Greetings From… The Great Dismal Swamp

By Michael Boyink / mike@douglascountyherald.com

Drain the swamp!

A Trump campaign promise, yes.

The Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia

But another would-be president spoke those same words hundreds of years ago.

George Washington.

Washington wasn’t slinging political insults. His time as president was still decades away. 

Young Washington was a surveyor and land speculator. He joined a group of 11 others and bought land to clear and farm.

But first? They’d have to drain the swamp.

The Great Dismal Swamp.

Yes, there is such a thing. And – like our current political morass – your tax dollars support it.

The Great Dismal Swamp is actually many things.

It’s public land.

Michael Boyink
Great Dismal Swamp Cypress trees against an October sky.

The swamp straddles the Virgina/North Carolina state line. In Virginia, it’s a National Natural Landmark and a National Wildlife Refuge. In North Carolina it’s a State Park.

It’s accurately named.

“Swamp” because its soils are 85-95% water. “Dismal” because it’s  hot, humid, soggy, thorny, and inhabited by federally protected varmints ranging from chiggers to bears. “Great” because it originally covered over 2000 square miles.

It’s mysterious.

Lake Drummond lies in the center of the swamp. One of only two natural lakes in Virginia, no one knows how it got there or where its waters come from.

It’s home to the only presidential ditch.

To drain the swamp, Washington and his cohorts dug ditches. Many remain, and one is named the “Washington Ditch.” Trump would probably approve.

It’s part of the Underground Railroad.

Slaves were used in the efforts to drain the swamp. Thousands escaped into it and settled in remote “maroon colonies.” Other runaway slaves would find safe harbor in those colonies on their way to freedom. 

It’s the setting of a book by a famous author.

The next novel Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote after Uncle Tom’s Cabin was Dred, A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp.

It was the road less taken.

Robert Frost once headed into the swamp to commit suicide because his lady wouldn’t consent to marry him. He didn’t go through with it. She later said yes.

It’s part of the Intercoastal Waterway.

Initially proposed by Washington, the 22-mile Dismal Swamp Canal connects the waters of Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. It remains the oldest continually operating man-made canal in the US.

 It was the location of our longest kayak trip.

We weren’t hardcore kayakers, preferring paddles that didn’t keep us out past mealtime. 

But we survived the four-mile-long “Feeder Ditch” into Lake Drummond, had lunch, and paddled the four miles back. The only varmints we encountered were aggressive ducks.

At the Great Dismal Swamp, we had finally gone the extra mile to see more of a park than what was visible from the visitor center or scenic driving loop. 

Not a dismal day at all.

The Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center off Highway 17 south of Chesapeake Virgina is the most accessible place to begin a swamp visit. Get directions and information at dismalswampwelcomecenter.com.  

Harrison and Miranda Boyink kayak on Lake Drummond in The Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia.