Dismal Swamp? Not a Chance!
17 June 2008 | Dismal Swamp Canal, NC and VA
Beth - 34C
On our way south we were dubious about the depths in the Swamp route and made the decision to take the Virginia Cut. On the way back north we were determined to try it and are we ever glad we did.
At about ICW mile 78 as we entered Albemarle Sound, we veered to port and followed ICW Route 2 - The Great Dismal Swamp Route - to begin a wilderness journey that we stretched out to 3 days so we could savour it.
The swamp was so named back in 1728 by Colonel William Byrd II, who led a surveying team into the swamp to establish the state line between Virginia and North Carolina. Another version was that early settlers called swamps, "dismals". Either way, the name stuck. It may be dismal on a dark day in the heart of the swamp, but as we cruised along the canal under bright sunshine, it was anything but.
Years ago, I read and loved an old book, "Freckles" by Gene Stratton Porter, about a boy and a swamp. I need to find that book again because I think I've gotten a glimpse of his swamp.
We had planned to stop in Elizabeth City for the night. It is famous for free docking, the "rose buddies" who give roses to visiting boats, for the wine and cheese parties ...But... when I radioed them, a boater called back to say they don't answer the radio and when I phoned the number in the book, it was a voice message from the chamber of commerce - closed on a Sunday afternoon. We circled a couple of times but no one was in sight and the slips were the kind we would require assistance with so we reluctantly kept on going. I think we must have just caught them on an off day.
It all worked out well though, because we anchored just off Goat Island - around a couple of bends in the river and had a perfectly wonderful evening. The water was mirror flat, trees grew right to the edge of the river, one lone powerboat anchored nearby for a few minutes while the captain had a swim and then left. It was just the birds and us.
There were a couple of forest fires burning in the area causing smoke (sometimes heavy) along the rivers but we were lucky enough to miss most of it. Our evening was mostly clear, and although the smoke hovered around, we never had the experience of ash falling on us nor any difficulty breathing.
We left about 9 on Monday to catch the 11 o'clock opening of the South Mills Lock. The first few miles were part of the winding Pasquotank River with its dark tannin coloured water and leisurely S curves. Each corner opened up a new vista of dense foliage right to the banks - loblolly pine and pin oak, sycamore, sassafrass and sweet gum, red maple and red cedar and a host of others. Wild roses bloomed down near the water, lilies carpeted corners and fallen logs provided sunny spots for turtles.
The winding route eventually gave way to the canal - hand dug (by slaves of course) beginning around 1793 as a trade route between Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. The area was heavily logged and has a couple of interesting historical stories. The area was of prime importance in the Underground Railway as it provided shelter for slaves making their way north, and for groups of "maroons" who hid out in the swamps. We read that Edgar Allen Poe composed "The Raven" while staying at the inn along the canal, and a theatrical boat that plied these waters was the real life example for the musical "Showboat." The canal had periods of prosperity and periods of neglect over the couple of hundred years since its creation, and is now maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers as a pleasureboat waterway. I'm sure those slaves and the businessmen who drove them had no vision of creating a place of beauty for the likes of us, but we sent a little vote of thanks to them as we traveled.
We stopped at the Welcome Centre with a question in our minds of whether to make it a short visit or an overnight one - and opted for the latter. Once again, the day was stifling hot; the dockage was free and the centre air-conditioned! We exchanged some laughs with Sudie and Dolores, the friendly hosts - "Got any elastics?" "HOW many brochures can one person take?" as we checked e-mail and perused the book trade shelves. We visited the newly opened visitors centre for the Dismal Swamp State Park across the canal, and then spent a leisurely evening lolling about on the boat and wandering the nearby paths. The trails were closed because of the forest fires, but I'd make time to go exploring them next trip.
Because we had so enjoyed the first day's travel, we left very early so we could mosey along at about 3.5 to 4 knots to the Deep Creek Lock for its 11 o'clock opening. We've discovered that while we must hurry up sometimes, we prefer to drift whenever we can! Once more, we gazed at the trees and listened to the birds. We searched for snakes but didn't find any. We watched for overhanging trees that might catch our mast, and our depth sounder for shallow bits (the lowest we saw was 6.5 feet for a few seconds here and there) and the path ahead for wayward logs but encountered no difficulties.
Once at the Deep Creek Bridge, we waited for a bit because Robert had 7 southbound boats locking through. The routine is that the lockmaster helps each boat tie up, closes the lock doors and then when the water has reached its desired level (8 feet up at this lock; 8 feet down at South Mills) he opens the doors, sees the boats out, hops in his car and drives to the bridge to open it. We enjoyed meeting Robert - a man who clearly is in the right job. He answered his radio promptly, gave clear information on opening times, efficiently caught our lines to sling them over the pilings, made cheery conversation as we dropped out of sight and wished us well as we traveled onward. He is the best source of information on the water levels in the canal too. (757-487-0831)
From there, it was a fast re-entry into busyness. We mingled with boats from the Virginia Cut Route and with barges and tugs as we made our way under 5 more bridges - all of whose operators were helpful and friendly, and with the noise of road and air traffic over head we found ourselves once more in the hustle and bustle of Norfolk. Soon enough, we passed Red Marker 36 - Mile 0 of the ICW. It seemed fitting that on this day - June 17th, we marked a whole year since this adventure began.