Morning light slants through bald cypress trees as the howls and screeches of wild animals echo through the air. Mist curls from the surface of the swamp. I dip my paddle into the water as my partner and I maneuver our canoe around another cypress knee.
No, this isn't a movie set, and it's not some exotic distant land. It's Eagle Lake, just eight miles from the Pyramid as the bald eagle flies. Part of Meeman-Shelby State Park, the lake is a window into Memphis' past, showing what the river bottoms looked like before they were drained and converted to farmland. This free, guided canoe trip is a family-friendly, non-strenuous way to get out and enjoy some of the last remnants of wilderness left in the Memphis area.
"Areas like this used to be common along the Mississippi River from the Great Lakes on down," says park ranger Sam Morouney, the woman who serves as our fearless leader and who is an expert in regional ecology. Wetlands such as Eagle Lake's mature bald cypress forest are important habitats for both wildlife and plant species. At the same time, wetlands function as a water filter, trapping and transforming water-borne pollutants and improving water quality. Now only a fraction of our once ubiquitous bayou remains, and the impacts on both wildlife and water quality have been detrimental.
Not that you can tell from a Sunday-morning canoe trip through Eagle Lake. "Those screeches that you hear, those are great blue herons," explains Morouney, pointing off to our right. Sure enough, through the trees we see herons by the dozen, gangly pterodactyl-like birds, soaring from treetop to treetop on wingspans as wide as a man is tall. "They have a rookery just over there where they've come together to nest and hatch their young," Marouney says. "It's like having a big loud family squeezed into a tiny little area. They do a lot of squabbling."
She points straight up, where I see nests that look much too small for such a big bird. "The rookery used to be right here above us, and we could get a pretty-good eyeful as we paddled by," she says, laughing. "Then the birds got smart and started aiming for us when they'd poop. Every now and then, one would disgorge an entire half-digested fish." Mmm, disgorged fish, I think. It's what's for breakfast.
The lake is a sanctuary of sorts for all kinds of mammals, birds, fish, and assorted creepy-crawlies. Muskrat, beaver, river otter, fox, raccoon, and bobcat all live in or around the lake. Herons and egrets call it home, as well as ducks, bald eagles, and hawks and owls of many stripes. Even the rare troupe of traveling pelicans can be spotted. The lake's biggest fish is the alligator gar, a barracuda-looking monster that can get up to six feet long. There's also the buffalo fish, named for its bison-like hump, a bottom feeder that can reach 30 pounds. Hard to believe, when the average depth of the water is only two to three feet.
Then there are the snakes. Morouney rattles off a list of water snakes: the diamondback watersnake, the yellow-bellied, the broad-banded ... What about cottonmouths?
"Yeah, we get them," she says. "But we don't see them much on these canoe trips." Typically four feet long but growing up to eight feet, water moccasins don't climb, so they don't care for the open waters of the cypress forest where they have few places to rest. Instead, they prefer the buttonbush and loosestrife, which form thickets that canoes can't get through. "If I see a cottonmouth and I'm in a canoe, I don't really worry much about it," says Morouney. "Unless it's one of the big ones, then I might shoo it away with my paddle." She smiles. I think she might be enjoying this.
Eagle Lake is also home to a couple of types of aquatic salamander, the amphiuma and the siren. Forget about your garden-variety gecko. These things get up to three feet long. Like other amphibians, salamanders are very vulnerable to environmental toxins, and their presence is a sign of the area's environmental health.
Another sign of Eagle Lake's ecological integrity is the feather foil. An underwater plant with flowing fronds, the species is listed by the federal government as rare and endangered. In Eagle Lake, however, feather foil is plentiful and increasing every year.
The real star of the show, though, is the bald cypress, whose knobby knees are practically symbolic of swamps everywhere. If you've been around the bayou long enough, you've probably heard the going theory about cypress knees: These woody protrusions help stabilize trees in water-logged ground and, like a snorkel, provide for the exchange of gases between the root system and the air.
What you may not know is that cypress trees are the rarest of their kind: a deciduous conifer. Unlike pine and spruce, the needle-like foliage of a cypress is made up of leaves that fall off in the autumn. However, similar to other conifers, the cypress reproduces by means of a collection of thousands of seeds the size and shape of a ping-pong ball. While many conifers require a good, hot forest fire before their seeds are released and can sprout, the cypress is the opposite: It requires standing water for the seed to germinate. However, a cypress sapling can only grow on dry ground after the water has receded and must be tall enough to reach above the water when it returns. With the deck stacked against it like that, a mature bald cypress forest, like the one at Eagle Lake, doesn't just come along every day.
Here's another little-known fact about cypress trees: Their waterlogged trunks make great lightning rods. Their nice horizontal branches and proximity to fish-filled waters also make them great nesting sites for bald eagles. Put two and two together, and you can see why lightning is actually a common contributor to the mortality of America's icon.
We paddle past a couple of abandoned beaver lodges, examine a dead snag with one tiny branchlet left budding, and discover an old woodpecker excavation with some fluffy bird-down waving in the late-morning breeze. Ranger Sam tells me that we'll head just left of those cypresses over there. Which ones? I ask. Those? Or you mean those? Or those? Then the sudden sight of the boat trailer tells me that by some miracle, we have arrived back where we started. Maybe it's a good thing that this place is off-limits to casual recreationists; even the most seasoned outdoors-person would get lost in this trackless maze of cypress knees, duckweed, buttonbush, and loosestrife.
Fortunately, the adventure isn't over when my truck rattles up the bluffs and out of park boundaries. This area of Shelby County is a charming part of the country, where people seem to actually like where they live. Ranger Sam has tipped me off to a local beekeeper who sells honey by the pint and the quart. On my way back to park headquarters, I stop at his house and help myself from the honey stand in the front yard, leaving my money in the box with a piece of wood to keep the wind from blowing it away. Just down the road, the Shelby Forest General Store offers snacks and sandwiches, a sunny porch to eat on, and a resident rooster to keep visitors company. If you stop back by after your afternoon hike in the park, you can listen in — or join in — on a bluegrass jam that happens on Saturday and Sunday.
Eagle Lake canoe trips are offered every Sunday between Memorial Day and Labor Day. For reservations, call Meeman-Shelby State Park at 876-5215.