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.
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.
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 see 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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…