In the belly of the swamp
Despite living in Southern Maryland all of my 30-plus years, there are many nooks I have not seen. I take that as a challenge. Working on a feature for the next issue of Chesapeake 360, our regional magazine, I ventured out to one such place: Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Sanctuary, a peaceful locale hidden in Prince Frederick.
My future article may showcase off-the-beatenpath places to visit, but trust me: I stayed on this path. Firmly on the path. When I arrived early on Tuesday, the gentleman in the well-appointed visitor’s center handed me a pamphlet for the Cypress Knee Nature Trail — the quarter-mile trek on a boardwalk that takes visitors through the highlights of the swamp. It’s a 15-minute walk if you just keep moving.
“Here for a visit?” he asked. “First time?”
I nodded to both questions, shifting my camera onto my hip.
“Well, you’re the first one here this morning,” he said cheerily. “So you might see some wildlife.”
Wildlife. In all my online research about Battle Creek, coming across creatures wasn’t something I’d considered. The word alone set me on edge, but I was committed.
My husband loves telling the story of when I once cringed, recoiled and ran away from . . . butterflies. At a butterfly exhibit. In a beautiful, perfectly safe botanic garden.
Hoping to redeem myself from that debacle, I planned ahead this time. Long pants and closed-toe sneakers. Wild hair in a ponytail. A generous slathering of sunscreen and “deep woods” bug spray. I’m laughably far from a nature girl, but I am a fan of “fake it ‘til you make it.”
And anyway, the guide didn’t know about the butterfly incident.
I thought I looked pretty cool and collected as I moseyed through the blessedly air-conditioned visitor’s center ahead of the trail. I’d gone early in the hope of beating the heat but, once outside, humidity clung to my skin like a film. I started sweating immediately.
Walking carefully down the stairs into the belly of the swamp, I tried to shake the feeling I was being watched. As my handy pamphlet and regional displays all foretold, Battle Creek Cypress Swamp is home to many creatures: great and small.
It wasn’t encouraging to know I was the first out on that muggy morning.
But I steeled myself, remembering I was on assignment. I could do this! I was tough! Never mind that the peepers peeping and birds singing and plants rustling all served as a nerve-wracking chorus as I descended into the woods. I’d barely gotten beyond a view of the visitor’s center when I was dousing myself in bug spray — again. No more wimping out. Once I relaxed and started soaking up the ambiance, Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Sanctuary reminded me of walks through the mighty redwoods of California: a hushed, almost spiritual place to truly commune with nature. Sounds like a bunch of dippy nonsense, I guess — but one visit and you’ll see.
Aside from the presence of the boardwalk trail, it could have been the year 1600, 1800, 2000. Indeed, these bald cypress trees — one of the northernmost stands in the U.S., according to the Calvert Nature Society — can reach the age of 1,000 or older, and some stretch up to 100 feet tall.
Being first on the path that day meant I had the honor of catching every spiderweb to the face, but I tried to maintain some professional decorum. Couldn’t let the birds and bugs see me in disarray.
Well — total disarray, anyway.
Summer heat is less oppressive under that kind of canopy. By 10 a.m., I was still sweating through my T-shirt, but it felt good. I walked for 15 minutes, 20 minutes, a half hour — long enough to feel like I’d stepped beyond the struggles of daily life and entered an alternate zone. A peaceful state.
This was the first time I went exploring alone, and the solitude was actually comforting — not intimidating. On a quiet morning I would have otherwise been wedged at my desk, just walking outside felt great. The glimpse and sudden departure of a creature — a fox? — did make me shout, but it still wasn’t as bad as my butterfly freak-out.
And if no one but the fox and I were around to hear it, did I really make that sound?
Southern Maryland may never know.
What happens in the swamp stays in the swamp.