Thursday, May 2, 2013

Dismal Swamp, NC and VA

April 30 – May 1, 2013

As daughter Karen said about a year ago, “I can’t believe that at the end of this long, wonderful trip, your last leg is through a place called the Dismal Swamp?!”  In fact, we didn’t have to go that way.  There are actually two routes from the Albemarle Sound to Norfolk. One route takes you further east, inside the barrier islands through Coinjock, and the other route is through the Dismal Swamp Canal.  Some people love the Dismal Swamp, others have not much good to say about it. But it seems to be one of those iconic looping segments and we wanted to see it for ourselves.  We can always return south later this year via the alternate route.

The Dismal Swamp is a wild natural habitat that now encompasses aver 100,000 acres straddling the North Carolina and Virginia borders. Originally, the Swamp covered over one million acres. George Washington visited the swamp in 1763 and proposed draining it and building a canal to connect Chesapeake Bay in Virginia with the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. He and others formed the Dismal Swamp Land Company for the purpose of doing just that. Over the next several decades, a canal was built, primarily by slave labor. The goal of draining the swamp was eventually abandoned, but the canal opened in 1805 and remains the oldest continuously operated canal in North America.  Interestingly, the Rideau Canal in Canada, completed in 1832, makes the same claim. The discrepancy may have to do with the definition of “continuously operated,” or maybe the fact that most of the Rideau’s locks still use the original hand-operated machinery, whereas the Dismal Swamp’s lock machinery has been modernized. Another big difference between the two is that the Rideau stretches 126 miles and has 45 locks, while the Dismal Swamp Canal is 22 miles long and has only two locks.  In any case, they are both very old and historically interesting canals and over the course of our Loop, we have traveled both of them.


But first things first.  We left Elizabeth City at 6:30 a.m. in the fog, and the early part of the day on the Pasquotank River was gloomy and challenging.  Thank goodness for radar and electronic chartplotters – at times it was hard to see the banks. Craig called the Elizabeth City bridge operator before we left and confirmed that there were no barges on the river for us to contend with. But at this rate, the Dismal Swamp was going to be very dismal, indeed!


Sometime after 8:00 a.m., the fog lifted and we enjoyed the peaceful scenery of the river.

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When we passed through the South Mills lock and bridge, we were officially in the Dismal   Swamp.

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A few miles further, at about 10:00 a.m., we pulled up to the dock wall at the North Carolina Welcome Center, where we would spend the night (even though we were actually leaving North Carolina). The Welcome Center is exactly what it sounds like – a highway rest area on the Virginia-North Carolina boarder that just happens to have a 150 foot dock wall. It costs nothing to dock there, but there is no electrical power or water and no showers. The Welcome Centers restrooms are open 24/7, though.


This is the only place to stop along the narrow canal, and they allow as many boats as possible to stop, which means boats often have to raft to each other. With the logistical challenges of getting our dogs on and off the boat, we wanted to make sure we were one of the first boats there so we could tie to the wall. We didn’t mind if others rafted outside our boat, but we didn’t want to be hauling Joey and Bailey across other boats to get them to shore.  Hence our 6:30 a.m. start that day – not Barbara’s preferred starting time, but anything for my dogs!  As it turned out, there were only 4 boats there that night – Blue Heron and three sailboats.

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We checked in with Donna, the friendly and very helpful manager at the Welcome Center. Discovering that their logo is a blue heron, of course we had to but some shirts and a hat.


We walked across the pontoon bridge to the state park museum, which had nice displays about the history of the swamp. We also enjoyed the boardwalk path behind it, into the swamp. You wouldn’t want to walk there without a boardwalk!

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After lunch, we borrowed two of the Center’s free loaner bikes (easier than getting our own out), and rode the four mile bike path along the canal. It was a nice ride and we passed one of the original nineteenth century canal mile markers along the way.

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When we returned from our bike ride, the sailboaters invited us for docktails. This crowd starts early – 4:30! But I think sailboaters turn in for the night even earlier than Loopers. We had a nice time visiting with this entirely different style of boaters.


Just as we were heading back to our boat to make dinner, the evening’s real excitement started. Up in the parking lot we heard loud yelling and saw a young woman running in hot pursuit after a young man who clearly wanted to put some distance between them.  Honestly, at that point it was hard to tell if the yelling was joking or angry.  But when the girl came back, pulled a fence stake out of the ground and starting beating the crap out of the guy’s car, it became pretty clear this was no friendly game of tag. Craig called 911 and was told he was already the second caller. In short order, FIVE police cars came racing in – two North Carolina State police, two county police and one unmarked car. We saw one of the sheriff's police carrying a long rifle – not in the way he would carry his own weapon – and put it in his car.  Later a sixth, unmarked car drove up, took the gun and left. In the meantime, tourists kept pulling into the rest stop, using the facilities, and then turning around to exit through the truck area, as the police had the car exit area blocked. The police were there for well over an hour, inspecting the area and talking with the girl. They eventually took her away, but left her car and the demolished car there until the next morning when a flatbed truck came to take it away. Craig and one of the sailboaters went up to look at the car, and it was a mess – all the windows broken and the tires slashed. Everyone agreed that it had the look of a drug deal gone bad.

The whole thing was very weird and more than a little unnerving. I didn’t sleep very well that night.


The next day it was drizzly and cold, but we wanted to move on to Portsmouth. We’d had just about enough excitement at the Welcome Center!  Before we left, Craig took a walk with the dogs and saw one of the old trains they used to carry lumber out of the swamp.


We left around 10:00 a.m. and drove from the inside helm due to the crummy weather. Frankly the canal got a little boring.  We did see some wildlife – a family of geese and a swimming raccoon, and a pair of blue herons who flew along with us for several miles.

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There was a fair amount of debris in the water. At one point we hit something floating under the surface that we never did see. But further on we came across a 50-foot tree trunk, at least a foot in diameter at its base, completely perpendicular to and blocking the canal. I got a boat hook and tried to reach it from the bow, but that wasn’t going to work.  So Craig did a 180 turn in the narrow canal and backed up to the log. I got on the swim platform with the boat hook and as Craig eased the boat back, I was eventually able to push the log our of our way.  We did another 180 and continued. Unfortunately, this maneuver took the full attention of both of us, so we have no pictures of Blue Heron and her crew on workboat duty.

At this point, I was about convinced that the Dismal Swamp would be a one-time experience for us and was ready to be out of there! But then we came to the second and final lock at Deep Creek (our final lock on the Loop, after 145 or 146, hard to keep count!), where our trip through the swamp ended on a high note, literally and figuratively. Lockmaster Robert is a real gem.  Not only was he very helpful, but while we waited in the lock, he told us more about the history of the swamp and the canal. He also is famous for his skill on the conch horn, and he gave us a demonstration. In the past, I have only heard boaters “blow” a conch horn, usually a long blast at sunset – but Robert actually plays it. HIs lockmaster’s house is landscaped with dozens of conch shells that boaters returning from the Keys and the Bahamas have brought him over the years. I jokingly (sort of) asked him if he’d be willing to part with one of his shell horns, as I had searched  in the Keys and south Florida and was never able to find one. After pointing out that usually it works the other way around – boaters bring shells to him! – he pulled one of his shells from his garden, cleaned it off and gave it to me.  Actually, he tried a few of them until he found one with a tone he liked.  I was thrilled!  I gave him a large cockle shell I had found and Craig gave him a bottle of wine.  He gave me a quick lesson, but I have a lot of work to do!  Now I have both harmonica and conch horn to work on!


Very soon after pulling out of the lock, we entered the Elizabeth River, a dramatic change from the peaceful nothingness of the Dismal Swamp. Soon we were traveling past the Navy shipyard where we saw several boats in dry-dock. The military helicopters flying overhead are a reminder that you’re in the busy Hampton Roads area again.

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I felt very emotional as we came within sight of the Norfolk skyline. Just days short of a year ago, we pulled out of Norfolk and started our wonderful adventure on the Great Loop. It is so hard to believe it’s almost over. We have deliberately decided not to cross our wake just yet, though. We want to clean the boat a bit and time our crossing closer to daughter Karen's arrival on Saturday. So we pulled in to the huge Tidewater Yacht Marina in Portsmouth, where we will spend another day seeing that interesting old city, doing some boat chores and looking across the river to the spot where – on Friday – Blue Heron will cross her wake and we will put up our Gold Looper flag!


A few pictures from last night in Portsmouth: walking through the Old Towne neighborhood, and enjoying a movie and dinner (“42”) at the Commodore, an old art deco theater on the National Historic Register.  A fun evening!

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Next: On May 3, after 11 months and 22 days, Blue Heron will cross her wake and complete the Great Loop when we once again pull into Waterside Marina at Mile 0 on the Intracoastal Waterway!

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