Monday, February 20, 2017

Great Dismal Swamp

The name alone stimulates the imagination – Great Dismal Swamp. What turned out to be the last stop in our coastal Virginia exploration, the National Wildlife Refuge attracted my attention due to the proximity to Norfolk as well as the reputed abundance of wildlife within its confines.

Straddling the border between North Carolina and Virginia, the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge contains over 112,000 acres of forested wetlands and the 31,000 acre Lake Drummond at its center. It is the largest intact remnant of the habitat that once covered more than a million acres in this region, and with 200 species of birds, 100 species of butterflies and one of the largest black bear populations on the east coast, the area has significant ecological importance.

Evidence of human presence in the Dismal Swamp dates to some 13,000 years ago. The name Great Dismal is thought to come from Colonel William Byrd II’s expeditions into the swamp in the early 1700s to draw the state line between Virginia and North Carolina. George Washington visited the swamp in 1763, and having organized the Dismal Swamp Company, he proceeded to drain, farm, and log large portions of the swamp. Then with the approach of the Civil War the swamp gained a new significance: as a stop on the Underground Railroad on the way to the port of Norfolk, and of home to ‘the maroons,’ those choosing to remain in the relative safety of the swamp. The Union Camp Corporation donated 49,100 acres of the swamp to The Nature Conservancy in 1973 (who passed it on to the Department of the Interior), and the following year the refuge was established and the site officially designated as part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

It would be hard to cover more than a portion of this immense area in a day (especially without a boat!), and with this knowledge in the forefront of our minds we chose to concentrate on the area around the Refuge Office. The office itself was closed on what was a federal holiday, but nearby are a few hiking trails and the only road leading to Lake Drummond that allows vehicle traffic. We started at the Washington Ditch parking area and set off on the ¾ mile boardwalk trail to get a feel for the swamp. The elevated wooden Dismal Town Boardwalk Trail meanders through a representative portion of swamp habitats before emerging out on the Washington Ditch to return to the parking area. This was the spot used by Washington and company as their Dismal Swamp headquarters.

setting off on the Dismal Town Boardwalk trail

The five-mile Washington Ditch leads from the western boundary of the refuge to the north end of Lake Drummond, and was dug by hand by slaves for the purpose of transportation. The hike from the parking area to the lake is 4.5 miles, the main reason why we elected to skip it in favor of the auto tour route a little further south; we wanted to see the lake, but with cloudy skies and tired boys a 9-mile hike wasn’t an option.

Washington Ditch

The auto tour route begins just south of the Refuge Office. For rules and regulations (as well as to print out a permit) please visit the FWS website, although that information is also available on site. The road heads east along Railroad Ditch, then south along the West Ditch and finally west along Interior Ditch until it reaches the southwest shore of Lake Drummond. Along the six mile route there are several trails that take visitors out into the marsh and to several other interesting points, including a bald cypress that may be up to 800 years old.

The enormous lake in the center of the swamp was only ‘discovered’ in 1665 by colonial NC governor William Drummond. The largest natural lake in Virginia was formed about 4,000 years ago after a wildfire burned away several feet of peat soil. The peat is also the reason behind the lake’s dark brown color; it is stained dark as tea as it seeps through the peat, and this extended filtering also renders it incredibly pure.

foam stained brown

Although there are no alligators in the lake, it is home to many species of fish. In the winter the lake provides a resting area for thousands of migratory birds including Tundra Swans and Snow Geese, and during the summer visitors will see Great Blue Herons and egrets. On our January visit we spotted at least one Bald Eagle soaring overhead.

Tundra swans?

I had certainly expected a damp, ‘dismal’ visit on this rainy winter day, however our tour was anything but… On a hot, muggy summer’s day the swamp will provide a completely different experience (bug spray!), but this winter morning was a perfect time to explore a small portion of this amazing ecosystem, even with a slight drizzle. As we navigated the ditch roads back to civilization at least one boy drifted off to sleep before we even hit the pavement; I imagine his dreams to have been about the bears and eagles getting back to the business of the swamp upon our departure…

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