On Assignment: The Dragon Run

by Justin Black


The Dragon rippled as I slid the kayak out into 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 Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, on assignment for the The Nature Conservancy which had recently protected the watershed in a Manhattan-sized conservancy, Virginia’s largest at 20,000 acres (80.9 square km). 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 the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), where I was serving as Executive Director, prepared to send a team of photographers on a Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition (RAVE) in summer 2010. This unique ecosystem has been ranked second in ecological significance among 232 areas investigated in a Smithsonian Institution study covering 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 consecutive mornings and evenings in a flat-bottom kayak, generously loaned by Frank Herrin of Friends of Dragon Run, that had been custom-built 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. In the process, I managed to confirm a warning offered by Andy Lacatell of TNC, who kindly guided me on a scouting tour the first day. Andy, there are indeed leeches in the swamp, though I didn’t encounter 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, animals 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 pickerelweed, 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 as wild as Dragon Run are not simply rare, they are absolute treasures. 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.

Photos © 2010 Justin Black. All rights reserved.

Technical details (both images): Nikon D700, AF-S Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8G ED, Singh-Ray LB Polarizer, Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead, Gitzo G1348CF tripod.

Visiting Dragon Run: The swamp is located on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, near the town of Saluda (Urbanna is just a little farther away and offers good accommodations and dining). It can be accessed from bridge crossings on State Routes 602 and 603. To enter the swamp, you will want a small flatwater kayak to negotiate the swamp’s narrow, twisting channels and shallow sections.

Link to the Friends of Dragon Run website for more information: http://www.dragonrun.org/