The Great Dismal Swamp

PrintPrintEmailEmailVast and ancient, sprawling across the borders of Virginia and North Carolina, the Great Dismal Swamp is one of the largest natural areas on the East Coast, encompassing some 170 square miles. It is part of a series of federally protected wetlands that includes the Everglades, the Okefenokee, and the Congaree swamp of South Carolina, and like many of America’s great wilderness areas, it has been exploited, misused, and stripped of much of its natural wealth. It has been host to roughnecks, poets, fugitives, and warring armies. Yet as one explores its waterways today, the Great Dismal’s serene beauty appears untouched by human history.

I put into the main canal of the swamp, launching from a boat ramp at a public parking lot off U.S. Route 17 in Virginia, and my canoe moves silently into water the color of espresso. A few paddle strokes and the world is transformed: A river otter glides noiselessly across the 50-foot-wide canal before sounding in one smooth movement; a wounded blue-green dragonfly with a wingspan as large as my hand flails on the surface and then is yanked below in a splash; an ancient-looking turtle, probably a yellow-bellied slider, pretends to be part of a stump and then plops into the water like a stone as I approach. The only denizens that aren’t shy are the small yellow horseflies, whose rainbow eyes look like groovy California sunglasses. Bright with flowers and inhabited by 200 species of songbirds, the Great Dismal doesn’t seem dismal in the least. In the 1600s, when English settlers first explored the Virginia lowlands, the word dismal actually came to mean “swamp” in the region, and the two words were used interchangeably, but the connotation always encompassed danger and foulness. Writing in the 1720s, Col. William Byrd II of Virginia summed up the attitudes of his day when he described the Great Dismal as a “horrible desart” with “vapours which infest the air and causing ague and other distempers to the neighboring inhabitants.”

SOME THOUGHT THE SWAMP WAS TOO POISON- ous for anything to live there; others speculated that it harbored lions, alligators, demons, and ghosts. But such fantasies didn’t stop people from venturing in. Colonel Byrd led a survey team there in 1728 to settle a feud between Virginia and North Carolina over the location of their border. He emerged with a plan to drain the swamp and turn it into a vast hemp farm. Byrd also wrote about connecting the Pasquotank River, which flows south from the swamp in North Carolina, with the Elizabeth, which winds north in Virginia, by digging several long canals through the heart of the swamp. Such ideas were typical of the eighteenth century. The best thing to do with a wilderness was to tame it and make it profitable. But decades more would pass before anyone began to turn Byrd’s ideas into reality.


As I paddle south, a fluid corridor with leafy walls suddenly appears to my right, leading off ruler-straight into the distance. The Feeder Ditch, an ignominious name for such a lovely route, was dug out in 1812. On it the modern world melts away into a realm of trees and water that feels very similar to what William Byrd would have known. The 3.5-mile-long Feeder leads directly to the freshwater heart of the swamp, a 2.7-by-2.3-mile open expanse called Lake Drummond. The lake is named after William Drummond, a seventeenth-century governor of North Carolina who, legend says, got lost in the swamp with a group of hunters. All but Drummond perished; he eventually staggered out ragged, hungry, and full of descriptions of a vast body of water deep in the swamp.

As I headed up toward the lake, the last quarter of the Feeder gets wilder. Limbs hang overhead, and I must navigate around large fallen logs that lie like alligators in the water. At the end the sky opens up before you flanked by majestic gnarled cypress trees, and the world once again is transformed.

Lake Drummond feels ancient and dreamlike. On the open water the yellow flies at last depart, and the huge cypresses form prehistoric-looking forest islands in the black, shallow water. Millions of years ago this region was at the bottom of the sea, and the sandy ridges along its western edge, the Suffolk Escarpment, was the coastline. The sea dropped 300 feet during the last ice age, and a forest grew where waves had crashed. When the glaciers melted and the sea rose to its current level, the forest became a wetland. The acidic sap and juices from its junipers, gums, and cypresses prevented fallen vegetation from decaying, and for millennia it piled up as peat, which today lies 10 feet thick. Five thousand years ago the swamp was the hunting grounds of native peoples whose trading network reached as far as the Ohio Valley. Dennis Blanton, director of the Center for Archeological Research at the College of William and Mary, has studied many bolas found there, long tethers weighted with round stones that were flung to entangle prey. European colonists found that the swamp’s tea-colored water stayed drinkable longer and used casks of it for sea voyages. It is said that Comm. Matthew Perry had barrels of it aboard when he made his trip to Japan in 1853.