Ever dreamt of returning to another era for casting your eyes on celebrities and moments when history was made, but not staying long enough to be risky? Everyone has their favorites, and one of mine is to join Captain John Smith’s crew when they explored the Chesapeake Bay watershed over 400 years ago. I often wonder what it looked like in those days, as I live in it today. His route probably crossed the Dragon Run in the Middle Peninsula of Virginia as he headed for Werowocomoco to meet Chief Powhatan and his daughter Pocahontas. Traveling back in time may always be impossible, but I don’t have to close my eyes to imagine the journey because the Run is one of the few remaining pristine places in the coastal plain that can be explored by canoe or kayak, much as the Mattaponi Indians did for fishing and hunting beaver.
The Dragon is a ribbon of brown water running through a swamp. Down the centuries it has been lucky to avoid draining, and in recent decades it has been protected, piecemeal, by conservation-minded folk and the Nature Conservancy. First recorded on maps around 1670, its name has puzzled people ever since. According to one story, plantation owners named it as a warning to slaves who might try escaping across the swamp to free states via the “Underground Railroad.” Perhaps a superstitious belief in dragons deterred them, depending on how awful their circumstances were, but the dangers of getting lost in the swamp were not exaggerated. Even today, it would take a bold soul to cross it on foot, especially on a summer night, but it offers a pleasurable paddle by day in a small party of kayakers. I joined them in April.
A sluggish flow gently carried us downstream so that paddles were used more for steering than propulsion. The channel was barely wide enough to pass other paddlers or to turnaround, and by late May it will be so choked with weed that it is impassable, especially with a low water table. From then until fall the swamp is virtually unvisited, and the rich community of plants and animals return to a peace that is eons old.
We glided past bald cypress trees that were already middle-aged when Captain Smith passed this way. Most trees can’t tolerate standing in water for long, but bald cypresses thrive in swamps, perhaps compensating for the low oxygen concentration by growing “knees” above the water level. They are unusual for their family in being deciduous, and on that spring day their bare branches had the first green traceries. The bole of one tree had a patch of resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides), which shrivels to limp, brown leaves in times of drought but come back to life when it is wetted, a cycle that can be repeated over and over for a century. Perched on the top of another bald cypress was an old bald eagle’s nest, or as much as a storm had left the distressed owners.
You know when you are in a place that is unspoiled and rarely visited if the flora is overwhelmingly dominated by native species. I hardly saw any aliens. There were royal and cinnamon ferns, fetterbush, featherfoil, rose azalea, pickerel weed, arrow-arum, Virginia blue flag, and so many more, including bloodroot which was harvested by Indians as a medicine. There were plenty of herps too, though we never saw the watersnakes and turtles, lizards and skinks, frogs and toads, and the 90 species of birds, including the gorgeous Prothonotary warbler. Go there in summer if you dare brave the clouds of insects, but that day there were only jewelwings patrolling for prey and freshly-hatched Eastern Tiger Swallowtails dancing overhead. Fifty-five species of fish inhabit the Run, but they didn’t show themselves, and muskrats and beavers dozed in their lodges, digesting the fiber diet they ate the night before.
Dragon Run quickly dams with logs felled by storms and beavers. A team of volunteers regularly clears obstructions, but the indefatigable works of those aquatic engineers are particularly challenging. The solution to the problem of respecting the beavers’ interests while allowing kayaks to pass was inspirational. The team fixed a wooden board midstream between two posts so that animals could continue to pile logs and branches on either side of them but wouldn’t interfere with the board, which we easily lifted for floating further downstream.
Our hulls frequently bumped over unseen objects, which could have been alarming if we were in alligator country much further south. The water is as murky as brown soup, and for the same reason that it is loaded with organic matter. Although “pure,” meaning free of pollution, it is unwise to practice eskimo rolls there because it is shallow and the ancient ooze below is unplumbable.
Dragon Run is cared for by Friends. All natural wetlands need friends because they are still denigrated for the difficulties of putting them to “use” by developers and farmers, but their virtues as water purifiers, storm buffers and habitats for threatened species is now better appreciated.
A doughty lady at the heart of the conservation program has led paddling parties for years, as she did that day. She must be made of pioneer stock because, even now approaching age eighty, she was our navigator, authoritative naturalist and advocate of wild places. She told me that until very recently she was taking solo tours on the Run to photograph the wildlife at night. I heard she is called the “Queen of Dragon Run,” but in an earlier era she might have been baptized the “Pathfinder” because there could be no one better qualified to lead runaways across the swamp to safety.
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