For 200 years, this man-made pond has enchanted us with its giant cypress trees and wildlife. Thousands of travelers visit the muddy waters and learn what we’ve known for years — you simply can’t get enough.
From the stern of my canoe, I spot the water moccasin — a thick coil of black and tan sitting in the hollow core of a cypress stump.
“Stop the boat,” I say.
My wife, Cathy, sets her paddle atop the gunwales, and I grab my camera. Our friend calls from a neighboring canoe. “What’s John doing now?”
Cathy sighs. “He sees another snake.”
I focus the telephoto lens on the sunning serpent.
“Back us up.”
The spade-shaped head fills my lens. He’s a sinister-looking beast, with devilish, black pupils, looking right at me.
I press the shutter. The snake lurches forward.
“Get back! Get back!” I spin away, tumbling onto the floor of the canoe.
“He’s gone,” Cathy says.
“Are you sure? I thought he was coming after me.”
“He dove into the water.”
Heart pounding, I pull myself back into the seat. The larger world comes into focus — the still water, the moss-draped cypress trees, my friends in their canoes, doubled over with laughter. I was scared, but excited at the same time. This was what I’d been looking for — a place with the look and feel of a real Southern swamp.
Merchants Millpond, in the northeast corner of the state, is a relic of a bygone age when hydropower ran our machinery. It’s a man-made body of water — created when Kinchen Norfleet dammed Bennett’s Creek for his gristmill in 1811 — but it’s so big (750 acres) and so old (200 years) and its waters are so thoroughly populated by swamp-loving creatures and vegetation that it feels ancient.
In its day, Norfleet’s gristmill was a prime gathering spot for local merchants (thus, its name). Today, the mill is gone, and the pond is the star, protected since 1973 as Merchants Millpond State Park. It attracts some 240,000 visitors each year from as far away as Europe.
People come to Merchants Millpond for the same reason I do: to marvel at the exotic trees and to catch a glimpse of the park’s abundant wildlife. Two-hundred-year-old cypress trees and gum trees grow across the pond, giving it the appearance of a watery savannah. Bright yellow prothonotary warblers are in the trees, and dozens of turtles crowd the logs of the millpond, too, their smooth shells shining like polished metal in the morning sun.
Half a dozen alligators reside here, including a nine-footer. Merchants may be the northernmost location on the East Coast regularly occupied by alligators, although that range is likely to stretch northward as the climate warms and populations expand.
The main body of Merchants Millpond can be circumnavigated in a few hours, and many people are content to do that. I am interested in venturing up the headwaters of Bennett’s Creek into an area known as Lassiter Swamp. This is where the biggest cypress grow, some more than 1,000 years old.
As my group leaves the millpond and heads up the stream channel, the forest closes in. The smell of swamp muck fills the air, and the feeling that something — a bobcat, a bear — might jump out at any time is palpable.
My trip mates call out from behind, “Are you sure you know where you’re going?”
In time, I just stop and stare at the forest of arrow-straight trunks rising to a lime green canopy. Birdsong fills the air. “We’re here,” I say. “This is it.”
We set up camp on a low rise along the northern shore. (The park has a variety of designated campgrounds, ranging from remote backpacking sites to drive-in RV sites and group campsites with hot showers). We stretch our limbs on the Lassiter Trail, one of a network of interconnecting trails that leads through some 3,000 acres of upland and pine forest. Hiking the trails offers the best chance of seeing a bear — there are an estimated 25 to 50 in and around the park.
A visitor’s center stands on a bluff overlooking the northern shore of the millpond. The center incorporates an exhibit hall, auditorium, classroom, and lab, constructed in the latest energy-efficient design. Along with displays of local wildlife, the center showcases something not found out on the pond — human artifacts, including a 150-year-old dug-out canoe donated by a local family who had it sitting in their backyard.
“Their grandfather and brother had fashioned the canoe out of a cypress tree and used it to ply the waters of the Chowan River,” says park superintendent Jay Greenwood. “The family heard we were collecting items for the nature center and wondered if we would have any interest in it. Boy, did we.”
Another local resident donated his father’s voluminous collection of Indian artifacts gathered from fields near the millpond. The relics include arrowheads, stone tools, and spearpoints, including a 10,000-year-old Clovis point.
Last year, while clearing downed trees below the millpond dam, park staff found a wooden water turbine sticking out of the muck. This handcarved machine, currently undergoing restoration before being put on display, may have been the original that powered Norfleet’s mill.
As the light fades above the millpond, we light a fire and recount our day’s adventures. Even here, a short paddle from the parking lot, we feel like we’re deep in wilderness. A barred owl hoots from the forest. We smile at each other in recognition and settle back to the fire.
176 Millpond Road
Gatesville, N.C. 27938
John Manuel is the author of The Natural Traveler along North Carolina’s Coast. His most recent story for Our State was “Peak of Perfection” (January 2012).