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Swamp Things

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

In the early 1720s, explorer William Byrd was traveling in a swampy region of Virginia and
North Carolina, which he later described as a “horrible desart,” (sic) a “vast body of dirt
and nastiness” in which “Not so much as a Zealand frog cou’d (sic) endure so anguish a
situation.” But a century later, perspectives began to change and people actually began to
live in this great dismal swamp, and their testimonials began generating notions of such
great cheer and felicity that you, dear reader, need not fear a visit to this body of
nastiness. Testified one explorer of the time: “Death from disease has never been known in
that place, and … persons were found who were so old that they had moss growing on their
backs.” We discovered this swamp yet another century or so later. We had departed the
Atlantic shore and pulled into the Chesapeake Campground two miles south of Deep Creek,
Virginia. Then, hiking a small segment of what is now the Dismal Swamp National Wildlife
Refuge, we discovered a trailside journal, and in that log were testimonials to yet a
further evolution in perspective. “What a wonderful find on our discovery of America’s back
roads,” wrote a couple from Minnesota. Then, perhaps realizing that the much-treasured
swamp cut by this trail also contained the nation’s first monument to George Washington,
they added: “God bless America and her history.” Their upbeat testimonial was but one of
hundreds of other upbeat testimonials, and though it is doubtful any of these modern
scribes had ever met, what they shared in common was their discovery of the Great Dismal
Swamp. Initially, enthusiasm may have resulted from the simple fact that, here in the midst
of so much humanity, there exists a piece of nature that seems pristine. If you explore,
chances are you’ll find yourself increasingly captivated — perhaps even lingering ’till
moss begins to grow in places you can’t fathom — for the area offers so much diversity.
Cutting this body of “nastiness” is a segment of the nation’s Intracoastal Waterway, and
here, many were doing in their sailboats what we were doing in our Airstream: They were
searching for a less complex America, and upon finding a hint, felt compelled to exalt, as
did we. But not just yet, for we had the luxury to explore and reflect — and then
determine if we wanted to return and add our own testimonial. Today, though parts of this
great swamp have been reclaimed, much remains that is worthy of exploration and you should
see it all. To do so, you will need good walking shoes and access to bicycles, kayaks or
canoes. We needed a break from driving and were excited about venturing into the heart of
the swamp, so we contacted Randy Gore of the Kayak Nature Tours. Though there were many
canoe and kayak adventures, he suggested we rendezvous with him at the Northwest River. The
river is one of the many fragmented — but very compelling — parts of the Great Dismal
Swamp. Randy began our tour with a few quick lessons on kayaking. Then we set out into a
beautiful fall day. Leaves of crimson and gold festooned tiny sloughs and then, in swirls
of colors, reentered the mainstream, reluctantly, as though asking for greater recognition.
But other swamp features also competed for attention. Cypress trees abounded, and the
supporting “knees” appeared everywhere. Another feature that stood out was simply the
water. At kayak level you could immerse your hand and watch it disappear, a feature Randy
attributed to the presence of tannin. “Tannin,” said Randy, “creates an amber color,”
adding that because of its acidity, the water contains no coliform bacteria. “In some
places,” said Randy, “you can drink it.” Gore continued, saying that prior to the Civil
War, the swamp served as a conduit for slaves using the Underground Railroad. So many
runaways sought sanctuary in the Great Dismal Swamp that historians say this no-man’s land
contained one of the largest maroon colonies of escaped slaves in all the United States —
forcing me to reread my notes containing the signed testimonial from a professor of African
American studies: “This canal is an incredible testimony to human suffering and resilience
… I’m imagining Nat Turner hiding out in the swamp.” Though the swamp is certainly imbued
with a sordid history, without a doubt it is the isolated nature of this backroad area that
lures so many modern-day sailors from the commercial shipping lanes of the major
Intracoastal Waterway to the lesser-used 22-mile-long Dismal Swamp Canal. Those sailing
this route understand that because of varying water levels, locks are required and
sometimes they’ll wait hours before they can be passed through. One of the locks is located
in Deep Creek, which was built on land reclaimed from the Dismal Swamp. Robert Peek
operates this lock and is also a compendium of the area’s history. As he monitored the
passage of several sailboats through the locks, Peek expanded on George Washington’s 1778
survey work for his Dismal Swamp Land Company. Peek said Washington recommended the
construction of a series of “ditches,” which would be used for transporting timber. It
wasn’t, however, until 1784 when Governor Patrick Henry recommended constructing the canal
that anyone seriously considered the project. Nine years later, in 1793, they started
digging and, in 1805, they finished the Dismal Swamp Canal. In part because it is the
nation’s longest-used canal, it has been placed on the historic register. Another place in
the swamp to watch southbound sailors along this canal is at the state line visitor center
about 20 miles south of Deep Creek on U.S. Highway 17 — also known as the George
Washington Highway. As we sat in the canal, a 40-ish couple docked their sailboat and said
they planned to stay the night. The day was warm and they invited us aboard. They were from
Kingston, Ontario, bound for the Bahamas — and beyond. Rob was a sailing instructor;
Heather a veterinarian, and they were taking time to explore the world. They said they
hoped to sail to the Mediterranean, and that we could follow their journey on their Web
site. One month later we logged on and discovered they had included us in their journal,
saying they had met a couple from Montana traveling by RV… and that it had been “a great
stop.” Interestingly, these world travelers found aspects of our RV lives to be just as
adventurous as we did theirs. Though the Dismal Swamp is defined by water, it was
nevertheless cut by old paths now converted to bicycle and hiking trails, and no place
better preserves these trails than the Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Though the
refuge was adjacent to the campground, to reach the headquarters we had to drive north to
Deep Creek, and then follow refuge signs southwest for another 10 miles. Headquarters is
where you access several bicycle trails — and, not far away — the nearby trailhead for
Drummond Lake. If you carry bicycles, you are in luck. Drummond Lake is about four miles
from the trailhead, but the dirt path is a good one, so requires but little time peddling.
As we cycled, we recalled that we were paralleling the Washington Ditch. Dug by slave
labor, it is the first monument named after our first president. Today, however, rather
than being a conduit for removing timber from Lake Drummond, the ditch provides refuge for
a variety of avian species. Half an hour later, we reached Lake Drummond and rode our
bicycles onto a platform that provided a viewing area. The lake covers 3,100 acres, and was
named after William Drummond, a North Carolina governor who got lost in 1865 while hunting
— and who then discovered the lake. Though tannin in the water makes the lake appear
deceptively deep, in reality, lake depths max at about 6 feet. Nevertheless, it is one of
Virginia’s two natural lakes and, appropriately, we saw great blue herons, several wood
ducks, huge flocks of Canada geese and several species of birds we could not identify. But
a more complex question remains: How was Lake Drummond formed? No one knows for sure, but
most believe by fire, for the area is thick with peat, which is highly combustible. In this
scenario, fire burned in a circle, and with each burning, hollowed out a bowl that sank
deeper and deeper until it could eventually serve as a basin for collecting water. The
explanation was intriguing and added yet further to the mystery of the Dismal Swamp.
Throughout our adventure, mystery had been a reoccurring theme, and we recalled from our
notes a testimonial one couple had penned into our trailside journal. “We are infused with
a sense of excitement and mystery. We can only imagine what tomorrow will bring,” wrote
Jennie and Cody, who described themselves as “homeless wanderers.” The next day we decided
to return to the trail near the Virginia-North Carolina visitor center, read new entry
thoughts and see if we wanted to add any of our own. Additions were many and included: “Is
this a great part of our country or what?” And finally: “I am one with the Earth and stars
….” Could we improve on these entries? Hardly — and our entry exalting our RV adventures
of the time was most inadequate. In retrospect, we’d like to say that any return to this
“great body of nastiness” might see us staying ’till moss grows on our backs. Great Dismal
Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, (757) 986-3705, www.fws.gov/northeast/greatdismalswamp.

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