Glide through Delaware’s Trap Pond, home to a beautiful stand of bald cypress trees
Sometimes nature finds its own way to bounce back, despite multiple human interferences, as any traveler to Delaware’s Trap Pond State Park can observe. The man-made pond is home to the northernmost natural stand of bald cypress trees on the east coast. You can easily float or paddle to appreciate these majestic treasures up close.
On a misty, atmospheric fall morning, I take a guided pontoon trip through Trap Pond with William Koth, manager of the park’s interpretive program. Mist-shrouded bald cypress trees rise from the water and into the air, their reflections hauntingly reflecting in the still water around us. The needles of these deciduous evergreens are just beginning to turn rusty brown before they drop, and our sight is nothing short of mystical.
Carved by the dampness of the fog, cobwebs shimmer on several trees. Through the fog, we see a few lights from rental cabins and yurts lining the shore. We pass a camping island with a small bridge – the most booked campsite in Delaware, according to Koth.
“Originally, Trap Pond was an industrial logging pond,” says Koth, although he speaks in terms of 18th century industries. In the late 1700s, when European settlers arrived in this swamp forest, they wanted to take advantage of the rot- and insect-resistant wood of bald cypress and Atlantic white cedar, which are common in the area. Workers dammed small streams that ran through the area to flood it and create the pond, which then helped transport huge tree trunks to an on-site sawmill and then to market. The sturdy wood was used for ship parts, shingles, facings and even coffins.
When most of the large trees were felled, however, logging slowed down and the water flowing over the dam was used for a time to power a grain and flour mill. In the mid-1800s, when a railroad was built nearby, the mill closed. Instead of grain, local farmers could easily grow and transport more perishable and profitable produce—strawberries, melons, and peaches—north to city markets. Driving through this part of Delaware today, you will still see the ditches used to drain marshland for farms. During a flood in 1931, the main dam was washed away, emptying the pond itself. And nature has taken full advantage of this momentarily transformed setting.
Bald cypress seeds need oxygen to germinate and do not grow when submerged under water. But now, instead of falling in water, they were falling on drier ground. Those that had already fallen were exposed to oxygen for the first time and rooted. (Some scientists believe bald cypress seeds can be viable for up to 25 years, Koth says.)
While the United States was still struggling with the lingering Great Depression, the Rural Resettlement Administration—part of FDR’s New Deal—purchased the Trap Pond property. From 1936 to 1937, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) rebuilt the dam and added infrastructure to the park. Those dry years were enough for bald cypress seedlings to get the jump they needed.
“They set their branches high enough to survive the re-flooding,” Koth says. “These might be some of the most deeply rooted cypress trees around.”
The general rule is that a tree’s roots extend as far below the ground as its crown above. In this muddy, muddy ground, however, the bald cypresses need even more stability. Their trunks flare downward as part of a “buttress root system,” Koth says, and their roots continue to flare out below the ground farther than the reach of their branches. This root system also includes the gnarled cypress knees, which grow in water around the trunk. All together, they “act as a stabilizer for the tree,” according to Koth. In a stand like this, the roots will also intertwine underground, giving towering trees even more stability.
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Fog and flared trunks
I think of research Suzanne Simard and others on the interconnectedness of trees and how they communicate and share food through networks of mycorrhizal fungi near their roots. Something similar must be at work with these impressive trees, I imagine.
Going deeper into this swampy forest, the pontoon boat plunges through a floating green plant, which I suspect is seaweed. Koth says it’s a native duckweed, which separates in front of us and closes behind. The pond water has a brownish tint due to tannins and is generally shallow, about 18 inches in many places. This water level is now ideal for cypresses, as well as some water lilies which will not root in deeper levels.
The flared bases of bald cypresses can also accommodate other plants. Depending on the season, the water in Trap Pond can fluctuate 6 to 8 inches, which then deposits dirt in the cracks and nooks of the base above the water. “[The flared trunks] act like little flower pots, almost like a hydroponic system,” Koth explains as we identify asters growing on multiple trunks. This understory can also support marsh rose, sweet arrowhead, poison ivy, and jewelweed, none of which can grow alone in standing water.
Later, when the sun clears the fog, I jump into a kayak alone and retrace the well-marked kayak and canoe trail. The wide variation in weather makes me feel like I visited the pond on different days. I weave tightly in and out of the trunks and through their reddish knees. Dragonflies and some northern red-bellied turtles also come out with the sun to feed and bask in its warmth. While paddling in the calm water, I feel like I can wander into the furthest corners of the pond and feel completely alone in the world.
With the help of Merlin Bird ID app (created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), I identify the songs of a blue jay, vireo, broad-shouldered hawk, and red-bellied woodpecker. My day of bird watching is crowned by the fifteen great blue herons that I spy on the two rides. I marvel at the magnificent wide wings of the herons carrying them upwards and outwards as my kayak approaches.
In the spring, this area also provides breeding habitat for Neotropical songbirds, including scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, and bright yellow headland warblers. This latter territorial bird is known to land on the bow of the pontoon to chase intruders from its nest, Koth says. You might also see wood ducks, kingfishers and osprey hanging around. At night you can listen for great horned owls and spotted owls, as well as vocal nightjars.
Around them, the once-targeted bald cypresses have rebounded beautifully and invite all creatures of nature to come and play, sing and explore among them.
If you are going to
Trap Pond State Park offers 9 miles of kayaking and canoeing trails, 12 miles of wooded hiking trails, guided nature walks, and fishing opportunities. The state park offers camping and RV sites as well as rental cabins, yurts, and a camping store. Kayak and canoe rentals and guided pontoon tours will resume in May.