A few weeks ago, before the Waterkeeper Alliance Conference in Wilmington, I had the privilege of visiting Lake Waccamaw and the Green Swamp with Christine Ellis, the former Waccamaw Riverkeeper. Emma Boyer is the official Waccamaw Riverkeeper now, but Christine still oversees the North Carolina portion of the river and lake. She was kind enough to take me around the lake and to the State Park which has five miles of hiking trails, as well as to where Waccamaw Lake meets the river. The Waccamaw Lake is the largest Carolina Bay and is a totally natural lake. Carolina Bay's are not smaller bodies of water off gulfs or oceans as we typically think of them, I learned, but shallow depressions that run from NW to SE and they predominantly occur in the Carolinas. The shoreline was also very natural in the State Park, with fish and many creatures living and raising their young amid the grasses and other vegetation. The totally natural shoreline probably has a lot to do with why there are so many endemic species here.
The 9,000-acre lake is fairly shallow and only 12-13' at the deepest part. It is such a significant body of water from an ecological perspective since there is an incredible diversity of endemic species including rare snails, mussels and fish. Two thirds of the watershed is in North Carolina and one third is in South Carolina. It is part of a huge wetland. The water quality is generally good, with periodic advisories for mercury in catfish, large mouth bass, and other later order fish. The area around the lake is not industrialized and there is not much point source pollution. There are CAFO's in the Lumber River watershed, but that is for a later blog post.
The dam at Lake Waccamaw is not problematic like other dams I have encountered in Florida. It was put in to maintain levels in the lake and to support the endemic species that make their home here. When the lake is high, it spills over the dam and enters the river. The man behind Christine is fishing on the dam. The river is a black river, because it drains through hardwood swamps, is fed by the wetlands, and is colored by tannins created by decomposing matter. It is slow moving and meanders. In North Carolina, the watershed is mostly rural, while in South Carolina it is suburbanized. The tannins are clearly visible in the photograph below.
The Waccamaw River is part of the Waccamaw Drainage system, which consists of the White Marsh Swamp on the west, and Juniper Creek and the Green Swamp on the East. The water flow is similar to the Everglades, since water flows in a thin layer over all these wetlands before entering the river. Sheet flows are beneficial as they prevent sediment from entering the river and stormwater infiltration occurs at a slower pace. However, any toxins entering the upstream waterways will affect every ecosystem downstream. The Green Swamp is an amazing, pristine wilderness identified by the World Wildlife Fund as one of the top ten ecoregions in North America for the number of plants and animals found here. Unfortunately, it, like most natural areas our country, is being destroyed by humans and continues to be at risk. It has been drained for tree plantations and what is left is being threatened by proposed garbage dumps and possibly an interstate extension one day.
Christine was so kind as to stand with during a torrential rain storm. I wanted to wait it out, because I am always fascinated by pitcher plants. While we were standing there huddled under a narrow overhang above the interpretive sign, some botanists returned from the field and told us it was definitely worth trudging out in the dampness. Fortunately, the rain soon abated, although I would have gone anyway. We were rewarded with sightings of many native species, some found only in a small radius around here.
Venus Flytraps are found only in low lying flatlands around Wilmington, with a few in Northeastern South Carolina. Venus Flytraps are hard to find, as they are very small and close to the ground. When they are flowing, as they were when we were there, they can be spotted by their tiny white flowers, which fortunately stand higher up from the base of the plants.
Up close Venus Flytraps are fascinating plants, with teeth-like spikes that trap their prey.
The Star Rush Sedge above thrives in bogs, is usually pollinated by wind, and naturally attracts pollinators. I was surprised how delicate it was. Below are other wild orchids, pitcher plants, and unusual botanicals I observed with Christine in the Green Swamp.
The pitcher plants above reminded me of pinwheels. I had only ever seen the trumpet and hooded varieties before. I am not sure of the technical name for this variety.
I have been unable to identify this plant, so if you know what it is please pass on the information.
As we were leaving, we crossed over this bridge and spotted this carpet of green plants beneath us. The texture and multitude of plants beneath our feet was truly astonishing. Again, if you are reading this and can identify this plant, please let me know what it is called. This area id truly special, with many species existing only here and deserves to be preserved for the incredible diversity that is found here, and also because whatever happens to the water here will impact the river and a multitude of other fragile ecosystems throughout the watershed.