Dismal Swamp State Park - A Place to Listen and Linger

“When you come over the bridge, you have entered 125,000 acres of forested wetlands,” ranger Signa Williams says reverently. “No matter how many times I come out here, I always see something new.”

This is not the kind of state park—complete with a swimming pool, beach and picnic shelters—where you might schedule your next family reunion. Dismal Swamp State Park is valuable forest wetlands. It’s the kind of place where you bring duct tape for removing a family of ticks. Still, 40,000 people visited last year.

Spend a day with Williams and find out why. She squats down on the trail and peers closely at the dark pile of what would send anyone else on a detour. This poop, or scat as rangers say, tells Williams what this bear ate recently: gum berries, grapes and paw-paws.

Williams doesn’t rush—she ambles. This isn’t a place for speed. “I like to look down and see the stories the trail tells,” says Williams, the lead education ranger. “I always see something because I’m looking under leaves, rolling logs. If I have to get someplace quick, I will leave my binoculars and camera in the office or truck.”

Something moves far down the trail. “Was that an otter?” Williams muses. Binoculars at her face, she decides it’s a bobcat. Not a baby, but born this year. Weighs about 10 pounds. “Awesome,” she exclaims. “That’s why I love this place.”

“This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” she says, walking the Supple Jack Trail.  “I love swamps—anything from birds to insects to plants to furry mammals.

We pass a coast pepperbush. “Smell the leaves,” Williams urges. “You don’t think of a swamp as smelling pretty, but it does.”

Even if you don’t get the privilege of a tour with Williams, with the right mindset, you can see what Williams sees, hear what she hears, smell what she smells.

“It’s a ‘pay attention’ kind of place,” Williams says passionately. “Take a little time to look at it, to breathe it. If you take the time to look, there’s a lot to see. Take a little time to listen to it. The swamp whispers—it doesn’t shout.”

Inside the Visitor Center, you can see a coyote, a bobcat, snakes, a beaver, a fox, road kills taken to a taxidermist and stuffed for lifelike park exhibits. The Visitor Center is as far as some people get. They check out the exhibits, walk around a little bit, and then get back on U.S. 17. They tell their friends they’ve seen the Great Dismal Swamp.

But what’s your hurry? To really experience the Great Dismal Swamp—or as locals call it, The Dismal—make time to get outside. Breathe the humid air. Walk the trails. Take out a kayak or bicycle. Look at the paisley patterns the sunlight makes on the leaves.

“There are no quick visits,” Williams says. “Everything is far flung.” Another advantage to getting outside, especially with a ranger: you’ll score better on the exhibit quizzes inside challenging you to guess the animal by both scat and footprints.

Williams knows her insects and animals. What looks like just another moth turns out to be a rare Pearly-Eyed Butterfly. A trail sign reading ‘No Bikes’ is jagged on the right side, marked by bear bites. As the trail winds its way through grape vines, blackberries and cherry trees, Williams tells me that the mother bear climbs the cherry trees, strips the branches and hands the branches or berries down to her cubs.

At the edge of the park, haggard trees stand testimony to a massive fire burned in the summer of 2008 in the adjacent National Wildlife Refuge. A bald eagle soars over the burned landscape.

A light fire is good for the swamp, Williams explains, because it clears out the mature trees. What’s bad is when the fire burns down to the peat in the soil, changing the soil’s composition and making it tough for native species to survive.

Walking the swamp, Williams explains that the Great Dismal Swamp that George Washington saw covered 1.2 million acres, nearly 10 times the size of today’s swamp. Back then, the swamp included plenty of cypress, gum and Atlantic white cedar. In the early days after the swamp was discovered, trees were cut for lumber. Some of the swamp was drained and converted to farmland. Now the predominant trees are red maple, tulip poplar and sycamore.”

“What’s left is the heart of the swamp, the part that wouldn’t give up,” Williams says. “We can’t restore the swamp to the pre-Colonia era. What we can do is take care of it, protect it, manage it.”

That’s part of the rangers’ work. For a park ranger, there’s no typical workday. Rangers are certified to carry weapons, able to use a saw and an axe, educated about the plants and animals, and able to teach one-on-one or in a classroom. A ranger might be on eye level with a six-year-old on a school field trip in the morning and sawing up a tree blocking a trail in the afternoon. Another day might include bushwhacking a new trail, supervising volunteers, inventorying plants and animals, helping hurt visitors or searching for lost visitors.

Just ahead, three raccoons dart across the path. Although a raccoon in daylight can be a sign of rabies, Williams says that’s not a worry here. You’ll see more animals in the swamp during the day because they don’t have to hide during daylight to avoid people.

Williams is patient. She knows some people are afraid of the swamp and its inhabitants. She spends a lot of time, easing people’s fears about being in the swamp, reassuring them that they can come here and be safe.
“The swamp is not going to reach out and grab them,” she says. But do respect the park and stay on the trails – people have gotten lost, she warns.

As Williams heads back to the Visitors’ Center, a black rat snake slithers across the path. She can’t help herself. She has to stop and look closely.

Before you leave, look closely at vines, at the tracks, at the animals of the swamp one more time. Listen one more time to the birdcalls and the rustle of leaves. Breathe in deeply the smell of the swamp. Take a minute to experience the quiet. Close your eyes and connect with George Washington, with hidden slaves, with barge captains, with the primal Earth.

“People need places like this,” Williams says. “You need space, a place to be.”

Click here for more information on the Dismal Swamp State Park.

To read: The Great Dismal Swamp by Bland Simpson

Writer’s note: I visited the park before the most recent fire. At press time, some trails were open and park staff planned to open other trails as soon as possible.

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