nature essay methuselah
photograph by Tommy White

I stow the paddle and drift, let the burbling gurgle of the canoe quiet to silence, and listen for the wind in the cypress trees above. It sounds like distant surf, a moaning sigh in the lightning-shattered crowns of the ancients. The trees erupt toward the sky, so many that they wall off the horizon, giant hoary trunks twisted and caverned with hollows, branches dripping with resurrection fern. Here, in this old-growth cypress forest along the Black River, it’s easy to lose track of time and space. I’ve been paddling for hours, and I’m not 100 percent sure just where I am in the swamp. It’s hard to tell if it’s 11 a.m. or midafternoon. Or whether it’s the 21st century — or the 4th.

A flittering glint of yellow catches my eye, and I follow it into the trees — a prothonotary warbler is tending its nest. It’s one of my favorite birds, a tiny, swamp-dwelling migrant that takes over the nesting cavities left by woodpeckers. Seeing it brings to mind the ivory-billed woodpeckers that once thronged these forests, and the Carolina parakeets that might have nested in their hollows. And it brings to mind this: Many of the trees here must have witnessed those long-vanished species. They would have nodded over Native Americans in dugout canoes. They would already have been tall when the Lost Colony was lost, when the Mayflower sailed, when Attila the Hun was on the move. A few might have stood when Christ was born.

I pick up the paddle, plant it in water dark as old tea, and pull. Paisleys of clear bubbles foam in the river beside the canoe. The boat threads through cypress knees that fang the swamp, and the sun disappears completely, deep in the heart of Three Sisters Swamp.

• • •

In the pantheon of famous swamps — if indeed there is such a thing — Bladen County’s Three Sisters is near the top of the list. Here, along an 11-mile swath of the Black River, downstream of tiny Ivanhoe, private landowners and conservation groups have preserved more than 2,000 acres of cypress forests. Some stands are virgin, old-growth trees. Many are more than 500 years old. In one remote corner of the swamp, Three Sisters contains a stand of trees that are the oldest east of the Rocky Mountains. One of the trees, a shaggy soldier that scientists refer to as BLK69, took root in 364 AD. Locals call the tree “Methuselah.” Scores of paddlers search for this famous cypress each year, but few find it. Once, it bore a tiny metal tag, left by researchers specializing in dendrochronology — the analysis and study of tree rings — but that was years ago.

The centuries-old cypress trees in Three Sisters Swamp have withstood the ravages of man and Mother Nature.

To search for Methuselah, I launch my canoe at Beatty’s Bridge Landing and paddle until the Black River braids, then braids again, and again. Along much of this stretch, the river falls less than six inches a mile, yielding to gravity. Soon I lose the river channel in a labyrinth of swamp and smaller courses, through draperies of cypress and tupelo gum and Carolina ash — a swamp forest of aged trees, flat-crowned, their grizzled trunks silvery in the light. In the broad floodplain, the river is just a few feet deep, and I tether the canoe to a paddle to wade long sandbars and take a quick swim.

A few hours later, I paddle out of the wonderland as the channels and sloughs coalesce, flowing together to form a river again, under trees that can boast of only a mere three or four centuries. I turn downstream, toward the next bridge and my take-out, trailing bubble lines that mark my passage for just a few moments longer. I can’t say for sure if I found BLK69. I likely saw the tree, or its crown rising overhead, or passed its shadow somewhere back in the swamp, without knowing. Which is fine by me. Paddling for Methuselah is a quixotic undertaking, and a pretty good excuse to spend a day in the swamp — if you need an excuse at all.

This story was published on

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.