The Great Dismal Swamp

Thursday morning sunrise over the Pasquotank River

Thursday morning sunrise over the Pasquotank River

Such a name as this conjures up in me memories of playing Candy Land as a child making my way through the Molasses Swamp and Gumdrop Mountains. But, the Great Dismal Swamp is a marshy area between Elizabeth City, NC and Norfolk, VA. Along the eastern edge of the swamp lies the oldest continually operating man-made canal in the the United States, the Dismal Swamp Canal, which opened in 1805. In May 1763, George Washington visited the swamp, suggested draining it, and digging a north-south canal through it to connect the Chesapeake Bay and the Albemarle Sound. He, with other businessmen, purchased 40,000 acres of the land. At one time, he tried to sell his interest to the father of Robert E. Lee, but this fell through. The Halfway House Hotel was built along the canal astride the Virginia-North Carolina state line around the time the canal opened. The hotel was well known for lovers’ trysts, duels, and outlaws. Edgar Allen Poe is said to have written “The Raven” [“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary…”] during his stay at the hotel (no remains of the hotel exist today). James Adam’s Floating Theatre, which inspired the writing of “Showboat,” used to ply the waters of the canal.

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Today, the Dismal Swamp Canal is part of the Intracoastal Waterway. Yesterday, July 2nd, was our day to transit the dismal swamp. We pushed away from the bulkhead in Elizabeth City around 7:20 a.m., and made our way through the Elizabeth City drawbridge (only half of which opened, leaving a tight transit). For the next couple of hours, the beauty rivaled that of the Waccamaw River in South Carolina. The Pasquotank above Elizabeth City is absolutely splendid! Along the way, we saw two august bald eagles perched in trees and flying along the water’s edge. We also played hide and seek with a magnificent golden eagle. We would approach the area of the river where she had perched in one of the riverside trees, which sent her scurrying ahead a quarter of a mile or so to a new perch upriver. This must have gone on for at least ten times before she tired of our games.

The Elizabeth City Bridge (Opens 1/2 only).  A little tight.

The Elizabeth City Bridge (Opens 1/2 only). A little tight.

On the Pasquotank

On the Pasquotank

Up the Beautiful Pasquotank

Up the Beautiful Pasquotank

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Cindy's turn at the helm

Cindy’s turn at the helm

A river of tea (or coffee)

A river of tea (or coffee)

More scenes from the Pasquotank

More scenes from the Pasquotank

Love this reflection

Love this reflection

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle

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Whizzing by debris in the water at 6 knots.

Whizzing by debris in the water at 6 knots.

A light drizzle

A light drizzle

Sailboat on the Dismal Swamp Canal

Sailboat on the Dismal Swamp Canal

The Dismal Swamp Canal has two locks along its waterway. We transited the first at 11:00 a.m. The lock lifts vessels 8’ from the level of the Pasquotank River to the level of the canal. We ended our day just prior to going through the second lock, approximately twenty miles from the first. This was only our second experience with locks, the first of which was the in the Port Canaveral canal which was a little bit of a letdown. It only lifted us maybe six inches. This one was impressive though.

The Admiral lugging our big ball fender forward, readying for the South Mills Lock

The Admiral lugging our big ball fender forward, readying for the South Mills Lock

Captain at the helm

Captain at the helm

Entering South Mills Lock

Entering South Mills Lock

Notice how low we are compared to the wall

Notice how low we are compared to the wall

Water pouring in from under the gates, raising our water level 8'

Water pouring in from under the gates, raising our water level 8′

Notice how high we are in comparison with the wall

Notice how high we are in comparison with the wall

Leaving the South Mills Lock

Leaving the South Mills Lock

The canal was shallow. We saw an average of 7-8’ with a minimum of 6’. There was considerable debris (logs and limbs) floating down the canal which we usually could avoid. We did hear the thud of some unknown piece of flotsam striking our hull as we transited the canal. It was also quite narrow. Fortunately, we only passed one vessel going in the opposite direction. There wasn’t a lot of room for maneuvering. At one point, we heard a violent crack right next to the boat. This was followed by a massive branch of one of the trees which line the canal falling to the ground. I’m glad it wasn’t overhanging! There were several places where the upper branches of the trees protruded out over the canal. Our mast provided complementary tree trimming services on a couple of occasions.

The Great Dismal Swamp Welcome Center

The Great Dismal Swamp Welcome Center

Following the sailing vessel Columbus up the Canal

Following the sailing vessel Columbus up the Canal

Traffic jam on the Dismal Swamp Canal

Traffic jam on the Dismal Swamp Canal

The NC/Virginia Line (former location of The Halfway House Hotel)

The NC/Virginia Line (former location of The Halfway House Hotel)

Tree trimmings courtesy of our mast

Tree trimmings courtesy of our mast

The swamp is called Great because of it’s size. And it’s called dismal, because… Well, it must be because of the flying pests. Their were swarms of yellow flies which harassed me at the helm for hours. Many met their doom by means of our fly swatters (although we did lose some fly swatters in the battle). There were also many dragonflies and bees, neither of which I minded. They pretty much mind their own business, but the flies will not leave you alone! The lock tender told us they are only a nuisance for about six weeks in the summer. Wouldn’t you know it happened to be during this time?!

Dragonfly 1

Dragonfly 1

Dragonfly 2

Dragonfly 2

Dragonfly 3

Dragonfly 3

At 2:40, we tied up along the Deep Creek free bulkhead in Chesapeake, VA for the night. We like these free tie-ups. We walked across the highway to a Food Lion to purchase a few groceries. For dinner, we grilled some burgers and enjoyed a nice bottle of wine. Tomorrow morning, we’ll make our way through the Deep Creek lock and journey northward for another ten miles to the city of Norfolk, where we’ll enjoy a great 4th of July weekend.

Tied up for the night at the Deep Creek Locks Bulkhead

Tied up for the night at the Deep Creek Locks Bulkhead

4 thoughts on “The Great Dismal Swamp

  1. Thank goodness we didn’t experience any flies or bees either time we went through. Loved the dragonflies though. One hitchhiked on my big toe for almost 2 hours!!! I think the Dismal Swamp is one of the most beautiful parts of the ICW. We took down a number of leaves also along the way…. Don’t you just love how when you’re looking ahead there seems to be a “wall of trees” and then all of a sudden the canal veers right or left and there’s another “wall of trees” way down the line… Beautiful 🙂

  2. I enjoyed both trips up and down the Grear Dismal Swamp locks. I was not aware of them. Another history lesson ! It sure seemed narrow to me. You all must have been whipped after that journey !! Stay safe !

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