Park for paddlers, hikers preserves ancient swamp

Posted August 6, 2010 1:56 p.m. EDT
Updated August 7, 2010 7:50 a.m. EDT

— Jay Greenwood, superintendent of Merchants Millpond State Park, loves the view from his office.

"There's 750 acres of the cypress pond itself, and it's surrounded by a few thousand acres of swamp with cypress and gum trees," Greenwood described the park in Gates County in the state's northeastern coastal plain.

Greenwood often spends his work days canoeing around the swamp. He calls it a paddler's paradise – glassy, smooth water surrounded by calm and quiet.

"I get out here as much as I can. On my days off, I do it for enjoyment because it's such a beautiful place," he said.

Caretakers say Merchants Millpond is one of North Carolina's rarest ecologies: a combination of coastal pond, southern swamp forest and upland forest environments that evolved around a mill pond created in the 1700s.

The mills closed after World War II and owners started selling the land to developers, but swamp lover A.B. Coleman, of Moyock, bought 919 acres and donated it to the state. His donation formed the nucleus of Merchants Millpond State Park.

Now, primitive species of fish swim beneath floating mats of ferns and duckweed, and more than 200 species of birds fly among the remnants of an ancient bald cypress swamp.

The park gets approximately 200,000 visitors a year, Greenwood said, but they don't see too much of each other.

"Usually, you don't see people even when it's loaded with people, so it's a pretty neat place," he said.

In addition to boating, the park is open to hikers. Twelve miles of hiking trails take visitors deep into the woods.

"For some, getting on the mill pond in a boat may not be their thing, but you can certainly see the beauty on all the trails that surround the park," Greenwood said.

It scarcely matters how visitors access the park, though, Greenwood said. All paths into the park lead to a special experience.

"No matter who you are, whether you're a big outdoorsman or just someone who want to go out and paddle for a half-hour, it's getting out here into this wild environment," he said. "It's an amazing place throughout the year."