Dismal and Deserted

July 27, 2021

The “Great Dismal Swamp” a repulsed Colonel William Byrd called it, as his expedition party struggled through the dense undergrowth of forests of the seemingly-endless wetland in 1728. Conceived by Byrd as a connector between the Nansemond and Elizabeth Rivers to the Albemarle Sound in order to promote commerce, another 60 years passed before the canal became reality. Both George Washington and Patrick Henry were in favor of this investment in their young nation. The project ran slow and over-budget, as it was dug by hand utilizing enslaved workers hired from nearby landowners. Even though digging was initiated from both ends, complaints regarding the delays arose, and a road was constructed to connect the two ends as digging continued. Twelve years in the making, the resulting canal was only 6 feet deep, and use was limited to flat boats and log rafts manually poled or towed through. Deep disappointment in the design prevailed, and the canal eventually fell into disrepair. An unintentional consequence of the lengthy project was the extensive knowledge that workers gained of the swamp, and it became a haven for runaways. Landowners were loathe to chase a runaway into the swamp, and so colonies of “maroons” grew and developed their own commerce through barter and trade. While life in the swamp was not easy, at least it was autonomous. Today the Dismal Swamp Canal is maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers and is on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2004 it was added to the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program. Its 111,000 protected acres are home to a rich diversity of wildlife, with its 350 black bears being the largest population on the Atlantic coast. 

Our departure from the anchorage at Goat Island, was carefully timed. Threading through the narrow channel of the Dismal Swamp Canal, we were pleased to find more water depth than we expected— a generous 7 feet! Untamed, dense woods to the west, a 50-foot strip of trees and then a highway to our east, the two sides of the canal were incongruous. Towering pines presided, as cedars gave way to dense thickets of kudzu, slim sycamores and elegant mimosas with their frilly compound leaves and pink puffs abloom. Black, glassy water reflected the serenity in duplicate. Despite our careful tending to the skinny water, the props found connection with something significant. “KER-THONK!” We waited for the shimmy that results from unbalanced props, but as the ride seemed unaffected, we slowly relaxed. Locking was a small challenge in comparison, but with there being only 4 openings per day, and understanding that there is not much room to maneuver at the lock entrance, we watched the clock and our crawling 5mph speed carefully. Every locking system is different, but lock masters are often affable and helpful, and we appreciated his assistance with a boat hook, tying up with our own bow and stern lines. We were lifted 8 feet at South Mills Lock and lowered again at the other end at Deep Creek Lock the following day. 

The reflective quality of the glassy black water was stunning in this setting.
Kudzu and sycamores

We have so looked forward to exploring this historic landmark that we dedicated two days in order to take in the Visitors Center at the Dismal Swamp State Park and enjoy a bike ride. We studied our materials regarding where to tie up and what to expect, and of course, since we are a couple of months behind other Loopers, we had the place to ourselves. It was Sunday, and the Welcome Center was not open until 1:00, so we unloaded our bikes and took off. We were puzzled by the barricade to the bike trail, but finally just rode around it and enjoyed the short ride, meeting a lot of other folks who had the same inclination. Still, we did not fully understand until we returned to the Welcome Center that the state park had closed for repairs in June. The Visitors Center, run by the state park, which we eagerly anticipated was therefore closed. (“Yur late!”) We deliberated over guacamole and chips, finally realizing that we were tied up right beside the “Welcome to North Carolina” rest stop on a 4-lane highway, and were once again in a fish bowl. The only boat. Waterway Guide reviews of this spot refer to a party atmosphere, with as many as 14 boats tied up, rafting onto each other and having a cook out and pot luck on the lawn. Somehow, our guacamole failed to capture the party spirit. 

We researched a bit more and decided to move on to Arbuckle Landing, a more secluded dock. So secluded and so small was it, that we passed it at first. Spinning carefully back in our track, we easily caught the low pilings, challenged only by sticking out 10 feet on either end  and by the protruding bolts which we strategically avoided as we placed our fenders. Anticipating a more extensive bike ride, we discovered that up the steps was still just a sun-drenched highway, albeit only 2 lanes at this point. We settled in for the night, and I was making soup in the Instant Pot, as three young men paid us a visit. What we were doing? Were we spending the night?… And suddenly our remoteness felt like vulnerability. Steve called the local police, and the operator helped us orient to landmarks which we could cite should we need to call for help. We awoke in the morning with relief that the guys were just curious and very direct. 

We missed Arbuckle Landing on the first pass and had to go back. Underwhelming, but workable.

We’ll appreciate being in high traffic areas next week as we visit Norfolk.

One thought on “Dismal and Deserted”

  1. So we’ll written. We felt like we were traveling with you! So enjoy reading what you wrote and learning more about our world. Lovely photos! Bev and Joel

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