“In my opinion, one has only matured in the sport of paddling when you can discover as much adventure in exploring a local swamp or marsh by canoe as in running whitewater or traveling to far-off lands.” –Ralph Frese, Chicagoland Canoe Base
Swamp. A word that conjures up visions of tangled vegetation, oppressive heat, treacherous mud, fetid water, and countless things that creep, crawl, sting, and bite. A gloomy place full of malicious creatures; a mysterious, menacing place with the will and the power to suck an unwary traveler into its bowels.
At least that’s the myth that Hollywood wants you to believe. In truth, swamps are fascinating realms that both confirm and contradict popular notions. Certainly, swamps can snare the careless. But they’re also treasure troves of beauty and natural wonder, containing some of the most fragile and biologically diverse ecosystems on this planet. A swamp sojourn can be as safe and enjoyable as any backcountry endeavor-assuming that you’re properly prepared.
The meaning of “swamp” may vary from region to region or between individuals, but generally a swamp can be compared to a wet woodland, unlike a marsh, which is dominated by grass. Harnett T. Kane, author of The Bayous of Louisiana, maintains that a swamp represents a natural succession from the marsh to the forest. “It is a place,” he says, “that seems often unable to make up its mind whether it will be earth or water, and so it compromises.”
This mingling of ecotypes is what makes a swamp experience so uniquely rich. For great wildlife watching and botanizing, visit a swamp. For prehistoric sounds and a feel of the primordial, visit a swamp-the liquid land.
Thoreau wrote that “hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps . . . that was the jewel which dazzled me.” Certainly, lofty peaks, mighty glaciers, and rushing streams have their undeniable allure, but so does a dab of sedge and slough or the strange beauty of flooded wooded chambers and lily-strewn prairies.
Listening to the song of the Carolina wren, the hoot of a barred owl, the cry of the bobcat, the roar of the bull alligator, one thing is certain: swamps are among earth’s enchanted natural areas. Canoe through a dream world of stately cypresses and silent Spanish moss and twisting blackwater channels . . . and, like Thoreau, expect to be dazzled, too.
Here is a sampling of some of the best-preserved swamps (sometimes intermingled with marshes) on the North American continent. These waterlogged depressions-lopsidedly concentrated east of the Mississippi River-vary in size from relatively small, oasis-like areas surrounded by steel and concrete to vast tracts of wilderness covering hundreds of square miles. They are the survivors of what was once a much larger distribution of wetlands that have been completely destroyed by draining, dredging, and filling. According to the National Wildlife Federation, of the original 215 million acres of swamps, bogs, and marshes in the continental United States, less than half remain, and these are disappearing at a rate of 300,000 acres per year.
Enter the swamp. Reach out and touch it. Have it reach out and touch you. These low-lying, watery wildernesses are our “hope and the future.” And there are not a great many such places left.