Dismal Swamp is a provocatively dreary title that provokes unsavory images twice. As a son of an artist, dismal hints at a melancholy mass of sepia tones and indistinct edges. As a husband of an extrovert, dismal screams lonely isolation. True enough, the swamp did have plenty of browns, like the coffee-brown waters our prop stirred up behind the boat.
As if Dismal is not enough of a burden for a single name, the Swamp steps forward with promises of things that can make you miserable like gallons of oily mud and air thick enough to cut with a knife. Many of the things that won't make you miserable can kill you outright like gators, venomous snakes, and even a dense black bear population. Swamps perhaps top the leaderboard for things that both make you miserable and kill you like ubiquitous mosquitos and disease ridden water.
Put the name on a piece of paper, and it's little wonder that few loopers would ever put the place on a potential list of favorites before their trip. After visiting the swamp, we can both say our journey through it was magical.
Dismal, as it turns out, is a name Europeans used to refer to swamps or other areas of stagnant water. The Great Dismal Swamp covers an area of over a million acres and spans parts of coastal Virginia and North Carolina. Historically, the landmark was visited by George Washington in 1763 and became a refuge for thousands of slaves throughout the years. Construction on the canal started in 1793 and finished in 1805, in very much the same form we see from the water.
The cut covers over 20 miles and goes through two locks. One goes up and the other goes down. Both change about eight feet of elevation. Along the intracoastal waterway, boats can choose to take the Dismal Swamp route through Elizabeth City to Norfolk or the Eastern route that goes through Coinjack Marina.
To get to the swamp, Maggie and I left Belhaven NC and travelled about 50 miles to the Alligator River Marina. Then, we left the river, crossed the Albemarle Sound through 3-4 foot seas, and sailed through scenic Elizabeth City.
As we approached the North Carolina/Virginia state line, we hailed the lock operator and asked to lock through. We pulled into the lock with historical placards and passed the operator one bow line and one stern line. He looped the rope around a fixed bollard, a metal pipe that served as a pulley of sorts for our line. Each line was tied to a cleat on our boat on one end, passed around the bollard, and then came back to us to handle. Then, the lock closed and began to fill with water. We took up slack until the boat had come up 8 feet. The lock opened, we took our lines back on board, and departed. The lock operator left the lock, drove a few feet to a bridge, and opened it for us.
We passed through the lock and went back in time. Our boat sliced through the mirror-calm water through Emerald green light glowing in the trees and mirrored with only slight rippling distortions across the surface of the water. Both Maggie and I spent a little time on the bow to take in the full grandeur of the experience.
After five short miles over about an hour, we pulled up at the North Carolina welcome center. We found later that this rest stop served both as a visitor center for the park and for North Carolina, as it was on a highway a mile off of the Virginia state line.
We spent an hour or so with the two other vessels tied up there, went to sleep, and went 17 more miles through the park to the second lock. We experienced more of the same, and more. We saw eagles almost close enough to touch, flirting geese, and more. Though we saw plenty of logs on the river, we didn't strike a single one of them. We emerged from the experience rested and optimistic.
Great Dismal Swamp, we now love your name. We will cary with us the beautiful marks that can only come when low expectations meet surprise.
This, too, is the loop.