94: A Happy Place

D I S M A L   S W A M P,   V A 

In the 1700’s, at the southeast corner of Virginia’s border with North Carolina, the land was dismal – a million acres of swampy, thickly-vegetated, and useless wetland forest. An early survey by William Byrd declared the land “a miserable morass where nothing can inhabit”. 

 But a young entrepreneur named George Washington thought he could drain the swamp. He saw its lucrative real estate flip potential. His new company constructed drainage ditches and roads, hoping to dry out large swaths of sellable land in the young country’s most populated state. But ultimately, mother nature resisted, and the plan failed. 

 George was persistent though. His company changed focus and was able to squeeze out a little lumber income as well as successfully complete the Dismal Swamp Canal connecting the Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound which today is the oldest continually operating man-made canal in the U.S. 

In more recent swamp history, that dismal land’s timber was harvested by the Union Camp Company until the 1970’s. Feeling its value had mostly been depleted, the company donated 50,000 acres to The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in 1973 who then conveyed the land to the federal government to establish the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in 1974. In doing so, they secured the largest intact remnant of a vast forested wetland that once covered more than a million acres. 

 Also in the 1970’s, I first became aware of this area on trips to the Outer Banks for vacation. Driving past it as a kid, the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge was just a newborn. Today, fifty years later and under federal protection all those years, its lumber and ditch scars have healed. And today also, I’m finally setting foot on the refuge. 

 The timing of my visit is ideal – I’m arriving very early on a Tuesday morning forecast for light drizzle which renders the refuge an empty place. Barring a change in the weather or the day of the week, I’ll have the swamp to myself. I follow the six-mile, Z-shaped road to its terminus at Lake Drummond ignoring strong urges to stop and explore along the way. I’ll satisfy those urges later. 

Most images of Lake Drummond - Virginia’s largest natural lake - are taken amid ideal conditions at sunrise/sunset while the surface is glass smooth. Today though, amid clouds, drizzle, and the breeze, Drummond is scowling. Regardless, all weather has its charm, and I find Drummond’s scowl quite appealing. Even amid the mist and wind, it’s clear this is a special place.
After some time at the lake’s edge, I leave the car parked and walk back along the road driven in. As a now-trained naturalist, it’s getting harder to take a single step without stopping to inspect something: a bug, a plant, the birds, the smells, the sounds. When younger, walks were about distance; now though, observations. 

On both sides of the road are scars from fires in 2008 and 2011. Most of the drive to this lake is through dense forest, but for the last two miles the views open nicely. The slower pace reveals things not seen from the car like a snapping turtle burying its eggs, a beautiful patch of floating pennywort, and several Monet-like water reflections. And, of course, the sounds are more pronounced. I gather images and sound recordings as I follow the road. When I turn around, the straight road leading directly back to the lake acts like a red carpet.
I hop in my car, leave the lake behind, and drive very slowly for three miles toward one of the enticements spotted driving in: the West Ditch boardwalk. It pokes straight into the dense forest and ends at a bench beside a huge 800-year-old Cypress. The tree was just a sprout around the time the Magna Carta was signed, and when the Mongol Empire was founded by Genghis Khan. The walk into the forest along this boardwalk is accompanied by a diverse chorus of aural delight. Where today’s seclusion has most manifested itself is in the sounds of this place, which are vibrant and without interruption. 

 Gentle breezes swaying the canopy. 
Peaceful plopping of raindrops. 
Tannin-stained waves lapping ashore. 
Patterned calls of Carolina Wrens. 
Northern Cricket Frogs croaking in chorus. 
And echoed drummings from Pileated Woodpeckers. 

 The next stop is the Cypress Marsh boardwalk, an L-shaped path connecting a bend in the road. Here I spot a small flock of Prothonotary Warblers; elusive birds serving as indicators of a healthy wetland ecosystem. They dart quickly between branches, perhaps warning each other of my intrusion with their songs. Eventually, one stops long enough for a quick picture. Not great but focused well enough for adding to the life-list.
So, what do all those bird sounds echoing throughout this forest mean? Birds have been around much longer than humans and likely understand this world better than us. Surely, there’s wisdom in their sounds beyond just warning each other of intruders. Can we ever crack the code? 

 My last stop on this refuge tour is an old friend – a Longleaf pine savanna. In my quest to visit one hundred TNC properties, seven have been to Longleaf pine savanna ecosystems. At the west edge of this refuge near the headquarters is a several-acre remnant with a pleasant trail winding through pines. The rain has picked up and I capture one last audio recording near a small pool on the forest floor. While standing quietly recording, I spot a smile in the bark of a nearby pine. It’s a happy tree. Or perhaps, it represents the entire forest – happy to be thriving again with no threats of lumbering or drainage. 

Pareidolia is the tendency to perceive meaningful patterns in randomness. Some call it a survival instinct or perhaps a way to feel connected to things larger than ourselves. Regardless, that smiling piece of bark certainly represents me today. Happy to finally visit the Great Dismal Swamp. Happy to have it all to myself. Happy to know the threats here are gone. And happy to add #94, despite its dismal name, to the list of one hundred TNC properties I’m collecting.


  1. Learn more about the Dismal Swamp here:



Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

93: Unfragmented Wildness

95 & 96: New York; New York