Kayak adventure a lesson in wetlands’ purpose

Jill Howell paddles amongst large cypress trees at the Cypress Bridge Swamp Natural Area Preserve in Courtland, Virginia. Swamps like these play a vital role in clean water. (Photo by Clay Barber)

Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Jill Howell and Clay Barber, Sound Rivers’ environmental projects coordinator, took to the water this week to explore the swamps of southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina.

Howell and Barber paddled along the Chowan River and Mud Creek, as well as the Cypress Bridge Swamp Natural Area Preserve in Courtland, Virginia, where they met up with representatives of Dogwood Alliance, an environmental nonprofit based in Asheville, North Carolina. Some of the oldest trees in Virginia can be found on the Cypress Bridge preserve, as well as the oldest known Carolina ash tree in the country.

“We were talking about how once these old trees get to the size that they are, each tree is like its own habitat at this point — each tree has things living on it, hiding in it, eating on it,” Barber said. “Those mini-ecosystems all come together to create one of the most bio-diversive and active ecosystems in the world.”

Cypress swamps also play a major role in North Carolina, as wetlands — undeveloped areas where water makes the soil soggy, seasonally or year-round, that are essential for flood control.

One acre of floodplain wetland can store 1-to-1.5 million gallons of water, protecting downstream communities. Beyond flood control, wetlands also recharge groundwater supplies (important for the millions of North Carolinians who get their water from wells), clean pollutants out of surface waters and support our fisheries.

Jill Howell studies a cypress swamp from its banks during the kayaking adventure to Northeast NC and southern Virginia. (Photo by Clay Barber)

“They are nature’s natural water filter and an important nursery environment for a huge amount of plants and animals,” Barber said. “I was kind of comparing it to lungs, when I was describing them (to Dogwood Alliance). It’s like when you breathe, your body filters out what it needs and expels what it doesn’t, and that’s kind of what swamps do — it takes what it needs, and the rest filters down into the mud.”

Wetland protections in North Carolina has been in limbo since June of 2020, when the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a new “Waters of the United States” rule, eliminating federal oversight for millions of acres of wetlands and small streams. Even though North Carolina, Sound Rivers and many other organizations are currently in court fighting these devastating rollbacks, the rules are currently in effect. Fortunately, existing North Carolina state law continues to protect many of these areas. These state protections are essential in protecting the public and our communities from the further devastation of extreme storm events and flooding.

According to Barber, the kayaking trip through Cypress Bridge Swamp Natural Area Preserve was a lesson in how development impacts wetlands.

“Dogwood Alliance had a reporter with them, and they took him to a clear-cut section about 30-40 minutes away, then took him to an old-growth swamp that showed them what had been lost,” Barber said. “If you go in and clear-cut a wetland area, you’re not only losing the function of storing and cleaning the water, you’re also allowing a ton of sediment pollution. All that soil and nutrients get stirred up and moves downstream into places where it doesn’t belong. That’s how you end up with algal blooms and fish kills.”

On this cypress swamp adventure, Barber said one of their most interesting encounters — besides the two-car ferry over the Meherrin River —  was an area cleared long ago, where a dirt road ended at a wooden bridge, and had long since been abandoned to nature.

“In that very tight space, you’ve got some incredible examples of nature reclaiming space,” Barber said.

The tiny Parker’s ferry glides across the Meherrin River, where Jill Howell and Clay Barber wait to cross. (Photo by Clay Barber)