Ancient sea currents?
No, these aren’t plot devices for the “Jurassic Park IV” screenplay; rather, these are some of the theories as to what formed the mysterious bay lakes — a chain of some 500,000 shallow lakes, bogs, and swampy depressions that range from New Jersey to Florida, but which are found in a particularly heavy concentration in North Carolina, especially here in Bladen County.
If you were born and raised in Bladen, chances are you’ve gone swimming or fishing or water skied on or in one of the bay lakes, maybe even been baptized in the shallow, typically tea-colored water found there. Bay lakes in Bladen include White Lake, Jones Lake, Singletary Lake, Salters Lake, and countless bogs and swamps, many of which have been filled in for agricultural purposes. Over in adjacent Columbus County is the largest bay lake in this area — Lake Waccamaw.
People first became aware of the extent of the bay lakes in the 1930s, when aerial photography taken for surveying purposes showed Bladen and surrounding counties to be as pockmarked as the moon with ancient, shallow craters. Some were full of water; some were full of swamp; and some were filled in with crops of corn and soybeans and tobacco. All told, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bay lakes and their remnants in the Cape Fear region alone, and they all share these same characteristics:
Shortly after the aerial shots were released, theories about how the lakes formed flew as fast and furious as ... well ... meteors.
“Meteors seem to be the most popular theory among people around here,” said Shane Freeman, a ranger at Jones Lake State Park and the local expert on bay lake formation. “It’s just one of five major theories about how the lakes were formed. The meteor theory is popular; some believe the lakes were formed when a shower of meteors came in at a low angle from the northwest — this explains the overlapping bays and the shallow depressions.
“However, scientists say this isn’t plausible because no meteor fragments have ever been found at any of these lakes, and meteors typically make deep craters, not shallow depressions,” said Freeman.
Freeman explained the pros and cons of the four other theories concerning the bay lakes’ formation:
“I think they were made by a giant’s footsteps,” said 8-year-old Grace Revels of St. Pauls, who, along with her mother, Jean Anne, was walking their German shepherd, Fritz, on the nature trail leading around Jones Lake.
“A long time ago, a giant man walked through here, and his footprints filled up with water,” said Grace, transferring the Paul Bunyan legend from Minnesota to Carolina.
It seemed like a sound theory; anyway, it’s rarely very bright to question the voracity of someone walking a dog capable of ripping out your jugular quicker than you can say “Babe the Blue Ox.”
“I don’t know how they got here, but they sure are pretty,” said Jean Anne. “We like to come here when it’s warm and walk the dog and go swimming. Grace wasn’t too excited at first about swimming in the lake because she thought it looked ‘dirty.’ I had to explain to her that’s just the color of the water and I’ve been swimming it since I was her age and it hasn’t hurt me.”
The color of Jones Lake, like most of the bay lakes, is most often described as resembling tea — that’s the tannic acid leaching from the peat that covers the bottom of the lake, causing it to be a shade or two darker than your typical pitcher of Lipton. Besides making the water darker than other freshwater lakes and ponds, the tannic acid puts a crimp in the variety of fish — the lake is too acidic for those typical southern freshwater dwellers largemouth bass and bluegills. Instead, most of the bay lakes support just a few species of fish — yellow perch, yellow bullhead catfish, round sunfish, and chain pickerel (known around here as jacks) being the most notable.
By comparison, Lake Waccamaw boasts 52 different species of fish, which enjoys its finned bounty because it’s just a little less acidic than Jones and Singletary and Salters lakes. However, just because all the bay lakes aren’t exactly a fisherman’s paradise, the biodiversity of the area surrounding the bay lakes is unequaled in these parts.
“You’ll find all kinds of animals and plants around and on these lakes,” said Freeman. “Animals include fox squirrel, deer, ducks, all kinds of snakes, salamanders, opossums, raccoons, even bears — though I’ve never seen a bear out here, only tracks.
“You’ll also find the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, which live in the longleaf pine,” Freeman said. “Other plants include wiregrass, sheep laurel, and the bay trees, from which the lakes get their name. In fact, it’s like an impenetrable jungle in the bay forests around the lakes.”
Of course, all that lush vegetation is both a blessing and a curse for the bay lakes. Whenever there’s a drought, cypress trees and other vegetation take root in the shallows, trapping plant matter that builds up and builds up over time, eventually filling in all the bay lakes. Someday, perhaps tens of thousands of years from now, picnickers will be playing softball in the middle of what used to be Jones Lake.
Hopefully, they’ll be on the lookout not only for stray line drives, but stray meteors to boot.