Swamping Again

The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten.

~Sigurd F. Olson

The Swamp Queen (aka Melissa) did it again…planned a canoe/camping adventure to our favorite swamp destination, the Roanoke River. So, last week, we headed east to spend a planned 6 days paddling over 50 miles on the Roanoke and Cashie (pronounced cash-EYE) Rivers and staying at a number of the wonderful platforms managed by the Roanoke River Partners (RRP) organization. We planned to include two platforms that neither of us had camped on – Conine and Lost Boat (there’s no need to worry about that name, right?). The timing of our trip was perfect as April is our favorite month to paddle this swamp – the bright green colors of spring and the arrival of migratory birds are a huge plus (as is the general lack of mosquitoes this early in the season). And it coincided with my article in the April issue of Walter Magazine highlighting the natural wonders of paddling this area. Check it out for more information on this region.

Weather conditions changed during our trip so we made some alterations in our plans and took out a day early before the heavy rains hit. Below is a rough map of our paddle from Williamston to Windsor. With the changes in platform destinations (we called from the river and changed our reservations as you need to reserve platforms in advance), we ended up paddling a little over 46 miles in four and a half days and stayed on four platforms – Conine, Barred Owl Roost, Cypress Cathedral, and Lost Boat.

-A rough map showing our route from Williamston to Windsor (just off the map at the top) with the names of the platforms where we camped and showing the Thoroughfare connector between the Roanoke River (in red) and the Cashie (in blue)

A satellite view shows a huge swath of green along the river corridors between Wiliamston and Windsor. Mush of this land is protected by the Nature Conservancy, the Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge, and various hunt clubs. But some of our trip took us by through shorelines that are not protected and have been recently clear-cut, leaving only the required 30 foot buffer along the waterway. I just don’t think a 30 foot buffer is adequate to protect the integrity and beauty of these amazing habitats. Thank goodness various groups have managed to protect some large sections of the swamp forests.

-A Google Earth view of the rivers we paddled showing the vast expanse of bottomland forest

This post will cover some of the highlights of the Roanoke River portion of our trip. Next time, I’ll finish the trip up the Cashie to Windsor. I want to thank Travis, a teacher that Melissa knows through some of the museum workshops, for helping us shuttle our vehicle between our put in and take out points.

-We set off from Williamston with a fully loaded canoe

-Water levels were as low as we have seen them and when we arrived at the first camping platform, it was a big distance from the river to the newly renovated dock. The steep muddy bank made for a challenging unloading experience. After hearing of our experience, RRP plans to add a lower dock section.

-RRP is renovating many of the camping platforms. This is the refurbished Conine platform – it is really beautiful and one of the few with a screened structure. The walls on the right are the toilet enclosure (but you must bring your own private latrine for these outings – more on that later)

-The first day we were serenaded by countless warblers that had recently arrived from their wintering grounds. This Northern Parula stopped by at sunset for a buzzy song while we sat on the dock (image converted to black and white since it was in total shade)

-View across the Roanoke River from the Conine platform dock at sunset

With the low water there was relatively little current so we decided to paddle upstream on the river the next morning and then travel downstream on the waterway known as Devil’s Gut to our next campsite, Barred Owl Roost. We have paddled the lower section of the “Gut” many times over the years, but never the upper half, so this was a treat. It did not disappoint…

-Turning into the upstream portion of Devil’s Gut from the Roanoke River (note the clear-cut behind the small buffer on the right shoreline – this did not go too far down the “Gut”)

-One of our favorite camping platforms, Barred Owl Roost, is set in a gorgeous swamp.

-Bathroom with a view. This is our portable latrine – a 5-gallon bucket, a pool noodle cut for a seat (quite comfy I might add), and some toilet kit waste bags (each kit contains 1 waste bag; Poo Powder® gelling/deodorizing agent; a zip-close storage bag; toilet paper; and a hand wipe). We bring our own toilet paper and some cleaning wipes. We stash the sealed waste bags in a trash bag and dispose of it when we reach land (these kits are approved for landfill disposal)…now you know.

-There were a lot of Great Blue Herons fishing in the swamp waters and hanging out on our platform walkway

-A panoramic view from the Barred Owl Roost platform

The next morning we canoed to the juncture with the Roanoke River. Normally, we would have paddled downriver to Broad Creek and then upstream to our next site. But, with the low water and slow current, we decided to go upstream on the Roanoke for a few miles and hit the shortcut known simply as “The Cut”. We’ve paddled The Cut many times when doing a loop trip (requiring no shuttle) but always upstream (and that can be tough when the water is high). This was going to cut off a few miles of paddling and we had the plus of being in the more intimate setting of a narrow swamp waterway rather than the wide open river. That usually means more wildlife…

-Looking back upstream from our boat in the Roanoke to where it is joined by Devil’s Gut

-One of many Brown Water Snakes we saw perched up in tree limbs along the waterways

-A lunch stop along the river yields a twisted Supplejack Vine growing up into a Bald Cypress

-There was a lot of Beaver sign along The Cut and we even caught this large Beaver out cutting some saplings during the day (it quickly disappeared to the safety of the water as we passed). A few places had large scent mounds (piles of mud and debris along the shore that Beavers mark with scent to let others know this is their territory). One stretch had 17 scent mounds all in a row, the most we have ever seen in one location.

-We came across a female Wood Duck with about a dozen young. The low water made for a high bank and she was herding her ducklings downstream ahead of us. As we got near, she climbed the bank (only one duckling managed to go with her) and squawked and flopped around on the ground trying to distract us from her young. Meanwhile, the little ones were trying to get ahead of us along the shore. Melissa managed a great photo of a couple as we passed. We paddled away quickly and the ducklings turned back upstream to join their mom. (photo by Melissa Dowland)

-The duckies have more to worry about than a couple of people paddling by in a canoe. We saw this huge Snapping Turtle not far from the ducks.

The Cut joins Broad Creek a couple of miles upstream from where that aptly named creek flows into the Roanoke River. We headed upstream along Broad Creek to our next night’s destination, the idyllic Cypress Cathedral platform.

-Another favorite camping spot along the Roanoke – Cypress Cathedral, with a renovated walkway

-One of the most common birds we heard on our trip was the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. We heard them everywhere and found a pair building a hummingbird-style nest above the walkway at this platform

All along our journey, we saw and heard an amazing number and variety of birds. These bottomland forests have got to be one of the primary refuges for migrating songbirds (and NC resident birds as well) along the East Coast. But the one we always delight in seeing is the one Melissa calls “the friendliest warbler”, the Prothonotary. Along the way, and at a couple of the platforms, they shared their persistent peet, tsweet, tsweet, tsweet song and bright yellow plumage. Their name comes from this yellow color which resembles the bright yellow robes of papal clerks (prothonotaries) in the Roman Catholic church. In addition to being the “friendliest” (they readily hang out and forage near us) they also hold the distinction of being the only eastern wood-warbler that nests in tree cavities. And Cornell’s online compendium of all things birdy, Birds of the World, shares another little known fact. The Prothonotary Warbler played a partial role in the conviction of alleged spy Alger Hiss and the eventual political rise of Richard Nixon. An ex-communist, Whittaker Chambers, accused Hiss of espionage. Chambers claimed to know a lot about Hiss as they were friends, even though Hiss denied ever knowing Chambers. To verify his claims, Chambers said that Hiss was an avid bird-watcher and he had been very excited when they had seen a Prothonotary Warbler on an outing along the Potomac River. When asked about it later, Hiss admitted he had seen the warbler. Richard Nixon, then a freshman congressman, was a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating the Hiss allegations, and played a prominent role in proving that the two men knew each other and that Hiss had perjured himself. The lesson here is be careful who you tell your bird sightings to…but I feel I can trust you all.

Here are a few of the many Prothonotary portraits captured on our journey:

-Male Prothonotary letting the swamp know he is there and ready for spring

-Prothonotary investigating a tree cavity for a possible nest site

-Peeking out of the tree hole

The next post will cover the final two days of our trip from Cypress Cathedral through the Thoroughfare and up the Cashie River.

Roaming the River of Life

A river is the most human and companionable of all inanimate things. It has a life, a character, a voice of its own, and is as full of good fellowship as a sugar maple is of sap. It can talk in various tones, loud or low, and of many subjects grave and gay…For real company and friendship, there is nothing outside of the animal kingdom that is comparable to a river.

~Henry Van Dyke

Roanoke scene

Scene along the lower Roanoke River (click photos to enlarge)

After spending some time camping and hiking in the mountains, it seemed appropriate to have a totally different type of experience by paddling a few days on one of my favorite rivers, the Roanoke. The Roanoke is a mighty river, meandering over 400 miles from the mountains of southwest Virginia to Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. In places, the flood plain is immense and provides habitat for countless animals and plants, and solace for any who paddle though it. The Nature Conservancy has helped protect over 90,000 acres along the Roanoke and calls this area the largest and least disturbed bottomland hardwood forest ecosystem on the East Coast.

Tent on platform

Tent on the camping platform at Three Sisters

One of the things that makes this river so special for paddlers is its series of camping platforms. Roanoke River Partners coordinates a reservation system on over 20 camping platforms along the lower Roanoke and its tributaries. On this trip, we were going to paddle about 28 miles over three days, staying at two platforms – Three Sisters on Broad Creek on the Roanoke, and Otter One, on a different Broad Creek off the Cashie River.

Roanoke Outdoor Adventures

Captain Heber of Roanoke Outdoor Adventures

A trip like this would normally require a couple of cars, one at the starting point and one at the take out. But, we decided to opt for a local outfitter, Roanoke Outdoor Adventures, run by Captain Heber Coltrain. Heber is a local guide that rents canoes and kayaks, can help you plan a trip through the area, and provide shuttle service. He is knowledgeable about the region and its history and I can recommend his services to anyone planning a trip in this region.

Roanoke shoreline showing defoliated trees

Roanoke shoreline showing defoliated trees

Putting in at the NC Wildlife boat ramp near Jamesville, one of the first things you notice is a lack of leaves on many of the trees along the shoreline. At first glance, it looks as though the Tupelo Gum just haven’t leafed out yet this spring. A closer look shows they have, but the leaves have all been consumed, almost every leaf gone!

Forest Tent Caterpillars

Forest Tent Caterpillars resting in a characteristic patch on a tree trunk

The culprit? A huge outbreak of Forest Tent Caterpillars Malacosoma disstria. Unlike the more familiar Easter Tent Caterpillars, these munchers do not build the communal silk shelter we commonly see in the forks of certain tree branches in early spring. Instead, they create a silk pad on the branches or trunk of a tree and congregate on it when at rest or molting. Early stages are almost all black with conspicuous hairs. As they mature, they acquire blue sides and footprint-shaped white marks on a dark background along their dorsal surface. Their primary host along the Roanoke seems to be Tupelo Gum, although we saw other species, such as Sweet Gum, that had been stripped. These outbreaks can occur over many years (this is at least the second year for this area) and must have a huge impact on tree growth and survival as well as impacts all along the food chain. Tree flower and nectar production are almost nil and the resulting lack of fruit can impact many mammals and birds.

Forest Tent Caterpillar folding leaf

Forest Tent Caterpillar folding a leaf

There is one generation per year and we were there as the caterpillars were starting to pupate. They fold a leaf by stringing silk across the edges. The silk strands contract as they dry, pulling the leaf sides together.

Forest tent caterpillar making retreat

One night’s work by a caterpillar

Overnight, we saw one leaf shelter almost completed in a Smilax vine along the platform. Once the shelter is complete, the caterpillar pupates inside. Adult moths emerge in a couple of weeks and lay eggs in the tree canopy. The eggs hatch next spring as the tree leaves begin to unfurl. There are some species that probably benefit from this seemingly endless abundance of larval lunch meat – most notably various parasites and predators. Yellow-billed Cuckoos are caterpillar specialists, and probably have good years during the outbreaks, and we saw and heard plenty. We also saw several of the ubiquitous swamp canaries, the Prothonotary Warblers, beating the two-inch larvae on tree limbs before gulping them down.

Prothonotary Warbler bringing moss to nest cavity 1

Prothonotary Warbler male bringing moss to a potential nest cavity

As we unloaded our gear the first afternoon, a bright yellow male serenaded us in his attempt to lure a lady to a nest cavity he was actively preparing.

Prothonotary Warbler stuffing moss into nest cavity

Prothonotary Warbler stuffing moss into nest cavity

Prothonotary Warbler singing at nest cavity

Prothonotary Warbler singing at nest cavity

As he sang, he gathered dry moss from a nearby log. With a beak full of moss, he flew up to a hollow snag, and stuffed the moss into the future bedroom and nursery. In between, he frequently battled another male from across the creek, defending what he hoped would be an attractive spot for a future mate. His is a busy life in the swamp.

Ours was a relaxed life. We swam frequently to cool off, and enjoyed the peace and quiet as we paddled toward our take-out miles away. We crossed through to the Cashie River at one point and paddled thorough part of the vast Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge. All along our journey were sights and sounds that make me want to return to what was originally called the River of Death, for its frequent huge floods. But, to me, the vast wilderness along this stretch of river, and the large acreage under protection by various public land agencies and conservation groups, makes this a River of Life. Time spent paddling on the Roanoke is truly a retreat from a bustling modern world, and a means to glimpse the beauty and mystery of the many secrets of a swamp.

Moutain Laurel and lily pads along the Roanoke

The contrast of Mountain Laurel and lily pads on a north slope along the Roanoke River below Jamesville

Large cypress nect to platform

Huge Bald Cypress tree next to camping platform

Wasp milking aphids

Wasp milking aphids for honeydew on a Tag Alder in the swamp

Lily pads and tree reflection

View of the swamp from one of the camping platforms

Prothonotary Warbler in threat display to other male

Male Prothonotary Warbler in threat display to another male

Cashie scene

Cashie River scene