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

Roanoke Ramblings

A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving, living part of the very earth itself.

~Laura Gilpin

I spent this past weekend in a magical place, a place I have been many times, but that still draws me back – the Roanoke River. The Roanoke is a major river that flows over 400 miles from its headwaters in the mountains of Virginia to where it meets Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. A wonderful non-profit group, the Roanoke River Partners, gave life to a series of camping platforms along the Roanoke that serve over 1200 campers annually (reservations required). Camping on these platforms is a truly unique experience and one that I have been lucky enough to do a number of times in several locations. This trip was to two platforms that I had never visited – The Bluff and Royal Fern.

Camping platform along the Roanoke River

Camping platform along the Roanoke – the Bluff (click photos to enlarge)

The first night was spent in one of the more terrestrial of the platforms – The Bluff. It is one of the few with a screened in area and a pit toilet (platforms in the swamp require that you bring your own latrine). It is, indeed, on a buff overlooking the river. That first afternoon, we saw some of the first hints of Spring in the swamp – Northern Parula and Yellow-throated Warblers searching for insects in the treetops, flower buds on Dwarf Pawpaw trees, and my first snakes of the season – a large Black Rat Snake, and a true denizen of the swamp, a Cottonmouth.


Cottonmouth showing why it is so named

We encountered the Cottonmouth while walking over to get a closer view of an Eastern Screech Owl in a cavity in one of the large American Beech trees that dotted the slopes along the river. Cottonmouths typically display a threat posture of raising their head and gaping their mouth, showing the white insides, a very effective means of letting you know that they are there, and to not bother them.

Cottonmouth 1gg

How a Cottonmouth poses for its picture

Since I did not have any of my telephoto lenses on this trip, a picture of the owl or warblers was out of the question, but the snake was more than cooperative for a few snapshots.

Roanoke River

Sunset along the Roanoke

It turned out to be a beautiful afternoon and a great place to relax and listen to the sounds of the river forest. Other wildlife sightings included a pair of Wood Ducks, undoubtedly nesting in one of the abundant tree cavities, another red phase Eastern Screech Owl the next morning (two were visible in separate tree cavities), a Wild Turkey, and several Pileated Woodpeckers drumming and investigating possible nest or roost sites.

The next day we made a special trip to Creswell to dine at one of my favorite local restaurants, the Main Street Eatery, for the last time. My friend, Sharon Maitland, reluctantly closed the doors to this jewel of a place this weekend. She and her staff have been an oasis of good food and warm smiles for me and my clients these past two years and will be sorely missed. I was happy to get the chance to dine there one last time and thank her for providing a touch of class for my winter outings to the nearby refuges.

Bald Cypress along Conaby Creek 2

Bald Cypress along Conaby Creek

After lunch, we put in at Conaby Creek ,just north of Plymouth, and began the short paddle out to the next platform. While most of the swamp was timbered decades ago, there are remnant Bald Cypress trees along the banks that give you a glimpse of what it must have been like two hundred years ago. The huge trunks reach skyward, many draped in Spanish Moss, some with giant branches covered in Resurrection Fern. Looking at them in black and white seems a fitting way to honor their presence as guardians of the swamp over the centuries.

Bald Cypress along Conaby Creek

Bald Cypress trunks may appear as delicate brush strokes in the swamp scene…

Bald Cypress along Conaby Creek 3

…reaching above the surrounding trees…

Buttress base

…or as massive anchors, holding the swamp in place.

Bald Cypress along Conaby Creek 1

They seem to embrace the swamp and invite you in…

While the ancient trees speak to us in neutral tones, the swamp itself is coming alive with color.

Spring colors in the swamp

Spring colors in the swamp

When we arrived at the platform, I took a few moments to appreciate the colors and patterns of the awakening plants…

Ash leaf beginning to unfurl

Ash bud beginning to open accompanied by a Carpenter Ant seeking food

Maple leaves opening

Maple leaves opening

Tag Alder leaf backlit in the setting sun

Tag Alder leaf backlit in the setting sun

When we arrived at the platform, one thing became very apparent – the website had meant what it said…Black Bears are known to visit this platform/area often. Campers should be prepared for a potential bear encounter. All of the posts on the platform had been chewed by bears, and a couple of nearby Sweet Gum trees had the bark ripped off by bears seeking the sweet sap as I have so often seen in the woods of Pungo.

Royal Fern camping platform

Royal Fern camping platform

Now, readers of this blog know that I like bears, but the amount of bear sign here was a little disconcerting to be honest. But, we did what you do in bear country and put our food and toiletries in bags strung in the trees, and I had brought bear spray, just in case.

Canoe at camping platform

Serenity in the swamp

It turned out to be a spectacular afternoon and night in the swamp with no bear encounters. There is a Bald Eagle nest a couple of hundred yards away from the platform, and we saw and heard a couple flying above the towering Bald Cypress trees that surrounded us. As a brilliant moon rose, we were serenaded by a chorus of snoring Pickerel Frogs and all three of our common owls (Great Horned, Barred, and Eastern Screech). The next morning, a trio of Red-shouldered Hawks put on an impressive display of aerial acrobatics, while warblers (including my first Prothonotary of the season) moved through the cypress branches overhead.

I know many of you are probably stuck on the image of the Cottonmouth and the possibility of bears in the swamp and are thinking, no way… but I have not seen that many Cottonmouths and no bears on my years of paddling the Roanoke. And, trust me, there is nothing like camping on these platforms to really get away from your usual hectic lifestyle. I have camped out there many times and have always come away wanting to spend more time in these magical places. It is well worth the trip.