Rambles Through Cranesville Swamp, Maryland's Mysterious "Little Canada"
OK, so at least one writer of West Virginia nature brochures is a frustrated gothic novelist. This take on the 600-acre wetlands straddling the Western Maryland/West Virginia border--from a downloaded version of a pamphlet produced by the West Virginia University Extension Service--is a tad over the top. We're talking about an Appalachian swamp here, not some morbid moor out of the pages of the Bronte sisters' tomes.
But then this purple prose isn't what caused me to make the nearly four-hour trek from Baltimore to clomp through Cranesville. I simply got wind that it was a cool place. Literally. I learned of the swamp while perusing a Maryland atlas. There, on the far-flung fringes of far-flung Garrett County, next to a symbol denoting Unique Natural Features, where the words CRANESVILLE SUB-ARCTIC SWAMP.
Now this did cause some conjurin'. Arctic? As in the Great White North? Residing as I do in a non-air-conditioned city rowhouse, I'm always looking for ways to beat the heat when those 3-H days bear down on Baltimore. Cranesville, I soon learned, is known as a "frost pocket," a meteorological misfit where traces of snow are sometimes found well into summer. It's Manitoba-meets-Maryland. While most Baltimoreans escape the urban inferno by heading east, I started wondering if west wasn't the proper direction to drive--could "goin' downy ocean" be usurped by "goin' up da swamp?"
Before barging into the swamp itself, here's a little interpretive backstory on what should really be called the Cranesville Bog. (Swamps, by definition, contain trees; the Cranesville wetland is largely exposed, and its dark, acidic waters are marked by a preponderance of decaying vegetation--all of which slide it into the bog category.) Contributing to Cranesville's "microclimate" conditions are elevation (some 2,500 feet) and the configuration of surrounding mountains, which tend to both capture moisture from passing weather systems and channel cool air swamp-ward. Climactic conditions can roughly be likened to life in the last ice age. When the great glaciers retreated (well, they never quite made it to Maryland, but it was cold here nonetheless), the warming conditions caused cold-adapted flora and fauna to retreat northward as well. Except in "frost pockets" like Cranesville, where conditions remained chilly enough for certain now purely northern species to remain. Such orphaned life forms are called "relic species," and at Cranesville they include the tamarack tree, a conifer that looses its needles in the winter and is more at home in Canada's Northwest Territories.
Admittedly, reaching the swamp feels a bit like driving to Canada, though the 200-mile haul is posted 65-mph most of the way and there are no Bay Bridge traffic hassles to deal with. Once we cleared Frederick, the land erupted into rolling mountains and the highways took on a curious brown color (apparently from the use of local, mountain-born gravel). From I-70 we switched to I-68, then turned off on Route 219, which took us--gingerly--through the tiny town of Accident. We also skirted Deep Creek Lake, the once-sleepy resort area that's waking up with a vengeance. A moneyed, ski-and-boat crowd is replacing the area's modest A-frames and rustic cabins with garish chalets sporting $1 million-plus price tags.
Soon enough, such vulgarities were left behind as the route to the swamp led us through some rough-and-tumble country--more mobile home than mansion. When we come to Cranesville's rutted gravel access road and the barely-room-for-a-car-to-turn-around parking area, we know this is not some groomed, state-run park. And it isn't. The swamp is owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit outfit that protects natural habitats in the most direct way: It buys them up and keeps them real.
Its laudable efforts apparently are not appreciated by all, however. Adjacent to the parking area is a covered wooden signboard clearly designed to serve as a nerve center of swamp information. But it bore only a terse note: "This kiosk will no longer be maintained due to repeated vandalism."
Sweet Jesus, what kinda lowlife goes around vandalizing environmental signage in the middle of nowhere? Are Garrett County teens really that bored?
The board did give driving directions to an operating kiosk where swamp materials could be had, but after four hours bound up in a Chevrolet, we were ready to stretch our legs. The parking lot was deserted and the lush, hushed wilderness beckoned.
We weren't exactly empty-handed as we headed out one of the marked trails. I had downloaded a checklist of plants and animals known to inhabit--or at least visit--the swamp. There on the mammal page, carefully tucked in among water shrew, woodchuck, and northern jumping mouse, are black bear and bobcat. Call me a city slicker, but if I saw either of these two, I wouldn't be fumbling for a pen to record the event for posterity.
I should add that, temp-wise, it wasn't all that cool. No doubt it was a few ticks chillier here than on the streets of Baltimore, and the foliage appeared to be a bit behind in its growth, but this was no Northwest Territories. We could forget about seeing any vestigial snowbanks as we tromped along, wiping our sunbaked brows.
Elusive birds twittered and tweeted from the overhead tree canopy, frogs gave out guttural croaks, woodpeckers counted time with insistent rat-tat-tats, even a cow could be heard bellowing from nearby farm field. The swamp had a soundtrack, but visually it was coming up rather empty. But then we were tenderfoot naturalists crashing through the place in the midday heat, when the savvier critters are on siesta. And without the proper guide materials, the numbered signposts along the way--keyed to interpretive materials we didn't have--meant nothing. Goddamn vandals.
Before reaching the truly wet areas of the wetlands, we had to negotiate a pine forest that was preternaturally unnatural: Soaring spruces and Scotch pines reaching skyward in laser-straight rows. Seems this is a vestige of a 1950s scheme to farm lumber here. (The Nature Conservancy began to buy Cranesville land in 1960.) A thick bed of fallen needles dampened our every footfall as we traipsed along hallway-like rows of gnarled trunks, each reaching up 100 feet or more. A veritable evergreen cathedral.
Sans hip waders or a canoe, sauntering through a swamp is a prickly proposition. The Nature Conservancy has simplified things with a 1,500-foot boardwalk that zigzags across a broad section of soggy ground rife with sphagnum moss and pools of standing water the color of oversteeped tea. Here and there little florets of skunk cabbage poked up like miniature tobacco plants.
About halfway out this plank road, some wildlife finally came our way. Or to put it another way, swamp = bugs. Clouds of mosquitoes clumsily honed in our exposed flesh, which was our bad: I read that insect repellent was a must-have here. We were soon doing double-time across the boards, seeking refuge in a copse of trees at the far end. Back in the semi-shade, there wasn't much to look at except the clumps of cinnamon ferns uncurling their fronds with a delicate grace.
Never mind the northern water shrew, we hadn't even seen so much as chipmunk or gray squirrel. (Perhaps the bears and bobcats had eaten them all?) With the muddy trail unwinding before us showing little promise, we decided to brave the bugs anew and double back for the boardwalk. I wanted to look for the carnivorous plants said to inhabit the bog--spidery sundews and exotic pitcher plants that drown and dissolve bugs in vaselike appendages. On the planks we finally ran into another mammal--a 24-year-old Baltimore City Public School music teacher from Waverly.
"It took me an hour to find this frickin' place," Anthony Spano said. "I had to ask this 90-year-old man, and he sent me the wrong way."
Spano explained that he was simply doing a day-off ramble around Western Maryland, and learned about the swamp on the Internet. With a snazzy pair of binoculars around his neck, he admitted to being an amateur birder. "I think I hear a scarlet tanager," he said at one point (which was enough to impress me).
"I always dreamed of driving past my school and heading west on Interstate 70," Spano said, before heading off for the far side of the swamp. "Today I did it."
We opted to amble back to the car on a looping woodland trail. It's worth noting that the bulk of the Nature Conservancy's substantial Cranesville acreage sports neither trails nor boardwalks and is largely off limits. We only saw the tip of the iceberg.
Our stomachs rumbling, we decided to drive over to the nearby hamlet of Cranesville, the swamp's West Virginia namesake. We zipped along Cranesville Road and encountered only an unmarked collection of houses. And then, sans warning or provocation, we were dramatically and decisively attacked by a wild animal. A pugnacious fawn-and-white Jack Russell terrier charged out a driveway and endeavored to latch his canines into our rear tire. We braked and swerved, but still had to check the rear view to make sure we hadn't flattened the beast.
A mile or so later, with no town in sight, we pulled over and asked a tank-top-clad chap astride a riding mower where Cranesville was, and if we could get something to eat there. He broke into a broad grin. "You must have blinked and missed it," he said, pointing back the way we'd come. And as to the burg's eating options, he just shook his head and said, "Heck, there's not even a liquor store there." His bitter tone bespoke a life of ponderous brew runs.
So back we went, and back came the steely-eyed Jack Russell. The collection of houses we'd passed early apparently was downtown Cranesville. Among them was Wilhelm's General Store. Lord knows what kind of customers they hoped to lure off the road with a window display consisting of three bags of kitty litter, a pair of mops, a bottle of Pine Sol, and a handwritten sign reading buckwheat flour. All we had to see was the sign reading closed to know we had to press on.
We finally found sustenance in the Deep Creek area--the habitat of the upland yuppie--where (naturally) a capacious brewpub was parked atop a lake-view bluff. Unwinding over pints, we could hardly conclude that the bog by itself was worth an eight-hour round-trip car trip in this age of $2 gallons of gas. But then there's really plenty of other stuff to see and do in these parts. The swamp could be just a stopover in a larger itinerary. (Spano had spoken glowingly of Swallow Falls State Park, just miles from Cranesville and home to a 53-foot waterfall.) I've also since discovered an outfit that gives guided tours of the swamp, something that might have helped our appreciation of the little "arctic" anomaly.
So, yeah, sometimes it's nice to just slide past your workplace, hit I-70, and motor westward into the mountains. That said, I'm still goin' downy ocean this year.
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