The name itself conjurs up images of the Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride, along with ROUS (Rodents of Unusual Size). The Dismal Swamp is a little scary, but because of things that go “bump” against your boat in the canal, and the snakes and chiggers and critters like that in the forest.
The “Dismals” was an old term used to describe swampy areas where the water stood. The Great Dismal Swamp is in a swampy area covering parts of the coastal plain of southern Virginia and northern North Carolina. The swampy area used to be much larger, but over the years has been drained and put into agriculture. Much of what remains has been conserved in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife refuge. There are miles of trails and inaccessible areas of the wildlilfe refuge. There is also a historical canal running along the edge of it.
There were many canals used to drain and log the swamp, and this remaining through-canal is one that opened up the area to commerce back in 1805. Today it is used by recreational boaters. It has a depth of 5 or 6 feet, which is on the shallow side for boats.
This canal is one of the highlights of America’s Great Loop and one that caught our imagination early on. We had looked forward to it.
We left Norfolk on my birthday in time to make the 11am opening of the Deep Creek lock and bridge at the north end of the canal. One of the highway drawbridges across the river (before the turn off to the swamp) was malfunctioning and cut down the number of openings it did. We fit under the bridge, no problem, but there were about a dozen sailboats stuck on the Norfolk side of it until noon. Because of that, there were no sailboats with us in the lock, just one other power boat.
The power boat let us go by them as they stopped to get some groceries just after the lock, but eventually they caught up to us and passed us. We let them get a half mile or so in front of us so that any debris (old waterlogged logs) they kicked up would have time to settle. You often hear of people incurring damage to their props or other underwater gear on the canal, so you need to take it real slow.
We inched along, at idle speed. The canal is a long straight stretch, then a slight corner and another long straight stretch. It’s about 22 miles, all told. The north lock is at mile 10 and the south lock at mile 32. There is a visitors center with a dock about 18 miles in at mile marker 28 where we hoped to spend the night.
The water in the canal is dark with tannin which creates a mirror effect in the water. It is beautiful and photogenic and it also means you cannot see what lurks beneath.
At about mile 15, five miles into the canal, we felt a big thump that vibrated for a second and then was gone. That was the worst of the thumps, but there were a couple others.
We put the boat in neutral and coasted past where it looked like there might be underwater problems because of trees lying partway across the canal, but the thumps were all in places where there was no indication of anything underneath.
There were plenty of things to look at along the way. Ducks, old canals, mile posts, more ducks, the beautiful reflections. And the whole way I’m hoping that it will be a charmed day with no damage because it is my birthday!
This time of year, the visitor center dock is often full, requiring that boats raft off each other. But as we pulled up, we found it entirely vacant…yay! I think it must have been the malfunctioning draw bridge upstream that kept the traffic down.
The visitor center is a highway rest area that has a dock. My understanding is that it is the only highway rest area in the country that also services a waterway.
There is a swinging foot bridge at the visitors center which goes across the canal to the state Dismal Swamp interpretive center. The trails through the swamp also start there. The interpretive center had a nice poster on the various snakes in the area and how to tell venomous from non-venomous ones. It involved looking closely at their eyes or at the scales under their tails! We had seen a big black snake when we had visited here last May on a road trip, so we did not partake in the trails.
About dusk one other boat, a sailboat, pulled up to the dock. They were a family from Montreal. They said there had been one other boat with them in the lock but that boat had stopped at a dock a ways back.
The next morning we heard that the remaining 4 miles of the canal were worse for things that go bump, so we took about an hour and a quarter to cover that four miles. We alternated between idle (in gear) and neutral and we did not have any thumps.
The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) maintains the canal and pulls out the downed trees. The lockmaster explained that it is hard for them to get their work done during the months boaters are coming through since the USACE just gets their cables out to move a tree or deadhead when they have to put it away to let a boat go through. There is going to be a time this winter (January-March 2024) when the canal will be entirely shut down for work on a lock. This is will also give the Corps time to get some of the debris picked up.
After the South Mills lock at the southern end of the canal, you enter another canal, Turners Cut. We were afraid it was going to be more of the same, in terms of underwater dangers, but that section is about 13 feet deep. Any big logs on the bottom are way down there and not a danger.
Turners Cut flows into the Pasquotank River. This is still swampy area and really looks like what we would expect of a place named Dismal Swamp.
The boat seems to be running well. We will have a diver come sometime this winter to see if everything under the boat looks OK.
UPDATE: A diver came and said no damage!!! Yay!!! Some paint scraped from the keel, but no action needed at this point.
Here is the video he took.