Loblolly pine. Chickory nut. Sassafras. Cypress. There is a sweet musicality to these Carolina woods. A canopy of green tangles and grasps, swallowing the landscape whole. Bird song and insect buzz fill the space between warm, humid breezes.
I follow the canoe rental signs, in spite of a number of unpleasant previous boating attempts. Forget my chronic inability to master the J-stroke. I'm happy if I can make it through an afternoon without awkward riverine camera recovery attempts and unpleasant phone conversation with my insurance company.
Merchants Millpond, separated from the vastly better named Great Dismal Swamp by an escarpment, drains 80 square miles of forest into a tea-dark lake. Duckweed covers the water like a green blanket, and Cypress trees stream Spanish Moss in the still heat of late afternoon. A distant thunderstorm stirs the air, offers a menacing rumble, but keeps its distance.
I paddle slowly through the haunted landscape. A snapping turtle dives with a surprised splash. I regularly snag the paddle on barely submerged....something, and try not to levitate out of the boat. A park service poster helpfully suggests viewing and enjoying the local alligator population from a safe distance.
It's good to know I won't drown in here. The gators will make sure of that.