The Dismal Swamp was known in colonial times and, in fact, George Washington was part of a consortium that tried to drain the swamp, harvest the timber and make the land suitable for farming. The effort failed and the swamp remained to later serve as a sanctuary for runaway slaves (called maroons). In 1805, the hand-dug Dismal Swamp Canal was completed and since then has served as a water route between Virginia and North Carolina. About a hundred years later, the swamp was purchased by a lumber company, which harvested all of its virgin timber. The swamp was eventually donated to the Nature Conservancy who turned it over to the Department of the Interior. Now officially known as the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, it is a center for hiking, boating, fishing, hunting and other outdoor pursuits
Dismal or tranquil?
When I visited in the area on a bright spring day, the swamp seemed anything but dismal. I enjoyed a motorboat ride along the Dismal Swamp Canal (now part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway), and a detour down the Feeder Ditch led to Lake Drummond in the center of the refuge. The lake, which is known for the purity of its water, is accessible by several “ditches”, man-made canals that in some cases go back hundreds of years.
By the time we reached the lake, sunset was approaching, and as our boat moved out of the narrow confines of the ditch, I felt a change; the hair on the back of my neck stood out. The time of day, the softening of the motor sound, the beautiful but somehow eerie cypress trees, the wide open expanse all contributed to this feeling. At that moment, I had a hint about the origin of the swamp’s name.
Paddle for the Border
The refuge hosts a series of events during the year. A highlight is the “Paddle for the Border”, an annual event in which entrants paddle a 7.5 mile route on the Dismal Swamp Canal between South Mills, North Carolina and Chesapeake, Virginia. The assortment of boats is something to see. There are kayaks of all colors and sizes, some paddled in the usual way, some utilizing foot pedals. There are canoes and rowboats, solo boats and tandems. At the take-out, volunteers help the weary but smiling paddlers from their boats. Volunteers who patrol the route help paddlers whose craft spring a leak or run into other problems.
Camping is available in the refuge. The city of Chesapeake, which borders the northern edge of the swamp, has a number of fine hotels and restaurants. We stayed at the Homewood Suites, a relatively new property, and were delighted with the spaciousness of our suite, the friendly service and the proximity to restaurants and shops.