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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Kayaking through history: the Potomac River and Manchac Swamp

The Manchac Swamp west of New Orleans

Though my train trip from California to the east coast and back was full of pleasures (old high school and college friends; the vast American landscape; new acquaintances on the train; a roomful of Monets at Chicago’s Art Institute; a Nats-Giants game in WDC; a plethora of Georgia O’Keeffes at the National Gallery, plus several of Alfred Stieglitz’s (in)famous photos of her), I must admit that among the highlights were my two kayak trips, the first on the Potomac into Chesapeake Bay, the second into the Manchac Swamp west of New Orleans.

I had followed the Potomac River out my train window for several hours and well over a hundred miles upon awakening on the overnighter from Chicago and drawing closer to the nation’s capital. It is a placid river in its youth, flowing amongst densely wooded banks in West Virginia. At Harper’s Ferry the equally scenic Shenandoah joins it, flowing up from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley on the west side of the Blue Ridge mountains. On a river packed with history, its Harper’s Ferry phase stands out.

Thomas Jefferson sat on a rock outside of town overlooking the Potomac here in October of 1783 on his way to Philadelphia with daughter Patsy. You can sit on “Jefferson’s Rock” these days and it’s still a fine view, tho hardly “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature” as Jefferson described it.

Several years later George Washington passed through, recognized the strategic import of the two rivers’ confluence, and proposed this as the site of a U.S. armory and arsenal; construction began in 1799. During the 19th century prior to the Civil War, the armory produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles, and pistols for the U.S. Army. Its transformation into an industrial powerhouse was capped by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line reaching it in 1834, and spanning the Potomac there.

Then, of course, John Brown came to Harpers Ferry. An ardent abolitionist, he meant to capture the arsenal and its weapons to inspire a slave uprising throughout the South. He succeeded in his first objective on October 16, 1859, but failed in the second, as a local contingent of marines, led by the U.S. Army’s Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, overwhelmed Brown’s small force two days later. Brown was subsequently hanged for treason. Lee, of course, went on to a different destiny, but returned to Harpers Ferry three years later.

Due to its strategic location and railroad accessibility, Harpers Ferry changed hands frequently during the Civil War. In his September 1862 invasion of Maryland, Robert E. Lee, now a General of the Confederacy, sent Stonewall Jackson to wrest the town from Federal troops. Jackson succeeded, capturing 12,419 Federal soldiers—the largest surrender of U.S. military personnel until the Battle of Bataan in World War II.

Lee marshaled his forces at nearby Sharpsburg to the north, digging in behind Antietam Creek there. Two days later General George McClellan sent his Union forces against the outnumbered confederates. The battle raged throughout the day, with inspired military maneuvers by Lee and his generals holding off the numerically superior Union forces in heavy fighting. When the decimated confederate forces withdraw south across the Potomac River into Virginia, McClellan did not pursue them to secure his victory. The Battle of Antietam was inconclusive, though its 22,717 dead and wounded remains the single bloodiest day in American history.

A week later I was again next to the Potomac, at the charmingly restored south Maryland home of Yale classmate Tim and his wife Susan. The Potomac gleamed silver and crimson in the lowering sun not 50 feet away as we sat on their veranda and sipped Scotch (the gents) and martinis (Susan). The next afternoon Tim and I launched his two kayaks onto the now-mighty river. Barely visible across the expanse of the now swollen river was the Virginia shore in the distance. More history beckoned there. Upriver some few miles that shore was graced by Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s sprawling plantation I had visited several days earlier (by public transport, the whole trip), walking down to the river’s edge and Washington’s former dock.

Inland from Mt. Vernon some hundred and fifty miles to the southwest is Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, with the Rivanna River at the foot of that little mountain, whose waters flow into the James River, and thence east to the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. All history here flows into the Chesapeake.

Tim and I paddled down the Potomac and ventured into the Chesapeake. So wide is the bay that its far shore to the east is not visible to my eye, tho Tim assures me there are islands there, Deal and Marsh and Smith and Jane from north to south. Tim is a strong paddler, and has made the crossing in a long day. I decline that pleasure today, and we paddle a ways north past the lighthouse on the point toward Pt. Lookout State Park, site of an infamous Union prison where Confederate soldiers were held towards the end of the Civil War. Built to hold 10,000 men, the prisoners swelled to twice that and suffered a death rate of 8% over its two years (just half the mortality rate of Confederate soldiers in the field with their own forces). A privately-financed memorial marks the cemetery where nearly 4,000 dead are buried in a mass grave.

The bay’s choppy waters mirror the turbulent history, and I convince Tim to return to the relative calm of the Potomac after a barely respectable interval on the Chesapeake.

There is history also associated with my second paddle, in the Louisiana swamps west of New Orleans, tho on a more modest scale. I’m with a group of half a dozen signed up to explore the Manchac Swamp with a commercial kayak outfit. Our guide Chelsea is knowledgeable about both the human and the natural history of the area. Two centuries ago this swamp was home to the Cajuns, descendants of the French-speaking inhabitants of maritime eastern Canada, expelled by the British at the end of the Seven Years War in 1763. The interim French governors of Louisiana (which had been recently ceded to Spain) granted land and supplies to the immigrants, many of whom settled these swamps.

Here the Cajuns lived for many decades in a rich ecosystem dominated by the towering Swamp Cypress trees (also termed “bald cypress” due to their deciduous trait), close relatives to my own Giant Sequoias and Coastal Redwoods of California. The rich, durable wood of the Swamp Cypresses proved to be their undoing, tho. The Cajun owners proved unable to resist the blandishments of lumber companies, who dredged canals into the swamps and decimated the forests (and ecosystem) with wholesale cutting. The Manchac Swamp today is a clear-cut remnant of what used to be an incredibly rich ecosystem. But even its modern echo is enough to draw me in.

As we paddle into the swamp today, cypresses are scarce, tho notable when they occur. I paddle up to one that has a plaque on it: “Louisiana Purchase Cypress Legacy, alive in 1803.” Tho not in the same league as the two- and three-thousand year old Giant Sequoias I’ve stood before in the Sierra Nevada, this two-hundred year-old creature still impresses me. Even with its key plant species largely absent, the swamp is plenty lively to my eyes, with Tupelo trees, saw palmettos, the aquatic fern Salvinia, and of course the introduced duckweed and water hyacinths.

Soon after, Chelsea points out the first of a dozen alligators we paddle past, a modest 4 to 5-footer resting on a log twenty feet away. He smoothly flows into the water as we near. Alligator hunters (legal and otherwise) are paid $100 for every foot of length, Chelsea tells us, so really large specimens are not common. Later we flush a White Ibis, who precedes us further into the swamp and is not shy about my paddling within 15 feet to admire him. Chelsea points out a Barred Owl, common in southern swamps, sitting on a cypress branch to the left, staring unblinking at us with his dark eyes (unusual for owls) as we pass.

Chelsea has mentioned the beautiful, bright golden Prothonotary warbler, another dweller of southern swamps, unlikely to be sighted but unforgettable if you get lucky. Of course, I immediately redouble efforts to find this elusive creature, lagging behind the group to scan the saw palmettos, tupelos, and occasional cypress with my binoculars. We’re halfway back to our launch site when the group turns a bend far ahead and I’m all alone in the swamp. The voices of the group fade.

“Hell,” I mutter after a few minutes with no luck. I’m bumped up against a snag sticking out of the water when I see a flash above me. A fiery vision of gold is whirling in the air not ten feet above my head. The Golden Swamp Warbler is gracing me with his presence! He even lets me snap a few quick photos of him sitting on bare branches near what I later learn is his preferred swamp home (tree cavities, one of which I’m evidently adjacent to).

Heart singing, I dip my paddle deep and pull hard to catch up with the group before I lose them. (After all, there are ’gators here.) But I’ve seen four creatures I’ve never seen in the wild before, between the bald cypress, the alligators, the ibis, and my golden swamp warbler (a much better name than the ecclesiastical “prothonotary”). Now if I could just someday find a swamp somewhere with an old-growth stand of uncut Swamp Cypresses…

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