Greatly Dismal Times at the Great Dismal Swamp

The Great Dismal Swamp. The name conjures up a dark underworld of man-eating mosquitoes, voodoo doctors, and impassible morasses. A place, quite frankly, you shouldn’t be able to escape from alive.

And, historically, that’s exactly why people lived there. Whether it was Native Americans or runaway slaves, those on the wrong side of white man’s law found refuge in the wild swamps. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem about it, Harriet Beecher Stowe an entire novel.

It was, and is, a mythical backwater.

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A view from Lake Drummond. Cue the droning synthesizers, maestro! (Edited. Original photo by heymarchetti.)

No less of a figure than George Washington owned a considerable chunk of the Great Dismal Swamp. He tried to drain it with slave labor so that he could farm it, but in his own words, the task was “too heavy for [his] purse”. More successful was a canal his associates had dug, which was later used to haul the severed trunks of cedars out of the swampland.

Though much of the “Great Dismal Swamp” was begrudgingly settled over the centuries by farmers, about 100,000 acres remain as a protected park that straddles the border of Virginia and North Carolina. An undeveloped oasis, it hearkens back to an earlier, lost America. Turtles, fish, frogs, butterflies, birds, and black bears dance across the dense landscape like an escaped circus troupe. Wild berries and flowers abound. The murky, black swamp water, stained by tannins, was renowned by early colonists for its resistance to spoilage.

To reach the Great Dismal Swamp, I took a drive down I-95 to U.S. Route 460 with my girlfriend in her cramped, faulty ignition switch gold Chevrolet Cobalt. 460 is a trip through the heart of Virginia peanut country, the town names – Wakefield, Windsor, and Waverly – allegedly cribbed from locations in the Sir Walter Scott novels. All are relatively small, surrounded by farms, and for the lack of a better term, historic. Antiquated, even. This is the old South, folks, big houses with covered porches.

I stopped at a store in Wakefield for… what else? Peanuts! The store resembled an old barn, painted red with a green metal roof. Inside, they had about every sort of flavored peanut imaginable, from lemon crab to ragin’ Cajun. While I’d hoped for big barrels overflowing with peanut shells, prepackaged tins and plastic bags arranged in pyramids on the shelves ruled the roost. That’s the 21st century for you.

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A photo of me in Wakefield. (Edited. Original photo by ankakay.)

“Heading out to the beach?” the cashier asked as she bagged up my bags of peanuts (bags in bags, my favorite). She’s probably in her late thirties or forties, with a meticulously hairsprayed blonde ‘do.

“No. We’re heading to the Great Dismal Swamp!”

I waited for a reaction, maybe a smile, but she remained stone-faced, the sentinel of the register.

“Well, Nags Head is out that way. That’s a really nice place.”

“Actually, we want to see Lake Drummond.”

The lake, one of Virginia’s two natural freshwater lakes, is considered a scenic, almost mystical place. Native American legend has it that a forest fire (god) formed the lake, clearing out the dense stands of trees. It’s a semi-popular fishing spot.

“Huh. It’s really dangerous out there at night. People get lost and end up on the side of the road.”

Gee, thanks. Evidently the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has a bit of PR problem.

Unperturbed, we pressed on to the Great Dismal Swamp. The road to Lake Drummond was closed off for some reason or another, so I parked at the lot by the Washington Ditch Trail. According to a map I’d picked up by the blocked roadway, it’s a “simple” 4.5 mile walk along George Washington’s ol’ drainage ditch to Lake Drummond. Easy, right?

As we exited the car, a young couple was walking back to their car.

“How’s the trail?” I asked, bright and chipper.

“Lots of insects,” the man said.

“The horseflies are huge,” his girlfriend offered in a Southern drawl. She had the hood of her sweater drawn tight around her face.

They hesitated, like they wanted to say more, but then entered their car silently.

“Are you sure we want do this?” By this point, I had my doubts.

“It’s only 4 miles!”

OK.

Off we go onto the unnervingly straight path, a mathematically precise route drawn up by Washington and his associations. I learn from a sign that the camp Washington’s company set up was called “Dismal Town”. Jesus. What a cheerless swamp.

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The ditch in dryer times. (Edited. Original photo by zaigee.)

The scenery is fairly monotonous, to boot. Imagine a completely flat and flooded forest that repeats itself forever. You now have mental image of almost the entire swamp. The main visual interest is the wildlife. Colorful birds I could never hope to name flew by. A marsh rabbit, which creepily runs on all fours rather than hopping, darted across my path. Butterflies “puddled”, flying together in schools. Turtles and snakes dove into the water upon sight. Bullfrogs bellowed.

And, about an hour in, I lose my nerve. The path was too damn straight. It felt like we’d gotten nowhere. All that had changed was the number of snakes, from none to a lot more than none. Of course, my girlfriend was convinced Lake Drummond was around the perpetual corner of the straight path. Meanwhile, I was sure we had about another hour to go, and then two hours back in the heat. An argument ensued, and eventually the voice of reason – my voice – won out.

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A bird in the Great Dismal Swamp. It ain’t lettin’ its surroundings drag it down. (Edited. Original photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region.)

Being from Michigan, we figured we’d already seen plenty of secluded lakes in our lives. We’d pass on Lake Drummond. Maybe we’d hit the auto trail one day on the way to Virginia Beach, assuming it was open next time.

At least there weren’t too many insects. God knows I watched for ticks like a hawk – we saw a bumper sticker on the way to the swamp emblazoned with the image of blood red tick, presumably driven (of course) by a very angry army of ticks.

Well, turns out I do have something in common with George Washington. The Great Dismal Swamp got the best of both of us.

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