The dark, tannic water of Dragon Run slides downstream in an ever-tighter channel, taking us deeper into the tupelo and bald cypress swamp on a cloudy April morning. The dark water adds to my foreboding.
After all, this is a swamp where for centuries people have gotten lost — some purposefully, others unintentionally — never to be heard from again.
Our group of 15 paddlers works to keep up with Teta Kain, paddle master for Friends of Dragon Run, who has asked us to stay within sight of each other on this guided 3.5-mile paddle through one of Virginia’s most pristine waterways.
This is not as easy as it might seem. Though the channel was 20 feet wide where we launched, it quickly became a twisting slip barely the width of my kayak, flanked by rafts of water lilies, spatterdock and arrow arum. Without a boat ahead to follow, it becomes obvious how one could quickly get lost on “The Dragon.”
Kain, longtime member of the Friends who is widely and affectionately known as “Queen of The Dragon,” told us at the put-in that the river would sell itself — and it already has. But she still tells us, through a walkie-talkie system that links each of us to her voice, what to look for.
This is a good thing. With the blush of fresh green growth everywhere, it is jaw-dropping beautiful, and there’s a lot to look at as we wind our way down the dark watery path, streaming with wild celery leaves just below the coffee-brown surface.
On either side, rich organic piles called musk mounds, built by beaver and muskrats to mark territory during the mating ritual, rise from dark shallows.
In an open section, atop a 40-foot snag, a bald eagle stands at the edge of its broad, ragged nest of sticks — a nest that’s been occupied every year for the last 14 years, except for 2013 when a violent storm destroyed it.
Close enough to touch, we pass a resurrection fern growing on the bark of a bald cypress. The plant can lose more than 70 percent of its moisture in dry periods, waiting for the rain that will “resurrect” its then-brown clump of leaves into leafy green foliage.
Looking down, we see the rare aquatic plant aptly named “featherfoil,” its delicate structure gently wavering in the slight current.
And we are keeping our eyes open for the prothonotary warbler in the soft green undergrowth of new bald cypress needles and silky dogwoods. These charismatic warblers — as well as other songbirds — travel from Central America to places like Dragon Run, where they rear their young in cavities hollowed out in swamp trees. Most of us see at least one of these striking yellow birds.
We pass an impossibly large bald cypress, measuring 22.5 feet in diameter at breast height and estimated to be more than 1,000 years old. Longtime Friends members tell of paddling — then crawling — to reach an even bigger cypress tree in the swamp to pose for a picture holding hands around its immense trunk.
Kain points out cables draped from trees, left behind by loggers who in the 1800s tried to clear The Dragon into a waterway for sluicing logs downriver into the Piankatank River — ultimately an unsuccessful venture. The swamp has a tenacious hold on this midsection of Virginia’s Middle Peninsula.
Dragon Run is a 40-mile long tributary of the Piankatank River, which ultimately empties to the Chesapeake Bay’s western shore between Stingray Point and Gwynn’s Island, just below the mouth of the Rappahannock River. As Dragon Run approaches the Piankatank, the river starts to feel the tidal pull.
Layers of marine sediments deposited during numerous changes of the coastline during shifts in sea level gave rise to the broad flat watershed of Dragon Run, full of rich, poorly drained soils that form the swamp. Decaying leaves from hardwoods and bald cypress leach tannin into the slow-moving water, coloring the water brown.
The watershed hosts the northernmost example of cypress tupelo forest in Virginia, among other fresh and tidal ecosystems. The 90,000-acre watershed surrounding the Dragon is 70 percent forested — much of it timbered once and twice over, many tracts owned by hunt clubs.
We pass hunters’ blinds, perched 20 feet up solitary trees, and here and there the occasional canoe lies, pulled up when a patch of dry land intrudes. Kain explained that landowners who lease to hunt clubs do a good job of taking care of their land, and the fees they get from hunt clubs make them less likely to sell to developers. As we pass a hunt club sign tacked to a tree on shore, Kain said, “We live with them pretty happily.”
Everything about the Friends of Dragon Run is about protection — and education that will lead to further protection. Started in 1986, when early members joined forces to purchase a section of land along the river to protect it, the Friends now own more than 600 acres in multiple tracts along the river. For a month during the spring — the only practical time to run the river — the Friends offer guided trips of this stretch of the Dragon, asking participants for a donation of $40.
Trips start from a piece of land owned by the Friends called Big Island, where multiple kayaks and canoes — fully equipped and ready for excursions such as ours — are stored. The take-out is usually at another Friends tract at Mascot, where there’s a convenient parking area and a self-guided walking trail through the swamp along clumps of high land. In the spring, the forest floor is alight with bluets and spring beauties.
Kain leads most trips, usually one-a-day over the month-long stretch. Other members join in as guides and “sweeps,” the last boat in the group meant to ensure that no one takes a wrong turn and is left to wander The Dragon, never to be seen again.
Some say the Dragon is named for its sinuous course, or its reputation of being a river of no return. No one knows for sure, but the name has been traced back to maps in the early 1600s. There are references to the area by Capt. John Smith, who recounted the slaughter of the Piankatank tribe by Indians under Powhatan’s rule.
Later, after Bacon’s Rebellion — the 1676 unsuccessful revolt of colonists and their Indian allies against colonial rule — those who found themselves on the wrong side of the struggle sought cover in the swamp from colonists seeking revenge.
In 1974, a study of 200 rivers in the Bay watershed undertaken by the Smithsonian Institution identified Dragon Run as the most ecologically significant habitat in Virginia (and the second most in the entire Bay watershed). This set the stage for strategic and persistent land conservation efforts in the face of encroaching development.
Andy Lacatell, conservation specialist for The Nature Conservancy’s Chesapeake Rivers Program, acknowledged the critical role of the Friends. “There’s been 30 years of land protection in the Dragon Run watershed,” said Lacatell, who joined us on the river trip.
Currently, 21,000 acres are under some form of protection. In addition to the land owned by the Friends, The Nature Conservancy has been instrumental in land protection and has purchased and transferred large tracts of land from timber companies to the state, creating Dragon Run State Forest and another area called Dragon Flats.
Nearby is the Browne Tract, 274 acres that straddle more than a mile of The Dragon between Essex and King & Queen counties. Here, the Middle Peninsula Chesapeake Bay Public Access Authority has provided a boardwalk over the river and opportunities for public hunting and fishing.
Lacatell cites the magical and still relatively undisturbed nature of the place as both the reason for — and key to — its protection.
Every March, as underground springs seep winter’s wetness into Dragon Run, members of the Friends’ group run river reconnaissance trips, removing downed trees and dismantling beaver dams to clear the route they’ll take paddlers down as soon as the weather warms, but before the water levels become unpredictable or too low.
It’s a task that requires constant attention throughout the paddling season — the beavers are persistent, but so are the paddlers.
Kain stops before a small impoundment to show off the Friends’ latest technology. Four feet of beaver dam that stretches at least 12 feet across the channel has been replaced by a plywood “gate” inserted between guiding poles at either edge of the opening. Kain carefully pulls herself onto the structure of dam and holds open the “gate” so that each of us can pass through the narrow sluice. She gets back into her boat downstream after sliding the gate back in place.
So far, the beavers that call this stretch of the river home have accepted this modification, a modest human intervention into a world that is dominated by trees and water and sky.
As long as the Friends of Dragon Run continues taking people down the river, it’s a good compromise between the wild and those who are working to keep it that way.
The time is right for a spring adventure on 'The Dragon'
The best — and safest — way to see Dragon Run is on a guided spring paddle trip with the Friends of Dragon Run. Registration is open for their 2016 paddle trips, which run from April 9 through May 8. The trips are free, but donations to help preserve the Dragon Run watershed are welcomed. Registration and details are available at the Friends of Dragon Run website.
Visit the Browne Tract for land-based explorations of the Dragon Run watershed. The tract includes nature trails, horse trails, a fishing pier and opportunities for birding and hunting. The tract is accessed from Route 604 (Byrd's Bridge Road) in Essex County. Detailed directions can be found here.