Jody's Log: Battle Creek

Answer: Battle Creek
Question: What do
woolly mammoths, a lost town and the Battle of Hastings have to do with the Patuxent River?

FINN BILES

In my experience, cruises often start out to be one thing and end up being quite another thing altogether. I mention this because I can tell already that this story is going to make a beeline down that second path. I intended to tell you about a trip my daughter and a friend and I made not long ago up the Patuxent River as far as Benedict, Md. Benedict, if you don’t know it, is a small and kind of interesting town on the western shore about 25 miles up the Patuxent. It’s about as far upriver as anybody goes who doesn’t live there. The swing bridge, though it will open just fine when you ask politely, makes a kind of natural stopping place for cruisers, though not for fishermen, of course—there being no natural stopping place for a motivated fisherman, as far as I can make out. Now the thing about this trip to Benedict is that we anchored for the night in Battle Creek. And therein lies the sidetrack in this story, because Battle Creek, it turns out, deserves a story all its own. So here it is.

My friend Kathy, my daughter Colby, ship’s dogs Bindi and Sammy, and I had left Solomons on this particular morning aboard Moment of Zen, determined to make a sail of it. We had high hopes. What we got, however, was a light and inconstant suggestion of a wind. As a consequence, we had made it only as far as Broomes Island by 1:30 that afternoon. Naturally, we decided to dock at Stoney’s Crabhouse and have lunch. A collective six crabcakes and about 90 minutes later, we returned to the river.

Optimistically, we pulled up the sails again. Again, we got nothing for our trouble but a beautiful silence punctuated by the occasional petulant slatting of the mainsail. “It’s a good thing there isn’t much current or we’d end up back in Solomons,” Kathy said helpfully. She pulled out a book. Colby stretched out on the cockpit cushions and closed her eyes. I studied the water for riffles of wind and watched a small battalion of cumulonimbus clouds muster along the St. Mary’s County horizon.

“In a little bit, we are likely to get a lot more wind than we want,” I said to the only one listening, ship’s dog Sammy, who was sitting in my seat at the helm so he could keep an eye on the chartplotter—he’s studying for the job of ship’s navigator. I continued to watch the clouds build and did a little studying of the chartplotter myself. At 3:45, I switched on the engines.

“Hey, what’s up?” Colby asked, opening her eyes.

I pointed to the darkening western shore. “We’re going to get the anchor down in Battle Creek while we still have the chance,” I said. “It’s just up ahead.”

We motored the short way up to Battle Creek and dropped the anchor in the second cove up the creek. The entrance was a little narrow and crooked, but Sammy and I kept a close eye on the chartplotter, and there were some private markers to show the deep water between Prison Point to the west and Wells Cove to the east. Once inside, the depths were generally seven to 15 feet. We had the cove to ourselves—in fact we had the whole creek to ourselves on this late Wednesday afternoon—and so settled right in the middle, dropping the anchor into eight feet of water. Kathy and I had just set the anchor bridle when we felt the first gust of cold wind. Five minutes later, with a crack of thunder that sent security chief Bindi under the duvet, the first storm sideswiped us to the south. Fifteen minutes later, a second passed just to the north. Then it was over. We had been well protected in our little cove.

As we watched the last of the squalls rumble off to the northeast, some of us (the dogs and I) climbed into the dinghy to explore upstream and discover what I already knew, the creek shallows to a dribble well before it reaches the Battle Creek Cypress Swamp. You see, what I hadn’t told Colby is that a trip up Battle Creek had been my plan all along. Yes, I had a secret agenda, and that was to see how close we could get to Battle Creek Cypress Swamp, which lies somewhere at the headwaters of the creek. I’d heard that there was no way to do that anymore, but I wanted to see that for myself. It was a fine trip up the creek, nonetheless, and Bindi, Sammy and I enjoyed it thoroughly, watching blue heron and osprey patrol the shallows and the sky. Farmland and trees dominated the shoreline, with occasional homes, usually hidden among the trees.

And I’ll admit this too: All of this is an excuse for telling you about Battle Creek Swamp, because I strongly recommend that you climb into your car some day and make the drive down the Calvert County peninsula. Yes, you’re going to have to do it by car, because you simply can’t get there by boat. But it really doesn’t matter, because Battle Creek Cypress Swamp is a very special place. It’s only about a hundred acres, not much more than a postage stamp as parks go, but it packs a lot of life and mystery into every acre. The first time I went, which happened to be when I was doing a feature on the Patuxent River for this magazine, I was so entranced, I’ve never forgotten how it looked and felt and smelled. 

From a botanical standpoint, the park’s most obvious feature is its forest of bald cypress trees, which rise straight and true out of the dark restless water below. Each is surrounded by its own family of knees, which cluster around like toddlers, supporting the tree’s root system and helping it breathe. Black gum and holly grow here too, and enough poison ivy to give you the heebie-jeebies. Less obvious are the smaller plants such as pink lady’s slipper orchids and red turtlehead, which has practically the best name ever for a plant. As for wildlife, there are prothonotary and hooded warblers, and Louisiana waterthrush. And, there are fish—such as the tesselated johnny darter, the eastern creek chubsucker and the blacknose dace. It’s as if the names were invented for the place. But I’ve saved the best for last, the non-parasitic brook lampreys, which grow up for five or six years buried in the mud, then surface simultaneously, stand on end waving with the current to disburse their eggs, then die. The eggs hatch, dig into the mud for five or six years, and repeat. 

The cypress swamp was purchased in the 1950s by the Nature Conservancy, who leases it to Calvert County, which oversees it and the quarter-mile boardwalk that goes with it. Now I know that a quarter-mile of swamp boardwalk doesn’t sound like much, but think about it, one moment you are in the midst of the lush Maryland farmland and the next you are deep in a 100,000-year-old habitat with woolly mammoths . . . or would be if they still existed.  The Patuxent Indians had a settlement here, one supposes because they preferred to make their canoes from the rot-resistant cypress. Later, English colonists harvested the cypress for boatbuilding and tobacco barns. With all this harvesting, most of the trees are fairly young, but one or two may be as old as 500 years.

 After striking out on the cypress swamp, I turned the dinghy south to take a leisurely look at the entrance. Prison Point, which we had passed on the way in, was named, not surprisingly, for a Union prison camp that was built there during the Civil War. 

But what about the name Battle Creek itself? The origin is likely to surprise you. Rather than being named after the Patuxent River skirmishes between the British and Americans during the War of 1812, which is what I had assumed, Battle Creek was, in fact, named for a much older skirmish, the Battle of Hastings, in which William the Conqueror defeated King Harold II in 1066. You’ve probably heard of it. The town that grew up on the site of that battle was named Battle Town. 

Six hundred years later, in 1650, Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, offered to give his old school chum, Robert Brooke, an entire Maryland county, and power over it, if he would emigrate and bring lots of people. Brooke did, bringing his second wife, eight sons, two daughters, 29 servants and a pack of foxhounds. He named his county Charles (though Calvert later changed it to Calvert—because he could, and did, a lot). Brooke built three estates on the Patuxent River and established a town at the mouth of this creek, which he called Battle Town, because his first wife and his mother were born in Battle Town—the English one, of course. And he named the creek Battle Creek. 

Brooke died suddenly in 1655, but Battle Town, Maryland, prospered and became the county seat of Charles (later Calvert) County. Later the name Battle Town was changed to—you guessed it—Calvert Town. Later still, the county seat was moved to Prince Frederick, and at some point the
whole place utterly and completely disappeared. Now only the name “Battle Creek” remains. 

Whew, thanks for sticking with me on that explanation. I know it was kind of long.

When the dogs and I reached Prison Point, where no evidence of a prison camp remains either, I turned the dinghy around. On the way back to the boat, I thought about how all of our cruises take us past histories largely forgotten. Only sometimes, when we peel back a few layers, does our cruise suddenly become something else altogether. This was just such a case.
As we idled back upstream, I thought about woolly mammoths and lost towns, about the legions of people I don’t know about who lived and hunted and fished and conducted business along this creek, who felled cypress trees in the swamp to make canoes and cleared land to grow tobacco. I thought about Brooke and his second wife, his 10 children and 29 servants and all the generations that followed them. Sammy and Bindi were thinking too, but they didn’t get much beyond that pack of foxhounds.

We returned to the boat and all sat down to dinner. A final set of storms rumbled through after midnight, but the morning brought a fresh offshore wind. So we pulled up the anchor and went in search of Benedict. Now Benedict is a good story too.