Paddling "rivertops," the flowing streams that give rise to the Bay's grander, tidal rivers, can be an improbably wild and intimate experience. Often, when you go back and pull up where you were on Google Earth, you discover it was an illusory wilderness, only the narrowest of green corridors through surrounding farmland and development.
But if only for a few hours, such places grant a memorable respite from the increasingly domesticated Chesapeake watershed. You feel your little flotilla was the only one to ever pass that way. Certainly it's rare to see anyone else in these small venues.
Among the best such rivertops is the James Branch of the Nanticoke River. It flows through dense forests, mercifully unditched for ag drainage, for several miles through the southeastern corner of Delaware, through a Sussex County landscape dominated by poultry and fields of grain to feed hundreds of millions of chickens annually. The rest of the county avidly pursues sprawl development.
Yet there is the James Branch, special enough that it harbors one of 26 forests to be included in Joan Maloof's recent book, Among the Ancients, a beautifully written guide to old growth forests in each of the Eastern United States.
"A dark and complex beauty, so rare in flat, agricultural southern Delaware," wrote Maloof, a retired botany professor from Salisbury University.
Don't even think about launching upstream at Trap Pond, not even from the next road downstream, Delaware Route 463 — not unless you are looking for an all-day, all-out bushwhack getting wet and muddy, and pulling over and around so many snags and logs and downed thickets of trees that you will lose count.
There was a time when I sought such adventures, I dimly recall. Maloof and I independently went in from Route 463 and agree: never again.
Launch instead from Records Pond, a nice little state boat ramp, and paddle to the left, roughly east, toward the far end of the bald cypress-studded millpond. Use canoes, or short kayaks with large cockpits with easy access, as you'll still be getting in and out at a few places where trees have blocked the way.
But where you're headed is worth the effort — to Delaware's oldest tree, a giant 560-year-old bald cypress that was sizable when Columbus sailed. The trees around it aren't shabby either. Somehow a small stretch deep in the James Branch escaped the cutting of virtually every forest that occurred across most of the Bay watershed since the 1800s.
As one approaches the eastern end of Records Pond, stay right, roughly south, until a stream corridor emerges. Beware, there are two streams that come in here, and it's easy to take the wrong one toward Chipmans Pond — don't ask how I know.
So keep to the right, bending around past several small docks and backyards from a little housing development. Within half an hour or so, if you are in the James Branch you should pass beneath Delaware State Route 24. (You could launch here, but a narrow shoulder and traffic make this somewhat dangerous.)
This approach to the ancient cypress means you are paddling upstream, against the flow; but unless there have been significant rains, this should not be too hard. The canopied stream is almost uniformly shallow and no more than a few canoe lengths wide.
On your left you will come to a small clearing and a large diesel motor with a pipe extending into the dark, tea-colored waters of the stream. This is a sod farm's irrigation pump. Here you will be roughly halfway on a trip of perhaps five miles each way.
The James Branch, and Broad Creek, the tributary of the Nanticoke into which it drains, form the northernmost stand of naturally occurring bald cypress in the United States.
The cypress, Taxodium distichum, is an ancient species of deciduous conifers. Their needles turning glossy cinnamon before they drop and are a sight to behold in the autumn sun. No other green in the woods is so fresh and airy as that emerging in April and May as the cypress feathers out. Bald cypress once dominated a swamp of more than 50,000 acres across this region of Delaware that formed the headwaters of the Pocomoke River. Today, only remnants have survived the logging, burning and draining.
The forested path up the James Branch is initially pleasant enough but conventional — red maples, ash, sweet and black gum, some loblolly pines and scattered cypress, all mostly less than a century old.
As you paddle, this begins to shift, with cypress dominating more and more along the banks, their distinctive “knees” put up from their roots almost solid along the banks in some places.
You begin to see a few bigger trees. The trunks of the older cypress flare — "like southern belles attending a ball in their hoop skirts," Maloof writes. The shapes of the lower trunks are fantastic, their deep recesses allowing one to imagine all manner of critters harbored therein.
Cypress canopies allow a fair amount of light to filter through, and on a clear day the play of sun and shade along the stream, its floodplain and its sandy bottom is a show in itself.
At some point you look up and realize you have entered a small realm of giant trees. The so-called "patriarch" cypress' mammoth, flared trunk looms up over the water like a wall of wood.
It measures about 25 feet around and soars to more than 120 feet, with a spread at the top covering more than 60 feet. Its age was accurately determined by a tiny plug of wood extracted from its trunk more than 20 years ago, allowing scientists to count 540 growth rings. Several of its neighbors look about as large.
They are still babies compared to the oldest known bald cypress — a stand up the Black River near Wilmington, NC, goes back 2,000 years and more, the oldest trees in the Eastern United States. Nonetheless, here in the James Branch one knows one is in a special place.
I sometimes bring my environmental studies class from Salisbury University here to lecture about forests. Like most of us, the students have grown up thinking the 60– to 90-year-old forests that cover so much of our landscape are what a real forest looks like. It is good to sit around the trunk of the patriarch and envision what was, and maybe can be again.
Among the Ancients author Maloof, who first told me of this paddle, is working to make that happen. She has begun an Old Growth Forest Network, which aims to create at least one patch of publicly accessible forest in every county of the United States, places where the trees will never be cut so the trees will grow ancient.
An online map of the James Branch Nature Preserve shows the route to the old cypress. Spring through fall is the obvious time to go, but winter light on the tall, bare limbs of cypress is mighty nice too. So if you can't get there while it's warm, go then. The stream's small enough you won't die if you go in.
This article was originally published on the Bay Journal website on April 1, 2013.