Locks, Logs and Lingering

A languid state of mind during a day on the dismal swamp canal

The Pasquotank River churns and foams as the South Mills, N.C. lockmaster calls down to us and then opens the gate to allow our small boat inside. The Dismal Swamp Canal and another world await eight feet higher on the opposite end of the lock. River water rushes in, swirling wildly at the canal side of the lock, creating tiny eddies with no place to go. Slowly, the boat rises. First-timer or river rat, it’s a time for quiet wonder at this mesmerizing process.

There’s something about a lock. For centuries, locks all over the world have improved trade, allowing boats to more easily navigate around obstacles and among waterways at different elevations. The technology dates to at least the Song Dynasty in China from 960 A.D. and probably to ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece a thousand years earlier. Eyes closed, our boat is transformed into a mighty ship awaiting passage through the Panama Canal.

After 20 minutes, we are finally eye to eye ith the lockmaster, who opens the gate and then rushes to open the drawbridge in South Mills for our passage up the canal. As the southbound vessels move toward the lock, we ease into the Dismal Swamp Canal, the oldest operating artificial waterway in the United States.

The canal, water dyed dark as sweet tea by tannic acid from the leaves this October day, is smooth as glass. Reflections of red and yellow-gold foliage create a tranquil passage for the boat—the reflection so clear that it’s hard to tell which way is up.

The canal is lined with silos, farmland and homes with tin roofs. A family of ducks crosses just ahead. A pair of turtles swims slowly by as others sun themselves on logs. As we pass by the bank, captain and host George Ramsey slows the boat to pick late grapes, a careful stretch to the over hanging muscadine vines. Birds call out overhead and something large rustles among the trees.

“I’ve seen bobcats,” Ramsey says, wonder still evident in his voice despite numerous trips on this waterway over 20 years.

“I’ve seen Mama Bear with two little ones. We’re starting to see the winter birds come in now. If you’re really alert and aware, you will see birds and game you’ve only read about. You’re in the midst of it all. The canal is a mystical, magical place.”

Since moving to nearby Suffolk in the mid-1980s, Ramsey and his boat have become a fixture on the canal. He’s researched its history and geography. “When I’m on the canal, I’m so excited my legs shake,” he says.

Cutting through the placid water, it’s easy to see why. Red maple trees dot either side of the canal, promising even more striking foliage in the weeks to come. This day, many boaters are heading south to warmer water. Signs mark the mileage to southern port cities: Savannah 558. Miami 1,067. Key West 1,217. The canal calls out a siren song, urging all to hop aboard a vessel and paddle, motor or sail away. It’s here thanks in part to the vision of giants in our nation’s history such as Byrd and Washington. All who travel the canal also owe a debt to numerous slaves, who dug it out using only shovels.

Digging began in Virginia and North Carolina, with a rivalry to see who would reach the midpoint first, Ramsey says. In 1805, a rudimentary ditch was finished, allowing the bounty of trees to be harvested for timber bound for Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

In 1814, a 20-ton vessel passed through the canal to show that it could be done.

“The vessel brought a load of whiskey from Scotland Neck on the Roanoke River, through the Albemarle Sound, turned north on the Pasquotank River and then connected with the canal to deliver it the city of Norfolk,” Ramsey says, shaking his head with amazement. “That must have been quite a trip in those days.”

Feeder ditches, used to bring logs and other supplies to the main canal, intersect along the way. Tow paths on either side mark where slaves and others once walked log-filled barges to the sawmill in the swamp.

They’d get a series of logs, bind them together and make a long raft,” Ramsey says. “Some of the rafts were a quarter- to a half-mile long. Two boys would walk along the tow path with a long pole across their shoulders. Once they got the logs moving, they could walk to South Mills or Deep Creek.”

Close your eyes today and see the slaves walking along the towpaths, calling out to each other as they drag a raft loaded with logs. Back in the trees are the ghostly memories of escaped slaves who
often hid in the swamp.

By 1899, the canal had been dug out enough to reduce the locks from five to the two remaining today. At various times, the canal fell into disrepair. In 1929, the federal government bought the canal, which was already operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Today’s canal is 80 feet wide and six feet deep. Many of the larger boats that draw more than five feet and boats that are in a hurry take the Intracoastal Waterway instead. They are missing the languid state of mind on the canal.

Ramsey points out a farm that spans both sides of the canal. The farmer pushes a World War II-era portable bridge across the canal to get to his fields and U.S. 17 on the other side. The boat cruises slowly past old granite mile markers and remnants of 19th-century locks.

At Lake Drummond, just inside Virginia, is the Dismal Swamp Campground, accessible only by boat. Here, a boat trolley takes boats over land and to the lake. Unfortunately, Ramsey’s vessel is over the weight limit so we linger at the picnic tables, savoring the quiet and marveling at the engineering that will take a boat over land.

But passing time on the canal leaves no room in the heart for regret. We head south again, waving at passing kayakers, yachts and catamarans. Here on the canal, a wave is more than hello. The unspoken message in the greeting—a day on the Dismal Swamp Canal will restore your soul.

Visitors to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge may participate in a variety of activities including hiking, biking, photography, wildlife observation and fishing and boating. An interpretive boardwalk trail meanders almost a mile through a portion of the Swamp. Visit www.dismalswampwelcomecenter.com for more information.

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

Dismal Swamp
Canal Welcome Center
2356 US Hwy 17 N
South Mills, N.C.

Categories: Weekends