupelo Gum and Bald Cypress, with a beautiful swamp and surrounding hardwood forest. It is a paddler’s paradise and a naturalist’s delight with an incredible variety of plants and animals to observe. We reserved one of the canoe-in campsites and arrived at the millpond late in the afternoon after stopping to see our friends, Floyd and Signa, long-time residents of the area, former park employees, and two of the best naturalists we know. We also met a good friend of theirs that has been paddling the millpond for a couple of decades and returns each year to take it all in.

View of the millpond from our campsite (click photos to enlarge)

We set up camp and headed out to look for wildlife as the sun slowly made its way to the horizon. We heard lots of new spring arrivals – especially Yellow-throated and Northern Parula Warblers and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Picking some of these small neo-tropical migrants out can be tricky, especially when they are mixed in with the large numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting through the trees and stump island vegetation. But, one warbler was very cooperative, and we followed it around for several minutes as it sang and snagged a few insects.

Our cooperative Yellow-throated Warbler came down low enough for some good looks and pics

We also followed a few gnatcatchers as they gleaned some of the hundreds of tiny midges flying around the stump island vegetative communities common out on the millpond.

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher with that high-energy look they always seem to have

We headed back to camp and had a relaxing evening around a campfire listening to the swamp sounds we love – Barred Owls hooting, and the beginnings of the many frog calls that will soon flood the swamp. And we were amazed at the abundance of fireflies that kept us company until we headed into our tent.

The next morning we headed up toward Lassiter Swamp at the upper end of the millpond. Along the way, we enjoyed some of the many sights that make springtime in the swamp so special.

Red Maple seeds add a splash of color to the swamp
The showy blossoms of Horse Sugar (Symplocos tinctoria) along the shore of the millpond
Some sliders taking in the warm temperatures
One of several large Beaver lodges we passed on our way to Lassiter Swamp

Entering Lassiter Swamp is like crossing a bridge into another world. There are usually fewer paddlers (we only saw one other canoe up there all day) and the enchanted shapes of the Tupelo Gum (transformed by their interaction with Mistletoe) heighten the magic and mystery of the place. Plus, there are usually some interesting wildlife species to see or hear.

Mistletoe creates unusual growth forms in the branches of the Tupelo Gum trees in the swamp, lending a ghostly appearance to the scene
Another oddly-shaped tree greets paddlers in the swamp
Splashes of spring green stand out in the grays of the swamp
A huge Beaver lodge in the swamp yielded a surprise as we paddled to the other side…
A Nutria (an exotic mammal species introduced from South America into NC in the 1940’s for their fur) resting on the lodge. Nutria are larger than a Muskrat but smaller than a Beaver. They can be identified by their size and white whiskers on both sides of their nose. Sadly, we saw more Nutria on this trip than I have ever seen in the park.

Melissa spotted movement in the water and we heard the distinctive snort of a River Otter. Then another snort and another and we saw six otters swimming ahead, bobbing up and down as they expressed their displeasure (or curiosity). The otter split with two going downstream and the others upstream, but not before a couple swam over to check us out.

A couple of River Otter come over to investigate this strange visitor to their swamp

Along the stream channel we saw an occupied hollow tree base with three Nutria inside. The smallest one had just pulled its tail back into the hollow when I snapped this pic. A little farther along, we saw movement – our otters were lounging and playing on a moss-covered log up ahead…

Nutria hang-out

The otters hit the water and swam upstream, snorting at us as they went (I think it was definitely disapproval this time).

An otter peers over a cypress knee before gracefully sliding into the water

We saw them again a little upstream and all four (one is just off camera) raised up in the dark water to get a better look.

We came across this group of otter several times during our paddle up the swamp

Water levels were a bit low so we encountered several log jams and small Beaver dams across the creek that needed to be “scooched” over as we paddled upstream. We had our rubber boots on and had to get out once to pull the canoe over a log. Then we hit a larger barrier – a log across the channel with a pile of debris caught in the low spot. A couple of feet to one side was a small Cottonmouth attempting to blend in with the stick pile (you always need to check blockages like this for Cottonmouths before getting out up in the swamp). After failing to find a passage around it, Melissa decided to get out and try to pull us over. Let’s just say that didn’t go well (the debris pile turned out to be less sturdy than she thought). After helping pull her back up we decided to let the far reaches of the swamp remain unchallenged for this day. By the way, the Cottonmouth remained calm throughout the process and never even showed us the classic warning pose with mouth agape. I guess it figured we weren’t much of a threat.

Cottonmouth eyeing the paddlers at a channel blockage

We spent the rest of the afternoon paddling back to the millpond and enjoying the scenery and the wildlife.

Reflections on the millpond on a windless day can be stunning

There have been a few changes on the millpond since my days as a state parks district naturalist oh-so-many-years ago. There are a lot of noisy Canada Geese now nesting on the millpond; Nutria have expanded their range into the millpond area; and the first American Alligators have appeared. As we paddled the lower end of the millpond, Melissa saw a large ‘gator lying up against a swollen tree base. North Carolina is at the northern limit of the range of American Alligators, so they are not common in this part of the state. Our friends say there are probably three ‘gators on the millpond, but no babies have been reported in the years since they first appeared. We circled around it, admiring its size and taking some photos with our telephoto lenses. Looking at this guy, we certainly didn’t feel like getting too close (and you shouldn’t either). They don’t pose a danger to paddlers, but you should treat them with respect and not harass them. This individual was a large one, perhaps 9 feet in length and weighing in at about 200+ pounds.

An American Alligator
Such an amazing creature
…and so wide!

After the alligator, we paddled slowly back to camp, and I thought of what a truly great gift this was to the state of North Carolina, this dream of a swamp. There really is no other place quite like it. Thanks to all who have helped preserve it and make it available to the public for all these years and into the future.

Millpond reflections
The last light of the day highlights a Great Blue Heron in a cypress grove
Our final sunset on the millpond…but we will be back

Merchants Millpond

I enter the swamp as a sacred place

Henry David Thoreau

Merchants Millpond has always been one of my favorite state parks. When I was the East District Naturalist for the State Parks system oh-so-many years ago (1981-1986), I would go up to Merchants and canoe out after dark to the family camping area after giving a program in the trailer that was then the “visitor center”. The night sounds were always amazing as was the feeling of being in a different world as you paddled through the Bald Cypress and Water Tupelo trees laden with Spanish Moss. A lot has changed over the years and now the 3200+ acre park has a new visitor center, family and group campgrounds and two canoe launch areas as well as camping down Bennett’s Creek below the millpond. But much remains the same in this unique environment and because of that, it is still a magical place.

Merchants Millpond

Merchants Millpond State Park

The millpond was created in 1811 to provide power for grist mills for farmers in the region and it became a hub of enterprise in the area, hence the name, Merchants Millpond. A.B.Coleman purchased the 760-acre millpond and some surrounding property in the 1960’s and then donated it to the state and it became a state park in 1973. The conditions of the millpond over such a long time period have created a unique ecological environment. The pond’s dark, still waters create beautiful reflections, one of the outstanding memories from any visit.

Bald Cypress trunk

Bald Cypress trunk

Water Tupelo (Nyssa aquatica) and Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) living in wet conditions tend to have swollen trunks. Swelling may just be a reaction to permanent flooding, but it could also be an adaptation to keep the tree standing in soggy soil. A swollen base is wider and offers increased stability. You seldom seeĀ  either of these species toppled by wind. Branches and even the tops of the trunk may break off, but the whole tree remains upright. The difference between the two trunks is usually easily discerned – Bald Cypress trunks have buttresses or ridges at the base whereas tupelos lack the buttresses and are often relatively smooth.

Surrounding the swamp are rolling ridges containing stands off American Beech, American Holly, various other hardwoods and pines. The canoe campground was once a magnificent open beech forest but was heavily damaged years ago by a hurricane. Now, the remnant beech trees are surrounded by thick undergrowth of Loblolly Pine, Tulip Poplar, and Sweet Gum. But it is still a beautiful spot to camp and the play of light on the trees at sunrise ad sunset is awesome.

American Beech tree at Merchants Millpond

American Beech tree on surrounding uplands

The temperatures were anything but spring-like during my visit this past week, with lows in the 30’s and highs around 50, so many of the usual spring things were lacking, although there were a few slow snores from Pickerel Frogs each evening as well as a few Spring Peepers. One lonely Southern Leopard Frog added to the weak chorus, and only one snake was to be found – a Yellow Rat Snake curled on a log in the sun. Painted Turtles and Yellow-bellied Sliders started becoming more frequent log sitters as the days warmed and a Yellow-throated Warbler call means spring really should come soon. And to emphasize that fact I did see a bright splash of yellow flitting through the dark swamp on my last day (the warmest by far) – my first Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly of the season. Over the 3 days I observed (or heard) 37 species of birds, 8 species of mammals, and 6 species of herps.

Beaver lodge

Beaver lodge

My favorite area is still Lassiter Swamp, the so-called “enchanted forest” that lies at the head of the millpond. Paddling through the gnarled Water Tupelo and towering cypress trees, especially in winter or early spring, is like entering a fairyland populated with ghosts and goblins. Many of the strange shapes on the tupelo branches are caused by the trees’ reaction to mistletoe – a semi-parasitic plant that is common in the swamp. I’m not sure what causes some of the huge, grotesque trunk growths but mistletoe may have a role in those as well. As you enter the swamp the trees close in and wildlife seems to materialize from behind or in every tree. Three River Otter snorted and checked me out before disappearing into a beaver lodge. Beaver sign is everywhere in Lassiter Swamp and three large lodges greet you near the entrance.

Nutria retreat

Nutria retreat

I got a surprise when paddling toward a tupelo with a hollow just above waterline. There was grass hanging out of the hollow and as I approached, first one, and then two large Nutria barreled out of the hollow. When I was right next to the entrance, a third came leaping out causing a slight increase in my heart rate. I guess it was a day bed or retreat of some sort. Nutria were not present in the park when I worked there 30 years ago, but are now common, although the fact that alligators now live in the park (they were not present 30 years ago either) may help control numbers of this introduced mammal.

 

A highlight of Lassiter Swamp are the scattered virgin cypress trees in the upper end, many estimated to be over 1000 years old. I remember climbing inside the base of one that could hold about 8 people. All that remains of that giant is a broken section of hollow trunk, probably the result of hurricane damage.

Broken old cypress trunk

Broken old cypress trunk

Far up in the swamp I spot a pile of white feathers – Great Egret feathers. A swamp mystery – what had happened?, where was the body? I looked at the beautiful feathers for clues. No obvious rips or tears as if a mammalian predator had plucked the feathers, but no clear beak marks either, although there was a dent or two on some of the sturdy feather shafts. My guess is that a Great Horned Owl, the flying tiger of the swamp, had taken the egret as a meal. Ironically, I found another pile of egret feathers a few miles downstream on Bennett’s Creek so perhaps this swamp is a dangerous place if you are a large white bird.

Great Egret kill site

Great Egret kill site

Egret plume

Egret plume

The last night was spent on the Bennett’s Creek canoe trail, which flows below the dam at Merchants Millpond. It is a beautiful secluded paddle with the only signs of humans near the two camping areas (unfortunately) about 4 miles below the millpond. I noticed some shredded bark on a couple of huge cypress trees on the way down the creek and speculated that perhaps a bear had been climbing the trunks. One was broken out at the top about 70 feet above the creek and looked like just the sort of place a bear would hole up. On the return trip, I heard loud scratching sounds coming from deep inside the hollow trunk, undoubtedly from a bear climbing inside after hearing my approach. I want to go back and sit and wait for that bear!

Merchants Millpond at sunrise

Merchants Millpond at sunrise

Merchants Millpond is truly a great destination. Etched in my memory are many sights and sounds from the trip – the drumming of Pileated Woodpeckers at sunrise and the golden light glinting on the underside of one of these majestic birds as it flies overhead; cries of Red-shouldered Hawks circling high above the treetops; the incredibly loud splashing as White-tailed Deer leap through the swamp when they spot a canoe; Barred Owls asking “who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all?”; the reflections, everywhere the reflections; the subtle colors and textures of the trees that drift by as you paddle; and in many places, the feeling that you are the only person here, a quiet, serene feeling that is hard to get in many places. So, I will be back and I hope to develop this as a trip I offer to others in the near future. Everyone needs to experience a swamp…

Lassiter Swamp reflections

Lassiter Swamp reflections