The Great Dismal Swamp: What a strange name for more than 112,000 acres of real estate. And, that number doesn’t even include 3,100-acre Lake Drummond, located in the heart of the swamp.
Covering southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, this huge wildlife haven opens daily for hiking, biking, and bird watching on designated trails.
Organized spring and summer activities include the Birding Festival each April and a butterfly survey for volunteers in July. There are guided nature walks on Sept. 26 and Oct. 3, four-hour swamp safaris between Sept. 4 and Dec. 19, and guided canoe trips on Lake Drummond set to resume this fall at a cost of $35 a person.
Tickets are required for some organized tours. Swamp safaris including snacks and beverages are $10, but only $8 for military members and seniors; nature walks are $7 and $5. The annual Swamp Stomp, a half-marathon and 5K run along the Dismal Swamp Canal, returns in April 2016.
From Portsmouth, Va., I took a 45-minute drive and toured the swampland in a van on former logging roads with naturalist Penny Lazauskas. Established 41 years ago as a federal property, the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is said to be the largest such area in the Mid-Atlantic region, attracting about 90,000 visitors each year.
Insider Tip: For a summer trail visit, bring bug repellent, sunscreen, food, and water.
The wetland’s name comes from early European settlers who thought that the area was “uninhabitable,” thus “dismal,” explained our guide. Once used as hunting grounds for two native tribes, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, it became a refuge for runaway slaves.
At the entrance to Railroad Ditch Road, an Underground Railroad Pavilion pays “homage to the slaves,” said Lazauskas. The National Park Service has designated the swamp as part of the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Despite its reputation as “uninhabitable,” the fugitives hid in the forest and set up communities. Fortunately for them, hired slave hunters could see only 15 to 20 feet into the swampland’s dense growth.
A town, described as a work camp for logging, actually existed in the Great Dismal Swamp. At one time, there were a half dozen archaeological digs that turned up pieces of pottery and cedar shingles split on the site. Water-filled ditches along the wetland’s roads were built to drain the area and transport cedar shake shingles on rafts.
The refuge is home to more than 200 species of birds and 90 types of reptiles and amphibians, according to Lazauskas. Handy brochures about the bird species are available online, at trail heads, and at the refuge’s office.
There’s lots of history here, too, as a young George Washington once surveyed part of it. Washington himself first recommended building the canal in 1793.
The land’s last owners had logged the area through the 1960s, and then donated it to The Nature Conservancy, which deeded it to the government.
During the tour, we stopped at Lake Drummond, where visitors can fish, kayak, or canoe in water only 4 to 6 feet deep, said our guide. The water is tannic-acid stained from deteriorated leaves and cypress trees grow eerily in the lake’s shallow waters.
And, yes, wildlife abounds. Although we failed to see any black bears, there was ample evidence of their presence. The swampland is also the habitat of bobcats, beavers, river otters, coyotes, and deer.
Lazauskas conducts tours for the City of Suffolk and for Nature’s Calling, her own company. Self-drive tours require permits available at the entrance to monitor vehicle traffic, but there are no entrance fees.
Both the Suffolk, Va., and Chesapeake, Va. tourism sites have information about the Great Dismal Swamp.
For more information:
Chesapeake Tourism: visitchesapeake.com
Refuge information: fws.gov
Suffolk Tourism: suffolk-fun.com
Nature’s Calling Tours: naturescalling.org