The Great Dismal Swamp

The Great Dismal Swamp

Started in 1793 and opened in 1805, the Great Dismal Swamp Canal is the oldest continually operating man-made canal in the United States, closed only in 2016 due to storm damage, and re-opened just a few weeks ago in honor of our arrival, or so we’d like to think.

Envisioned by George Washington as far back as 1763, and dug mostly by local slaves over a 12-year period, the canal is covered in history as thick as the green duckweed that covers its waters.

End history lesson. Begin blog.

After a rough day on the Chesapeake we made it to the Deep Creek lock on the north end of the canal just in time (to the minute) for the last opening of the day.

The lock keeper, Robert, absolutely made our day with his hospitality–directing us to the free dock just past the lock, and giving us a menu for a pizza place that delivers directly to your boat. Cruisers take note: huge portions, reasonable prices, and did I mention they deliver to your boat?!?

“Some Californians, a Virginian, and a French-Canadian walk into a lock keeper’s station…” No, it’s not the opening line to a joke, but the start of a new day for us. There were two other boats that were our lock-mates, so to speak, and Robert invited us all over for coffee and pastries in the morning. He couldn’t have been more hospitable without offering a back rub and a hot bath (hint hint, Robert). Seriously though, what an amazing way to start our ICW adventure south… hot coffee and breakfast with new friends.

The water of the swamp looks disgusting. It is a Coca-Cola brown with a thick layer of green duckweed that covers the water for miles. But, as our informative host Robert pointed out, the water of the Great Dismal Swamp is actually some of the purest on earth due to the tannic acid from the trees and filtering from the peat. Not quite enticement enough to drink it, though.

On the cold and drizzly day when we passed through, the swamp definitely lived up to its name: dismal…but in the best possible sense. The leaves were changing color, and the overcast skies and rain only added to the ambience. Trees and bushes lining the dirt banks reached out into the canal toward our boat, and the thick green duckweed that covers the surface of the water parted as our boat sliced through it. It was nothing short of enchanting.

After exiting the canal through the southern lock our new friends on Mango III started having engine problems. They had sucked bark and duckweed into their raw water intake which clogged and overheated the engine.

We immediately rafted the two boats together, using our boat for propulsion and steering. Mary Jane took the helm and deftly guided us downstream for miles with the assistance of Terry and the boys as her crew of lookouts.

Meanwhile, Howard and I replaced his impeller, cleaned out his filter, and struggled in vain to find and remove the blockage.

Our new “catamaran” crept along under a starry sky for hours as we talked, laughed, and were entertained by Terry’s magic tricks.

After negotiating a hair-raising passage through a dark and narrow railway bridge, and an even more hair-raising double-wide docking in Elizabeth City, we let out a collective sigh of relief, said goodnight to our friends, and crawled into our beds wondering what adventures the new day would bring.

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