Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center—

By the end of the afternoon, a line of trawlers, catamarans, and other sailboats are docking along the 150-foot pier at the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center. Most captains put out their boat bumpers as they approach, signaling to the bridge tender just ahead that they won’t need an opening tonight. The Canadian flag waves on at least one boat. Others hail from Vermont, Indiana and Ohio. Many are heading to Florida or the Bahamas for the winter.

The smell of charcoal burning fills the air. During my early fall visit, (then) welcome center director Penny Leary-Smith has lit a grill for the boaters to cook supper and is about to make her daily run into South Mills for groceries to help her nautical guests stock up. A recent record is 33 boats for the night.

This Welcome Center, on U.S. 17 in Camden County just north of South Mills at the Virginia border, would never be mistaken for its counterparts along I-85 or I-95.
Directions? Sure. An Outer Banks ferry schedule? Easy. A schedule for lock openings on the Dismal Swamp Canal? Done. Fun things to do? Got it.

The Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center is also the only one that serves boaters along with motorists. The staff, relying partly on a navigation radio provided by the Coast Guard Auxiliary, gives nautical information as easily as highway and tourist information.

But the vibe you get here goes beyond the boats. When you stop here, you get more than the friendly but polite service at most interstate welcome centers. This welcome center is a destination itself, not just a waypoint along the journey.

“I never wanted to be just a map distribution center,” Leary-Smith said passionately, several times in the course of a conversation. “Our travelers are not in a hurry. “That’s why they’re on 17 and not on 95. I want to be a gateway of hospitality as you come into northeastern North Carolina.”

Hospitality was Leary-Smith’s goal when she started here 22 years ago when the center was preparing to open in 1989. A central part of any welcome center is brochures of nearby attractions. But when the center opened, few of the surrounding counties had produced brochures. Leary-Smith traveled around—educating government leaders about the advantages to them of producing brochures to fill the racks at the welcome center.

Leary-Smith fought off at least one move to close this welcome center, lobbied to keep the Dismal Swamp Canal open and squeezed money from her budget to buy four bicycles for the welcome center. Now boaters, motorists and locals borrow the bikes to ride on the adjacent Dismal Swamp Canal Trail.

She also successfully lobbied for mile markers on the Dismal Swamp Canal. “We’d get a call from a boater who was broken down and we’d ask ‘Where?’ and there was no way to know exactly,” she says. Now there are mile markers on the canal as well as welcome signs as the state line. Leary-Smith also was one of the big boosters in the creation of the adjacent state park.

Also here is a one-quarter mile nature trail, with markers along the way showing sassafras, pignut hickory and other native plants. “People have walked that trail down to the roots,” she says. At the end, there’s a Kindred Mailbox with a journal for all to write their thoughts, encouraging visitors to linger a little longer.

Before the center opened, a feasibility study predicted 75,000 to 100,000 cars a year, maximum, for the welcome center. Now the number of cars is 500,000 a year, along with 2,000 boats. At 3,100 square feet, the center is now double the original size.

For years, Leary-Smith was the face of promoting tourism at the center and all around the Great Dismal Swamp. This summer, in between my visit and press time, however, Leary-Smith retired. But anyone who feared that this eclectic welcome center would become ordinary without her is mistaken.

Donna Stewart, Leary-Smith’s assistant for three years, is director now and the vibe is still the same. “We have big shoes to fill and we’re doing our best,” Stewart says. “I don’t know everything yet but I care about the center and our relationship with the boaters.”

Staff members still go beyond service with a smile. This welcome center is the kind of place where travelers want to linger and then return, partly to renew acquaintances here. Whether you arrive here by car or by boat, you’re greeted as if you’re being invited into a private home. In fact, before and during Hurricane Irene that’s exactly what happened.

First Stewart talked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers into opening the canal—closed because the fire in the swamp—for one lock opening so boaters could take refuge in calmer water.  “We had started getting calls from boaters, but the canal was closed. We’re known for our safety here because we’re not affected by the tide or wave action,” Stewart says.

One couple from Texas was anxious about riding out the storm on their boat, even in the canal. There’s no lodging in South Hill so… “They ended up staying with me for two nights,” Stewart says. Yes, two complete strangers. “We’ve made a good friend,” she says.

Whether you arrive by car or boat—don’t just get a map and directions. Talk to some boaters, take a hike, ride one of the bikes and chat with the staff. Like the Texas boater, you may arrive a stranger, but you’ll leave as a friend.