The (Not At All) Dismal Swamp
Updated: Jan 16, 2019
The Dismal Swamp had been one of the places I was looking forward to cruising through the most and it certainly did not disappoint. While others might find the narrow canal monotonous, I found it mesmerizing. The majority of the channel is flanked by tall trees on both sides, most in the middle of some fall colour changes, and because it is so sheltered, the water is flat calm, producing the most beautiful and clear reflections. Couple that with the quiet (once you get past the section where you snake along the highway), and it is a peaceful section where your only worry is staying in the center of the channel.
The Dismal Swamp Canal is the oldest continually operating man-made canal in the United States and was actually hand dug between 1793 and 1805 by slaves after being commissioned by George Washington as a means to connect the Chesapeake Bay to Albermarle Sound. The finished canal is 22 miles long with a lock at each end.
This is one of two routes that will take you to Albermarle Sound, the other being the ‘Virginia Cut’. The Cut is better for larger boats and is a touch shorter, which makes it busier than the swamp route; another reason we opted for the latter. We completed the Dismal Swamp over two days. We anchored just outside of Deep Creek past the George Washington Highway Bridge and arose at sunrise in order to cover the 4 miles or so to the Deep Creek Lock for its first scheduled opening at 8:30am. Aaron's friend Zach was joining us for this section of the route. The creek was calm and golden in the sunrise and we even saw a deer ashore. On one of the turns, we felt a small bump and all of a sudden, we were no longer moving. We had run aground! We tried to back off but didn’t have any luck so we piled the boys and the dog into the dinghy to get off some weight, and as I reversed, I turned the wheel back and forth and we started to come off of it. Luckily this area is all soft mud so no damage done, just time lost.
Even with our grounding incident, we made it to the lock with 10 minutes to spare and weren’t really sure what to expect. None of us had gone through a lock before but we figured we just tied up and waited. Turns out that’s essentially all you have to do! The lock tender radioed to all the waiting boats (three of us) to let us know to expect a starboard side tie-up and be sure to have at least 25 feet of line. Our new stern lines were only twenty feet so we quickly attached another line to them and when the lock gates opened, we followed the other boats in. I was at the helm, Zach at the bow, and Aaron at the stern with the lines. The lock tender came over with a boat hook since we were near the bottom of the walls and the boys took turns placing their lines on the hook so the tender could get a bite on the cleats lining the top of the wall. The boys then held the other end and as the water slowly rose, pulled in the slack.
It took 15-20 minutes for the water to bring us to the top of the wall – it was pretty cool to look back and see Deep Creek so far below us (the lock rises about 8 feet). Robert, the lock tender even had a little plate of goodies on offer with mini muffins, cookies, and fruit and we met another old salt who recited an awesome speech by Teddy Roosevelt.
We got the green light and the three of us exited the lock into the Dismal Swamp Canal. I was instantly enthralled and spent a lot of time on the bow snapping pictures.
About ten miles in, Aaron suddenly noticed that the engine was getting very hot and there was no longer water coming out the raw water exhaust. We instantly shut down the engine and he removed the water strainer. It was filled with duck weed! Being newbies to the the locks, we had kept our engine on since the boat ahead of us had as well. There had been duck weed floating around but we hadn’t put two and two together so it made its way into our thru-hull. We removed it all from the strainer, put it away, and began again. There was now only a small trickle of water coming out and the engine was still running hot. That meant there was still a clog further in the system. We planned to use the engine to drift to one side and tie up to a tree while we sorted it out, but just then another sailboat came up behind us. We explained our predicament and offered to tow us to the next bulkhead, about 5 miles down. We graciously accepted and they towed us (at 6 knots!) all the way and got us safely onto the small dock.
We assumed the clog was at the source – aka the hole in the hull where the water is sucked up – so we resigned ourselves to the fact that one of us would have to dive under to see If we could unclog it. Zach volunteered so we suited him up in Aaron’s wetsuit and he went into the chilly water. The water in the swamp is brown from all the tannin in it so it was incredibly murky and Zach couldn’t see a thing. He fiddled around under the boat until he could find the thru-hull and did his best to clear it out. Still no water. While Zach sat in the sun to warm up, Aaron took apart the thru-hull and hose and we discovered a huge clump of weed in there. Thankfully once that one was removed, everything flowed well! We had spent almost two hours at the dock so we were grateful to get underway again.
The rest of the day continued without a hitch as we entered North Carolina (our 8th state!) and enjoyed the tranquil environment. We pulled up to the Dismal Swamp Visitor’s Center to find the free docks already occupied by 7 boats – all but one already rafted up. We snagged the last spot next to a similar sized sailboat and went ashore to explore. There are hiking and biking trails that follow a large portion of the canal so Coffee and I went in search of some fall colours while the boys hung back and talked. Later that evening, Zach’s dad arrived to pick him up and we all went to a nearby restaurant for a farewell dinner.
We were up again at dawn the following day and woke to absolutely frigid temperatures. We bundled up and got underway, again trying to make it to the next lock by 8:30am. The morning was absolutely gorgeous. A fine mist spread over the water as the pink hues of dawn filled the sky ahead of us.
We made good time and made it to the South Mills Lock, and the end of the Dismal Swamp Canal, in time for the first opening and handled this one like pros (and we definitely turned off the engine!). This lock was much faster since we were going down, and the gates dropped us out into the swamp heading towards the Pasquotank River. The river opens up and the trees no longer hang over the water, but it actually looked more swampy than the Dismal Swamp Canal had. The river meanders in curves and we were the only boat around.
If your boat is capable of transiting this route, we highly recommend it. It’s a nice break of solitude and nature after the busyness of Hampton Roads/Portsmouth/Norfolk area and the scenery is unbeatable!