Dragon Run

by Justin Black: October 26, 2012

July 2010, by Justin Black, Executive Director – International League of Conservation Photographers, for the Nature Conservancy and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

The Dragon rippled as I slid the kayak out onto the swamp’s caramel brown water. The still quiet of pre-dawn was broken only by the song of a prothonotary warbler, a croaking bullfrog, the sudden splash of a jumping sunfish. Gliding along on the glassy surface past lush swamp plants – arrow arum, water lilies, swamp rose, the lovely purple poker-like blooms of pickerelweed – and under the spreading branches of bald cypress, their conical “knees” emerging from the water in rows like the Dragon’s teeth, I felt completely removed from the Tidewater Virginia farmland that encircled me beyond the forest. Entering this place was like time-travel.

I had come to photograph the landscape of Dragon Run Swamp, the wild centerpiece of Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, on assignment for the The Nature Conservancy which has recently protected the watershed in a Manhattan-sized conservancy, Virginia’s largest at 20,000 acres (80.9 km2). As one of the healthiest and cleanest wetlands in the Chesapeake region, this exceptional conservancy serves as a model for other watersheds around the Bay, making it an interesting point of reference as iLCP prepares to launch a Chesapeake Bay RAVE in summer 2010. This unique ecosystem has been ranked second in ecological significance among 232 areas investigated in a Smithsonian Institution study which covered 12,600 square miles of the Chesapeake Bay region. It’s easy to see why.

The water teems with fifty-five species of fish, including the young of several anadromous species – striped bass, American shad, alewife and blueback herring among others – that migrate here from the Bay or the Atlantic in the spring to spawn. Chain pickerel, warmouth sunfish, and white catfish are some of the native fish species that call the Dragon their year-round home. The watershed is a birder’s paradise as well, with various songbirds, bald eagles, osprey, heron, and egrets in abundance. It’s an important stop for migratory waterfowl as well, and shy wood ducks are particularly fond of the cover provided in the swamp. In the forest, wild turkeys are frequently seen… or only heard.

Ebony jewel-wing damselflies with bodies of metallic blue and green warm themselves in the sun’s first rays and then flit from leaf to leaf. Water beetles cruise narrow channels between green stems, and large crayfish take refuge in burrows scattered along the banks of the swamp.

I went out three mornings and evenings in a flat-bottom kayak, generously loaned by Frank Herrin of Friends of Dragon Run, that had been custom-built specifically for navigating over fallen logs and other obstacles in the swamp. Searching for compositions that seemed to capture the spirit of the place in a single vision, my brief was to come back with one great iconic picture: a horizontal landscape for a double-page spread. Working out of the kayak, and with no dry ground for my tripod, I found myself wading in water sometimes as deep as my chest, to get to the positions I needed for photographs. I managed to confirm a warning offered by Andy Lacatell of TNC, who kindly guided me on a scouting tour the first day. Andy, you weren’t lying – there are indeed leeches in the swamp. After spending a combined total of eight hours wading bare-legged, however, I encountered only six of the little suckers. My small blood sacrifice was repaid in spades by the fact that, unexpectedly, I wasn’t molested by a single mosquito.

After scouting the river sufficiently to find compositions that were well-oriented in relation to the sunrise, the second and third mornings were very productive. Indeed, early morning is in the Dragon is idyllic – the air is calm, creatures are active, and the quality of light is crisply atmospheric. Standing there in the cool water, with birds filling the air with song, juvenile bald eagles on a branch above me, the rays of the sun streaming in between cypress branches illuminating thick clusters of flowering pickerel weed, I felt privileged to be in this extraordinary place.

Before me was a view that Captain John Smith could have seen in 1607, and it would have been essentially unchanged for millennia before. Today, on the east coast of the United States, landscapes like Dragon Run are not simply rare. Thanks to The Nature Conservancy, the Friends of Dragon Run, and the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Dragon Run watershed provides a unique window into the past, and one that – if we embrace its lessons – will help lead us on the path to a sustainable future.