|The Scenic Black River
Fieldtrip Report by Kelvin Taylor
Did you know the oldest known trees east of the Rocky Mountains occur in North Carolina?
Located in the rural southeastern coastal plain is a stand of 1,700 year-old bald cypress
(Taxodium distichum) growing in the swampy woods of the Black River. These ancient trees
can be easily identified by there huge buttresses, needle-like leaves and “cypress knees".
These mysterious looking rounded structures seen above the water grow up from the roots
usually a few feet away from the trunk. After much research, scientists still debate the purpose
of cypress knees. A theory exists that the knees help with the transfer of carbon dioxide and
oxygen (gas exchange). However, it is likely that knees add structural support to the tree in its
habitat of marshy soils.
Bald cypress trees have other unique characteristics. They are coniferous (cone bearing) trees
with needles like pine and spruce, but are deciduous meaning they loose their leaves each fall
like oak and maple trees.
You can see these magnificent
trees draped with gray
Spanish moss while canoing
down the Black River. The
slow moving tannic coloured
waters flow for over 60 miles
through three counties
(Sampson, Pender, and
Bladen) before emptying into
the Cape Fear River about 14
miles above Wilmington. The
river is one of the cleanest,
high-quality waterways in
North Carolina and is home to
rare fish and mussel species.
Wildlife that inhabit the
floodplains include black bear,
bobcat, river otter, and
songbirds like the
yellow-throated vireo and
In late spring pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata) shows off its blue flowers while the white
spider lilies (Hymenocallis occidentalis) grace the water in the summer. Spring is also a great
time to see migratory songbirds nesting, while the autumn foliage can be quite colourful.
Access to the Black River:
The river follows closely along the county line of Bladen and Pender counties. Some of the old-
growth bald cypress can be seen from the highway NC 53 bridge four miles south of Atkinson.
All of the land along the river is privately owned and there are no public campgrounds, so plan
explore the river on day canoe trip.
Several put-ins and boat landings provide access to some of the most scenic parts of the
river. The N. C. Wildlife Resources Commission has two public boat landings. One is
located approximately five miles north of Beatty’s Bridge on Ivanhoe Road and the other is
located just west of the 11/53 bridge off Route 53. Water levels fluctuate significantly during
the year. You may have to maneuver around fallen logs and trees in the river during dry
periods especially during the summer.