Monday, April 24, 2017

DE Trap Pond State Park: Growing the Remains of The Great Cypress Swamp

What to do to celebrate a two important dates this weekend? My daughter Emily came into this world on April 21, 1984, while one of my conservation heroes, Aldo Leopold, passed away on this date in 1948. I celebrated both with a few days camping and exploring Trap Pond State Park near Laurel, Delaware. To celebrate Em's birthday, I joined her for birthday dinner, a live show, and late night pub coffee in Milton near the ocean. To celebrate a life well-lived, I took along A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold to read in my warm, dry tent. The dreary cool weather turned a lot of people away from camping this weekend, but armed with my rain gear, a warm sleeping bag, and a tight rain fly for my backpacking tent, I was snug as a bug.

Rain in the Great Cypress Swamp.

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not what to be told otherwise. - AL/ASCA

Bald Cypress, Taxiodium distichum

The quote above from ASCA stuck with me as I explored the park. Leopold described living in "a world of wounds" that he knew all too well. During his lifetime he witnessed the socio-economic disaster that became an environmental catastrophe - the American Dust Bowl. He served on a consulting team that would help end the advance of massive erosional gullies in Wisconsin's prime farmland and the Deep South. As a young forester, he saw firsthand the disheartening results of overgrazing and predator elimination in the south-western mountains.  The ecological disaster that was the loss of The Great Cypress Swamp of the Delmarva Peninsula happened long before Leopold was born in 1887 but it continued to degrade until the 1930s.  Had he witnessed it, I'm sure he would have added it to his natural world of wounds.

The far reaches of Trap Pond.

When colonists began exploiting the Delmarva cypress swamps in the early 1700s, the forested wetlands must have seemed limitless. Some historic accounts claim that the watershed of the Pocomoke River and its major tributaries were so vast that the sight of the primeval woodlands evoked an almost religious response. Foresters today estimate that the original swamp may have exceeded 60,000 acres. Today it is reduced to small remnants and pockets of protected wetland. Trap Pond (200 acres in cypress/ 3000 acres in total forest protection) and nearby Trussum Pond (60 acres in cypress) is managed by Delaware State Parks, DE Division of Parks and Recreation. I walked the park loop Bob Trail (5 miles) in a light rain and contemplated the history of this landscape.  I was surrounded by a riot of warblers in color and song. I tried to imagine was 60,000 acres of warbler song must have sounded like!

Reflections like ghosts of a forest long past 

In the early 1800s logging removed most of the old growth valuable timber. Some giants topped 170 feet in height and were dozens of feet around at the base. There is only one giant found in the park today, estimated to be over 550 years old. In the days of ship building the wood was valued for its insect and rot resistance. As the swamp was ditched and drained to access more cypress and white cedar for shingle and clapboard, ancient peat-based soils were exposed. Farmers were rewarded with new land cleared for agriculture. 

Mills were needed to grind grain and many small hydro-dams were built across tributaries and streams to power these. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the shrinking wilds of the cypress stand sheltered escaped slaves moving north to freedom. After the Civil War, logs lost during the early days of cutting timber were being salvaged from a century of burial in deep peat and old mill ponds. Then government agencies got into the swamp draining business and built whole new networks of ditches, draining the land of mosquito-infested wetland and encouraged more farming. During the Mid-Atlantic drought of the 1930s  tinder-dry peatlands minus their trees were lost to a catastrophic fire.  If you're not familiar with how peat fires burn and travel, well it's a scary kind of fire! Peat fires move underground, popping up in seemingly random places, smoldering then reigniting weeks or months later. 

How people cross the creek...
How beavers cross the creek...

Though bald cypress can grow well on dry sites - many are planted in gardens and arboretums far north of here - this place is the farthest north naturally occurring cypress swamps occur on the East Coast. Germination of cypress seeds can be tricky. The periodic low water levels in a natural swamp provide just the right conditions for seed germination - not too wet, not too dry.  The Trap Pond remnant cypress swamp was able to survive into a second growth forest because of raising and lowering of pond waters at the dams and ditches.  Conservationist foresters observed in the late 1930s after the fires that wetlands could be manipulated to foster new forest growth. 

Dam builders may have saved the swamp. 

These early foresters began to experiment with creating the conditions under which the cypress and white cedar would germinate. Their strategies include using the ditches dug over the past century and more that were intended to drain the swamps - in reverse. Today, foresters with state and non-profit agencies are perfecting the management of those conditions that conservation foresters of Leopold's time had begun. 

Raccoon Pond, formerly Davis Pond.

By building water control devices within these historic ditch structures, conservationists can flood anew land that has gone without its big swamp trees for two hundred years. Organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Delaware Wild Lands are able to buy former swampland as it becomes available and either manage outright or transfer ownership  to state agencies where scientific restoration can happen. With an understanding of germination conditions and land dedicated to restoring the swamp, there is a good chance that some of this once-vast natural ecosystem can be restored.  "Wetland is recovering faster than we expected," said DWL Executive Director Kate Hackett. Dozens of scientists, hundreds of conservation workers and volunteers, and thousands of community supporters engage in this work.

Dry sites contain a mixed long-leaf/deciduous forest.

Leopold noted that as wetlands returned to the areas where community conservation was successful,. The same is true to this area where wetland plant and animal species that were once common before the ditching and draining are reappearing. Though Trap Pond is surrounded by farmland, I heard and saw so many wood ducks I stopped counting! Beaver maintain a series of dams that create the wood duck's preferred shallow ponds for nesting. I saw red-headed woodpeckers in the swamp forest and heard pileated woodpeckers hammering in the upland forest. Remote shallow ponds along the Bob Trail were filled with the quacking of wood frogs. This land, though seemingly wild now, had been under cultivation just a century ago. Trap Pond State Park, the first state park in Delaware, came about at just the right time to start what has become a long push to bring back the Great Cypress Swamp and can demonstrate the importance of community partnerships with science, government, and landowner stakeholders how it has played a role in a regional effort for restoration.

Loblolly Pine is armored against ground fire - a tell-tale pioneer of dry land succession.

Leopold is best known for his work in community-based conservation during the 1930s and 1940s and he helped bring together farmers, outdoorsmen, land owners, and conservationists to restore soil, ecological communities, wildlife populations, and to bring balance to human activity on the land. But as much of a hero he is to many of us for this work, he was of his generation. There were many, who like him in his time, understood the importance of stakeholder cooperation towards protecting and restoring ecosystems.  So I was happy to learn of Delmarva's own conservation hero.

Dogwood in bloom against a loud background of wood frogs quacking in the rain.

 Edmund T. "Ted" Harvey created and managed Delaware Wild Lands, the first land trust for the First State, with the mission to create a community of land care, even if at the time the community was limited to landowners and outdoorsmen. "The best way to protect the land is to own it," Harvey declared as he scrounged up the money to buy Trussum Pond in 1961 - which I visited after my hike around Trap Pond. Now the organization owns and manages over 20,00 acres for conservation and rewilding. Kate Hackett, the current executive direction, has improved upon Harvey's model by opening some of the properties for public education while emphasizing the conservation science work of managing Delaware's wild lands. She's worked to include more stakeholder interests and as one article about her states "isn't afraid to get muddy and wet" in the process. 

Historic draining ditch - now used in reverse to flood the land. 

Over the two rainy nights I lay reading A Sand County Almanac I heard spring peepers, bull frogs, leopard frogs, green frogs, wood frogs, and happily - carpenter frogs! I haven't heard these hammer-pounding frogs since I was last in the NJ Pine Barrens a few years ago where bogs and swamps abound. At first I though someone was pounding in tent stakes, but I couldn't imagine someone pounding in stakes for over an hour until it occurred to me what was making the noise. I climbed out of my tent in my rain pants and jacket at one in the morning to find my way to a small shallow pond at the edge of the campground. There were carpenter frogs in all their hammer-wielding glory!

Pink Lady's Slipper Orchid

Spotted Sandpiper

Prothonotary Warbler

Eastern Kingbird

Louisiana Waterthrush. 

As I hiked and paddled all day on a rainy Saturday, I made note, too, of all the birds I was hearing. Because of the weather I did not bring my bigger and better DSL with big lens, so I used a small point and shoot with a zoom that did okay but not great in the low light. I was thrilled to find a Louisiana Waterthrush nest and staked out (at a respectful distance) to watch the parents catch insect larvae at the edge of a forest small pond and return to feed their young.  I was surrounded by Northern Parula Warblers deep in the swamp but could never get one to sit still long enough for my little camera to catch it. Later a Prothonotary Warbler that had been calling in the distance showed up just a few yards from my canoe and sang his song in one place long enough for a decent picture. 

Good trail marking!

I have to say that everything in the park, including over at Trussum Pond, was well-marked and easy to navigate. The staff at the campground were so helpful. When I explained that I "do" environmental history, I soon had a long list of books to read and people to talk to about the Great Cypress Swamp story. The campground host visited my tent site whenever he thought of another book to read about swamps. I found my way around easily and the trail marking system was simple and well maintained. I walked all eight miles of the trail system by noon Saturday and was amazed at the work put into trail maintenance, clearing,  blazing, and upkeep of bridges and boardwalks. I stopped by the new-ish nature center to let the staff know how impressed I was. (More books to add to my list.)

Wood fern emerging

One of the best trail blazes I saw wasn't put there by people. I found the biggest pileated woodpecker "post" I'd ever seen while hiking on the Island Trail near the edge of Trap Pond. Pileated woodpeckers are our largest woodpecker species and they have loud, throaty territorial calls to prove their size. This time of year it isn't unusual to see evidence of their post-making - visible markers of freshly pecked off bark that reveal bright wood underneath. Piles of freshly pulled bark and wood pieces mound up beneath their foraging sites and though they are finding food this way, mostly ants - this springtime all-out assault on trees in their 100 - 200 acre territories is unique during breeding season. This guy was obviously finding a whole lotta ants and making a statement ...

Pileated Woodpecker "post tree"

Cypress swamps are known for their black water. On the lower Eastern Shore, the native people called the water "pocomoke" (black water) and thus this became the name of the Maryland river into which the Great Cypress Swamp of Sussex County, Delaware, drains. The entire cypress swamp system that spans the two-state drainage area has been designated an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society. As an IBA, the contiguous forested area of 10,00 acres receives a lot of attention from ornithologists who have conducted painstakingly detailed surveys of nesting species. An uncommon species anywhere else, the Worm-Eating Warbler, nests in such abundance here that the Audubon surveyors categorized as "astoundingly common."  

Black water.

On my second rainy night, after a fun dinner and show out with my daughter for her birthday, I snuggled back into my warm and dry tent and picked up ASCA again. I had marked the "world of wounds" quote the night before and reflected on what it had meant to me as I explored the park. Leopold wrote as a visionary and also as a pragmatic conservationist. Sometimes when readers new to Leopold try to decipher the meaning from his words, it can be difficult to understand when he speaks as one or the other. His "world of wounds" can be an example of this. Is he speaking as a philosopher or ecologist? There have been many discussion groups focused on just this quote.  In my Saturday night reading, I came across another well-known quote that I had highlighted years ago when, in one such discussion group at grad school, we readers who were anticipating the land ethic to be spelled out clearly at the end of the essay, fell into another infamous Leopold Big Idea with no where to go. "What does that even mean?" "So what do we do?"

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.  - Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Leopold's Big Idea is still too big for most readers to truly grasp even as conservationists of his day were attempting large landscape-scale restorations. The hoped-for return of Delmarva's Great Cypress Swamp is an example of the Big Idea strategy. Community conservation includes the human and ecological community, however ambiguous. Our conservation forefathers and foremothers may not have known specifically what would work or not, but they did know that something had to be done to restore, protect, and grow the integrity of the swamp's natural systems. Today we know that large-scale restorations -rewilding as they call it in Europe - are incredibly complex. Sometimes so complex that we really don't understand exactly what we're doing except to say that something is working the way we'd hoped. Leopold warns us, however, to be cautious. 

They Might Be Giants Again - someday.

    Conservation is paved with good intentions which prove to be futile, or even dangerous, because they are devoid of critical understanding either of the land or of economic land-use. - AL/ ASCA

As I consider the work to understand and restore the Great Cypress Swamp, I can see how agencies and non-profits working together over time have had their fits and starts as they've tried to sort priorities and perspectives on this big undertaking.  As I talked to park staff, campers, a cattle farmer who grazes the southeastern park boundary, and some fishermen, I felt that everyone was onboard with the Big Idea. "We're relearning how to live with this ecosystem," said a fisherman at Trussum Pond. "It's not perfect and its not easy, but I'm happy to be of help." (He volunteers for clean-up days and ferries scientists into the swamps on his small bass boat.) This is the ecological education that Leopold spoke of that includes all the mistakes and difficulties of well-intended conservation.

Trussum Pond allows only non-motorized craft - the first "save" for Delaware Wild Lands and Ted Harvey.

Leopold was asking us to take a philosophical leap away from step-by-step conservation strategies and into the mindset of morals and ethics. Understanding an ecological community through doing what was right rather than what was prescribed was and still is a big shift for scientists and landowners. Learning our way into large-scale restoration is a bit like this. The land will let us know what works and what doesn't, so we have to be willing to let go of too-precious management rules if doing what is right comes up against what is how we've always done it. I think Delaware Wild Lands and state agencies "get it" in the way Leopold intended. Though they have a long way to go to restore an inter-linked bald cypress systems of river-to-tributary wetlands, reversing what was hailed at one time as the answer to taming the dark forests of the swamps by ditching is now reclaiming the wild by  "reversing the flow."


Delaware Wild Lands website:

Chesapeake Bay Journal article recommended by the campground staff:

About Kate Hackett who is doing things a little differently:

A Natural History of Quiet Waters: Swamps and Wetlands of the Mid-Atlantic Coast by Curtis J. Badger and The Great Cypress Swamp by John V. Dennis. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

PA Muddy Run Park: Following the Coonhound

On this Holy Saturday, a day for contemplation and quiet in the Christian tradition, I took my coonhound for a walk at Muddy Run Park across the river in Lancaster County. Being a coonhound and not of any particular tradition, she was her usual vocal self baying at bounding deer and following her nose across the wooded hills with me hanging on for the ride. So much for contemplative and quiet!

Bug pulls me across the bridge to the woods trails! Follow the nose!
Muddy Run Park is a power company facility that encompasses a large flooded valley that is pumped full of water up from the Susquehanna five hundred feet below. The dam that impounds the reservoir is the longest in Pennsylvania and you can drive across the top and look far across the river to York County from the top. But we're here to hike so no ride across the dam.

The lake is the drowned valley of Muddy Run, once a steep ravine creek.
The woods are beginning to blossom. Black cherries are in their finery with delicate clusters of pinkish white blossoms. Spicebush glows yellow in the old meadow woods. Buds on the blueberry and sassafras are about to burst. Invasive honeysuckle shrubs have already leafed out. Bug rustled up two deer and let out a loud bay that I was sure would flush all of the woods of every living thing. The farside of the hill was old pasture having gone to woods, so I hung on as Bug pulled me over the crest in search of groundhogs and more deer. We found both much to her delight!

Spicebush glow.
Nothing here is pristine or original. When the property was claimed from hard scrabble farmers, most of what is now extensive cherry woods was heavily farmed through the 1950s. Stately sycamores that marked the springhouses of several farms stand now surrounded by mature pioneer forest transitioning to something new. Old apple orchards are dwarfed by locusts and maple. Old farm roads serve as grass paths through glades of spicebush, cherry-birch, black cherry, and pin cherry - all in bloom.  

Cherry woods in bloom.
Cherry trees are the primary pioneer tree of old fields in this part of Pennsylvania. Not too far south, across the Mason-Dixon Line, the primary pioneer is red cedar but no cedars anywhere to be seen in these hills. I could make out old fence lines from where birds perched on wire or oak boards and "planted" straight lines of cherry. Birds are the planters of pioneer cherry woods. 

Old apple trees mark an orchard.
Cherry-birch with sapsucker holes.

Bird-planted cherries along a now gone fence line.

After several more groundhogs and another pair of deer, Bug pulled me over the hill to where the oak woods met the old fields cherry forest. As we followed a grassy path the oaks stood on one side of the farm road while the oaks stood on the other. I could now see the pumped storage reservoir, a long lake that drowns the steep creek valley of Muddy Run. Built by the Philadelphia Power Company in 1968 the lake is drained through a set of powerful turbines at the bottom of the outflow canal back into the Susquehanna. The powerhouse machinery was designed by Westinghouse engineer Eugene Whitney who also designed the giant machinery for the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia. Some of the impressive vintage equipment can be seen in front of the Visitor's Center.

Oak woods on the left and cherry woods on the right.

Yellow-blazed lake trail
Up until recently, Muddy Run Park had been completely fenced in to protect the reservoir. This created a big problem for the herd of deer contained inside. Without predators, the herd increased to unhealthy numbers. Even with an annual bow hunt, the herd was browsing the park to nubbins. The fence has since been opened by staff by removing panels of chain link and the deer trails pour through these gaps into the farmland beyond the park. It will take some time for these woods to recover. As we walked along the rocky north slope on the yellow-blazed lake trail, I noticed the heavy browse of the lowbush blueberry. Another pair of bedded deer popped up ahead of us and Bug began to cry her famous deep bay. 

Stilted tree.
The soils on the north slope are very poor. Fallen trees become important sources of nutrients released into the poor soils. As they rot, they often become seed beds for saplings as nurse logs. Once the nurse log rots away, the maturing sapling retains it's nurse tree "stilts" to show that it once wrapped its young roots around and under the log. 

Moss "shadow" of fallen tree.
Quad poplar!
This woods has been worked hard in the past. Plenty of stumps rotting into the rocky subsoil illustrate that the hillside was logged heavily for a long time. Some stumps re-sprouted and developed multi-stemmed trunks. This made for some Holy Saturday contemplation as I looked around and realized how much of the forest had regenerated from fallen trees and cut stumps. 

Stump shadow.
Tree pollen on lake surface.
Muddy Run reservoir.
I couldn't contemplate for long, however, as Bug the coonhound caught scent of something more exciting than deer or groundhogs. I went tripping along her trying to hold tight to the taut leash. She led me straight to the water and jumped in - almost pulling me in with her! All she wanted was a good cool soak after our two hour hike through the woods!


Muddy Run Park is nice place to spend a day or a week. Very nice family-run campground and darn good fishing! The lake, however, is not open for swimming. Unless you are Bug the coonhound.

Monday, April 3, 2017

PA Lock 12 to PA Game Lands #181

I've walked this path many times and was happy to lead a small group from the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Pilgrims on the Camino (APOC). The weather could not have been more perfect for this group of past and future Camino hikers, many of whom drove over an hour to walk this section in the Mason Dixon Trail with me.  In my opinion, this 8 mile section of the MDT is one of the most remote and most beautiful.

The river was rolling today! Snow melt from New York and northern PA. Photo by Kim.

The Susquehanna was thundering over Holtwood Dam. Snow melt from central New York and northern Pennsylvania is raising the river by several feet and that, added to the much needed rain we had last week, made for some pretty rough waters below the dam. Even the ever-present white water kayakers stayed away.  Our hike took us up to the rocky bluff high above the river valley and as far as the eye could see upriver and down, the Susquehanna was fat and fast with gray-green flood water.

Roy, Philly Chapter outings coordinator, loved his first exploration on the MDT.

Spring is here! In the low creek valleys and down along the river banks we saw wildflowers just beginning to bloom. The River Hills area is known nationally for spring wildflower blossoming. People make pilgrimages up many of the remote creek valleys on both sides of the river to witness the week's long event. For most of our hike we had two spectacular steep ravine creeks to ourselves, and when we weren't threading our way through thickets of rhododendron, we were gawking at the beds of bluebells, Dutchman's britches, toothwort, and coltsfoot.

Virginia bluebells.
Dutchman's Britches.
Oak Run, a step ravine creek valley is loaded with waterfalls and wildflowers.
Rocky outcrops at every turn on Oak Run.  Photo by Kim.
The water was pretty high on the ravine creeks, too. At our final creek crossing we had to wet-foot across, boots slung over our shoulders. I noted my FOY Eastern Phoebe, Blue-winged Warbler, and Pine Warbler. A fellow Camino hiker and I exchanged notes about the birds we saw in Spain and what I think was a beech marten. Matt actually snapped a photo of his sighting and had it stored on his phone. It was exactly the white-fronted mustelid that I saw on a stone wall on the Camino Frances, while his sighting happened in a thick forest meadow on the Camino Norte.The marten stood on hind legs to look at him and he captured a perfect picture! 

Wet-foot stream crossing, putting sock and boots back on. Refreshing!
A mile-long slog up the hill to the shuttle cars waiting at the Gamelands parking area was just the huff-and-puff we needed to finish our hike with a flourish on the top of the plateau four miles from the river. Thanks to my hiking partner Kim for helping with the shuttle and for two of her shots taken along the way. Everyone had a great hike and many want to come back to hike more of the Susquehanna's many beautiful trails.