The Great Dismal Swamp Canal
Sometimes while looking at the map places just jump out at you. This is our 3rd time through the Virginia Beach / Hampton Roads area of Virginia and each time through I noted this green space on the map called The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
Seriously? Our tax dollars support such a thing? And why in all of our travel-blogger following had we not seen anyone visit it?
A Relatively Unexplored Gem
We love finding gems like this that sort of hide in plain sight, passed up by both travelers and locals alike.
While we weren’t able to stop on our first two times past, this time I made sure we would. Now that we have our own kayaks I wanted to be able to say we had kayaked in the Great Dismal Swamp and survived the flame spurts, the lightning sand, and the R.O.U.S’s.
So what’s the scoop on this swamp anyway? Turns out, there is some pretty interesting history here.
The name is attributed to William Byrd II who surveyed the area in the early 1700s in order to settle a border dispute between VA and NC (the states meet in the middle of the swam).
Byrd found the swamp difficult to transverse with his men (actually the story I found was that Byrd sent his men across the swamp and then met them on the other side). Byrd proposed the idea of draining the swamp to create farmland and this project was taken up a few years later by a another group of men.
That group included George Washington.
Why a Canal?
The farming didn’t turn out but the timber in the swamp proved valuable enough that it became the main reason for continuing to work in the swamp.
The Dismal Swamp Canal was dug along the eastern edge of the swamp to help with the timber efforts. It’s the oldest continually operating artificial waterway in the USA, and is currently one route of the Intercoastal Waterway.
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The work was done with slave labor, and reading accounts of it the work sounds pretty horrid - men waist deep in muck, fighting insects, snakes and other wildlife. Of all the people involved in the Swamp I’m sure they found the name most accurate.
Kayaking the Great Dismal Swamp Canal
An abandoned retractable bridge on the Canal
The kids checking out berries on the edge of the canal
Our first and only turn from the canal into the Feeder Ditch
My pretty kayaking partner
The annoying Ditch Ducks
Yep - still there.
Miranda's comment on the effort required to get halfway
The out-of-order trolley to portage gear into Lake Drummond.
The Dam at Lake Drummond.
The Swamp also plays a part in the Underground Railroad in that groups of slaves hid out in the swamp and Harriet Beecher Stowe (of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame) wrote a book entitled Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp that’s up next on my reading list.
Another interesting story about the Swamp is that poet Robert Frost decided the ‘Road Not Taken’ was really into the swamp with the intent of committing suicide because his lady wouldn’t consent to marry him.
He didn’t go through with it, she later said yes and this story later became the basis for a rock opera.
I couldn’t make this stuff up.
The George Washington Ditch
And our man George Washington? He did enough work surveying in and around the Swamp that he got his very own ditch named after him (Obama take note: there may be hope for you yet).
These days the Swamp just celebrated (as in, the weekend we visited) its’ 40th anniversary as a National Wildlife Refuge (on the VA side) and a State Natural Area (on the NC side).
There are miles of hiking trails along the various ditches, fishing in Lake Drummond (one of only two natural lakes in VA), talk of lots of wildlife, kayaking in the Canal and Feeder Ditch, and a bikepath along the canal on the Eastern Side.
Driving ‘Round the Swamp
On our first day visiting the Swamp we circumnavigated the entire thing, visiting both the Fish and Wildlife headquarters on the VA side and the NC State Park’s Visitor Center. The latter is much nicer and with better exhibits, etc but the people at the former were very nice and informative as well.
Our second day was the big kayaking trip, and I cover that in kayaking the Great Dismal Swamp.