photograph by Neil Jernigan

There is a moment, in the brief window just before sunrise in a swamp, when you can almost lose your bearings. Just before the sun lifts over the horizon, the planes of sky and earth conflate into a single, seamless image. Black-trunked trees and red-tinged clouds are mirrored in water and sky, and if you are very, very still, and your dog doesn’t quiver, you seem to be held in a thin film between two worlds, like a water strider on the surface of a pond. You don’t dare twitch or shuffle your feet, for the ripples on the water will shatter the illusion.

This sense of immersion in a wild place is one of the reasons I love swamps. There are plenty more, as I’m sure you’ll agree. The confetti glitter of tiny duckweed on the water. The deep-bass percussion of a pileated woodpecker rattling a dead snag. Croak of toad, squeal of wood duck, groan of pickerel frog, snort of the deer that catches my scent as it feeds in a greenbrier thicket on the edge of the swamp.

So many reasons to love a swamp.

Wads of mistletoe hang in the trees, their silhouettes like Christmas balls.
In the dead snag, a furry orb of raccoon slowly unfurls in the sun.
A smoky-black smudge of geese courses overhead.
On the beaver dam, a river otter crunches a fish like an ear of corn.
Minnie shivers at my feet, eyes on the sky.

And the smell, of course. That primordial funk of good ol’ hydrogen sulfide. The scent seems ancient and everlasting. Like a platter of deviled eggs, spread out all the way to the tall pines on the far side of the water. I love that smell, love it when I catch a whiff on the dog’s coat, love it when I bash through the muck and mud and it comes wafting up through the black water like the breath of a dinosaur. To me, it’s not an odor of decay but the smell of life, of ducks and songbirds, happy dogs and sunrises. Bottle it up, and I guarantee you’d sell at least one. To me.

Citizen of the swamp: a river otter in Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Tyrrell County. photograph by Todd Pusser

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Our region might not have a reputation as a particularly swampy one — not like, say, Louisiana or Florida. But you might be surprised, if not downright amazed, at the prevalence of swamps in North Carolina. There are some whoppers, especially in the Coastal Plain. Ten miles separate one side of the Great Dismal Swamp from the other, and it used to be even larger. Some estimates put the original scope of the Great Dismal at a million acres — nearly twice the size of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Along the Roanoke River bottomlands, vast swamp forests cover a five-mile-wide floodplain. And most longtime Cackalackians have at least heard of pocosins, the peaty, shrubby bogs whose name comes from the Algonquian word meaning “swamp on a hill.” As if there’s a hill to be found in Hyde and Tyrrell counties.

I love the smell of a swamp. That primordial funk seems ancient and everlasting.

But swamps are hardly relegated to the flatlands. In the Piedmont, most tributary streams that feed big reservoirs — Badin, High Rock, Jordan, Falls — host large beaver pond and swamp complexes. I’ve seen beaver dams six feet tall along these feeder creeks, the impounded waters dimpled with fish and rimmed with lily pads. Even in the mountains, there are quagmires aplenty. The Mountain Bogs National Wildlife Refuge protects scattered sites where wet fens are home to a trove of rare plants and animals, such as tiny bog turtles, carnivorous pitcher plants, northern long-eared bats, South Mountains gray-cheeked salamanders. None of them figure a swamp as a fetid, lifeless wasteland.

No one who finds themselves in a North Carolina swamp in the fall would, either. Right now, swamps are putting on their Sunday best. Wood ducks glint like mosaic beads. Beavers work overtime, building up stores for winter. Every leaf on every tree is turning, each red and yellow splotch reflected in dark, still waters — a double helping of splendor. Cypress trees are taking on a burnt orange brilliance you won’t find anywhere else, other than the tops of my pal Tommy K’s perfectly baked biscuits.

A swamp in the fall is as full of life as any corner you could find in wild country. That helps explain why I returned to a favorite swamp one afternoon years ago, when an old friend and fellow swamp-lover passed away. A buddy and I meandered along the headwaters of a creek that drains into Jordan Lake. We collected cattail stalks and buttonbush stems from a favorite swamp and placed them on his casket. It seemed an appropriate goodbye for a man who spent his favorite mornings hunkered down in flooded timber and preferred swamp gas over Chanel No. 5.

That particular swamp had it all. There were acres of lily pads and arrow arum. You’d half expect a moose to wander out on a misty morning. The lily pads gave way to an open beaver pond, a perfect landing strip for ducks. During the fall waterfowl migrations, you could see teal and gadwall, mallards and ringnecks. Above the open ponds was a stretch of flooded woods that seemed like a little piece of the Mississippi Delta. Get there early enough, and in the moments before dawn, you could stand quietly at the water’s edge and not know which way was up and which was down.

Which seems fitting. In a swamp, with the sun coming up over the trees, it all looks like heaven to me.

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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.