Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University.
Trap Pond bald cypress mere shadow of its past
Silent sentinels of the swamp that was
Perched on the eastern rim of the Chesapeake’s watershed, closer to Atlantic beaches than to the Bay, Delaware’s Trap Pond State Park offers the standard recreational amenities, from ballfields and nature walks, to tenting, cabins and picnic tables shaded by tall pines.
But it’s Taxiodium distichum, the lordly bald cypress, that defines this nearly 4,000-acre park that guards the headwaters of the Delmarva Peninsula’s Nanticoke River. It is the nation’s northernmost natural occurrence of a species whose range extends south to Florida and west into Texas.
“It is a tree so different from any others that it evokes wonder and awe … even a few lend a certain solemnity to otherwise ordinary-looking woodland,” wrote the late Maryland author John Dennis in his book, “The Great Cypress Swamps.”
The cypress that soar above our kayaks on a recent fall paddle of Trap Pond’s nearly 8 miles of water trails would second Dennis’ opinion. They are relatively young, a century or less. The species can live close to 2,000 years. One hard-to-reach specimen on Trap Pond’s James Branch Nature Trail is documented at more than 550 years, with a massive, buttressed trunk 25 feet around and a height of about 120 feet.
One of only a few species of deciduous conifer, the dense cypress stands here were turning to glossy cinnamon in the crisp autumn air, preparing to drop their needles — hence the name “bald.” The floor of the swamp is studded with cypress “knees,” unique protrusions from their root systems that reach a foot or two in height.
Come spring, they will feather out with a fresh, airy green that lights up the swamps where water-loving Taxodium predominates. It grows here even in standing water a few feet deep. It creates the effect of you literally floating through the cypress groves of the park’s ponds. Their smooth, columnar trunks intersperse with gnarly, sculptural old black gums, another native of Eastern swamps.
Kingfisher and wood duck calls echo through the water-woods, and we glided by a handsome beaver lodge. It’s easy to forget you’re only a few miles from tacky, busy U.S. Route 13 as it makes its way through lower Delaware.
Delmarva, so-called because it contains Delaware and portions of both Maryland and Virginia, has no natural lakes. Trap Pond’s 90 acres, mostly 8 feet deep or less, was created by damming a creek more than two centuries ago, much like dozens of other ponds that dot the region.
Its modest hydropower was first employed to saw timber as loggers took down the original forests, including most of the cypress. The region’s forests were also cut for charcoal to melt local deposits of bog iron into ingots.
As agriculture expanded in the 1800s, the ponds turned to powering grist mills. Nowadays, it is growing recreational demands that have made public use their new highest value.
After a few hours of paddling. we turned to bicycles, which are free for park visitors. Miles of multi-use trails, hard-packed and well-drained, traverse through upland forests and across swamps on bridges. One can make 10–12 mph on a bicycle without danger, meandering prettily around the trunks of big oaks and maples. Off the Loblolly Trail, we stopped to admire a restored Greek revival style church, Bethesda Methodist Episcopal. Graves there date to the 1870s. Trail running and bass fishing are probably the two most popular activities at Trap Pond, said Lindsey Robinson a naturalist at the park.
Today, Trap Pond and adjoining ponds and stream trails managed by Delaware form one of the largest chunks of natural landscape left in southern Delaware, whose private lands are largely devoted to raising more chickens per acre than any other place in the nation, along with the vast fields of corn and soybeans it takes to feed them.
Had history been kinder, the park might have been a mere outlier of a vast and dense swamp that was one of the natural marvels of the entire mid-Atlantic. The Great Cypress Swamp, as described from Colonial times, stretched for more than 50,000 acres through lower Delaware and into Maryland, bridging Chesapeake and Atlantic watersheds and harboring black bears now extirpated from Delmarva.
The “cypress” of that mammoth bog referred to both the bald and green cypress, the latter now known more commonly as Atlantic white cedar, and found hereabouts only in scattered remnants now. The cedars grew arrow straight to 140 feet, with trunks frequently 4–6 or even 8 feet in diameter. Their wood was prized for its light weight, workability and imperviousness to rot.
The waters that flowed from the swamp, filtered through centuries of fallen needles, was pure and acidic — sea-voyaging ships preferred cedar swamp water it as it did not go bad on long trips.
Although it is more of a shrub today, early naturalists’ accounts talk of sassafras, growing up to 3 feet in diameter. They also wrote of giant ash, oaks, tulip poplars, elms, hollies, hickories and pines. Black bears raided honey combs measuring up to 18 feet in length, lodged in the hollows of giant white cedars.
For centuries, settlers logged the great swamp and drained it to create farmland. Today, riding through farmland east of Trap Pond one can see the uncommonly deep and numerous drainage ditches carved into the Sussex County soil.
The final insult to the Great Cypress Swamp came after several months of drought in 1929, when a major forest took hold in the swamp. It was 10 years into the U.S. Prohibition, and the remaining several thousand acres of swamp had become refuge not only to wildlife but to moonshiners. It is thought that one of these may have ignited the blaze that burned for months, literally destroying the deep peat—up to 10 feet—that was the base of the swamp. Other fires as early as 1782 had done major damage, too. One burned for two months and showered hot coals on ocean beaches 14 miles distant.
A side trip I’d recommend, just minutes from Trap Pond by car, would be to follow State Route 54, also known as Cypress Road, where it passes just east of Gumboro through remnants of the swamp. The land there, most of it preserved by the conservationist group, Delaware Wildlands, remains the largest block of contiguous forest on the Delmarva Peninsula, around 12,000 acres. It harbors several species of birds that require deep forest interior to breed.
Visitors can celebrate their big tree quest back in Laurel at Abbott’s Restaurant, where the Delaware state champion bald cypress stands next to the parking lot. Some of us think the champ’s a bit of a cheat as it looks like two trunks grown together; but it’s impressive. Don’t hug it, as it is encircled by perhaps the state champion poison ivy vine.
Easier still is to travel down the road from the main park a mile or so to Trussum Pond, managed as part of Trap Pond. The dense cypress stands in the pond here, quite paddle-able, grow in a curious corkscrew fashion. It might be the most picturesque pond paddle that Delaware offers.
A new nature center, which illustrates Trap Pond’s place in the context of the Chesapeake’s 64,000-square-mile watershed, is a fine place to begin learning about the park’s human and natural history.
Another possibility is the annual pow wow of the state-recognized Nanticoke Indian Tribe each September in nearby Millsboro. The tribe also maintains a modest but interesting museum there.
Trap Pond is also less than half an hour’s drive from Phillips Landing, a small waterfront county park at the mouth of Broad Creek, which is fed by the pond. Here is an impressive stone monument to Capt. John Smith, who pushed this far up the Nanticoke River in his two epic 1608 voyages that produced the first maps of Chesapeake Bay.
Trap Pond State Park
Trap Pond State Park, in Laurel, DE, is open 8 a.m. to sunset daily. Park office hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends April through October.
Recreation opportunities at the park include bicycling, boating, disc golf, fishing, horseshoes, volleyball and picnicking.
All of the hiking/bicycling trails in the park American Holly Trail (0.7 mile loop) Boundary Trail (3.6-mile loop) and Loblolly Trail (4.6-mile loop) are rated as “easy.” The Boundary Trail and part of the Loblolly Trail are also open to equestrians. Open only to hikers are the Island Trail, an easy 0.6-mile loop and Cypress Point Trail, an easy 1-mile hike.
Water trails include the Terrapin Branch Water Trail, a medium, 1.4-mile one-way paddle; and Raccoon Pond Water Trail, a medium 1-mile one-way paddle. A third water trail, the James Branch Water Trail, was closed until further notice at press time. Those interested in this 6.5-mile advanced, one-way trail should call ahead to see if the trail has been re-opened.
RV and tent camping, as well as rustic cabin or yurt rentals, are offered March 1 through Nov. 30. To make a reservation, call 302-875-2392 or look for the park at www.destateparks.com.
For information call Trap Pond at 302-875-5153 or visit www.destateparks.com/park/trap-pond/nature-center.asp. To learn about other sites in the Chespeake Bay Gateways and WaterTrails Network, visit www.baygateways.net.
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