A 'Primordial World' In Calvert County

POSTMARK: BATTLE CREEK CYPRESS SWAMP

September 05, 1993|By WAYNE HARDIN

The sun blazed and the deerflies attacked at the top of the hill, but here at the bottom, the air is 10 degrees cooler, bugs don't bite and the creek ripples placidly around cypress roots.

Down here, you're in the Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Sanctuary, a 100-acre "primordial world," as a Calvert County tourism pamphlet calls it.

"Cypress has been at Battle Creek thousands of years," says Andy Brown, 29, senior naturalist at the swamp's nature center. "The mystery is why it's here. Most cypress stands are found in river valleys. Cypress was the dominant tree in North America 20,000 years ago. As the climate changed and got cooler, the trees died back. Why these remained and others died off also is a mystery.

"This stand is 93 percent pure. That means nine of 10 trees are bald cypress."

Surrounded by hilly farmland, the sanctuary, named a National Natural Landmark by the Department of the Interior in 1965, is situated almost unobtrusively two miles west of Route 4. But 15,000 visitors a year find it. In 1957, this became the first property in Maryland to be bought by Nature Conservancy, the national non-profit organization that focuses on saving land.

Nature Conservancy, assisted by the Federated Garden Clubs of Maryland and a Save Our Swamp committee, paid $10,000 for the land. It wanted Battle Creek because it is the only bald cypress stand on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay and -- depending how those latitude lines fall from southern Delaware -- is the northernmost stand in the country. Calvert County leases the swamp from the Conservancy and manages it. The nature center, built in 1980 and providing programs for all ages, sits on county land next to the swamp.

In the nature center, with its cypress siding and architectural angles, you can find information on the swamp and a sampling of some of its creatures -- residing here are a blind owl, a reclusive opossum, a snoozing rat snake, some turtles. It's a short walk from here to the steps that take you down into the dank world of cypress, the rot-resistant, "everlasting" wood that is Calvert County's official tree.

On this day, Jack McCarthy, a Baltimore firefighter, and a friend, Geri Patterson, a bartender at an Anne Arundel County restaurant, descend the steps to a 1,700-foot circular boardwalk through the swamp.

"You really have to take your time and look," Mr. McCarthy says. "If you go too fast, you'll miss something."

The needles of the 100-foot deciduous bald cypress trees block the sun. Knees, the knobby root projections that make cypress distinctive, stick out of the earth. Poison ivy hugs the 4-foot-thick tree trunks.

Scores of lizard's tail, a fragrant, big-leaf plant, cover large areas. Pink turtlehead, a wildflower that blooms at the end of summer, grows around the tree bases.

"I wonder if some animals live in there?" asks Ms. Patterson, pointing at thick growth along tiny Battle Creek.

"I see some raccoon tracks by the knee," Mr. McCarthy says. "A couple of deer came through right here. See the tracks?"

They walk on. She admires the ferns; he looks for a bee tree he saw during his first visit to the swamp 10 years ago.

The swamp falls mute. A few bullfrogs break the silence with their discordant twangy croaks. Here, at the headwaters, Battle Creek is narrow enough to step across in spots. But when the creek meets the Patuxent River, it is as wide as a river itself.

Compared to the 3,300-acre Nassawango Creek Cypress Swamp on the Eastern Shore -- also owned by Nature Conservancy -- Battle Creek is miniature. But its smallness and the nature center make it feel intimate, accessible.

"Hold up, guys," the Rev. Rick Mallett says from the bottom of the steps to the boardwalk. Instead of calling a halt, his words seem to open the starting gates. Several whooping preteen boys race along the boardwalk.

"Guys, maybe if you're quiet you might see an animal," he says. Their voices hush. Thirty seconds later, the boys re-energize and are off again.

Mr. Mallett, his wife, Mary, their friend, Loris Smith, and seven children have come down from Columbia after seeing a tourist brochure on the swamp.

"It's a pretty place," Ms. Smith says, before heading off after the boys.

The swamp was logged early in the century, so most of the cypress is second growth and 100 years old or less. However, a 500-year-old state champion cypress tree stands in a part of the swamp off limits to the public.

About 40 percent of the swamp can be seen by visitors traversing the 15-year-old boardwalk, where Mr. Brown walks, missing little.

"One day this year, a fawn bedded down 15 feet from the boardwalk all day long," he says. "Nobody bothered it and 90 percent of the people never saw it."

And where the uninitiated see only insects at Battle Creek, he sees dragonflies or ebony jewel wings; wildflowers are sweet spires or violets; birds are worm-eating warblers or wood thrushes or Acadia fly-catchers.

He never tires of the wonder of this cool, quiet "island of cypress trees."

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