Blackwell Swamp and Other Treats on a Mid-March Wheeler National Wildlife Hike

March 11, 2023, I returned to the nearby Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. It’s my place of observation, reflection, and discovery. I have no preconceived notion of what specifically awaits me, yet I do know generally what to expect seasonally. Almost 30 years ago to the day (March 13, 1993), the Blizzard of ’93 brought 65 MPH gusts and 28 inches of new snow to our State College, PA home. I knew my visit to the Refuge would fall smack in the middle of spring…winter long since departed.

I’ll hit the highlights, beginning with Blackwell Swamp and its visual delights, and then shift to riparian forest discoveries. Although I enjoy roaming hardwood bottomland forests, the Swamp offers sweeping views, including the sky above. The forest is very stingy with such views, especially during the growing season. March 11 the forest canopy still permitted a peek to the firmament, even in the forest.


Blackwell Swamp


The Swamp never disappoints.  The views below, respectively, are to the northeast (left) and southeast. Predominantly loblolly pine populates the peninsula to the left. The stand across from the second photo is flowering, given the still leaf-bare crowns a fuzzy appearance. Swamp aquatic vegetation is beginning to foliate.

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Willow, elms, and maples are approaching full flower south of my viewpoint.

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The photos below are nearly identical repeats from above, differing only in the way I have framed them with foreground trees and used a portrait image to bring in more sky.

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I’ve found that stopping by Blackwell Swamp relieves the occasional claustrophobia that can envelop me when I spend hours in the closed riparian flatwoods.

Spring Wildflower Menagerie


The forest canopy remains nearly wide open during the second week of March, drawing me to her this time of year. The canopy is awakening even as the spring ephemeral ground vegetation is already wide awake, with the spring sun kissing the forest floor full-lipped. Sweet Betsy trillium are in full flower, a delight I will never tire of seeing each spring, whether one or dozens lie ahead.

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John Muir recognized that Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe touch us deeply:

The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls.

Woodland phlox (right) and bulbous cress revel in the seasonal forest floor sunlight. They’ll be long gone after the canopy closes. Their seasonal life-window closes before the frenzied hordes of mosquitoes greet me when I return during the early summer.

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Native deciduous mountain azalea is another of my lifetime favorites. It always sparks treasured memories of my three college-summer employment positions with the Maryland Forest Service in the central Appalachians. Some of my best memories involve work or recreation in forest ecosystems. I recall wise advisors who urged me, “Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life.”

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I’ve been blessed to do just that. Sure, I recall days when pressures and stress mounted, yet my positive recollections brighten the darker memories, driving shadows deep into crevices. Life is good when I can see red buckeye heavy with its spiked red blossoms, torches of crimson held high in the spring understory.

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Other wildflowers greeted me. These few allstars will suffice.

Other Treats


I practice scouring the forest for more than spring ephemerals, trying hard not to miss various and sundry treats.


Devil’s Urn Mushroom


I’ve learned to appreciate our fungal friends since retiring. I can no longer race through the forest. First, my 70+ year old  knees forbid speedy locomotion. And second, I want to see all that lies hidden in plain sight. My MO is sauntering these days, permitting me to spot camouflaged forest floor dwellers like these devil’s urn mushrooms. Their name alone is worth the price of admission!

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Devil’s urns are edible, albeit with mixed reviews. Some people find the taste strong and the appearance unappetizing. I have tried them and find them fine as a snappy snack food when fried and still warm. Don’t take my word for what mushrooms may or may not be edible. You’re on your own.

Natural Organic Oil Sheen


I recall thinking when the Exon Valdez ran aground in March 1989, that Prince William Sound was ruined forever. Yet 21 years later Judy and I spent a glorious weekend fishing and cruising in the Sound, enjoying the incredible beauty and bounty of mountains, forests, glaciers, eagles, shoreline bears, and unparalleled marine life. Just 13 years ago, the Deepwater Horizon platform ruptured in the Gulf of Mexico. Both instances amounted unquestionably to serious environmental catastrophes. However, in neither case did the disaster introduce some exotic unnatural substance to the environment. Fossil oil has been around for millions of years, occasionally leaking into the surface environment, where microbes consumed it…microbes accustomed to metabolizing natural oils. Humans cleaning up both disasters made use of such natural mechanisms.

I offer that as preface to my finding a natural oil sheen on surface water in the still-saturated riparian sites. Organic matter breaks down in these swamp-like bottom lands. Natural oil is one component of the process. I believe that most of us think of oil as a pollutant. Instead, oil is a fundamental by-product of natural processes. The sheen below is as natural as the emerging green vegetation.

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The forest floor in these dormant season saturated bottomland is a mosaic of micro-hummocks and hollows.  These small rises are mossy micro-islands, sprouting a sweetgum seedling at left and small herbs I could not identify at right. Both patches have tiny bluets in flower.

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The forests I wander vary both at broadscale and at the micro level. The astute observer examines all scales.


Old Homesite Well


History also lies hidden in plain sight. The riparian forest (below) naturally regenerated following agriculture and mixed use abandonment when TVA and the Corps of Engineers acquired the land and associated buffer for Wheeler Dam and its flooded basin. I discovered this deep water-filled depression, which I believe is an old well, just 100 feet from the buffer edge (the northern boundary of the Refuge…the open sky beyond), suggesting that a home stood nearby. I found several old bricks on the site.

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The Wheeler Project (A Comprehensive Report on the Planning, Design, Construction, and Initial Operations of the Wheeler Project): Technical Report No. 2 (USGPS 1940), tells the story of Wheeler dam in great detail. The TVA acquired a total of 97,097 acres in 1,296 tracts. Crews cleared 31, 228 acres of forest. The project relocated 779 tenants. The operation moved 3,100 graves from 42 cemeteries. Surely a project of this scale forced abandonment of numerous homesites, included primary residences, associated outbuildings, privies, and wells. What are the chances that I would stumble upon one? I’ve witnessed first hand that Nature hides her secrets effectively over 90 years. I’m fortunate to wander these forests when some evidence of past land use persists. I shall remain a consummate forensic ecologist, searching for hints of prior occupation and use.

A Common Garter Snake


I realize that I am just a visitor to the riparian ecosystem. Other inhabitants often stay out of sight. This healthy common garter snake presented itself in a patch of forest floor sunlight.

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We made our acquaintance, carefully said our hello, and released this fine creature onto the warmth of the ground.


Thoughts and Reflections


I offer these observations:

  • Blackwell Swamp relieves the occasional claustrophobia that can envelop me in closed riparian flatwoods.
  • The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls! (John Muir)
  • Human and natural history also lie hidden in plain sight within our forests. 

Inhale and absorb Nature’s elixir. May Nature Inspire, Inform, and Reward you!


Note: All blog post images created & photographed by Stephen B. Jones unless otherwise noted. Please circulate images with photo credit: “©2023 Steve Jones, Great Blue Heron LLC. All Rights Reserved.”

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Reminder of my Personal and Professional Purpose, Passion, and Cause


If only more of us viewed our precious environment through the filters I employ. If only my mission and vision could be multiplied untold orders of magnitude:

Mission: Employ writing and speaking to educate, inspire, and enable readers and listeners to understand, appreciate, and enjoy Nature… and accept and practice Earth Stewardship.


  • People of all ages will pay greater attention to and engage more regularly with Nature… and will accept and practice informed and responsible Earth Stewardship.
  • They will see their relationship to our natural world with new eyes… and will understand more clearly their Earth home.

Tagline/Motto: Steve (Great Blue Heron) encourages and seeks a better tomorrow through Nature-Inspired Living!


Steve’s Three Books

I wrote my books Nature Based Leadership (2016), Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading (2017), and Weaned Seals and Snowy Summits: Stories of Passion for Place and Everyday Nature (2019; co-authored with Dr. Jennifer Wilhoit) to encourage all citizens to recognize and appreciate that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature.

I began writing books and Posts for several reasons:

  • I love hiking and exploring in Nature
  • I see images I want to (and do) capture with my trusty iPhone camera
  • I enjoy explaining those images — an educator at heart
  • I don’t play golf!
  • I actually do love writing — it’s the hobby I never needed when my career consumed me
  • Judy suggested my writing is in large measure my legacy to our two kids, our five grand kids, and all the unborn generations beyond
  • And finally, perhaps my books and Blogs could reach beyond family and touch a few other lives… sow some seeds for the future

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All three of my books (Nature Based LeadershipNature-Inspired Learning and LeadingWeaned Seals and Snowy Summits) present compilations of personal experiences expressing my (and co-author Dr. Wilhoit for Weaned Seals and Snowy Summits) deep passion for Nature. All three books offer observations and reflections on my relationship to the natural world… and the broader implications for society. Order any and all from your local indie bookstore, or find them on IndieBound or other online sources such as Amazon and LifeRich.