"[A] horrible desert, the foul damps ascend without ceasing, corrupt the air and render it unfit for respiration...Never was Rum, that cordial of Life, found more necessary than in this dirty place..."
William Byrd, 1728
Great Dismal Swamp, to which Byrd refers, that "vast Body of mire and Nastiness," has for centuries played host to former presidents, runaway slaves, and adventurers from all walks of life, and is the source of mysteries, legends, and accounts of wildlife that seem unbelievable. As romantic and enticing as the history of the swamp is, its name alone is enough to discourage exploration. And after reading Byrd's take on the land, you might think I'm nuts for suggesting that you go there. But if you want a real outdoor adventure in this day of luxury SUV's with on-board navigation systems, there are no better places to explore along the entire Eastern Seaboard.
Byrd wrote his account after surveying the boundary line between North Carolina and Virginia, after his men had crossed the swamp on foot, and at a time when the only worth people attributed to land was a value they derived by manipulating it to their benefit. It wouldn't be long before the swamp would be "tamed" with canals, roads, and rail lines, all in an attempt to harvest the richness of the forests and to drain the land for agriculture. After more than two centuries of such abuse, a vestige of the swamp was finally protected as Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
The western side of the refuge features a few hiking trails and several canal roads that are open for both hiking and biking. With a special permit, you can even drive to the 3,000-acre Lake Drummond in the center of the swamp. But for the best experience, you need to explore from a canoe or kayak and start out from the eastern edge of the swamp.
I paddled to Lake Drummond one day in late June. Early spring and late fall are the best times to visit Great Dismal Swamp—fewer mosquitoes, cooler temperatures, better chances at spotting wildlife—but I'll surely take a hot day in the swamp over a cool day in the office anytime. Some four miles north of the North Carolina/Virginia border on US 17 lies the Great Dismal Swamp Boat Ramp, a perfect spot for launching my kayak. After packing enough rations for a couple of days and lots of film for my cameras, I slithered down the black waters of the Dismal Swamp Canal toward North Carolina.
After a short distance, I started playing chicken with a 34-foot Catalina and after some quick deduction decided that I'm probably the one who needs to move out of the way. Watching the boat go by, I wondered how many times the scenario had played out along this waterway. First proposed in 1784, dug by hired slave labor beginning in 1793, and finally opened for flat-bottomed boat traffic in 1805, the Dismal Swamp Canal is the oldest continually operating manmade watercourse in the nation. Now a National Historic Landmark, the canal must have floated some exciting characters in its 200 years of existence.
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Later that night, while reading in my tent, I learned of many of these characters: Robert Frost, who, after being scorned by the woman he loved, came to Dismal Swamp to kill himself, but thought the better of it and eventually went on to marry the same woman; Frederick Law Olmsted, who would later design New York's Central Park and the fabulous gardens of Vanderbilt's Biltmore Estate in Asheville; and Edna Ferber, who spent a week on the James Adams Floating Theatre in 1924 researching the novel Showboat, which would later become the classic musical. Two United States presidents also visited the canal: James Monroe in 1818 and Andrew Jackson in 1829.
There were many others, as well, and those who never came to Dismal Swamp, but who were entranced by it just the same. People like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote "The slave in the Dismal Swamp," and Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose novel Dred, A Tale of the Dismal Swamp came out four years after her Uncle Tom's Cabin. And there were those whose forays into the swamp might not have included the canal or who came before it was built. There was George Washington, who with several partners, made the first attempts at draining the swamp, and David Hunter Strother, who, under the pen name Porte Crayon, so colorfully portrayed his wilderness adventures in Harpers Weekly in the mid-1800s.
Half a mile from the launch site, I turned west into Feeder Ditch, which connects Lake Drummond with Dismal Swamp Canal. Feeder Ditch was dug solely for supplying water from the lake to the canal. The trouble is that Lake Drummond sits several feet higher than the surrounding land, fed only by rainwater. During dry spells, the lake and the canal can get low on water.
A mile or so into the 3-mile, straight-as-an-arrow Feeder Ditch, I spooked a great blue heron. Some 200 bird species live in the swamp, including more than 30 warblers and nearly 100 nesting species. The numbers sound impressive, but as the heron glides away I can't help but think of the incredible observations made by early birders. Ornithologist Brooke Meanley once saw a group of robins he estimated at one million birds and a flock of blackbirds he calculated at an astonishing thirty million. And some believe that if the ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct, its last holdout is deep within the Dismal Swamp.
After a couple of hours of lazy paddling and nature observing, I arrived at one of the most unique campsites in the East. It sits on a dry peninsula about half a mile from Lake Drummond. The fact that there's enough dry land in this swamp for a campsite is unique enough, but what I like most about this campsite is that it's situated beside the locks on Feeder Ditch. The locks regulate the water flowing down the canal, assuring a stable level in Lake Drummond. The Fish and Wildlife Service prohibits camping anywhere on the refuge except this site, and even though the only way to get here is by boat or tortuous hike, the campground sees several thousand visitors a year. I planned my trip for the middle of the week in hopes I'd have it to myself, but there is plenty of room to spread out if others show up.
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The water in Lake Drummond and Dismal Swamp Canal appears black as midnight on the surface, but where it spills over the Feeder Ditch locks you can see its true color: Chocolate brown, like strong tea or weak coffee. The color comes from tannins that leach from trees and peat deposits in the swamp. The tannic acid not only colors the water, but also makes it inhospitable to most types of vegetation, including plants that waterfowl feed on. As a result, you see few birds on the lake itself. Early sailors didn't give a hoot about Lake Drummond's bird life, but they sure liked its water. With the high acid content retarding bacterial growth, Drummond's water would keep fresh for long periods and became a staple for many extended sea voyages. I've read that the water is safe to drink right out of the lake, but I wouldn't take any chances.
After exploring the canal locks and the old canal keeper's quarters, I scoped out the campsite facilities, which include a screened enclosure and running water during the warmer months. I had just enough time to set up camp and fix some grub before heading to the lake to watch and make photos of the sunset. But first I had to portage the kayak from Feeder Ditch up to the lake level on the other side of the locks. With my small craft I could have simply drug it up the bank, but that would have deprived me of one of the fun parts of the trip. Instead, I used the marine railway, ingeniously designed to portage boats (10 horsepower limit) from Feeder Ditch to the lake. Once on the upper level, it took only a few minutes to paddle to the lake.
By the time I reached the lake, the wind had calmed down and the water was glassy smooth. But I remembered well the first time I paddled on Lake Drummond. I was in a rented aluminum canoe and for a while I thought neither the canoe nor I would make it back in one piece. I had wrongly assumed that with the lake being so shallow-six feet at its deepest point-and surrounded by forest, the lake would stay mostly calm except in the heaviest of winds. So I plowed toward the center of the lake before I realized what I'd gotten myself into. What I discovered was that on hot sunny days, the lake creates its own wind. On that day, the waves began crashing over the canoe, making it nearly impossible to maneuver. I finally latched hold of a cypress tree near shore and didn't let go until the wind died down.
But on the late June evening of my most recent trip, the paddling was smooth and I mad the way around the shore to where a few cypress trees grow out into the lake. I hopped out of the kayak into the shallow water and set up my tripod to photograph the sunset through the cypress trees. Later that night, back in camp, I read Bland Simpson's The Great Dismal for a few hours, and then spent the rest of the night half-asleep and half-gazing at the stars. The next morning, I headed out early and paddled to the other side of the lake to photograph the sunrise. During the day, I paddled over to the dock at Washington Ditch and hiked along the canal road beside the ditch.
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The next day, I paddled back down Feeder Ditch, back to the world of blacktops and stoplights and air-conditioned offices. But as on trips before, I took a little part of the Great Dismal Swamp back home with me.