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All-Night Paddle in the Great Dismal Swamp

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Hey folks! Figured I'd make my first post a trip report for a recent spontaneous canoe trip I made out to Lake Drummond in the middle of the Great Dismal Swamp. It's a long read, but I didn't want to leave any details out. Enjoy!

It was a beautiful mid-august Sunday afternoon in Norfolk, Virginia. The perfect day for some fishing or adventuring. Instead, I was standing an armed watch on the pier where my ship was moored. It wasn't even my duty day, I had just drawn the short straw and was volun-told to fill in for some personnel on leave in another duty section. With my Funday Sunday transformed into five long hours sweating in the sun with a Kevlar vest (great for trapping in perspiration) and a heavy old M-16, it felt like a beautiful spot of salvation when my Chief walked down the pier and informed me that I would get the following day off. I didn't know why, but if there's one thing the military has taught me, it's to never question when the proverbial stuff stops rolling downhill and I get something good instead.

With the good news of a Monday off fresh in my mind, I set to work thinking of how I could spend my newfound spare time. I had a handful of trips that I would have liked to do before my looming homeport shift to Japan, but being that I was almost broke and wouldn't get off watch until at least 4:30 (it turned out to be 5:30, as the young Seaman relieving me had decided to take a nap with no alarm clock), most of them were either too expensive or too far away. Shenandoah Valley National Park, for example, has free backcountry camping, but it's far enough away that sunset would arrive before I even found a place to start walking into the woods. After some thinking and a few google searches inside the guard shack, I figured out that a campground on the eastern edge of the Great Dismal Swamp, about a 40-minute drive from the naval base, offered 24-hour canoe rentals for something like $30. I'd heard before of a free campground that the Army Corps of Engineers built on the edge of Lake Drummond, deep in the swamp, for those adventurous enough to seek it out, and given my lack of a canoe-compatible car, the campground's close proximity to a canal running along the side of the swamp was perfect. The swamp it is.

As soon as I was relieved and disarmed, I threw a few extra supplies into my backpack and headed out to the car, where most of my fishing and camping gear were already waiting. I made what was supposed to be a quick Walmart and bait shop stop for some last few items, and made the 40-minute down I-264 out to the far side of Hampton Roads... And arrived precisely as the sun set at 8. Great. This was gearing up to be an interesting night.

After signing off the paperwork and securing a rental, I walked across the road to the fenced-in canoe hold on the edge of a green canal. I had rented Canoe 2, a three-seater, for this trip. By the light of my headlamp I rooted through the spider-infested racks of canoes before coming across a heavy plastic Old Town with a large 2 painted on the bow in faded orange. The middle seat was missing its top, turning it into more of a compartment in the middle with cupholders on either side. I stowed the majority of my gear in the bow to help balance out my 200 pounds; this effort turned out to be in vain as I didn’t have near enough gear to do the job, leaving the front portion sticking slightly out of the water. Not a big deal.

At precisely 9:00, I slid the canoe off the edge into the murky waters of the canal. Doing a quick depth check, I poked my paddle into the water to find it well deeper than a paddle and forearm length. With a somewhat increased sense of caution I stepped off into my canoe and pushed off. Ahead of me I had 9 miles of canal until I could turn into a small feeder ditch that would cut straight into the swamp for another three miles before reaching the campsite in Lake Drummond. I figured I could do a steady 3 miles per hour, putting me in the camp at about 1 am. Not bad, not bad at all.

One of the first things I noticed in this canal was the layer of growth on the surface of the water. About a half-inch thick and clearly not any kind of algae, it seemed to have a root system and stems coming out, almost looking like some kind of water moss, if that makes sense. The water moss went from being interesting to straight up annoying in no time, for three different reasons. First and foremost, while scanning around with my headlamp (a very bright one that I picked up from Walmart for about $20), I caught a glimpse of an ungodly abomination of a spider sprinting across the surface of the water, its weight supported by the surface growth. Secondly, it had a tendency to catch onto the fishing lines I had trolling behind me and sliding down to the hooks, leaving softball-sized balls of the stuff tangled up on the hook, generally hindering any plans for fishing before I reached the feeder ditch 9 miles away. Thirdly, it just tended to stick to everything. That got old quickly.

It was about 11 pm when I finally decided to open up my GPS app and check my distance. Gotta be at least halfway, right? I was cruising along, enjoying my night, looking forward to getting out to the campsite and doing some fishing, cooking said fish in a campfire before hanging my hammock and getting some sleep… Wait. That can’t be right. I reloaded my GPS to confirm that, rather than chugging along at 3 mph, I had only managed 3 miles in 2 hours. This was going to be an even longer night than I expected.

Sometime around midnight, while going through a portion of canal with swamp on both sides, I began approaching what seemed like a much lighter area. I turned off my headlamp and allowed my eyes to adjust for a few moments to confirm that I was coming up on an area lit by the pale, cold glow of a security light. My assumption that I was coming up behind someone’s house was quickly disproven as my light caught a sign on a tall, rickety dock reading CITY OF CHESAPEAKE – DOCK FOR MOORING BOATS AND WATERCRAFT ONLY. I wondered aloud to myself what else anyone could possibly have tried to moor on this dock as I surveyed the area. Past the splintery dock lay a single building, small and white, sided with sheet metal and lined with the white lights that provided the illumination I had seen several hundred yards back.

Deciding that I needed to relieve myself and take a walk to stretch my legs and back anyway, I tied my vessel off to the dock to take a quick look around. I grabbed hold of the clumsy ladder built into the side of the dock, turned my headlamp toward my right hand to check my grip… And nearly jumped into the canal as I noticed a spider with at least a 2-inch leg spread mere inches from my hand. Once I was done screaming like a little girl, I went to poke at it with a paddle, hoping to scare the beast away, just to watch it jump down towards my canoe and land on the water moss before sprinting off to whatever pit it spawned forth from. After getting over severe arachnid paranoia and an extreme case of the shudders, I climbed up onto the dock and took a look around to find that the small structure stood alone on the edge of some kind of nature trail and housed a cobweb-ridden water fountain and a pair of single-hole restrooms. I made use of the facilities quickly, shrugging off the feeling of being a side character in a bad slasher film. I took another quick look around before climbing back into the canoe, sure to watch closely for stray swamp spiders.

Strangely enough, after the many horror stories I had heard about the mosquitos in the Great Dismal Swamp, stories of great clouds of bloodsuckers emerging from the bush and feasting on anyone without multiple layers of clothing and a cancerous amount of DEET, the only bugs I ever came across that night that weren’t on a fishing hook were the spiders. Perhaps the lack of the former was related to the fact that there were so damn many of the latter; a quick sweep of the bank or even a thick mass of the water moss with my headlamp turned to its brightest setting would reveal a galaxy of jewel-like sparkles of spider eyes. There had to be hundreds in any given 10-foot radius. I thanked the good Lord that I chose to bring my hammock instead of trying a tarp shelter on the ground.

The night drew on, and after 8 and a half miles of paddling over about four hours, the monotony of high banks and fallen trees was broken with manmade structures as I passed through a small section with private land on both sides. Shortly after passing a boat ramp (part of me wishing that I had taken chances tying my canoe to my car and driving the ten miles of highway with no roof rack) and a long-broken sliding drawbridge, I came across one of the more bizarre sights of my journey. A pair of floating docks sat opposite one another on either bank, dotted with signs reading “PRIVATE PROPERTY – NO TRESPASSING.” The dock to my left lead to a path which lead to a set of stairs climbing the bank; my view of it ended at a chain-link fence at the top, presumably where the path lead to the access road running along the canal. The dock to my right lead to a similar set of stairs, this one leading to a large sign flanked by American flags reading SWAMP COMMANDER in large black print. Moored to both docks were a small flotilla of john boats and rafts, presumably the owner’s access to his property.

On one hand, I couldn’t help but admire how clearly independent the Commander was; this man didn’t even feel the need to have a driveway. On the other hand, I felt like a character in a dystopian movie trying to slip by an encampment of potentially dangerous strangers in the dead of night. Overall, I felt more strongly about the latter at the time. The screech of distant owls, the lack of light, thanks to the new moon which was preparing to eclipse the sun the very next day, and the dense fog rolling out of the swamp at this late hour helped create an eerie atmosphere; the presence of such strange evidence of human existence in this area broke into my prior feelings of glorious solitude and invaded them with fabricated imaginings of being watched by hostile eyes in the brush. I quickly shooed these ideas out of my mind. I think if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that such thoughts and fears will cause nothing but trouble while solo camping.

As I left the Commander’s compound behind, I came to a portion of the swamp blocked off by a huge barge with what I can only assume was some sort of dredging equipment, helping clear the bottom of the canal of silt and mud left by last year’s hurricane which caused quite a lot of damage to the entire intercostal waterway, of which the Great Dismal Swamp Canal is a huge part of. Just to the right, deeply hidden in the fog bank, was the feeder ditch which supplies the canal with water from Lake Drummond. At 1:30 am, I finally was on the home stretch.

Lake Drummond is 6 feet higher in elevation than the canal and the feeder ditch connecting the two, so about a quarter mile down the ditch flowing out of the lake, there is a small dam which can be opened and closed to control the depth of the lake (normally only about 6 feet) and feed the canal system. It was this feeder ditch that made up the last leg of my expedition into the swamp. I took the right turn into the narrow passage, wooded on both sides and arrow straight for the next three miles. I noticed that the swamp moss wasn’t growing here, probably due to the slight current which I couldn’t feel, but knew was there, caused by the steady dark flow out of the lake’s spillaway. With no surface debris to get tangled up in my line, I baited a no. 1 circle hook with a nightcrawler, attached a decently sized float so that it wouldn’t dive too deep and get tangled in roots and undergrowth near the bottom, and cast it aft to troll behind me for the last few miles of my journey. I had a package of hot dogs and a couple beers in my lunchbox, in case I didn’t catch anything, but I was definitely looking forward to having the full experience of catching my meal for the night.

And so the journey continued. I paddled as quickly as my tired arms would allow, dodging fallen trees and spider-infested branches hanging over the edges of the waterway. I was tired, I was hungry, and I was ready to finally reach my destination and make camp. During this stretch, I saw my first wild animal of the night in the form of a bright pair of eyes high in a tree, only the dark outline of its stout form visible in the far reaches of the high beam of my headlamp. A few hook snags slowed me down, but a few minor adjustments in hook depth and navigation saved me from most trouble.

After nearly an hour and a half of hard paddling, I made my way around yet another fallen tree and found my first sign of the end. In a corner made on the surface by a few small pieces of driftwood was a collection of foam, the kind kicked up by falling water. I stopped paddling and slowed my breathing and listened closely. I could hear the distant whisper of the spillaway coming off the lake. Paddling onward, clumps of foam drifted past me and the whisper slowly grew to a murmur and then to a cascading roar as I drew closer to my destination.

About a hundred yards from the dam, the waterway split off, a small outlet hooking off to the left while the ditch continued on forward to its source. With nowhere to go forward to but a clearly marked and clearly dangerous spillaway and an aluminum awning marked “GOVERNMENT WATERCRAFT ONLY,” I turned off to the left to find a creosote-stained dock much like the one I had tied off to several hours earlier. Watching carefully for spiders this time, I carefully secured lines to the posts and climbed onto the dock, my tired joints and back creaking and popping as I stretched myself out. I had finally reached my destination at 3:30 am. It was about time.

I took a quick look around to find that the “very primitive” campsite I had read about was actually very well maintained and very accommodating. There were power lines coming out of the woods, powering up a large light which illuminated the whole campsite. It was clearly regularly mowed; not only was the grass short and even, but my boots were quickly covered in grass trimmings wet from the dew laid out from the fog. Two screened-in shelters stood about 75 yards apart, both containing a picnic table, hammock rocks, and – get this – a single light bulb, a luxury that I never would have expected. On the far side of the camp, there was a small house-like building, presumably a ranger station, and an outhouse. Both shelters had grills and fire pits close by, one of the fire pits still smoldering with the remnants of someone’s campfire. Despite this sign of life, I was still clearly and utterly alone. There were no other watercraft tied to the dock and none pulled ashore.

Bisecting the area was one of the more interesting sights of the trip, the fabled Boat Tram. Consisting of a boat cradle on rails, its function was to haul the watercraft of visitors about ten yards up the 6-foot elevation jump between the ditch and the lake. This removed the necessity of a lock system, therefore saving plenty of manpower and resources. Unfortunately, the whole time I was there, I could not for the life of me figure out how to use the tram, and ended up pulling my canoe up and over the old fashioned way.

I set to work untying from the dock and dragging the canoe onto the shore near the tram, carrying my gear to one of the shelters, hanging my hammock and placing wet gear outside so it could get some sun in the morning. Muttering some light profanities about bad fishing, I reeled in my fishing line before being met with some resistance. Tired and angry, I pushed my canoe back into the water to unhook from what I figured was just another tree branch or underwater weed. Instead, as I got closer, I definitely felt something pulling the line around. I hurriedly set the hook (probably a redundancy at this point, the poor fish probably swallowed it long ago) and reeled it in, finding a nice 16” catfish at the end. Close inspection by the light of my headlamp and the shelter light later revealed that the fish was almost dyed black by the water and the leaf rot that contributed to the water’s coke-esque coloring. I put it on a stringer and unpacked the rest of my gear, laying the canoe upside down to drain before starting the campfire for the night.

By some miracle after nearly 7 hours of paddling my 16-ounce Yuengling was still ice-cold in my lunchbox, so I cracked that open while setting to work gathering sticks from the treeline for a fire. I used the still-glowing coals from the last camper’s fire to get a small blaze going, and in no time I had a nice hot cooking fire ready. Nursing the beer, I quickly washed the fish in a water tap that poked out of the side of the shelter (almost too easy at this point) and filleted it, discarding the remains in the trash bin that sat a few yards from the tram rails. I boy scouted it up in some aluminum foil and a few shakes of garlic salt, and sat it in the hottest part of the coals while I cooked up a couple of the hot dogs that I brought along. It was almost 4:30 am at this point, and I could see the very earliest signs of dim morning light off to the east. The fish had that great taste that comes from anything caught and prepared by oneself; it could taste like a chuck of plywood and still taste like a feast for a king to the man who brought it to the table. I finally climbed into my hammock at 5 am. Despite not having to work in the morning, I still had some social obligations on the agenda for the early afternoon, so I set my alarm for a mere three hours later at 8. Normally when camping I allow myself to wake up naturally, which usually comes fairly early anyway, but with the tight schedule in the morning, I needed something to keep me on the straight and narrow. I still needed to get out to the lake.

------


I woke the next morning to the sound of my alarm and a lawnmower. I rolled out of the hammock and took a look around. Golden morning sunlight shined through the trees, warming things up and already drying the dew off the grass. It wasn’t nearly the sweltering 91 humid degrees it would reach later in the day, but it was a vast contrast from the damp chill of the night before. On the far side of the dam a woman in khaki shorts was mowing the grass, her johnboat under the awning I had seen the night before. My entire upper body felt like fire was running through my veins, the toll of going far too long without a good long canoe trip. I stowed my hammock and started the cooking fire back up, placing a small pot on some rocks over the coals once they were nice and hot. I prepared a couple packets of instant oatmeal and wolfed them down before packing my gear into the canoe on the lake side.

It was about this time that I called in a favor from a friend with an old Jeep Cherokee to meet me at the boat ramp I had seen the night before. I wouldn’t have minded paddling the whole way back myself, and God knows I needed the exercise in my life, but my impending plans were definitely putting a strain on the schedule. I calculated my time and realized that I would only be able to get on the lake long enough to take a peek around before I would need to turn around. Better than nothing, I thought. At least I got to make this trip before leaving Virginia behind.

I dropped a pair of lines in the water baited with nightcrawlers to troll for crappie while the park worker shut the spillaway valves on the dam behind me. I made the quick quarter mile paddle up the ditch and came out to my destination. Like a great pool of mercury, the water was massive, unmoving and perfectly reflective. Stands of cypress trees grew in the water before me, reflected so perfectly that there seemed a whole different world just under the surface of the water, upside down and completely opposite of ours. Everything was utterly still and quiet, the only sound the occasional soft brush of my paddle stroking through the water. I heard some wings flutter off to my right and saw a heron lift its long body out of the shallows and fly off towards a marshy stand of dead trees on the southern bank of the lake. It was one of the most otherworldly landscapes I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing, in the same category as the Pillars of Hercules in the Strait of Gibraltar or the glassy surface of the eastern Mediterranean just before sunrise.

My awe was cut short by a dull buzz from the pocket of my jeans. My phone hummed out a reminder that it was time to turn around and head back downstream and homeward. It was shortly before I reached the campsite again that I heard the familiar zzzzzZZZZZZzzzz of a bite coming from one of my reels. I dropped my paddle to the deck and reached back for my rod, upped the drag a bit, and set the hook before reeling my little guest back in. At the end of my line was a little fish dyed so black by the swamp water that it took a few seconds of looking closely to realize that it was the most literal black crappie I had ever caught.

I dragged my canoe over the rise alongside the tram rails and pushed back into the water. Over the next two hours of paddling before I got back to the canal, I enjoyed an excellent few miles of fishing, oftentimes pulling in another dark-colored crappie before I could even return to paddling after the releasing the last one. All counted, I pulled in almost a dozen and a half of the little guys.

I timed my return trip perfectly, arriving at the boat ramp mere minutes before my friend with the Jeep arrived to retrieve me. We secured the canoe to the roof and drove back to the campground, where I returned the craft before taking a quick nap in the car before heading off to do people things.

---------

Final assessment and lessons learned –
This is a trip I would love to do again with a whole weekend to spare. If you ever find yourself in the Hampton Roads area with a few days to spare, do yourself a favor and pop by Chesapeake Campground, rent a canoe, and get on down to Lake Drummond.

Of all I learned from my first solo canoe trip, the most important lesson I picked up was that I move a whole lot slower alone than I do with a partner. Seems to be obvious, I know, but when I was throwing this trip together, I just didn’t think that far ahead. I will also bear in mind to never bring a ground shelter into a swamp, because those spiders still make me shudder.

Let me know if any of you have done this trip.
 

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NC you just put Steven King out of a job. Wow what a night trip! And I hate spiders. But a great trip report, thanks NavalCanoes.
And let's do a daytime trip next time, with no spiders. (I'm gonna sleep with a light on tonight.)
Safe tour in Japan. Come home safe.
 
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That's some story, NC... did you have moonlight to see where you were going? I've heard of people canoeing by starlight only but I don't think I'd be able to pick out rocks and channels and cold water is always a worry. I once got completely disoriented paddling alone under a bright full moon late in the season, going upstream on a small river and in a pond-like wider spot, couldn't find the way out, to the river's entrance to go further upstream. Going round and round like a minnow in a minnow trap and unable to find the way out, which got strange. After a while, some uncertainty started to come in, I started questioning whether I actually was where I thought I was on the map, maybe I had gone off somewhere else without realizing it and I didn't really know where... very weird. A flashlight was needed to find the hidden channel and after that everything was OK again.

Full moon, the hunter's moon, is Oct 5 IIRC and it might coincide with peak fall colors up here.
 
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After having finished reading your TR I'd say you probably saw the swamp at it's best. Never having been in one myself, but if they're like every other wild place, they have two incredible worlds to experience. (Nocturnal and diurnal.) You saw them both in one trip. Very cool stuff NC. I think I can understand now why there were homes tucked away in there. Do you plan for another visit to Lake Drummond? Established campsites make things easier.
 
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That's some story, NC... did you have moonlight to see where you were going?

Nope, New Moon that night, so the only light I had to work with was from my headlamp. There were a few times, paddling with the light off, that I would turn my headlamp on to find that I was seconds away from crashing into a fallen tree. For the most part though, being a straight, wide, and fairly well-maintained canal, I didn't have too many obstacles to worry about.
 
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After having finished reading your TR I'd say you probably saw the swamp at it's best. Never having been in one myself, but if they're like every other wild place, they have two incredible worlds to experience. (Nocturnal and diurnal.) You saw them both in one trip. Very cool stuff NC. I think I can understand now why there were homes tucked away in there. Do you plan for another visit to Lake Drummond? Established campsites make things easier.

I would certainly like to take another trip there, maybe in cooler weather because I hate spiders and humidity. Next time I'm stateside I'll be going back to Norfolk area to get rid of a car that I had to leave behind, I might stop for a night and repeat the trip.
 
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That was a great read! You've made me wonder if they rent canoes in December, when I'll be in the Richmond area. A little drive to do a day trip... that's a good thing. Thanks for sharing. Pringles
 
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Had a good chuckle reading that trip report, NavalCanoes, especially your near fatal interactions with the giant swamp spiders (probably "fishing spiders," which are huge and common from Maryland down to Virginia).
 
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Had a good chuckle reading that trip report, NavalCanoes, especially your near fatal interactions with the giant swamp spiders (probably "fishing spiders," which are huge and common from Maryland down to Virginia).

Yep, those are the scary bastards. Got my skin crawling as soon as I googled it. Sends a shiver down my spine.
 
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Even though they are harmless, every once in a while they get into our house and cause us heart-attacks! When my son was about 4, he came into our room one night, woke me up and said, "daddy, there's a spider in my room." I figured it was one of those little itty bitty jobs, grabbed a Kleenex and walked into the room ... only to be confronted by the biggest fishing spider I've ever seen. And I was in my underwear, no shoes, and effectively unarmed. I didn't dare take my eyes off of it because if I'd lost track of it, I'd have had to sell the house the next day! So I had my son go get the pool leaf net.... We are still in the house.
 
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that was quite a read, funny too. My main take away though was you clearly didn't bring enough beer.
 
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Hell of a read but a good one!! And man am I happy to live where I live... Non of those spiders and snake shit... Just grizzlies, black bear, wolf, wolverines... Nothing as scary as a spider that size!!
 
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Great story. Honestly, due to liability issues, I'm surprised they let you take off after dark. Down in the Okefenokee NWR you're required to be off the water no later than a half hour prior to sunset and you're not supposed to be back on until a half hour after sunrise. All this is due to the gators. I know the concentration of them is greater in GA but I have read that you can find them in the Dismal Swamp so it was interesting to see that they let you go on your trip.

That's all for now. Take care and until next time....be well.

snapper
 
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Nice write up. You have a wonderful way with words. I don't like going on one night canoe trips, by the time you get to the entry point, get to camp, and get settled it's time to pack up and hurry out for the drive home. But I enjoyed hearing about your trip and look forward to more in the future.
 
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