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Adventures on the Black River

April 24, 2014

I recently had the opportunity to join a canoe trip on the Black River with Jerry Reynolds, Senior Manager of Outreach.  Jerry has been leading this trip in some form or another for ten years. I had never been on the Black River, but had heard from others about its majestic cypresses and amazing wildlife viewing. I have been on a couple padding trips, and I would say they all required moderate skill level and the ability to pay attention.  In preparation for the trip I consulted Google to figure out exactly where we were going and to learn a little more about the history of the river.

The Black River begins in Sampson County, flows along the Bladen/Pender County line (where we paddled) before continuing through SE Pender County to empty into the Cape Fear River.  According to the Nature Conservancy the Black River is characterized by meanders, artesian springs and mature swamp forests. As tannins from decaying vegetation leach into the water, the river is stained its characteristic dark tea color, hence the name “Black River”. The Black River and approximately 70 miles of two of its major tributaries are designated as Outstanding Resource Waters by the N.C. Division of Water Quality, classifying the relatively undisturbed Black River system has having extraordinarily high water quality.

The main feature of the river is its cypress trees. In an article by University of Arkansas Professor Dave Stahle, the oldest baldcypress trees ever found are located on the Black River in Pender and Bladen Counties.  Tree-ring dating, or dendrochronology, has been used to prove that some of the baldcypress trees are over 1,500 years old. With my facts in hand for the trip I was ready to canoe the Black River for the first time.

To say I was stoked would be an understatement. I was ready to hit the water, see and touch some of the oldest trees found in the southeast, and get my canoe on! We left bright and early to make our 3 hour voyage to our drop-in location. I am not much of a morning person so I sat in my own solitude and thought about the last time I canoed and how sunburned I got. It wouldn’t be surprising that when we arrived I slathered on my SPF 50 and was ready to hit the water. I was partnered with another participant that was just as excited as me and we both chattered on like two kids on our way to a really amazing birthday party.

We entered the water at Henry’s Landing, where we were greeted by local fisherman and a vivacious English bulldog, I named Porridge.  The view on the river was astounding, we were surrounded by trees on every side, could hear birds calling, and not a vehicle in site. We were truly lost in river. We slowly paddled along for the first hour taking in all the sounds and colors, not to mention the pollen.

Black River, NC

Black River – Photo courtesy of Jerry Reynolds

After about an hour we made a pit stop to make introductions with other participants and learn a little more about the river.

What I learned was:

  • The oldest baldcypress trees ever found are located on the river
  • There are literally hundreds of millennium-old trees to be found on the river
  • The conservation of the river is a partnership between the Nature Conservancy and private land owners
  • Not only is the river rich biologically, but also historically. It was a site for early settlers and retreat for officers during the American Revolution
  • Commercial travel on the Black River began as early as the mid-18th century with canoes, log rafts, lumber, naval stores, and livestock

I soon realized the Black River really did have a little something for everyone. As we ventured around our cuddling of canoes and kayaks and participants described their interest in the river it became evident that we were a mixed bag of biologists, nature lovers, birders, history junkies, and locals who had “never ventured that far.”

One of my favorite highlights of the trip was the Brown Watersnakes. It is a nonvenomous snake known for its alternating rows of square blotches that run along its sides, thus resulting in somewhat of a checkerboard appearance.  According to Herps of North Carolina , “These snakes are commonly found during the daytime basking on tree branches overhanging the water, into which they escape if disturbed. Unfortunately, this escape strategy may land a brown watersnake into the boat of an unsuspecting fisherman.” This is an important fact that will be a major plot point in my story. As we continued down the river it became a competitive eye spy of who could spot the snake. After about three hours of snake spotting we stopped for a quaint lunch where we got to stretch our legs, restock water, and have Jerry demonstrate his snake-catching prowess.

Brown Watersnakes

Brown watersnakes resting on branch. – Photo courtesy of Jerry Reynolds

We ventured back on the water and headed toward the real jewel of the Black River, referred to as the Three Sisters. The Three Sisters Swamp gets its name from the river itself, where at one point; it divides into three distinct channels as it heads into the swamp. As we paddled towards our destination we definitely had to do some expert maneuvering with the canoes. In some places the river thinned and the group had to coast along single file. At one point we had to get a running head start with our canoe, and  create an almost perfect line to jump a tree that had fallen across the river. After two failed attempts and creative lower body movements my partner and I cleared the debris and congratulated each other with an amazing high-five.

I don’t think I will ever forget seeing the entrance to the Three Sisters Swamp. The best way to describe it is a small aquatic door into a personal water forest.  As soon as you enter you are overpowered by giant trees, extraordinary colors and an intimacy with nature that can’t be found anywhere else.

As you can imagine, I was so overcome that I wasn’t paying attention and slammed right into a limb, which woke up a pretty surprised brown watersnake that proceeded to fall on my head and between my feet. At this point, I put on my science goggles and immediately tried to identify. It was definitely a brown watersnake and it was not excited to see me.  I informed my canoe partner, who very impressively lifted herself from her seat and moved back as the snake moved forward. After a huge adrenaline rush and twenty minutes later the snake disgruntledly left the boat, I gathered my wits and made our way through the swamp. We saw a rookery of great blue herons, anhingas flying above, fish biting at insects along the water’s edge, and I got to touch some of the oldest trees known to exist in this part of the country.

Three Sisters Swamp

Three Sisters Swamp – Photo courtesy of Jerry Reynolds

After the snake incident everything else flew by and before we knew it we had reached our end destination, six hours later. It was by far one of my favorite canoeing experiences and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a little bit of nature and history. However, I did not escape injury free….I still got sunburned.

For more information about the Black River check out:

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ann Dudzinski permalink
    April 24, 2014 5:24 pm

    Great article Katie! I wish I had signed up for that trip, but I’ll look for it next year. Keep me on your blog list, I look forward to future posts.

    Ann Dudzinski

    Sent from my iPad


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