The other destination we had missed on our way south is Elizabeth City and the Dismal Swamp Canal. The canal had been closed then due to low water, but a spring thaw raised the level, and we were not about to let the opportunity pass us by. The route through the Dismal Swamp is an alternate to the primary ICW route. It’s not as deep or as fast, but if you have the time to appreciate its history and haunting beauty, it’s much more fascinating.
The story goes that in 1728, in order to establish the disputed boundary between North Carolina and Virginia, Colonel Byrd and a band of surveyors set off into the swamp without the benefit of Deep Woods Off...and their description stuck. In 1763 none other than George Washington directed the surveying and digging of a portion of the canal, envisioning a commercial shipping lane. Finally completed in 1805, the canal’s shallow depth limited its intended use. Hard times overshadowed brief boom times throughout its history. Today it’s a national historic landmark used by recreational boaters as a thoroughfare between Albemarle Sound and the Chesapeake Bay.
Elizabeth City, on one of the many bends of the Pasquotank River just below the Dismal Swamp, has trademarked the name “Harbor of Hospitality” and lives up to it. They practically present cruisers with a key to the city. Over time, word-of-mouth recommendations have circulated far and wide along the waterway. Free dockage is provided for 48 hours at Mariners’ Wharf, the town docks. If more than five boats tie up in the harbor, volunteers throw a wine and cheese party for them. At first, we didn’t realize that the friendly low-key guy chatting with us at the party about his experiences sailing in the Abacos was the mayor, Steve Atkinson.
Then there are the famous Rose Buddies who present each lady on board with a fresh rose clipped from the nearby gardens (the mayor is doing the honors in the picture). Founded by Fred Fearing and Joe Kramer, the Rose Buddies will celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary this fall. As of last December, both founders have passed away, but the city and a group of volunteers are determined that the tradition will live on. After two days of “y’all come back now, hear?” hospitality, we headed into the swamp. The depth of the 22-mile-long canal is maintained by locks at the entrance and exit. Near the south end, a Visitor Center serves as a combination rest stop for highway travelers and for boaters, who raft up there overnight. It’s the only facility of its kind in the nation.
The Dismal Swamp has a wild, otherworldly splendor with an early morning mist floating over the canal and curling around low-hanging vines. Branches of cypress and gum trees reach out over the narrow channel. Breeze rustles through their leaves as amber-colored water swirls around their roots. Belying the color, the water is unusually pure; bacteria can’t grow in the infusion of tree bark tannins. Herons and geese startle and fly away when boats pass by. After the mist clears, turtles sun themselves on tangled logs. Songbirds flit from bough to bough, their delicate notes light on the air.
Most parts of the lovely Dismal Swamp are unchanged from the time of its beginning. We’ve succumbed to its many charms, and given the choice we’ll take the route less traveled.