Larry had been figuring out how we could make the timing of the locks to make a reasonable passage through the Dismal Swamp. We didn’t really want to stay in Norfolk again but Norfolk area is the closest and last stop before heading to the Dismal Swamp from the North. Since the one and only morning lock opening is 9:00 AM, we needed to be geographically as close as possible. Before we get to the lock though, we will have to make it through two bridges that require scheduled openings if you are taller than 15 feet. That would mean timing them just right, another crux to the timing.
NOT THE SHORTEST OR QUICKEST
For boaters, these obstacles make the whole idea of going through the swamp a real challenge. The swamp isn’t the quickest or the shortest route either, by the way, nor does it offer the conveniences of the other route. It is also a less maintained route so you also run the risk of running into submerged or semi submerged obstacles. So if you have decided to deal with all these challenges as opposed to the easier and quicker route, its obvious then that you are going for a different reason. You are curious about the history and the name "Dismal Swamp" as many travelers over history have been.
They have reduced the number of lock openings recently because of recent water shortages, due to lack of rain. Each time they open the locks valuable water is lost from the swamp. If too much is released, the depth of the channel gets too shallow for most boats to travel (standard depth is 6 feet) and also the amount of water on hand to fight swamp fires is insufficient. Yep, you wouldn’t think a swamp could catch on fire but there are trees and mulch that can burn for days. They’ve had a history of some pretty bad fires over the years so that's a big consideration.
CHANCE THE 3:00?
The only other opening is at 3:00 PM. The 3:00 is easier to make but then you have to tie up to a dock just inside the lock with no facilities. The chat rooms say there are a couple strip mall type stores about a ½ mile hike away and a good Mexican restaurant nearby. That didn’t sound like fun to us. I guess you could decide to just continue on and try to get through half of the swamp before night fall and hopefully make it to the Swamp’s Visitor Center before nightfall. But then you are rushing it, taking a risk. Since the length of day light is getting shorter and earlier, we didn’t want to do that, especially with all those warnings about dead heads and obstructions in the water.
THE ALTERNATE PLAN
So Larry’s plan was to spend the night at Norfolk, get up early (at day break) enough to get through the two bridges and make our way down the Elizabeth River (and God forbid make a wake) in hopes of timing it just right to get into the swamp at 9:00. They don’t make it easy with such few and untimely openings.
NO RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE CHAT ROOMS
Larry has gone to the chat rooms trying to get information from people that have gone through the Dismal Swamp recently but got little information back and what he did get was mostly negative. The few that responded said it’s dangerous and they wouldn’t do it again because of floating logs, difficult to see dead heads and many say they have suffered damage to their boats and props. Some say the branches from the swamp hang over the canal and scratch the side of the boat.
I gave Larry an out by saying “We don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”
But he said, “It’ll be fun and we’ll be fine. My biggest and only problem is just figuring out how to get to the lock in time and then to make sure we have a place to dock mid-way through as it’s too long journey to do the Swamp in one day. We want to enjoy the experience of it, so we’re not going to rush it.”
So that’s it, our plan in a nut shell.
LEFT SMITHVILLE, VA
So after deciding our plane, we left Smithville after a refreshing time spent there. That certainly was a great stop. The river coming out was equally beautiful as going in. By the way, we didn’t see our crazy jet skier this time. Darn it.
APPROACHING NORFOLK, VA
As we approached Norfolk and the busy shipping channel, we saw a huge freighter coming in. It looks like we will arrive together at the river going in about the same time.
“Ring, Ring” it’s a call from Tom Campbell at Campbell’s Custom Yachts. He’s responding to an email from Larry. Our bilge pump had been pumping more than normal and wouldn’t shut off after last trip out on the Bay. We didn't have a leak so Larry finally figured out there was a short in the wire to the switch and fixed it. I have to say Tom has been so helpful and always gets right back to us with any question we might have about the boat. He’s a great guy and has been so helpful!
TUGS ESCORTING A BIG FREIGHTER
So, the little delay with the phone call from Tom put us dead behind the freighter. So we followed him in for a ways but he was going too darn slow, almost coming to a stop, so we decided to pass him. You are not supposed to pass container ships coming into the channel but this is ridiculous. We chuckled as we passed the big freighter in our little peanut sized boat. It soon became obvious that he was waiting for two tugs to accompany him into the inner harbor where he will unload his overseas load. It was impressive seeing these two tugs head up the harbor towards us and then past us to turn and escort the big freighter in. They made a turn not without big puffs of smoke and then got into position, one on each side.
This Norfolk is quite a place. Being out on the water you are able to up close the amazing huge working harbor in it’s full glory. We passed one huge ship after another, some getting repairs, some being built, and others unloading and loading huge shipments heading or coming for far away foreign ports. It is really quite impressive and you feel so very very small.
IN TROUBLE AGAIN
We finally get in to the Norfolk area, the inner harbor, where we are going to stay overnight. Larry hails the marina and asks where he can get fuel first. They gave us the names of two places. They said if you are a member of Boaters US, Ocean Marine Yacht Center give boaters 10% off their fill up. So that where we headed first. As we motored across the harbor kept asking Larry about our wake. He said we're going slow enough and there are no signs saying “NO WAKE”. I agree we weren’t going very fast but this boat does make a unprecedented wake for a little boat.
I was busy getting the lines ready for the fuel docking when suddenly I hear a couple blips from a loud siren. I turned around to see where it was coming from, and low and behold, right there riding along behind us was the Harbor Police trying to wave us down. The guy looked mad as a hatter and waved to me to stop the boat. It's the same feeling you get when getting stopped by the highway patrol. I knocked on the window to let Larry know and to slow down and then I came back to the cockpit to see what was up.
That was not sufficient, as this guy was mad. His face was red and big veins were bulging from his neck. He kept motioning with his hand in a left and right quick motion across his throat like a referee in a football game calling for time out. What the heck does he want I wondered?
Finally he yelled to me “Put it in neutral!”
I then yelled in to Larry to stop the boat. Larry put it in neutral though we were already by now going a snail’s pace. I stood there in the cockpit looking sheepish facing the guy waiting to hear what the heck was wrong, but nope, he wasn’t going to talk to me. He wanted to talk with Larry and motioned to go get him. I felt like a little punished kid.
So I went inside to trade places with Larry. When Larry got outside the guy started yelling at Larry about his wake and “how stupid we looked” and so on. I could tell Larry was mad and because of it didn’t apologize to the guy but said “We looked for “No Wake” signs and didn’t see any”. He didn’t respond to that but kept saying this is a No Wake Zone area and then gave us the third degree about where we were from, where are we going, etc. He was incredibly rude. I thought he was going to write us a ticket but he begrudgingly let us go with yet another mean scolding a warning to never do that again (as if we already didn't feel bad enough)! I said “We were sorry” but nothing was going to appease this guy. He was MAD!
Wow, we said to each other. Neither of us like to do something wrong and though I sensed we were going a little faster than we should have, I didn’t think the wake was that bad and, again the confusing thing was, there were no NO WAKE signs because I can honestly say I looked all over for them to prove to Larry we were in a NO WAKE zone.
We felt like jerks but did the guy have to be so dam rude?
As the tanks were filling I could see the guy out in the channel cruising back and forth still keeping an eye on us and probably mumbling to himself about us. We don’t dare make a bad move leaving here to go to the marina I told Larry as he's watching us. We filled up the tanks and then very slowly headed over across the harbor, tip toeing our way at a snails pace, to the Waterside Marina for dockage for the night.
Once we got settled in the marina, the dock guys couldn’t wait to ask us about the harbor patrol guy and why he stopped us, etc. How embarrassing I thought, as everyone in the whole harbor must have seen this guy reprimanding us. So I told them him the story. They laughed and said all the “NO WAKE” buoys were blown down in the recent storm and haven’t been replaced. Well, then I thought, why didn’t the water patrol guy acknowledge that to us??
That made us feel a little better for sure. We’re going to have to watch the wake on this boat though as obviously it puts out more than we are used to. We're going to pay more attention to it for sure.
We were both up at 6:30 AM the next morning after a fitful night’s sleep in Waterside Marina, Norfolk. We're leaving the dock at 7:30 AM to make the morning lock opening in the Dismal Swamp, we hope. The sun was barely up and I gulped some bad coffee trying to wake up. I was tired after being awakened during the night several times to noisy night shift whistles from the boat yard across the way, drunken voices from the nearby bar, and the rumble and smell of diesel from the big powerful tugs moving barges back and forth just outside the marina at all hours of the night, and along with it there all those unfamiliar little noises created by the gusty winds mixed in with sounds coming from the boat yard of screeching metal like a train coming to a halt with steel wheels against steel tracks.
I got up at one point during the night and looked around to see what in the world was going on out there but could only see the lights from the city, buildings lit up and street lights illuminating the empty asphalt and over in the other direction, over the channel and over the bow of nearby schooner, “The Rover,” that was parked on the bulkhead, was the strangest sight of all. It looked like a giant monster in the dead of the night. It was this ominous vision but only was a ship in the boat yard, 10 city stories high, covered in tarps the size of foot ball fields, lit with strange flood lights in such a way that in the dark of the night it looked like a monstrous Darth Vader, with deep set eyes and evil eyebrows. All night too we kept waking to strange industrial smells some maybe let out at night so no one would notice but yet burning my eyes. It wasn’t a pleasant sleep. No not at all.
Zig was grumbling too this morning and not liking at all the idea of going for a walk so early in the dark. I wasn’t too happy about it either but off we went. It wasn’t easy to find a patch of grass as just yesterday the city workers fenced off every patch of green grass at the city park by the marina. I finally asked an early morning worker what they were planning to do here and he said “Redo the whole place to make it look better”. We both agreed that it looked just fine as it was and why would they spend money to tear it up and start over but I guess it’s another example of our government spending money again, throwing it away on another “pork project” especially in a time when they should be cutting back to repay their big debt.
It was an unsuccessful walk as far as Ziggy and I were concerned. He was stubborn and uncooperative and finally sat his little butt down out of some kind of protest.
“OK, but don’t blame me later when you had wished you had done something!” I said to the little guy and decided to huff it back to the boat pretending to leave him and his stubbornness! Ziggy, surprised that I would just walk off and supposedly leave him, gave me an angry bark and then ran after me as fast as he could go all the way back to the boat. What a comical little character he is.
STIRRING AT THE DOCKS
Other boaters now were getting up to take their dogs out too. Why else would any one be getting up in the dark walking around the docks and empty city streets except to take out their faithful companions? One trawlers was heading out of the marina already. Yesterday I talked to the captain and he said they were heading to Coinjock and then south. Coinjock is the first usual overnight stop on the alternate ICW, the way we went the first time, the path most frequently traveled.
He’ll be going the same direction that we are this morning, that is until we make the turn for the swamp. The bridges don’t open until 8:30 so he's leaving early. Maybe he’s getting fuel first otherwise he’ll have to wait for the bridge to open for a long time. We’ll probably see them somewhere along the way heading South; you always do on these migrations.
Yesterday one of our fenders came off. We searched high and low in the marina for it. It was one of those big ball type fenders that came with the boat from the previous owner. What a time to lose that as we definitely will need it for the locks! We thought we were going to have to stay another extra day just to get a fender. It was about five o’clock in the afternoon and we were able to get a cab and make a run in Norfolk work traffic to the nearest West Marine just before it closed to get a fender, not the same type of course, as they only had one to choose from, and though it cost about $120 and a $50 cab ride for something we didn’t really like or want, we had no choice. Of course, the next morning early, Larry found the old bumper floating around the marina. I guess I didn’t do a great tie job.
WHY THE DISMAL?
I remember going by the cut off to the Dismal Swamp when we first came up the Intracoastal from our trip around. I was so intrigued by the name and history and asked Larry about it. He said our boat (the Nordhavn) was too big and the draft too deep to go through.
On that same trip we met some guys on a sailboat in Albermarle Sound. They looked like they’d been through an ordeal. They were tired and ragged looking and we noticed their mast was broken. I asked what happened. They said they came through the Dismal Swamp and caught their mast in some branches that hung over the canal. They didn’t offer more info than that but I sensed they felt they were were lucky to get out of there.
For some strange reason I’ve been intrigued about the place ever sense. I told Larry it would be fun to come back here sometime in a smaller boat and see what's there. Well, when you mention a wish to Larry he usually makes it come true. So here we are and the first place is the Great Dismal Swamp.
AWAY WE GO!
So engine running and Zig back aboard, I took the lines off the dock and away we went. I’ll be glad to get out of Norfolk and all the industry and hustle and bustle though it is fascinating to see all the big naval ships and other monster commercial vessels being worked on and shuffled here and there. It’s truly impressive beyond explanation.
We headed out past the fork of the Elizabeth River taking the “western branch” at the start of this welled traveled Intracoastal Waterway. It’s the first leg of the ICW after leaving the great Chesapeake heading south.
We made our way down the river past what seemed never ending huge ships getting face lifts, several industrial plants and junk yards full of rusting debris left over from from now defunct vessels. The air was filled with stinky smells of oil, paint and metal filings. We wove our way down the river where the mix of marsh grasses, birds and even a lonely dolphin swimming by contrasted sharply with this land of industrial waste.
FIRST BRIDGE, WILL WE MAKE IT?
Here comes our first bridge, the Jordon Lift Bridge. The trawler that left early in the dark of the morning was there waiting for the opening. Wow, he’s got a long time to wait. He must not have checked to see when the first opening would be. This bridge was the first key to making the opening of the lock to the Dismal Swamp today. If we can’t get past this bridge before its scheduled opening of 8:30 it’s likely we won’t make the 9:00 lock opening. If that happens we will have to figure out where to stay waiting all day for the next opening at 3:00?
The Jordon Lift Bridge has, according to the chart a vertical clearance of 15 feet. Yesterday Larry lowered the antenna and we carefully measured what we thought was our height off water. We are 16’-6” off the water with the antenna up and by putting the antenna down, we are, we think, 13’-6” off the water.
It isn’t exact science the way we did it but it's a good guess. We should be able to clear under it but Larry called the bridge tender just in case to ask what the clearance was with the water height at this hour.
Its about 7:40 now (we left the docks at 7:20 and it took us about 15-20 minutes to get here, with no wakes). If we can get under this bridge now it will save us 50 minutes!
Larry said he was going to move up to the bridge slowly and wanted me to go out on the bow to see if it looked like we would clear. He nudged her slowly up to the bridge. It looked awfully close to me. I couldn’t tell for sure so I told Larry I didn’t think I’d chance it. He was determined and confident and said he’s sure it will make it.
Zig and I watched nervously as he inched us forward and then miraculously continued right under the underside of the bridge clearing it by just a couple of inches!!!
We heard a big holler from the trawler as they watched. Kind of like a cheer as they must have been watching and wondering! Wow, we made it!
WE MADE IT!
This is great. This boat is great. So many times in the Nordhavn we were restricted by size, height and depth from doing things we wanted to do. Now we can do them. We headed down the river and couldn't resist looking back as the other trawler was still sitting there, probably for 40 more minutes. Off we go free as a bird. Hooray!
STILL A TIME CRUNCH
We continued on as there was no time for gloating. Larry said “We need to keep moving as we have a ways to go yet”.
We meandered down the river past an old rusty looking railroad bridge that was open and then made a sharp S curve in the river to the Gilmerton Bridge. Whoops, Larry forgot about the Glimerton Bridge. Where did it come from?
He hailed the bridge tender to see what the clearance under the bridge was at the moment and she said 15’. Okay, we can make it as we just finished passing under the last one at 14’. Slowly we edged her up and under with inches to spare. This is the greatest thing. It’s still not even 8:30 which means the trawler back behind us is still waiting for an opening at the Jordon Lift Bridge and we’ve already gone under two bridges. That would've been us in the Nordhavn three years ago.
We can’t revel in our glee for long though as Larry is still very serious. He tells me to help watch for the markers now as we are getting close to the Dismal Swamp.
We see a tall concrete bridge ahead which is Highway 64. No problem getting under that tall bridge with a vertical clearance of 65 feet. Now I remember, the swamp entrance is right after that.
Keep alert now. So under the bridge we go and there it is, the brown sign marking the entrance to the Great Dismal Swamp! We’re following the markers doing our red right returning thing. We see a red marker just to the side of the Swamp sign entrance so we naturally started to go around keeping the red on our right to make our turn into the swamp. I was mostly paying attention to the swamp sign reading all the stuff on it and getting excited that we were finally going to be doing this.
Suddenly Larry quickly turns away and back into the ICW.
“That’s not the marker for the entrance, that’s just the ICW marker. We need to turn before the sign.” So he made a quick U-turn and back a few steps and into the Great Dismal Swamp. I’m glad he was paying attention as I was too busy reading the Great Dismal Swamp sign.
I looked back and he was right, it was the marker for the ICW.
Why did they put it right there so close as to confuse everybody? So be careful when heading in.
DEEP CREEK RIVER
So we finally headed in to the Great Dismal Swamp!!! The scenery changed immediately from industrial sites and smells to a serene meandering river whose edges were lined by multicolored marsh grasses. The water by now was black as coffee and no longer salty. It’s a perfect day out, though dark clouds look like they are out on the coast too far to be a bother for us in these protected waters. White egrets and grey herons fly across in front of us one after another. I’ve never seen so many in one place before. Wow, this is going to be great, how beautiful it is here.
STILL SHORT ON TIME
I look back at Larry but again he’s still serious and concentrating on the river, following the markers. I say “Isn’t this beautiful?”
Larry snaps back, “I can’t look as we don’t have much time to get to the lock. We’ve got a ways to go and it’s almost 9:00!”
“Well, put some pedal to the metal and forget worrying about the wake for awhile!”
So he speeds up a bit. It was getting close to 9:00. We see a little boat in the center of the river up ahead. It's no bigger than a skiff. Someone is in it and looking at us through binoculars. Maybe they are radioing the lock tender that a straggler is coming. As we make the turn in the river we see a trawler ahead just around the corner.
“Larry says we made it, there’s a boat waiting at the locks with fenders out!”
ON THE DOT!
Whew, we made it exactly at 9:00 to the locks! I got fenders out and lines ready and in we went, no waiting. How Larry ever figured out how to time it so perfectly I’ll never know but he always amazes me.
The gates opened and slowly the three of us headed into the lock one at a time. Yep, there were only three of us going through the locks today. One was a typical smallish trawler and the other was a funny looking boat, not like anything I’ve seen before. I imagined it looked like a boat built to go through canals. I think the owners said it was a Gilmer or something like it.
RON, THE LOCKMASTER
Ron, the lockmaster was a friendly guy. He and his pit bull came right over to the edge of the wall, looked down and said “hello there Admiral!” With a big smile he gave us some quick instructions on how to do the lines and lots of assurance that if we do exactly as he says, all will be fine and then went immediately to the next boat doing the same.
His pit bull terrier never left his side and greeted each new boater as did Ron. I was at the bow of the boat and Larry at the stern. We had two lines working the lock, each one looped over the bollard. All fenders were in place.
Ron, insisted we wrap a plastic trash bag over our new fender. He said he didn’t want us to get “the yuck” from the wall on that fancy new fender. Larry said it would be fine, but no, Norm insisted. So we did.
Once he got everybody in the lock, with their lines secured, he started the process of filling the lock. It’s a slow process and gives Norm plenty of time to talk to the boaters and tell stories.
According to the cruising guide, the lock will fill 8 feet bringing you level with the Dismal Swamp Canal. Ron I’m sure tells all the boaters that come through here stories of the swamp. He’s quite a character and loves his job. He’s also of course interrupting a story or two, to tell you to adjust a line or push the boat one way or the other but always referring to the women as the “Admirals” and men, the “Captains” and never forgets where he left off in his story as he continues on.
He said he’s been working the lock for 15 years and has "loved every minute of it but try and get a pay raise is next to impossible as it calls for an act of Congress, literally”. His dog’s name is U-Turn and “is sweet as pie”. U-Turn he says was raised with two baby rabbits and the three of them are the best of pals, getting along just fine. One rabbit, the tame one, he found on the lock grounds, someone’s lost pet. It just showed up one day and immediately bonded with him and the other was wild baby rabbit who also was lost. It was scared and huddled in Norm’s shadow for protection. He said it followed him around like a puppy the whole day so he took him in also. He said they get on just fine and ven sleep together all snuggled up (that includes U-Turn).
I asked where the rabbits were and he said he can’t have the rabbits out because the eagles and other birds of prey will get them. He said “it the saddest thing to see though its nature’s way.” He said when the geese are migrating south they’ll stop by here on the grass and the eagles will come and get a geese in one swift but violent swoop. So that’s why he can’t have the rabbits here.
U-Turn is the dog’s as a sweet dog and curious about Ziggy. Ziggy of course got a bit jealous when I struck up a conversation with U-Turn. I was afraid at one point as the level of water was rising that Zig might jump off to see the lockmaster and how the system works, but mostly to check out U-Turn. I had to quickly improvise and tie Ziggy to the grab rail on the foredeck with one of the extra lines. He sure looked funny sitting there tied up with that big line.
This experience going through the locks and talking with the lockmaster make it all worth the extra trouble to get here. It’s a chance to relate to the local people, people you never meet doing a unique job. I love listening to Ron tell us about his life there running the locks and the history of the swamp. Near the end, when the dock was almost full, Ron played a tune on one of his conch shells. He said when we all head back north at the end of the season, he’d sure appreciate more conch shells to add to his garden collection.
I asked Ron how many boats would be coming through the swamp today. He said the amount was really down, only about 7 today but in a couple weeks when the boats were really heading south there would be as many as 15 during peak season.
As soon as the lock filled, Ron tells us all to head down the canal but not too fast for the bridge opening. “Don’t bunch up though as U-Turn and I need to get in my truck and drive down to the bridge to open it for you”. Now where in America can you experience life like that, the way it was in the old days?
So the gates were opened and after about 30 minutes we were officially headed into the Great Dismal Swamp. We didn’t go far before we were at the bridge. The trawler a head of us was hanging back and so we asked if he wanted us to go ahead of him and he waved us forward. Soon Ron was at the bridge and opening it for us. We waved at this special man as we went by and he back. He a few moments later called on the radio and wanted to talk to “the Admiral” which was me. He just wanted to tell me that when we go through the second lock on the way out to be careful and watch the lines, keeping them a bit tighter as we let the lines out as we drop from the lock. He said the next lock keeper isn’t as talkative and won’t tell you what to do. He said he just wanted to let me know that.
THE GREAT DISMAL SWAMP, WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
Okay, so now we were in the Great Dismal Swamp and what does it all mean? What does the Intracoastal Waterway mean? What is it? Why is it? First of all, this whole area is nothing was tide water and swamp land with fingers of land that make it impractical to drive. The Atlantic is treacherous off the Outer Banks and is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. For travel and commerce to continue between the states along the coast, the concept of the Intracoastal Waterway came about. There are two Intracoastal Waterways to choose from here, the more traveled and maintained the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal and then what we are going through today, the historic Dismal Swamp Canal.
Colonel William Byrd II of Virginia was the first to conceive of a man made channel back in 1728. After trying to survey the area and struggling with the dense forest and swamp land he found it “repulsive” named it the Great Dismal Swamp as it was next to impossible for a man to survive there. Many a story has been told about people getting lost in the Great Dismal never to come out. He found the place “repulsive” and thus the name.
CANAL WOULD HAVE CHANGED THE WAR
It wasn’t until 60 years later, after the Revolutionary War going back way over 200 years that work actually began to create the canal. Imagine what that would have done to the war. My brother and I have a great great grandfather that fought in the Revolutionary War who, like many other soldiers, wounded like he was, had to make their way from fighting battles as far away as the Carolinas and home then in New Jersey by foot. Imagine what a difficult journey these men had to make. What if they had a waterway back then like now to make travel easy between the states, through dismal swamps and the treacherous waters of the Atlantic? How that would have changed things.
George Washington even comes into the history of a the ditch who along with some other partners purchased 50 acres of the swamp thinking it a good business investment to farm and harvest lumber and shingles from the area. To this day remnants of a hand dug cut can be seen that were used to transport their lumber to market. It is appropriately named the “Washington Ditch”.
THE CONCEPT AND COMPLETION
It wasn’t until the early 1800s that Albert Gallatin, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury proposed the incredible idea of a “complete inland waterway system, using man-made canals and existing bodies of water” to transport commerce stretching as far Massachusetts to Georgia “which was then the southernmost state”. He estimated the process to complete this intracoastal waterway system, to take a mere 10 years to complete when in fact it took 100 years! This included the construction of the of the Cape Cod Canal in Massachusetts, the Delaware and Raritan Canals, the Chesapeake and Delaware Canals, and the Albemarle and Chesapeake waterway and the Great Dismal Swamp canal. It was only in the 1930s that the interwater way system connected south as far as Key West, Florida. The system is a means and way to travel this Eastern Coast protected form the vulnerability of the Atlantic Ocean and its stormy seas, known by all mariners as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
So this, the whole Intracoastal Waterway, being one of the most remarkable feats of mankind, is what we are traveling on the next few months. The Great Dismal waterway is truly taking a step back in time, a historical journey stopping along paths less traveled, some set in time, meeting people unchanged over generations carrying slang’s and traditions repeated over from one generation to the next, some with roots tracing back to Elizabethan heritage. These are places you can’t see traveling in a car or a plane, only by boat, the hard way and the slow way. It’s a path that is frequently referred to merely as “the ditch”.
It’s maintained by the budget restricted Army Corps of Engineers doing their best to keep the storm effected shoals scooped clear, and debris and dead heads clear and to keep, many times, antique rusting bridges operating, managing deficient budgets, juggling the most critical to keep the mariner like us moving. It a repeated migration we are taking, repeated and dictated by the seasons, a migration with nature’s dictates, one season north to south, and the next south to north, a migration in a safe path, an amazing historical path. What an amazing journey.
Traveling the Intracoastal Waterway is a challenge no matter what state you are in. It’s a constant worry as frequent groundings are common in shoaled areas that are constantly changing, different from the charts, always reacting to the latest storm. Traveling the waterway demands constant look outs for “close encounters with submerged debris”, and diligent calculations to time your itinerary for inconvenient bridge openings, deciphering miss marked or faded unreadable navigational aids, rubbing your bottom through un-dredged channels and shoaled in areas after an unexpected, unpredicted storm, none of will be noted on your chart. It also requires dealing with rustic docks and inconvenient services but yet the reward is great, a glimpse into the past, a chance to travel passages less frequented, some places stuck in time, with unique people untainted by the modern world and sure to provide you with many memorable experiences.
RUMORS AS OPPOSED TO THE EASIER ROUTE
The Dismal is part of this but more mysterious, as it is now less frequented than the rest of the Intracoastal Waterway. The majorities of boaters takes the more traveled path, the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal route and usually stop at Coinjock for their overnight whether going north or south. The reason people go that way is because it wider, more maintained as opposed to the Dismal which suffers from rumors of dead heads, submerged dangerous obstacles, the occasional damaged prop and now infrequent lock openings due to the low water levels, all of which has made the mariner opt for the easier more frequented route. But, we are curious and want to see this place so are willing to deal with the rumors.
The water in the Dismal Swamp is coffee black, a strong brew that stains the bow of your boat with a rusty looking mustache. Not to worry though, it’s nothing more than tannin colored waters stained by the cedar trees. We’re no longer in salt water, nope, we’ve left the salty mix of the Chesapeake for this water and its magical properties, pure water, water so pure that even our countries first mariners would travel up the rivers to fill their water barrels with this magic water as it does not break down with bacteria like other fresh water, it lasts much longer.
STRAIGHT LINE AS FAR AS WE COULD SEE
As far as we could see was the long “ditch” of the Dismal Swamp, the foliage thick and netted with vine growth. It was like an optical illusion too, as if up ahead the water dropped off to a water fall, or maybe the slope of the curvature of the earth. We kept remarking about it wondering why it was like that.
We heard strange sounds of unfamiliar birds screeching about our intrusion from the forest echoing across the water. Grey herons flew ahead of us, leading the way, and King fishers would fly in front of the bow, criss crossing hoping our passage would stir up a meal to fish. Strange stirrings could be seen in the black water as we passed, of unseen creatures, maybe slithering creatures below the surface. Bear live here too, in the swamp, said to be a plentiful population we were told, but are shy and stay away from edges where people travel and can see them.
This also was the haven for the runaway slave who first came here from nearby plantations, hired out by their owners, to dig the ditch and thereby becoming familiar with its way, unlike the white man who abhorred it. They came to know it and eventually used it as a place to hide and live running from slavery. Most people were known to get lost in the swamp in a matter of minutes as it is a disorienting place that swallows you up, you and nearby sounds and light and all sense of direction. The slaves though out of necessity managed to survive, adapt and eventually after they got their freedom some never left, eking out a living in the swamp for generations, hidden in a place that no one else could tolerate or perhaps penetrate.
WRITERS, EXPLORERS AND PRESIDENTS PASSED THIS WAY
Other famous people, not just past presidents, passed this way, mostly intrigued and curious by the name, the swamp and the canal. Robert Frost, the famous poet, at a low time in his life, is said to have come to the Dismal Swamp with the sole purpose of killing himself, thinking the name an appropriate place to do such an act but instead stopped in the local tavern and spent the night drinking only to awake in the morning with a more optimistic attitude. Edgar Allen Poe is said to have written his notorious “The Raven” in the same local Tavern set on the midway point of the canal route. Other writers, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp” and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp” again written about the Great Dismal. There are more, but you get the idea.
On a musical note, the canal was also used and traveled by the famous James Adams’ Floating Theatre which became the source of inspiration put into a novel and famous musical, called “Showboat”. So you can see why the Great Dismal Swamp is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, listed also as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and is included in the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program.
Of course, though rich with history, the construction of the nearby alternate route, The Albemarle and Chesapeake, soon was too much competition for the Great Dismal canal route. The Albemarle was completed in 1859, fifty four years after the opening of the Great Dismal. It was bigger, wider and deeper and had a much more efficient lock system. It was only a matter of time before the Great Dismal would have financial problems trying to compete with its neighbor and thus fell behind in being able to maintain it.
FATAL FLAW IN DESIGN
The great Dismal had an important flaw that required more maintenance than the more modern, technologically advanced locks of the Albemarle. The flaw was in the original design. Apparently they miss measured the water levels between Deep Creek at one end and Joyce’s Creek at the other end. Because of this critical mistake the swamp canal wouldn’t fill adequately to maintain the proper depths for boats and was totally subject to rainfall to keep it at a passable level. Even a feeder ditch was dug from Lake Drummond to help fill it but even today it doesn’t provide adequate depths. So that’s the reason behind the limited openings during seasons of low rainfall (and thus the problem we had this trip with only two scheduled openings at the locks).
Eventually both waterways were struggling and eventually purchased and maintained by the government and thus providing us with this privilege today of traveling back in time.
LOCK AND CANAL COMPANIONS
We have two other companions today, as I mentioned, the three of us who went through the first lock together. You pretty much are together throughout this route. We were a bit nervous worrying about all the horror stories that people have told us about coming through here. Fortunately we had that little canal boat a head of us and followed as he weaved and turned around any thing poking its nose up through the black water which gave us an early heads up on anything in the water. Surprisingly it was an easy day on “the ditch”. We did see dead heads and floating logs but the channel is deep enough and wide enough to maneuver around what ever we came across and they are easy to see. The branches along the sides are back far enough as not to pose a problem either. I have to say that we had a perfect day, no wind or rain, so the water was like glass and easy to see any possible hazards.
MID WAY POINT
We passed one crumbling down building with a sign said to be the old superintendents house and another nearby which may be the old tavern and inn at the mid way point. I’m guessing of course but sure looked like it could be. Just after we passed them we passed a small modest wooden sign marking the Virginia and North Carolina border. The only other companions you have during this straight narrow journey is a hiking trail that runs most of the length of the canal and the old highway that parallels the canal part of the length. The road is a strange contrast to the old ways of the canal.
We finally reached the Great Dismal Swamp Visitor’s Center by about 12:30 or 1:00 PM. There are good solid wooden docks there to tie too and that’s where we all planted ourselves to spend the night. The trawler that traveled with us that day was going to tie up for an hour and then leave to head on to catch the 3:00 opening and onto Elizabeth City for the night. That is a long day of intense watching of dead heads in the water and not on our type of agenda.
A NOISY STOP
I’ve got to say, the stop here was not as I had imagined. I had envisioned a stop in the middle of a swamp, quiet and remote and a bit of worry about possible strange slimy creatures slithering around but this place is right along the highway that runs almost the length of the ditch. Not only is there a Visitor’s Center and park service for the Great Dismal Swamp, there’s also the Visitor’s Center for North Carolina right off the main highway. The moment we arrived it was nothing but noise, trucks running their engines, highway noise, and unfortunately because it was the last day of the season for the state paid gardeners, they were here sprucing up enough to last the whole off season. It was one nonstop sound of machines for hours. Boy did they have big machines for a little park. We watched as they rode around on these huge loud lawn mowers, mowing and mowing over what seemed to be the same places. The grasses really cut a short butch and alarming for us being right near, were spraying grass clippings all over the gall darn place! Then when those were done, the edging machines stated up, and then the hedge clipping machines and hours later after that when you expected a reprieve from all the noise, then came the blowers to blow all the crap that they cut and blew in one direction were now blown in a different direction. It was a bit maddening to say the least and we were afraid to leave the boat for fear one of them would blow all the grass clippings onto the boat. I think they knew better though but geez what a lot of noise!!!
GREAT SWAMP VISITORS CENTER
Finally when they were done and we didn’t need to protect the boat from grass clippings we crossed the bridge and walked over to the Park Visitor’s Office. Of course out here in the middle of no where and not a visitor in sight for the whole day, Ziggy wasn’t allowed in even though it was 100 degrees out. The reason being they had such “nice wood floors and only little dogs could come in because little dogs don’t damage the floor”. Ziggy was considered a big dog I guess. Go figure out that one.
Anyway, needless to say, we took turns with Ziggy outside sweating in the heat and bugs. There surprisingly wasn’t much to see there. You could pick up a map showing the walking trails into the swamp but you had to “be sure to sign up to let the park ranger know when and where you were going on the trail”, I guess in case you get lost in there. Must happen frequently I guess. For me there were too many posted warning signs about ticks and the good chance of getting Lyme Disease from walking on the trails. I asked the rangers about the notices and they said they were a very serious problem. So that was good enough for us. There would be no exploring in the swamp for us. I’m not a bit interested in picking up a few ticks along the way.
ONE MORE COMPANION FOR THE NIGHT
It was a restful late afternoon after the mowers, edger’s, trimmers and blowers left, well that is except for the trucks running their engines in the truck stop parking lot. Just before dark a big sailboat came down the canal and saddled up to the last empty space on the dock. He came through the 3:00 opening at Deep Creek Lock and chanced getting here before night fall. He made it just in time and surprisingly this guy was all by himself on this boat.
HUGE THUNDER STORM
The skies by now were getting dark as big huge rain clouds were approaching. The guy on the sailboat said he was hoping he’d get here before the big rain storm hit and sure enough minutes later it arrived in its full glory. It poured and poured and was accompanied by loud thunder and crackling of lightening. It was a dramatic display for us here in the Great Dismal. It came so thick and fast that it actually poured in our side windows and swamped the cabinets. We spent the rest of the night emptying cupboards out and wiping things down and trying to dry things out in 90% humidity.
HEADING OUT TOGETHER AGAIN
In the morning we and our other boating companions were all stirring early. That’s because we are all on the same schedule. We all have to get to the next bridge and to the lock to time the 9:00 lock opening at South Mills Bridge and Lock. The funny little boat that we followed yesterday that I like to call Scuttle Butt, seems to like to be in front and lead the way but the sailboat headed out first. We followed suit and then behind us came the little boat.
I guess everybody was in a bit of a hurry as we arrived at the bridge 30 minutes too early. Now it was a juggling match to stay in place waiting for the opening. Surprisingly there was a bit of a current in the canal just enough to push you a bit forward and require twiddling with the throttle and bow thruster to stay safely away from the boat ahead of you. The sailboat was having more of a problem though and was swinging all over the place. He was backing up towards us and we couldn’t move out of the way because there were some tree roots floating behind us. We finally had to scoot by the side of him as he wallowed about missing him by a foot or so. Eeek.
TROUBLE WAITING FOR THE OPENING
The poor guy was having a heck of a time. He finally tried to put an anchor down but that didn’t even work as when he backed down and found himself in the bushes and vines for a few moments. Imagine trying to do all that by yourself? Scuttle Butt took advantage and scurried by him and then us, and went to the side of the bulk head of the bridge and held on there, standing on the side of their boat holding on to the upper edge. There is nothing to tie to so they stood hanging on. Their boat was so squatty low that they could barely see above the height of the bulk head.
HELLO, ANYBODY HOME?
We waited and waited, all of us ready to go, but no opening. It was almost 9:00 and we weren’t even to the lock yet for the scheduled opening. The guy that opens the gate is the same guy that opens the lock, so where is he? We tried to hail him on the radio. Maybe he’s asleep? No answer. A few minutes later the sailboat is getting desperate and hails him on the radio and finally gets an answer back.
He says “You’ve got three boats here at the bridge lined up ready to go through; an opening would be appreciated anytime now”.
“Yes sir cap’n, the brige ul be open’n soon” answered the bridge and lock tender.
Pretty soon you could hear the metal of the ancient bridge squeak and grown as it began to stretch from its long sleep and bells were ringing along with the red lights flashing to give a heads up to any traffic on the nearby country road, which there was none and probably never is any.
Of course that little Scuttle Butt of a boat was now in the lead again. It looks like we’re going to have to follow them again. Oh well, at least they have to be more alert to watch for the dead heads. The poor sailboat guy followed in behind us.
LOCK AND BRIDGE TENDER
Norm was right as this lock tender was not talkative probably being a shy back woods country boy. We saw drive down the dirt road after opening and closing the bridge, heading to his next responsibility which is to get the three of us through the lock and lowered to sea level again and putting us in the Joyce River. He was a hunting boy too, not on the young side though, thin and crooked as a stick, with a weathered face to match and a mouth full of bad teeth, but he had his pick up truck outfitted with a sturdy new fancy cage to transport his prize huntin’ dogs in the back bed. Quietly he went about his job, helping of strangers, a few of many who come here over the season, mostly city folk, so unlike himself. Wonder what he thought of us. He asks no questions just shy and quiet but does he wonder where we are from and where we are going?
Once we dropped in the lock and out the gates into Joyce River we passed a few small houses built along the river side but snuggled into this rugged landscape. A woman came out of her house, pushing her wooden screen door open just to wave at us. Probably something she looks forward to every day at the same time. We waved back. I’d like to talk with her to see what it’s like to see people go by on this journey everyday, what does she think?
LARRY NOT WELL AT ALL
Well the ditch was no longer straight and narrow as now we are meandering down a river crooked and undetermined by natures will. We’re heading back to civilization towards our destination for the night to Elizabeth City, NC. Little Scuttle Butt is determined to stay in front of us and dictate our speed and course. Larry is not feeling well at all. His “spider bite” is not improving even though he’s taken a course of antibiotics. His headaches are almost unbearable now. We’ve decided we’ve got to get him to another doctor when we get to Elizabeth City and see what’s wrong. Where we will find one, we do not know. I take over the driving now as he sits and rests nearby.
MOVE OVER SCUTTLE BUTT!
We’ve lost the sailboat behind us now after many turns and picking up speed. There are plenty of wide spots to get by Scuttle Butt, but no, he speeds up at each opportunity and centers his boat midway between the ragged shores making for a difficult pass. Larry says you’ll just have to speed up at the next opportunity and force yourself by him. We don’t want to keep up this snails pace for the next several miles.
I finally get the opportunity and manage to get alongside but still Scuttle Butt gives it a fight. I finally have to go by not without leaving a big wake for them to wallow in. I felt bad but what are you going to do? I had Larry go out and wave a “we’re sorry wave” if you can figure a wave out to express that. We tried to call Scuttle Butt on the radio several times to get room to go by but he either didn’t have the radio on or was ignoring it. He finally called to see what Larry was waving about and we said we tried to hail him to go by and were sorry about the wake. He said “No problem but that he was monitoring 16.” Well, don’t know what to say about that.
Once we past him, he slowed back down to his snails pace again and soon they were gone from sight as we headed out the river.
Wow, the scenery is incredible down this river. Its mile after mile of amazing landscape and wild birds, like egrets, herons and others. This area is along the migration route of our feathered friends and it was fantastic to come through here to see it, worth the trip.
BOAT TROUBLE AGAIN
Now we were having a problem. We couldn’t get the gen set started. It made a clicking noise every time we tried to start it like the battery was dead. Dam it. We’ll need that generator at the public docks in Elizabeth City as there’s no power. Even though Larry had a bad headache he had to deal with getting the boat fixed. So he got out the trusty cruising book and called a boat yard in Elizabeth City.
“Sure, give us a call Capt’n when you come in past the public docks! We’ll be glad to take a look at’er for ya!”
We finally reached Elizabeth City and got an immediate opening and friendly response from the bridge tender there. Once inside we could see the city docks to our starboard and gave the boat yard (Frigate Marine Services, LLC) a holler on the radio. They said they were located just beyond the City Docks, to just look for the blue lift. We saw it right away. The place looks kind of like something out of Forest Gump. There are big ballast posts out front, creosote covered, and you make your way through them and up to their old rustic wooden dock but fortunately their posts were covered with big old pieces of carpet so need for those big old fenders. They got our lines quickly and went right to work finding out what the problem was.
Lloyd, the owner of the boat yard, looks like a rugged young William Petersen from CSI. He took off his boots and with tool box in hand came aboard and seemed to get right to the solution. His very nice wife was there to greet us to and helped with the lines. Two black workers were standing by to help also. Norm? is a man of few words but a twinkle in his eye and we liked him right away. He got right to it and fixed the problem lickety split and guess what? No charge as he said it was something minor. Now where in the heck can you find that kind of hospitality and honesty these days?
MAYOR OF ELIZABETH CITY
We said our thank you but not without Lloyds wife saying she just got a call from the Mayor of Elizabeth City who said he saw our boat come in the harbor and would really like to see it. Would it be OK if he came over to see the boat?
“Sure, we said, no problem!” And within a couple minutes here comes the mayor, Stephen S. Atkinson.
“Welcome Aboard Mr. Mayor, come take a look!” He said he’d been looking for a boat like this and asked all sorts of questions it. He knew right away about the hull and boat builder Tom Campbell. Small world isn’t it? He then welcomed us to the city and called Sam at the Public Docks telling him to get ready to help us in and said he would meet us over at the docks to help us get settled and get us hooked up with a good doctor and what ever we needed.”
Welcome that’s just a glimpse at the hospitality we’re going to tell you about of this little charming city. It requires another episode to fully do this little town justice.
But for now, we needed to get settled and find a doctor for Larry as he was not doing well at all.