I stow the paddle and drift into camp through towering cypress and tupelo gum trees that rise like the Parthenon's columns. All is dark in the swamp, save the distant twinkling of a campfire. There is no sound except for the
trill of insects and water dripping from my paddle.
Suddenly, a ghoulish shriek shatters the night. It's a bawling half-hoot, half-screech with a healthy dollop of screaming baby thrown in. The cry echoes through the swamp and within seconds, another howl answers from upstream, and another from just off my bow, and another from deep in the woods. If I didn't know better, I'd think I was camping in the middle of Stephen King's latest horror. But this bawling in the black night is simply the spring chorus of hooting barred owls, and it's the reason I've paddled deep into Merchants Millpond State Park.
Dammed in 1811, the 760-acre pond (really a small lake) is home to truck-size beaver lodges that breach the slow-moving black water. Cypress knees rise like daggers from primordial muck. Ringed with ancient trees hung with Spanish moss, the pond and surrounding woodlands offer some of the finest swamp paddling and camping in the Southeast. And in spring, it's a prime place to listen to lovelorn barred owls.
You can hike 3 miles on the park's sole footpath-the 6.7-mile Millpond Loop Trail-to a backpacker's campground overlooking the Lassiter Swamp, with its 1,000-year-old bald cypress trees. Or you can paddle half a mile into a separate canoe camp. Either way, nighttime will be a real hoot.
From Gatesville, take US 158 east 4.3 miles to the state park.
Late February through April.
State Parks of North Carolina, by Walter C. Biggs Jr. and James F. Parnell (John F. Blair, Publisher, 336-768-1374; www.blairpub.com; $14.95).
Merchants Millpond State Park,
(252) 357-1191; http://ils.unc.edu/