It is time to leave the swamp of American politics and take a tour of the Swamp in our backyard. We are lucky to have one of the “last large wild remaining areas in the Eastern United States.”
The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is over 112,000 acres of protected wetlands and 3,100 acres of Lake Drummond (below). The Great Dismal is what’s left of over one million acres of swamp that stretched from Norfolk to Edenton, North Carolina. I guess that’s why flooding can be a bit of a problem around here.
The Great Dismal Swamp is huge but not dismal. The dedicated staff and a host of volunteers are working hard to return it to the original ecosystem after years of lumbering. It’s a beautiful place, home to over 200 species of birds. There are turtles, lizards, salamanders, frogs and toads. It is home to beaver, otter, black bear, bobcats, and rattlesnakes.
There are hiking and biking trails. You can fish and boat on Lake Drummond. I love hiking, but the black bear, bobcats and rattlesnakes make me a little nervous. If you are a brave and savvy naturalist, go for it. The Swamp is open daily, from sunrise to sunset. If you are like me, just a tad skittish about running into a bear, then I would highly recommend the Great Dismal Swamp Safari, which is a bus tour, or a guided nature walk.
Reservations are required for these tours and there is a small fee, but you get an expert guide, someone who watches out for bear and rattlesnakes, knows all the plants and animals, and will tell you the rich history of the place. George Washington surveyed in the Swamp when he was thirty-one-years-old. Escaped slaves created villages deep in the Swamp. Some of the descendants of these slaves still live in the area.
I had a little knee surgery this summer, so I signed up for the Swamp Safari. It was still an adventure. We were dive-bombed by mosquitoes that grow as big as hummingbirds in the Swamp, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. We didn’t see a bear, but the silver haired guy I live with stepped into a great big mound of bear scat, which smelled up the bus something fierce. We peered into the tannin colored waters of Lake Drummond and couldn’t see a thing. It was kind of eerie.
The bus tour also has snacks, a friendly bus driver and an excellent naturalist, Penny Lazauskas (no relation). Penny knows the Great Dismal Swamp like I know my backyard. She knows what to do if you come across a bear, “700 pounds of fun” as she likes to say. She knows where to look for rattlesnakes. She is smart enough to keep a can of mosquito spray in her back pocket.
The bus tour leaves from the Suffolk Visitor Center a few days each month. Wear good walking shoes, bring your own bug spray and don’t forget the binoculars. The Swamp can be just a little humid in the summer, but this is the perfect time to go. Hopefully the mosquitoes will take a hike to Florida for the winter.
The Swamp is huge. It’s bordered by Suffolk, Chesapeake and North Carolina. People have lived in the Swamp and used its resources for thousands of years. When the first English settlers appeared in the 1600’s, Algonquian-speaking coastal tribes of Native Americans were living in the Swamp. George Washington and others formed the Dismal Swamp Company in 1763. Their slaves dug ditches in an effort to drain the Swamp and use it for farming. That idea didn’t work out very well. The Swamp was later extensively lumbered.
Refugee slaves lived in the Swamp for decades before and during the Civil War. The Swamp has an Underground Railroad Education Pavilion that explains the history of these Maroon societies. Penny Lazauskas will point out the animals and the edible plants that the Native Americans and Maroons used to survive in the Swamp. There are wild blueberries, blackberries, wild garlic, ginger, edible roots and the sweet pepper bush, “a poor man’s soap.”
There are fish in Lake Drummond, an almost perfect circle of a lake. Penny says the lake is “the color of my English Breakfast tea.” You can’t see the fish. The tannin from the peat colors it to a dark, rich brown.
Penny is an excellent guide. She knows every plant and animal. It turns out that big mound of sticks in the creek that I would have walked right on by is a beaver dam (below). “Beavers are the best engineers ever.” She will tell you about the wildfires that burned underground through the peat for weeks and altered the landscape of the Swamp. She has studied the history of place and the people who have lived and worked in the Great Dismal Swamp.
This is a perfect introduction to the Great Dismal Swamp. You will appreciate its beauty even if you don’t appreciate its mosquitoes.