Something entitled “dismal” doesn’t produce images of beauty. And, many do not think of a swamp as a place to explore. But, the Dismal Swamp is not what its name might imply. George Washington called it “a glorious paradise.”
There is much history of our country and commerce contained in the man-made canal that transits the Dismal Swamp. In 1763, George Washington visited the Swamp and suggested draining it for logging purposes and digging a north-south canal through it to connect the waters of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina, to create a shorter and safer route for commerce. The 22 mile-long canal was dug by hand over a period of 12 years and is the oldest active canal in the U.S.
Within the swamp lies Lake Drummond, the largest of only 2 natural lakes in the State of Virginia. Scientists believe the oval lake may have been formed by the impact of a meteorite and Native American legends mention the “Firebird” in reference to the lake’s origin. The lake’s water is unusually pure and the amber tannic acid from tree bark prohibits the growth of bacteria. Long before refrigeration, these waters were a prized commodity on sailing ships because the water would stay fresh for a long time.
Today, 14,000 acres are protected by the North Carolina State Park and 111,000 acres by the Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge, with access available by boat, and hiking trails. (Reference: North Carolina State Parks.)
Learning the history of our country and experiencing the lands and waters where this history took place is one of the benefits of cruising the waterways. Much of the United States commerce and development were closely tied to water transportation, so water travel brings you close to history.
The Pasquotank River is the southern connector to the Dismal Swamp. The southern section of this river is so wide that it might better be described as a bay. At Elizabeth City, located near the middle of the river, the Pasquotank becomes a narrow, winding, wild river. The Elizabeth City drawbridge does not open between 7:00 am and 8:30 am, so an early departure from the dock was required. Jill captured an interesting image of the bridge opening for us.
Not far upriver from Elizabeth City, all traces of human interaction with the land end. The river becomes a winding water trail through nature.
A Bald Eagle guided us along the Pasquotank, as we traveled north. It would perch on a branch until we approached, then fly down the river about 20 feet off the water. Flying much faster than Last Dance travels through the water, it would get far ahead, then perch on another tree branch. Again, when we approached, the eagle would launch from the tree, down toward the water and fly along the river in front of us. This continued for a number of miles.
The Dismal Swamp Canal begins with a lock to raise the boats eight feet, to the water level of the swamp. Not far into the canal, we came upon a pair of Canadian Geese. While not much guidance should be needed to navigate this straight canal, the geese decided to continue the guidance that the Bald Eagle had done so well on the Pasquotank. They would fly down the canal, only a couple feet off the water, then land in the water when they were about a quarter mile away. When we approached, they would perform a water take off and fly along the canal in front of us.
After the Geese tired of this game and flew over the trees into a field, we came upon a Great Blue Heron. He took up the job of leading us along the canal. At least a dozen times, he would fly along the canal surface, gain some distance ahead, then land on a tree as if waiting for us to catch up. When we did, he would repeat the leap from the tree and fly along the top of the water leading us forward.
History, beauty, nature, flora and fauna all while on a peaceful piece of water. Transiting the Dismal Swamp Canal is all that and more.