Telling Creek Time
by Dotty Holcomb Doherty
Entering Mattaponi Creek just south of Jug Bay, I paddle back in time. Here the natural world dominates the landscape, and the surrounding beauty makes me weak with the realization of all we have sacrificed elsewhere. Though we have touched even this pristine habitat with alien plants and questionable water quality, I come here to visit what remains of our wild places. I watch a great blue heron sitting sentry duty on a snag, his sharp yellow eyes overseeing this vast acreage. As he pushes off and solemnly flaps to another perch, his prehistoric call pulls me into the mystic past.
I want to savor the creek the way my neighbor Susan savors food: slowly, each subtlety resting gently on my palate. I visit tiny wildflowers, each like a delicate spice, a nuance amidst abundance. I glimpse the miniature white blossoms of water smartweed, and sudden lavender puffs of asters. Golden blooms of bur marigold dot the surrounding marsh, now a blanket of leftover green and new browns.
Thin pale cattail leaves wave above their chestnut heads. Big cordgrass towers over all, calling the gleaners to the overflowing banquet table. Wild rice, Walters millet, tidemarsh waterhemp and button bush all promise hardy seeds for songbirds, for resident and winter-visiting ducks. Today, the red-winged blackbirds feast, rising up from the marsh in dark amoeboid flocks, pausing to chatter at me a bit before dropping back into the lacy stalks.
Spatterdock, a water-loving plant with leaves the size of dinner plates, forms a lightly waving carpet on the inner edges of the creek. I use it as a tidal marker. This morning, the dusky green leaves float on the high tide riffles, but later when the current reverses, the leaves will stand two feet above the water on thick muddied stalks. The leaves, their edges brown and crisp, have begun fading as fall progresses; by winter, only the buried rhizomes will remain.
Overhead, the resonant geese arrive in long lines that abruptly blur and tangle before regrouping into a new formation. A marsh hawk glides low and silent over the grasses. The farther into the quiet of the creek, the more I feel the intruder. A red-shouldered hawk leaves his perch on a high dead branch, and a hundred mallards fly up from the spatterdock and pickerelweed in protest, chastising me for invading their paradise. Small banded killifish bounce on the surface of the water like crazed skipped stones, colliding with my hull.
I glide toward the headwaters where beeches, maples and oaks lean in, and the swampy stillness enters my bones. Cricket chirp creates a light backdrop of sound, though the steady piercing whistles of blackbirds are ever present. I sit at the top of the creek, listening to red-bellied woodpeckers, watching a lone late-migrating osprey wheel by, feeling I could be hundreds of miles from anywhere. Finally accepting that I have tempted fate long enough by lingering where low tide could leave me wallowing in thick hydrilla mats, I paddle back toward the Patuxent, four hours since leaving on a round trip I could have made in under an hour.
A furry head swims in front of me, a wedge-shaped wake trailing. Suddenly, he humps his back and slaps his wide beaver tail. I leave the creek to him, to the birds, fish and wildflowers, to the muskrat chewing on a pickerelweed stalk down a gut now exposed by the outgoing tide. I leave, having savored fully, satiated for now.
Writer and part-time ecology teacher, Dotty Holcomb Doherty lives in Annapolis with her husband and two teenage daughters.