"The Great Dismal" Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge by grandmaR

In 1665, William Drummond, a governor of North Carolina, discovered the lake which now bears his name. In 1728, Col. William Byrd surveyed the approximately 223,000 acre swamp in southeast Virginia and northeast NC and named it the Great Dismal (dismal was another word for swamp in those days). The current refuge covers 107,000 acres and much of it was originally owned by George Washington, Patrick Henry and other prominent Virginians. The original swamp is believed to have covered 2,200 square miles.

George Washington saw the potential for lumber and transport of materials and in 1763 formed The Adventurers for Draining the Great Dismal Swamp company which built the Dismal Swamp canal. This canal which is now part of the Atlantic Intercoastal Waterway was the first man-made waterway in the country. The whole region is threaded by canals and ditches, many of them overgrown.

The canal has a lock at each end, and water for operation of the locks comes from Lake Drummond which is connected to the canal by a 3 mile long feeder canal. Access to Lake Drummond is possible only by private boat.

A boat launch is at the foot of the feeder ditch on US Rte. 17. To enter the 3,000 acre lake, a boat (limit 1000 lbs) must be transported across the Corps of Engineers spillway via a small motorized tram. The Lake averages 6 feet deep and instead of being in a basin is on a sloping hillside. The water is pure and protected by tannin from the trees. Gnarled cypress trees surround the lake and give it an eerie appearance.

The forested types of trees include pine, Atlantic white-cedar, maple-blackgum, tupelo-baldcypress, and sweetgum-oak poplar. The non-forested types include a remant marsh, a sphagnum bog, and an evergreen shrub community. Currently red maple is the most abundant and widely distributed plant community, as it expands into other communities due to the lingering effects of past forest cutting, extensive draining, and the exclusion of forest fires. Tupelo-baldcypress and Atlantic white-cedar, formerly predominant forest types in the swamp, today account for less than 20 percent of the total cover. Three species of plants deserving special mention are the dwarf trillium, silky camellia, and log fern. The dwarf trillium is located in the northwestern section of the swamp and blooms briefly each year for a two-week period in March. Silky camellia is found on the hardwood ridges and in the northwestern corner of the refuge. The log fern, one of the rarest American ferns, is more common in the Great Dismal Swamp than anywhere else.

There are black bears, white tailed deer, bobcats as well as 203 species of birds.

I have only been in this refuge when we went down the Dismal Swamp Canal in the big boat. Usually the Corps of Engineers boat is on the side of the canal near the Lake Drummond feeder ditch. They use the boat to keep the canal free of dead heads etc. I think it would be neat to go up to Lake Drummond and I'd love to see that, but three miles in a dinghy is something that we have not had time to do so far.

When there is a drought, and Lake Drummond dries up, the lock openings have to be reduced to two a day, or sometimes the canal is closed altogether.

Pros and Cons
  • In a nutshell:Wild and swampy
  • Last visit to Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge: Nov 2003
  • Intro Updated Dec 29, 2003
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Comments (2)

  • Jul 10, 2004 at 7:01 AM

    UPDATE: Jericho Ditch has been re-opened. We have hiked this with the dog several times already this summer! --elisabeth w., Suffolk VA

  • hunterV's Profile Photo
    Jan 1, 2004 at 7:33 AM

    Very impressive, thanks a lot! Happy New Year, too!

grandmaR

“"..an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered." G.K. Chesterton”

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