Updated: Jan 30, 2021
Merchant's Millpond is a premier cypress swamp in North Carolina and a kayaking and camping destination. Still more months to come :)
May at Merchant’s Mill Pond, NC
Day 1 – Tick, Tick, Tick…
I pulled the CRV up to the boat ramp for Merchant’s Mill Pond, NC (MMP) a little after 3pm on an unbearably hot Friday afternoon. Temperatures had soared from a comfortable 70F in Frederick to a sweltering 88F near the MMP. The car door opened into an aerial cloud of termites. Not wanting to relocate these buggers to our termite-free home in Maryland, I quickly closed the door and contemplated my options. I had yet to check in with the park office, so after a quick look around the put-in, I drove off to the visitor center.
My original plan had been to kayak-camp Lake Drummond and the Dismal swamp, but these changed to MMP after getting rave reviews from “Mr. Mike” a rather knowledgeable boater I met while kayaking Jane’s Island, Maryland. When checking things out online, the MMP turned out to be only a few more miles down the road from the Dismal, so I took the bait and made the switch.
The visitor center was well set up, bright, and airy for a state park facility. Educational displays of the swamp were stocked off to the right of the information desk, and a large screen television above the desk cycled through slightly stretched photographs of the swamp. Someone with money must have recognized the biological and cultural importance of the MMP and spooned out a good sum to build a super modern facility.
Camp-site check in was speedy and the staff was amiable and helpful, answering my “first-timer” questions with enthusiasm, even though they must have answered the same questions from a myriad of other campers and boaters. “Where do the alligators hang out? Well, sometimes near the deeper water buoys in the morning, sunning on logs in the afternoon.” How about other wildlife? Are there any distinct feeding areas or places where they gather? Well, no, it’s pretty much all around the pond”, How about parking? Where is the most secure area to park? Well, the parking area down by the boat ramp has a gate on it that is locked from 8pm to 8am to keep any one from messing with the cars in the lot”… and other such nonsense…
I ticked off the tasks yet to be done on the short drive back to the boat ramp and set to packing the Swifty kayak shortly after parking. I had brought extra gear with me since I really didn’t know what to expect. The Swifty had a huge cockpit entry (42” by 22”) and ample storage behind the seat, even so, all the gear barely squished in or on. Once packed, I barely had enough room to slide my legs in along the inside edge of the kayak.
A light green duckweed patina coated the bright-red and black-striped sides of the kayak shortly after launching from the boat-ramp. The living biofilm crawled up the spray skirt and paddle as well, leaving everything speckled with tiny green dots. Little pods of duckweed greenness gradually slumped back into the pond as paddle waves sloshed me out into the central swamp.
The MMP staff had given me a 2010 “map” of the swamp and I had stowed it without looking in the front pocket of the spray skirt. I had a “good idea” where the camp site was in a directional sense, so wasn’t worried about getting lost. I laughed out loud after pulling out and unfolding the park map. This map was obviously the long-lost descendent of many other maps. Copies, made of copies, made of light copies. The map seemed to be more suited for hiking overland, since almost all pond detail was obscured by comedic graphics, while terrestrial haunts were clearly marked by trails and roads.
The Swifty slipped east through the main channels further into the swamp, closely following the ORANGE buoys. Not even a ripple graced the pond surface. The stillness and primeval setting was vaguely reminiscent of every Jurassic landscape I’d ever dreamed of. Turtles basked on sunlit logs. Swarms of dragonflies flitted here and there, snaring prey in mid air. A prothonotary warbler watched my slow progress with interest before flitting into the cover of the cypress trees. The buoys drew me on past a small swampish island to port and a shoreline festooned with cypress knees to starboard. Ultimately the trail dead-ended at a brown state park sign with a “camp” symbol.
I was eager to get gear out of the overloaded Swifty and start the photo-fest, so I beached in the shoreline muck and delicately extricated myself onto a drier spot high up on the bank.
A trail led me from the shore into a beech copse. Mossies had to be fanned away at every step. A beautiful campsite with a fire ring lay a scant 20 meters into the copse. No camp numbers were posted near the site, so I retreated to the boat to explore further. A few minutes of paddling revealed additional orange buoys to the East and eventually a well-marked campsite number 1.
Site 1, my reserved site, was already occupied by a tent and huge smoldering fire in the fire pit. No-one was home, so I strayed up a grassy path leading west away from the site and discovered empty camps 3 and 4. Life abounded along the grassy path. Eastern cricket frogs spilled outward from my steps. Giant passalus beetles trundled slowly onward down the path center. Largish black snakes darted into the undergrowth after being disturbed whilst sunning. I strolled farther along into a wonderfully secluded camp-site 6.
Not wanting to be confrontational, I paddled back to the put-in, loaded the boat, and headed for the Merchant’s Mill Pond Visitor Center to change my reservation to camp site 6.
I briefly met Ranger Jane at the Visitor Center. She was soft-spoken but authoritative when addressed, and had her socks pulled up over forest service green trousers. The 9mm pistol strapped to her waist seemed out of place.
Both Ranger Jane and another park employee chuckled softly when I enquired about AT&T phone reception and answered “Head out towards Sunbury for a few miles and there might be cell service”. I had promised to check in with home base, so this was welcome news. Thirty minutes later and 60 kilometers closer to Suffolk, I still hadn’t connected, so turned back for the park boat-ramp. Home base would have to figure it out. I had some paddling to do!
It was almost 7pm by the time I was back on the water, and the lowering sun was barely beating its way through the cypress branches. Attenuating sunlight left deep cypress shadows, bright highlights on the Spanish moss, and strong reflections of the blue sky above as I paddled back into the swamp. A wave of chirruping from cricket and green tree frogs started to my left and continued out into the swamp. The symphony was orchestrated first and loudest by green tree frogs, and was followed by the erratic clicking of the eastern cricket frogs.
Back in camp I discovered a fair number of dog, lone-star, and tiny deer ticks attached to my booties and other places. From the booties they were hungrily climbing their way upwards towards better feeding grounds. Fortunately for me, they couldn’t get under my long Lycra kayaking shorts, so were easily spotted and picked off before finding a hiding place. It took a full 30 minutes of picking to rid myself of the last of the tiny deer ticks.
The fabric of the booties seemed to be especially magnetic to clinging ticks. They continued to circle the upper rims long after I had taken the booties off and thrown them some distance from the tent. I wondered if my rubber Extra-Tuffs would be as attractive.
I heated up water for dehydrated beef stroganoff and finished the rehydration process in the tent. A cricket frog jumped into the tent as I was settling in to eat. It perched uncomfortably on my knee for half a second before climbing up and snuggling into the meal spoon I offered out. It didn’t comment as to the obvious irony at hand. After a few photographs, I spooned the frog outside to the back of the tent.
Later, I set the video up at the pond’s edge, recording the sounds of the night. Frog chirrups built to a shrill crescendo nearby and passed down the swamp and back, each species sounding out in order. The loudness made me consider paddling back to the car for hearing protection.
Ticks continued to climb up the tent fabric long after I had zipped up the screen and squirreled myself away.
Day 2 – The Lassiter Effect…
A slight overcast darkened the morning. I shoved through the shoreline muck and paddled out into the MMP. The perfectly still pond was tinged in a misty early morning gray punctuated by flashes of pink. I paddled closer, and the brief spots of color resolved into beautiful Carolina roses in full bloom. I took a brief respite under a cypress to look closer at the roses and was courted by a nearby mourning dove.
I skirted back over to the western side of the MMP and paddled quickly towards Lassiter swamp. A canoe with 2 fishermen had passed a bit earlier in mid-pond and I was eager to get ahead and have first shot at any wildlife. I passed by a substantial beaver lodge on the way and was distracted by bickering crows on a dead snag near the group campsite. A feather floating in the swamp also drew my attention. Its reflection in the water gave the illusion of completeness. The pond started to close in as I paddled towards Lassiter. Distinguishing a channel through the lilies and other swamp plants became difficult. A pair of Canada geese squawked indignantly as I followed them through the best open waterways.
High overhead a squirrel bounced through the branches looking for breakfast. Seeing me, it quickly retreated to its nest deep within the cavity of a tree.
A small group of rusty blackbirds crashed through the trees to alight on a tree branch overhead. Each had beaked a green tree frog and was looking for a place to enjoy their snacks. As I watched, each bird disemboweled its prey and gobbled the pieces down before flying off.
Paddling through the mixture of pond plants had become a challenge, and at one point I had to purposefully ground the kayak onto a cypress knee of one of the northern “islands” to take a break. While I was sitting there, a flash of prothonotary yellow powered by. I watched for a while as the warbler defended its territory through song and picked cypress knees clean of any unwary invertebrates.
The slowed paddle pace gave me time to appreciate the creatures that inhabited the lilies. Eastern cricket frogs skipped into the pond every few feet as I paddled through. Blue dragonflies propped themselves on lily leaves to rest from hunting and tiny turtles used the lilies for basking camouflage.
A flowing channel opened up immediately adjacent to Lassiter swamp, making paddling easier. I almost missed a sunning red belly water snake draped over a stump. Fortunately for me, the water snake’s flash of red belly and white neck set it apart from the rest of the lush green of the swamp. It turned to look at me as I drew near but stayed put as I floated past.
I continued up into Lassiter swamp for 2-3 hours, avoiding shallow areas, navigating around trees and strainers, and trying my best to stay in a central “canal” of sorts. A tree with a giant growth that looked like an ear marked the point at which I turned around. I’m not certain of the actual distance, but the occasional car noises from U.S route 158 were getting louder.
I acquired a variety of insects on my deck as I drifted back down Lassiter’s central slough. One huge dragonfly had to be scooped up and deposited there after stopping its wings in midflight and plummeting into the drink. It was later joined by a jumping spider and thirps. The spider appeared to contemplate jumping on the larger dragonfly more than once. A wheel bug with aposematic red coloration hitched a ride on my paddle for a bit before I shooed him off onto some bushes. Ticks were noticeably absent. Perhaps all the cricket frogs kept them at bay.
Numerous egrets, ducks, and other birds scavenged the shoreline as I drifted past. The lonely cries of a barn owl and mourning doves provided background music as I paddled. In one backwater area, poisonous cottonmouths and other water snakes coiled up on logs desperate to soak in the remaining late day sun.
The day’s paddle was officially clocked at 8 strenuous hours. Back at the camp take-out, I could barely lift myself out of the kayak after being cooped up for so long without a shore break. The cockpit interior was running with condensed water from my legs, even though I was barely perspiring.
Upon disembarking I discovered a tiny deer tick embedded in my waist. This same spot had been a little irritated the night before, so I had to assume it had been there overnight, and more-than likely since my run in with the tick hoard. Visions of Lyme disease ran through my paranoia as I pulled the offender free.
The tick onslaught hadn’t changed back at camp. Adult dog ticks climbed all over the outside of the tent fabric. A lone-star tick parked in wait on the plastic tub that held the camp stove. Others waited on gear hung up on a tree to dry. A little cricket frog making noise outside the tent promised he’d help take care of the issue, but I had my doubts.
The weather forecast for the remaining part of the weekend only sounded good if you were a fish. Since the boat ramp was only a 30 minute paddle away, I packed up some of the gear I thought I wouldn’t miss (cook stuff, foam sleeping pad), and made ready to paddle out of the swamp.
I paddled to the right from camp six, consciously dismissing the buoys as no longer necessary to find the take out. Five minutes after launching I turned in the wrong direction while following an island shoreline and mistakenly headed deeper into the swamp. I’d like to say it was because I was dehydrated, but stupidity was also a large contributor.
After a long, confused paddle I ran across a yellow trail buoy near the Group campsite and figured out that I had been going in the wrong direction. I sheepishly turned and started anew. The late afternoon sun and overcast sky added insult to injury and camouflaged the orange buoys on the long paddle back. After unloading the gear into the CRV and paddling back out toward camp, I helped 3 more struggling canoes find their way back to the visitor center.
The sun was setting and light was softly being reclaimed by the shadows. Back at the camp takeout, I set the video camera on a stump to once again record the waves of frog chirrups pulsating through the swamp.
At this point, I didn’t worry about the myriads of biting bugs that swarmed the shoreline. My head net, paddling jacket, and Teflon-coated pants deterred all but boldest from getting a blood meal. The abundance of insects on the shore eventually attracted a large green frog to the landing. It sat down by the ponds edge barely a meter away from the running video, contributing its occasional “burrrrumpp” to the video recording archives.
I went to bed to the sound of the beautiful frog symphony ringing through the swamp and my head. Vibrating tent walls were a tactile reminder to bring hearing protection on my next spring visit.
Day 3 – Drippitty Do-Da…
I woke in the predawn to the sound of a torrential downpour. It lessened and I fell back into a fitful sleep, probably dreaming of my absent sleeping pad. Another spritz of rain woke me later in the morning. At that time, it was light enough to see that the day was going to be melancholy grey, wet, and lightly overcast.
I decided to break camp early, rather than drown the camera gear in rain and swamp water on my final day. Minimizing wet sandy dirt on my gear and keeping a variety of ticks at bay made breaking camp a challenge.
I hazily reminded myself to check inside the kayak for snakes and ticks prior to paddling home. Nothing found, I packed, and then shoved the boat for one last time through the shoreline muck and out into the swamp.
The paddle to the take-out was quick. The torrential rain of the morning had left everything dripping. A fine mist was still wafting through the trees as I pulled the kayak out of the water. I just finished rinsing the gear and throwing it into the CRV when the park workers rolled by and opened up the parking lot gate at around 7:45amish.