When I called son Tim and told him we were in the Dismal Swamp he immediately asked if we’d be visiting the Enchanted Castle next! Actually the Great Dismal Swamp (22 square miles of forested wetlands) is quite enchanting itself – not at all dismal. It is a wooded swamp ecosystem which harbours a wealth of fauna and flora. It was once part of the Underground Railroad – a home for marooned runaway slaves seeking safety and liberty. Supposedly it got its name when settlers visited in the middle of the summer in stifling heat when there were plenty of biting insects around. It was pleasant when we were there – but there are a few things that go bump in the day!
We left our anchorage behind Goat Island before 9:00 am in order to make the 11 am opening of the South Mills lock, at the south end of the Dismal Swamp Canal. The upper reaches of the Pasquotank River got progressively prettier as it narrowed, large clumps of floating aquatic plants (ferns, watercress or water hyacinths) nestled against wooded banks like green lawns.
The last few miles up Taylors Cut was narrow, straight and picturesque, the boughs of trees almost reaching us from the banks. We had seen no other traffic all morning, and were the only ones locking through once we got to South Mills. We had trouble reaching the lock master, and our hearts sank when we realized that our radio was no longer transmitting – even though we had just had it repaired in St. Augustine under warranty (it is less than a year old). We eventually reached the lockmaster using our hand-held mobile VHF radio.
The locking through was easy – we managed our own lines and the elderly lockmaster took his time opening and closing the locks, walking between them and then driving ahead once we got through to open the bascule bridge a little further on. It is all very manual, old-fashioned and quaint.
The canal is beautiful – cypress, maple and pine trees line the banks, flowering shrubs are mirrored back in the calm water. We saw several otters, a great blue heron and a few pairs of Canada geese, one sitting on a nest. Birdsong drowned out the hum of the engine, rather than vice versa. The scenery reminded us of our barge trip on the Basingstoke Canal in England. However, as I mentioned, there are a few things that go bump in the day. The controlling depth of the canal is 6 feet, and we draw 5’ 8”.
For the most part, we motored very slowly along in 7-8 feet of water, but occasionally we saw less than 6 feet for brief moments, and once or twice we bumped some branch or snag on the bottom. Nothing much. We puttered slowly, enjoying the scenery, the sunshine, and the reprieve from the 25-35 knot winds of the previous day.
We arrived at the Great Dismal Swamp Visitors Centre at lunch-time. There was one other small sailboat tied up on their free bulkhead wall, but plenty of room for us to tie up ahead of it. The Visitors Centre had a nice lounge area, with a book exchange, free wifi (sadly we could not reach it from the boat) and plenty of tourist information on the Dismal Swamp and North Carolina in general. They had picnic tables with barbeque pits, very clean 24-hour public washrooms, and bikes for borrowing to do the paved canal trail.
The sun was out, and we enjoyed a pleasant afternoon there. We had agreed to stay two nights, and hunker down there from another storm scheduled to pass through on Sunday. A number of tourists passing through on the highway stopped into the Visitors Centre and came over to check out the boats on the dock. We enjoyed chatting to them about our travels. We invited Paul from the other little sailboat, Darkest Africa, over for happy hour. He is single-handling his 20 foot Crealock-designed boat. He had been to the Bahamas this winter and is on his way back to Massachusetts – not wanting to do the Chesapeake and Delaware Bay again, he planned to go “outside” to Cape from Norfolk and then on the Sandy Hook – two 36 hour legs (at best) in his little boat – alone. Gutsy.
He left very early the next morning so we were alone at the Visitors Centre, except for the occasional tourist who walked along the dock. It was peaceful and pretty. I blogged in the Visitors Centre lounge while Steve fixed out flaky Espar Heater. It took him all day but he was successful – YAY! And just in the nick of time too as it turned bitterly cold. After blogging I checked out the trails at the Dismal Swamp State Park – enough to regret that we could not stay longer and hike further into the swamp. The Parks here in the US all seem to be very accessible and well-staffed, with lovely interpretive centers. It makes me realize, disappointingly, how low Canada has fallen, relatively, in terms of investing in parks as well as accessibility of public (as well as private) facilities.
By mid-afternoon our solitude was over – 3 north-bound sailboats and one trawler had evidently all passed through the south mills lock and planned to tie up at the Visitors Centre! We were excited to see another Cabo Rico – a Northeast 40 motor-sailor from Quebec. We soon had another sailboat rafted to us, and one rafted to the trawler behind us. We met everyone and all agreed to share happy hour together at the nearby picnic shelter.
It is nice to be alone in pretty settings like this but it is also very enjoyable to share it in the company of other cruisers. We enjoyed the social hour – swapping cruising stories and finding things/people in common. One boat from Lake Michigan with a family on board were close friends with friends of ours from QCYC!
The next day started cold but sunny as we left the huddle of boats on the Visitors Centre dock and trundled slowly down the rest of the tree-lined Dismal Swamp canal to the lift bridge before the Deep Creek Lock. It took 3 hours and, though as pretty as the rest of the canal, the weather steadily worsened – clouding over and getting windy.
We arrived an hour early for the 1:00 opening, so tied up to the wharf near the bridge. We bumped into Paul from SV Darkest Africa there and went across the road to grab a bite of lunch at a fast food burger joint nearby. We contacted the lock operator after lunch to let him know we were there for the 1:30 pm lock transit time, and he opened the bridge for us. We were alone in the lock again. By this time it was drizzly and windy, and the weather deteriorated rapidly as we exited the lock and motored down the choppy Elizabeth River towards Norfolk.
We contacted the Gilmerton Highway lift bridge and then rushed to make their 2:30 pm opening – if we missed it we would have to circle for an hour in the rain, wind and waves. This bridge operator was great – he held up the opening for 5 minutes when he saw us coming, even though there was a tug and another sailboat waiting. Whew!
View our photo journal for the Dismal Swamp.
View Tai Chi: Journey 2012 in a larger map