Great Dismal Swamp, Virginia

Virginian gem harkens back to ancient times

Great Dismal Swamp Virginia Paddling Kayak Primordial

The Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia is anything but dismal, rather, it is an untouched paradise for canoeing. Photo: Flickr user U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region

By Larry Rice

GREAT DISMAL SWAMP, VIRGINIA: Seen from the air during the summer, the Great Dismal Swamp in southeast Virginia is a sea of green forest, broken only by a shallow lake and a few man-made ditches, some hundreds of years old. The woodland swamp contains forms of plant and animal life seldom seen elsewhere-many at the northern limit of their range. Black bear, whitetail deer, bobcat, beaver, and river otter inhabit the area, and 207 species of birds have been reported, with 92 species nesting in the swamp. Among the insects are 72 butterfly species.

The area’s mystery, beauty, remoteness, and solitude have attracted many people for many reasons. Early in the 1700s, Colonel William Byrd II provided the first extensive description of the Dismal Swamp, describing it as a body of “dirt and nastiness” where “foul damps ascend without ceasing, corrupt the air, and render it unfit for respiration.” A few years later, George Washington, who owned part of the swamp and surveyed it in 1793, noted that it wasn’t really so dismal. He called it “a glorious paradise.” Remarkably, it still is.

Presently, 109,000 acres of this brooding swampland are contained within the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Lake Drummond, a natural circular lake covering 3,100 acres within the refuge, is in the heart of the swamp. Large, ancient bald cypress trees line its shores. Paddling the nooks and crannies of the dark-stained lake on a misty, chilly morning, it’s easy to see why there are so many legends and stories about the swamp. One early English writer described the Dismal as “a place in which the imagination plays strange tricks on its victim.”

Canoeing is permitted on Lake Drummond and the Feeder Ditch, with access from U.S. Highway 17 on the east border of the refuge. The refuge does not allow camping; however, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in conjunction with the Fish and Wildlife Service, operates a free campground (accessible only by boat) at the spillway on the Feeder Ditch.

Boating (and birding) is best in the Dismal during April and May-ample water, mild temperatures, and a lack of bugs are the benefits. Autumn is also a nice time to canoe; bugs and temperatures moderate during September.

Contact: Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge at (757) 986-3705.

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