Paddle among the Great Dismal Swamp’s 112,000 acres

Paddling sports are popular in the many waterways of Chesapeake, Va.

If ever a place was misnamed, it’s the Great Dismal Swamp.

“Great” it may be — some 112,000 acres spread across southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina — but “dismal?” Hardly.

For paddlers and people-powered boaters, this big slice of Virginia’s Tidewater offers nearly endless opportunities.

Along with miles of waterways, the refuge has received both the Virginia and Globally Important Bird Area designations, and the National Parks Services’ National Natural Landmark and Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site designations.

Paddling sports are popular in the many waterways of Chesapeake, Va.
Paddling sports are popular in the many waterways of Chesapeake, Va.

Lake Drummond, in the center of the refuge, is one of the region’s most popular paddling destinations. Access to the lake is either by a 3-mile-long feeder ditch off the Dismal Swamp Canal to the east, or a road through the refuge from the west.

Paddling the feeder ditch is a trip back into history. This area was originally surveyed by George Washington’s company, and retains a nearly prehistoric look and feel.


Other paddling sites, too

The refuge is not the only waterway that makes the Chesapeake, Va., area ideal for canoes, kayaks, and other human-driven craft. Kevin Kaul, head of Outdoor Programs for Chesapeake Parks, Recreation and Tourism, and a devoted water sport enthusiast, also recommends Northwest River Park and the tidal marshes surrounding the Great Bridge Locks.

Located on the banks of the Northwest River, the 763-acre Northwest River Park is known for its abundant birds and wildlife. Kaul reports seeing “… six bald eagles playing in the treetops. Then, not two minutes later, we saw 16 of them flying in perfect formation right above us.”

Insider tip: Along with exceptional paddling and wildlife watching, the park also offers camping, an extensive trail system, picnic shelters, horse shoe pits, volleyball nets, a new “Dude Ranch” a miniature golf course, and an equestrian area for horse owners. The park is also a stop on the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail.

The tidal marsh surrounding the Great Bridge Locks also offers opportunities for paddlers to see different kinds of plants and wildlife. At the junction of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal with the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River, a Corps of Engineers’ lock separates the river’s salt water from the canal’s fresh water. The brackish mix of salt and fresh waters creates an ecosystem that produces rare and exotic flora and fauna.

The 19-acre park offers an ADA-accessible kayak and canoe launch, a two-lane boat ramp, fishing and crabbing areas, picnic shelters with grills, a walking trail, and a playground. The park’s location on a small peninsula between the canal on one side and the river on the other offers a great view of the many yachts transiting the busy Intracoastal Waterway. The National Park Service added Great Bridge Lock Park to its “Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network” for its historic and ecological significance.

“Visitors tell us that our waterways are beautiful,” said Kim Murden, who promotes Chesapeake. “There are not a lot of issues with the wind, and paddlers find our waters very comfortable and easy to navigate. And, with the variety of our waterways, you can have different experiences from one day to the next.”

For more information:

Chesapeake Tourism:

Great Dismal Swamp:

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