Summer has finally arrived. With it comes the opportunity to get out of your house and into nature. In this mini-series, I’ll be visiting semi-local parks and giving you the summary, so you can plan your next one-tank day trip.
I’ve always disliked the word swamp. It refers to a forested wetland. Swamps are a unique and wondrous ecosystem, but the word lends itself well to negative imagery: Swamp thing. Swamp water. My brother had an old beater when he lived in New Zealand called Swamp Donkey. It broke down often. Swamp is not a pretty word. When Walt Disney was pitching his idea to the people of Florida, he told them he’d take their useless swampland and turn it into something amazing. In reality, that swampland was the Everglades, Florida’s natural filtration system. Now we understand the importance of that “ugly” swamp, but the wording was enough to sell landowners on the idea that their property was useless.
Swamp has come to mean any wet, vegetated place, but in reality, there are distinctly different types of wetlands. You’ve got your bogs, your marshes, your floodplains. Wetlands are far and away my favorite ecosystem, but if you’ve never spent time in one, you may not understand why they’re so unique.
The 1,774-acre Cranesville Swamp straddles the border of Garrett County, Md., and Preston County, W.Va. Set aside as a preserve by The Nature Conservancy in 1960, it lies in what’s known as a frost bowl, a place where cold air gets trapped by the surrounding hills and sinks to the valley floor. So, too, does moisture. It’s always colder in a frost bowl than the rest of the region, sometimes by more than 10 degrees. The result is an ecological island, a place where colder climate species thrive. Cranesville Swamp Preserve is a little patch of Canada just south of Terra Alta, W.Va. The flora and fauna that live there — such as the American Mountain Ash — belong to more northern latitudes. Red spruce grow, too; you’ll normally find them dotting the top of West Virginia’s highest peak, Spruce Knob, almost 5,000 feet in the air. Along with mature hemlocks, you’ll find the southernmost natural community of tamarack trees, also known as larches. The American Larch is a unique, deciduous conifer that drops its needles in the fall as leafy trees do. Down on the ground grow sedge, sundew (a carnivorous plant) and cranberry, and the bog is spongy with sphagnum moss.
The cool climate also helps northern animal species to thrive. You may see a black bear, flying squirrel, porcupine or snowshoe hare. The northern water shrew lives here as does the saw-whet owl and the Blackburnian warbler. These aren’t species you’re likely to see in your backyard in Wheeling. In fact, Cranesville is a birdwatcher’s paradise: it’s home to over 100 bird species.
How did all these cold-weather lovers come to live in Cranesville Swamp? They simply stayed put after the last Ice Age ended. While most species retreated with the glaciers and the chilly temperatures, those in the frost bowl never noticed that the earth had warmed, thanks to the unique topography and weather. Walking through the forest and bog is like walking through a time capsule.
Things To Do
Five hiking trails wind their way through Cranesville Swamp Preserve, including the 1,500-foot boardwalk over the peat bog. The trails are all less than two miles long. You can take your time and look for birds and small animals, or you can zip through in less than an hour if you’re in a hurry. In the bog, look for carnivorous pitcher plants along the boardwalk. If you spot one, take a minute to peer down into the plant’s trap; you may see it digesting a fly or other insect. I’ve seen a snake sunning itself on the boardwalk and frogs in the water.
What I Brought
I’ve visited Cranesville Swamp in May and September. The hiking trails are well marked, and though you can hike in tennis shoes, I’d recommend sturdy hiking shoes. You may encounter some serious mud, most likely in the hemlock forest. Planks have been laid down to give hikers a dry place to walk, but a frost pocket bog is a wet place, so don’t wear your favorite white sneakers or flip-flops. Also, be aware that in the forest you’ll be stepping over roots and rocks and logs, so a hiking stick is nice if you’re at all unsteady on your feet. That said, this is a great place to walk with kids. The worst-case scenario if they fall off the boardwalk is a wet pair of shorts. The bog isn’t going to swallow them. It’s only a few inches of water. However, remember that it’s important to protect this delicate ecosystem, so don’t walk in the bog. Also, leave the hound at home. Pets aren’t allowed.
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I brought water, as the boardwalk section is out in the sun and the hike takes about 90 minutes if you move at a casual pace or meander along multiple trails. Sunscreen is important, as is warm clothing if you’re hiking in spring, fall or winter. Remember that if the calendar says September, it’ll be October in the frost bowl. I hiked there in mid-September last year and the leaves had already turned fiery red and brilliant gold. Fall is always a full month ahead of schedule in Cranesville Swamp, and spring is always a month behind.
There are no restrooms, so be prepared to water a bush. You’ll probably be the only car in the lot, so this shouldn’t be a problem. If you’ve got squat-phobia, send me an email. They make tools to assist that particular bodily function.
Things to Bring
This is a great time to talk about socks. Specifically, wool socks. Wool keeps you warm even when it gets wet. Cotton does not. Cotton gets cold and stays soggy. When you hike in a place where you might have to ford a stream or run the risk of accidentally stepping in a marsh, warm socks can make a real difference. Even sweaty feet can chill quickly. Now, in a place like Cranesville Swamp Preserve where you can easily reach your car, you may not need to worry about your socks. But if you hike regularly, do yourself a favor and invest in a few good pairs. You can buy heavy winter wool as well as thin, summer-weight wool. I learned this lesson last week when I hiked in the Dolly Sods Wilderness in the high mountains of Grant County. The stream I walked beside became a marsh I had to hike through. The vents on my hiking shoes let the water flow right in and it soaked my cotton socks. Fortunately, I was smart enough to have packed light wool socks and changed into them. Despite the wet shoes, my feet stayed comfortably warm, which is exceedingly important in the mountains or on any trail, really.
If you’re a birder, the fauna at Cranesville Swamp begs to be spotted, so think about binoculars and a camera. Animals are likely to be more active early in the morning and later in the evening during the heat of summer. These will also be cooler times of the day.
Lastly, depending on the time of year, you may want insect repellant. Bugs love bogs.
Where & How to Find Cranesville Swamp
To find Cranesville Swamp Preserve, head to Morgantown in I-79 south, then take I-68 east to Exit 4 at Friendsville, Md. Follow Route 219 south for 19 miles. From Route 219, turn right (west) on Mayhew Inn Road, and after 1.4 miles turn left on Bray School Road. In 1.6 miles at a T intersection, turn right on Oakland/Sang Run Road (Route 15). After 1 mile, turn left on Swallow Falls Road and follow for 2.6 miles to a sign for Youghiogheny Mountain Resort. At the sign, take a hard right on Cranesville Road. After approximately 4 miles, turn left onto Lake Ford Road. Take a sharp right curve in the road and stay to the right at the fork. Stay to the right at the next fork in the road, and Cranesville Swamp is 0.2 mile down the gravel road. Park in the lot. Visit the map to get a good look. It’s a little tricky and cell phones may not work, but GPS will. An old-fashioned paper map is helpful, too. Driving time is around two hours and you can visit Cranesville Swamp, Cathedral State Park and Swallow Falls State Park on the same day.
Visit the website for more information. No really, go do it. Not only does it offer a list of things to see, species to look for and a helpful trail guide, but it offers a guided audio tour you can download and listen to as you walk. Or, listen to it on the drive there. The Deep Creek Lake area offers a nice selection of restaurants if you emerge hungry and thirsty.
You won’t be too remote: there’s a power line that bisects the swamp, and houses dot the valley. Nevertheless, it does feel as though you’ve suddenly been transported to Maine or Canada. I’m always excited by wetland ecosystems, and this one is special because it offers something you’d never expect to find in the green valleys of West Virginia.
Now get out there.
• Laura Jackson Roberts is a freelance writer in Wheeling, W.Va. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University and writes about nature and the environment. Her work has recently appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, Vandaleer, Animal, Matador Network, Defenestration, The Higgs Weldon and the Erma Bombeck humor site. Laura is the Northern Panhandle representative for West Virginia Writers, a blog editor for Literary Mama Magazine and a member of Ohio Valley Writers. She recently finished her first book of humor. Laura lives in Wheeling with her husband and their sons. Visit her online at www.laurajacksonroberts.com.