Paddling On Nassawango Creek

by Jim Rapp

One of the best early-spring outdoor outings on Delmarva is paddling a kayak or canoe on Nassawango Creek near Snow Hill, Maryland.

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There's something very special about gliding along dark water under your own steam on a cool, crisp morning as the heat from the sun begins to warm you and every other living thing in the bald cypress forest. A tributary of the magnificent Pocomoke River, the Nassawango is perfect for all ages and skill levels. The creek's gentle waters provide a natural path for paddlers who aren't skilled with a compass or GPS. Honestly -- there's no way to get lost back here, but you'll feel as if you've trekked through a wilderness waterway after paddling just two hours on the Nassawango.

You don't have to own a boat for this Delmarva experience. The Pocomoke River Canoe Company in Snow Hill has you covered. You can't miss it - the barn-red building is a Snow Hill icon, and sits right on the bridge crossing the river along Route 12. Built around 1924 near the railroad that served the town during its former industrial era, the building once served as a warehouse for the Corddry Company.

The shop will arrange everything you need for a safe trip. Most importantly, they'll deliver you to the launch site at Red House Road and pick you up when you're done.

You'll pass lush, green fields dotted with farmsteads as you make the 10-minute drive to the launch. Look to your right at the corner of Route 12 and Nassawango Road, and you'll see an historical marker noting the Askiminokonson Indian Town. It will enrich your experience to know that you'll be paddling through what was once Maryland's largest Native American settlement in the late 1600s.

The Canoe Company crew is very helpful, and they will provide a quick paddling lesson for those who need it. They will also help you slip your boat into the dark water from the launch installed by The Nature Conservancy. We are so fortunate to have this community conservation organization working on Delmarva. Some of our most pristine protected lands are managed by the Conservancy, including the 9,953 acres that make up the Nassawango Creek Preserve.

The champions for the Preserve were Ilia and "Nassawango Joe" Fehrer. In the 1980s, they prevented the damming of the Nassawango and convinced the Nature Conservancy to preserve the swamp and upland forest that drains into it. Whenever I paddle here, I think about Ilia and "Nassawango Joe" and what their work years ago provide for us today.

As you begin your adventure, pause for a moment to float quietly and listen as the van pulls away. This may be the last unnatural sound you'll hear before you slink into the shaded, canopied cavern of the bald cypress swamp. Put your cell phone on mute so you can fully enjoy the soundscape of the swamp during your paddle.

Look down as your paddle gently carves the dark water. The Nassawango is the color of tea that has steeped a bit too long. The color is caused by the tannic acid that seeps into the water from the decaying leaves of cypress trees and other plants that line the bank. Some visitors think the creek is dirty due to the dark appearance, but the water quality here is actually quite good and the tannin prevents a lot of pesky mosquitoes.

As noted, the Nassawango is dominated by bald cypress. These majestic trees form the northernmost stand of these southern swamp ecosystems. While paddling the upper Nassawango near the launch site, look to the creek bank for the knobby knees of the bald cypress. The most likely purpose of these elfin structures is to support the tree in the saturated mud of the swamp.

Bald cypress also feature wide, buttressing trunks that make them look like trees from a tropical rainforest. Although grouped with evergreen cone-bearing trees, bald cypress trees are deciduous and shed their needle-like leaves in the fall. They get the name "bald" because of their appearance after they lose their leaves.

During your paddle, you'll notice a few giants that look like the tree-like creatures from the Lord of the Rings movies. Passing by them in your boat, it's easy to imagine that you'll hear a sucking sound as the trees lift their roots from the muck to head towards some distant battle for Middle-Earth.

The giant cypress seem to be the preferred host for Resurrection Fern, which looks like greenish-brown shag carpet growing on the tree's thick horizontal branches. This amazing fern can lose up to 97 percent of its water content during an extreme dry spell. During this time, it shrivels into a brown clump. When it rains again, the Resurrection Fern will "come back to life" and look green and healthy.

The swamp provides perfect habitat for a wide variety of animals. During the early spring before the trees have leafed out, you'll notice large piles of sticks near the water's edge. These carefully-crafted structures are beaver lodges. If you paddle too close when there a young in the lodge, a protective parent will swim towards your boat and slap the water with a loud "whack" of it's flat tail. This is a warning to move along.

River otters also love the cypress swamp. Look for a fast-moving line of bubbles breaking the water surface in front of your boat -- if you're patient and quiet, you may be rewarded with a glimpse of a playful otter coming up for air.

While not everyone will see a beaver or an otter, you will see and hear the birds. The Pocomoke-Nassawango region has been declared an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society of Maryland/DC for providing habitat critical to sustaining native bird populations. Of the 24 Forest-Interior Dwelling birds known to nest on Delmarva, 21 breed regularly in the Pocomoke-Nassawango area.

During a slow, meandering paddle in the spring, you are likely to be rewarded with multiple sightings of the magnificent Prothonotary Warbler. The males are bright gold with greenish-gray wings, and can be found singing loudly from cypress knees and low-lying branches along the Nassawango. Other birds you might encounter include Wood Ducks, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Pileated Woodpeckers. One of the swamp's signature sounds is the "who cooks for you, who cooks for you aallll" call of the mysterious Barred Owl.

Partially submerged logs along the route provide basking platforms for Painted and Red-belly turtles and Northern watersnakes. If you paddle slowly by these reptiles while they're sunning themselves, they'll likely keep a watchful eye and permit your passage. If you get too close, they're avoidance strategy is to slip quietly into the cool, dark water, and disappear.

Depending on your pace - and I recommend a slow, meandering drift so you don't miss out on the natural sights and sounds - you'll see the Nassawango Bridge after about 90 minutes. Ancient trees. Dark water. Singing warblers. Basking turtles. Although not a true "wilderness" adventure by definition, it sure feels as if you've traveled -- on your own power -- to a distant, wild place, and all just 10 minutes from historic Snow Hill.