The Great and Not-So-Dismal Swamp
by Kati Moore -- June 28th, 2016
Six months ago I included Lake Drummond, in the heart of the Great Dismal Swamp, in a list of places I wanted to go this year. Now I am happy to report that I can cross it off my list.
On Sunday I drove up to southeastern Virginia to meet my friend who agreed to go kayak camping with me in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge just 30 minutes south of Norfolk. Late that afternoon we put in at the boat ramp to the Dismal Swamp Canal on Ballahack Road, easing our kayaks onto glassy water that was as clear and dark as black tea.
A light breeze kept the summer air from being too hot as we paddled down the canal, which was built at the beginning of the 1800s to connect the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia to the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina.
Our first point of interest was a cow stuck in the brush lining the canal. All we could figure was that it had wandered from an adjacent field down to the canal for a drink of water, which is said to be safe to drink without filtering because the high tannin levels prevent bacterial growth.
Before too long we reached the feeder ditch, another man-made canal that runs 3 miles straight east-west and connects the Dismal Swamp Canal to Lake Drummond. We took our time making our way down the ditch, enjoying the relative silence and solitude broken only by a few kayakers heading the other way and birds calling in the trees.
Around 6:30 we arrived at the campsite near the lock managed by the Army Corps of Engineers to maintain water levels in the canal. After setting up camp, we portaged our boats around the lock and paddled the short remaining distance to the lake. Along the way we saw a deer disappear into the thick understory at the edge of the ditch. A few minutes later we got our first look at Lake Drummond.
We had been warned of strong winds and currents on the lake, but all was calm when we arrived. Cormorants flew between cypress trees, which stood scattered through the water, which is only six feet deep at the deepest point of the lake.
Soon, however, we saw lightning across the lake, followed by thunder several seconds later. We considered crossing the lake, but the wind was picking up with the storm, and we decided to stay put and enjoy the sunset from where we were. Staying put, however, turned out to be harder than it sounded, as the wind and the growing waves kept pushing us back toward the feeder ditch. We gave up on fighting the water, and tied ourselves to an obliging cypress tree not too far from the forest edge.
We bobbed on the water as the sky turned pink and the edges of the clouds burned silver. Eventually the wind died down and we began to make our way back to the feeder ditch. Even as removed from civilization as we were, we heard many planes overhead and watched their jet streams mar the darkening sky. Around us the only sounds were the cicadas, crickets, and later, a coughing deer.
We got back to our campsite as the stars began to dot the sky and the fireflies began to wink among the trees. The half-full moon left plenty of light for us to navigate the campsite, a grassy clearing we had all to ourselves.
In the morning we woke about an hour before sunrise to head out. Traveling east down the feeder ditch, we watched the sun turn the leaves golden and lighten the sky. About a mile from the campsite we saw a pair of wild turkeys fly from their roost down the ditch to another tree. The calm water was covered in pollen, making it look like dusty glass. It felt strange to be disturbing our environs even as little as we were, as our paddles dipped in and out of the water.
We paddled easily with the current, making it back in about half the time it took us to go in. Though we were in the swamp for less than a day, we were so immersed in it (somewhat literally – you are never really dry in a kayak) that it felt like much longer. Watching the sun set between cypress trees on a lake in the middle of a swamp forest made for a magical experience – one I hope to repeat before too long.