This spring, I’ve explored more of South Carolina, where I live and work. The Palmetto State is altogether different and surprisingly similar to my home state of Delaware. In an earlier post, I discussed some of the morphological similarities between South Carolina and Delaware. One feature the states share is that they’re on the fall line, a boundary that separates the coastal plain from the Piedmont.
I’ve unearthed another similarity while researching local hiking destinations: South Carolina and Delaware are home to elliptical wetlands known as Carolina bays, which are more interesting than their appearance suggests.
Carolina bays, contrary to their name, can be found as far north as New Jersey and as far south as Georgia. In Delaware, the bays sometimes are called Delaware bays. The same is true of Maryland’s Carolina bays, which are called Maryland bays. Go figure. But the nominal complexity doesn’t end there: ‘pocosin,’ which is Algonquin for ‘swamp on a hill,’ is yet another alias (or perhaps original term) for the wetlands (Pocosin).
While nomenclature may vary depending on regional particularities, all Carolina bays are freshwater wetlands. Because they are “most often isolated[,] [t]he bay’s depression fills with rainwater, usually in winter and spring, and dries in the summer months” (Carolina Bays). For this reason, Carolina bays are considered “dry-end wetlands” (Sharitz 551).
In addition to the Carolina bay’s tell-tale elliptical shape and freshwater composition, all Carolina bays “are oriented in a northwest-southeast, shoreline-perpendicular direction and [are] parallel to one another” (Carolina Bays).
I’ve never been to a Carolina bay (or a Delaware or Maryland bay for that matter), but my hiking research last fall confirmed a publicly-accessible one located in Oolanta, South Carolina. I stored that knowledge in the back of my mind until March, when one bright Sunday morning, I announced matter-of-factly to my fiancé that we were taking our dogs for a hike in Woods Bay State Park, home to a real-live, 100% genuine, Carolina bay.
As we drove towards the park, taking I-95 south past Florence for the first time, I filled him in on the basics of Carolina bays, including their mysterious origins. Estimates suggest
Carolina bays are 30,000 to 100,000 years old or older…One theory of the origin of Carolina bays suggests that a meteor hit Earth…,breaking into pieces that made dents as they skipped across the planet’s surface. (University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Library)
Carolina bays were formed during time immemorial and even perhaps from an interplanetary event. They are imperfect, if impenetrable, windows to an ancient past—and one that even transcends Earth itself.
The quirky similarities of Carolina bays, their age, and their murky beginnings are alluring and exotic. Woods Bay is particularly so, at least for me, because it has alligators. I’m a newcomer to the south, after all. At some point during our drive to Woods Bay—maybe after our second wrong-turn down a dirt road—I confessed the possible presence of alligators to my fiancé. While I’ve backpacked in bear and mountain lion country, I have never encountered or been under the threat of encountering alligators: What should I do? What would I do? Later, I learned that we likely wouldn’t encounter any–it was too cold–and in fact, we never did.
Finally, after our third wrong-turn and a few choice words for iPhone Siri (who apparently thinks I drive an all-terrain vehicle), we arrived at Woods Bay. The park had more amenities than I expected. It offers ample, dirt-surface parking, a visitor’s center, flush toilets, and a covered picnic area. The trails, including a boardwalk, are well-maintained too.
We tackled the boardwalk first. I was immediately taken aback by the water. Blackwater, it’s called, and it looked as dark and smooth and reflective as obsidian. The opacity of the water also was arresting; I could not see more than a half an inch (maybe less?) down, yet I knew the water was at least a few feet deep. The bald cypress that poked out of the water on their wide, webbed feet only added to the scene’s eerie beauty.
Seeing that one of the dogs was uncomfortable on the boardwalk (see the first photo above), we made a hasty retreat to the main trail, which is a loop, and followed it to its circular conclusion. While I enjoyed Woods Bay, I was a little disappointed. In many respects, it looked almost identical to other swampy areas I had toured previously, such as nearby Lynch’s River County Park.
Swamp is swamp is swamp, right? Not in the least. After my trip, I did some metaphorical digging. It became clear to me that Carolina bays tell a far more interesting story than I had imagined. What at first was legible only as undifferentiated swamp resurfaced as an ecologically unique environment.
Consider Rebecca Sharitz’s claim that “the most significant ecological function of Carolina bays is providing habitat for a diverse and unusual flora and fauna” (555). The seasonal and fluctuating water levels of Carolina bays make them inhospitable to plants and animals in need of “permanent water”; however, the “varied, and often unpredictable, hydrologic conditions of many bays…provid[e]” shelter for species that thrive in (or at least can tolerate) these conditions (Sharitz 555).
As dry-end wetlands, then, Carolina bays are crucial for the survival of certain “rare plant species and for groups of animals” (555). This is especially true of invertebrates and amphibians that spawn in and near bays (Sharitz 551). Carolina bays are not only breeding sites but also veritable nurseries. Because bays lack “predatory fish,” they promote the “juvenile development” of the species that breed there (Sharitz 551).
Carolina bays exemplify biodiversity, and for this they are important. Still, it is their function as sources of biodiversity for other areas that perhaps makes them most valuable. Indeed, as Sharitz points out, Carolina bays “have the appearance of being geographically isolated from other wetlands, …[but] they are certainly not functionally isolated from other wetlands” (560). They populate other areas and facilitate the movement of animals across wetlands. When you see a Carolina bay, it may look like an isolated oval, but it actually is a biological super-highway, bridge, and way-station, all at once.