In the belly of the swamp

Maryland Independent - - Classified - Twit­ter: @right­meg

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.

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