Standing in this eerie forest on a sultry summer day, you can easily imagine yourself in another time and place, like somewhere along the swampy coast of South Carolina. It’s not hard to envision Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” of Revolutionary War fame, charging past on his horse as he eludes his pursuers, British troops unaccustomed to American swamps and unnerved by their reptilian inhabitants.
But this is Maryland, about an hour’s drive southeast of Washington, D.C. This is Battle Creek Cypress Swamp, one of the northernmost stands of bald cypress trees in North America. Swamps like this were once more widespread here. Today only a few small patches can be found in Maryland and Delaware. More extensive cypress swamps extend along the coastal Southeast and Gulf of Mexico to Texas, and up the Mississippi River basin as far as southern Indiana and Illinois.
Although some trees here may be hundreds of years old, this is not pristine virgin forest. Cypress wood is prized for its resistance to decay, so this stand has been repeatedly logged and reduced in size since colonial times. The Nature Conservancy acquired the remaining 100 acres in 1957 to establish this preserve.
A distinctive feature of the bald cypress is its unique cone-shaped root structures known as knees, which surround the trunk and protrude upward through the mud and dark water. The knees can grow several feet high and may help provide oxygen to the tree. Along with the woody buttresses extending from the trunk, knees may also help stabilize the tree. Whatever their purpose, they certainly make navigating by boat or on foot through bald cypress swamps problematic. Another unusual characteristic of the bald cypress is that, although coniferous, its feather-like leaves turn brown and fall off in autumn.
You can access the 0.4-mile swamp boardwalk loop trail from a small visitor center. The trail is so short that, when you get back to the start, it’s worth turning around and walking it again in the other direction. There is also a spur that leads to a 0.3-mile trail through a native arboretum and meadow, which we didn’t know about at the time so we didn’t walk through there.
The preserve is on a country road a few miles south of Prince Frederick. Opening hours vary (as late as 1:00 p.m. on Sunday), and it is closed on county holidays. Beware: Sue and I drove an hour and half to get here one Saturday recently and were dismayed to find that the gate to the parking lot was closed well after the 10:00 a.m. opening time. There was no indication on their website or voicemail that the preserve would be closed that day.
We decided to drive about 20 miles south to the charming bayside town of Solomons to poke around for a while. When we returned to the preserve a couple of hours later, the gate was still closed. Having planned our day around a visit here, we decided to park on the grass by the gate and walk in. The visitor center was closed, but we were able to circle around it and access the boardwalk loop trail. We ran into a volunteer there who told us that the person who was supposed to unlock the gate hadn’t shown up. He had contacted someone to let them know. The gate was still closed when we left.
But despite that snafu, I’d still highly recommend a visit here. For a few minutes and a short distance, you can immerse yourself in an environment that is truly rare this far north. You won’t spot an alligator here, or a terrified Redcoat knee deep in muck, but at Battle Creek Cypress Swamp it’s not hard to imagine.
David Romanowski, 2019