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    Updated: 25-Apr-2006

Dispelling Myths About The Dismal Swamp Canal
Janet Parks   


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Charbonneau tied up at Elizabeth City's free town docks.
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Heading up the Pasquotank River on our way to the South Mills Lock.
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Sunrise over the Pasquotank River.
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Again, the beauty and serenity of the trip up the Pasquotank River.


     “You’re going through the Dismal Swamp Canal?  That’s dangerous!”  That's the typical response from other cruisers when we are headed between North Carolina and Virginia and we tell them of our intended route.  They then proceed to tell us all the horror stories they've heard about the canal, such as how boats have lost their propellers on huge logs and those that have destroyed their masts as they get tangled in the large branches hanging over the canal.  When you ask if they have ever gone through the canal, their response is an overwhelming “No! Too dangerous!”  They have been scared off by the myths, or exaggerated stories, passed down from year to year and have never tried it themselves. 

      We like to dispel the myths that so many cruisers tend to believe about the Dismal Swamp Canal.  You need to be careful transiting the canal, but if you stay in the middle, any boat with a 6-foot draft or less shouldn’t have any problems.  Overhanging branches reach over the canal from either side, so you have to learn to look up, as well as forward, to make sure your mast stays clear.  However, there’s a wide opening between the branches, so stay in the middle to avoid them.  You may also find some debris of logs or branches, but keep your eyes open to steer clear of them and you’ll be fine.  It’s no worse than other parts of the ICW.  

      We’ve encouraged many to try the canal and they rave about it once they have traveled through it.  The scenery and peacefulness of the Dismal Swamp Canal and the Pasquotank River is hard to explain; it’s something you need to experience yourself.  Even though I have not seen the movie, my Dad said that it reminded him of the trip down the Amazon River in the movie “African Queen”.

      The Dismal Swamp Canal is steeped in history and is on the National Register of Historic Places.  It was proposed by Colonel William Byrd II in 1728 and was dug completely by hand from 1793-1805.  Its purpose was to provide an efficient means of internal transportation between the North Carolina sounds region and the Virginia tidewater areas.  The canal was originally too shallow for anything but flat boats and log rafts and it contained 5 or 6 locks.  In 1829, the canal was widened and deepened, and in 1899, major improvements were made and the locks were decreased to 2.  The competition, the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, was opened in 1859 and was bought by the US government in 1913 as part of the government’s plan for a continuous inland waterway.  The Dismal Swamp Canal then wavered on the edge of bankruptcy until the government bought it in 1929 in an act of fairness.  Today it is managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

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Approaching the entrance to the South Mills Lock.
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Charbonneau tied up inside the South Mills Lock.
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The South Mills Lockmaster lowers the bridge after we pass.
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A view of the canal from Charbonneau's bow.

      A cruise through the Dismal Swamp Canal is a beautiful journey with cypress trees lining the shores.  The water is coffee-colored due to the tannins in the waters; we’ve been told that ships used to store this water for their overseas journeys because bacteria would not grow in the tannin water.  Since no commercial traffic can use this route, it is a very peaceful, almost mystical route.  Blue herons fly in front of your boat trying to stay ahead of you the whole way.  

      Cruising guides say you may see deer along the side or bear swimming across the canal.  We have seen beavers swimming in the waters, but our only bear was the infamous “bear cow” on our initial journey south.   On that particular trip we kept our eyes open hoping to see some of the reported wildlife.  In the distance, I saw a black creature standing in the water.  Thinking it was a bear, I cried out “Bear……cow”.  As we approached closer, I realized it was a cow cooling off in the water, but the rest of our crew questioned me…”Bear cow?”  So be on watch for ‘bear cows’ as you travel through the canal.

      It is a 51-mile journey from Norfolk to Elizabeth City via the Dismal Swamp Canal route.  Running at 5-6 knots, the trip can be made in one long day or broken into two days.  Leaving Norfolk, leave early enough to make the openings of the bridges that close at 6:30 AM for their morning rush hour.  At about mile 7, take the west route to the Dismal Swamp Canal.  There is a sign at that intersection that will state the status of the canal and the lock schedule or you can call the Corps of Engineers during working hours at the Deep Creek Lock, (757) 487-0831. 

      There are two locks, one at Deep Creek at mile 11 and one at South Mills at mile 32.  The normal opening times of the locks are 8:30 AM, 11:00 AM, 1:30 PM and 3:30 PM.    Each lock will raise or lower you around 8 feet.  Make sure you have a bow and stern line ready when you enter the lock, as well as fenders.  Fender boards come in really handy to further protect your boat.  Just inside each lock is a small bridge operated by the lockmaster and coordinated with the lock openings.   At the Deep Creek lock, lockmasters Robert and Kay are extremely friendly offering coffee during their early morning lock and a land visit for your canine crew.

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The NC Dismal Swamp Canal Visitor Center.
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We often spend the night tied up alongside the visitor center.

      Reaching the Deep Creek lock for the  8:30 AM opening allows you can make a lunch stop at the NC Visitor’s Center and get to South Mills by 3:30PM for their last lock of the day, leaving enough time to make the 19 mile journey to Elizabeth City.  At mile 20.9, there is a portable bridge that a farmer has permission to slide across the canal to transport his cattle and farm equipment; the bridge is in place just long enough for him to complete his tasks.  The bridge is usually open and is not normally a delay in your trip.  We’ve seen it closed once and the farmer waited for us to pass by it before sliding it closed for his use.

      If you decide to make the 51-mile journey in two days, there are various free places to tie up along the way.  There are dolphins (pilings) to tie up to on both sides of the bridge/lock areas.  South of the Deep Creek lock, you can tie up at Elizabeth’s Dock, which is part of the Deep Creek Lock Park.  This dock is located between the Deep Creek bridge and lock, so time your arrival accordingly to make the bridge or lock opening to reach this dock.  At the Deep Creek bridge, you can tie up to a cement wall at the south side of the bridge.  It is an easy walk from there to a grocery store, hardware store, dollar store, and restaurants.  At the South Mills bridge, you can tie up north of the bridge near a local gas station.  If you are heading south and get to the South Mills bridge early, tie up here and get an ice cream at the gas station. 

      One of our favorite overnight stops is the NC Visitor’s Center at mile 28.  There is a 150’ free face dock where you can tie up for a short visit or an overnight stay.  The center offers public restrooms, picnic tables, water, trash, recycling, phones and a short nature trail.  If you stop here for a visit, please stop by the information center desk to sign their boater’s log.  Inside the information center, there is a book exchange for cruisers. 

      If you stop at the NC Visitor’s center, an interesting side journey is to dinghy up to mile 21.5 to the Lake Drummond Feeder Ditch.  Lake Drummond is used to feed water to the canal to regulate water depths.  You can take your dinghy 3 miles up the feeder ditch to Lake Drummond.  There is a free electric railway that can take small boats, under 1000 pounds, over to Lake Drummond.  There are picnic tables there, so take along a picnic lunch. 

      At mile 51 is Elizabeth City, which is a must-stop city known as the “Harbor of Hospitality”.  They offer free transient slips for up to 48 hours and are extremely welcoming to cruisers.  If the town docks are full, they will open other docking areas for you to tie up and visit the town.  The Rose Buddies, headed by Fred Fearing, will greet you and help you dock.  If a lady is part of the crew, the Rose Buddies will ask her to select a rose from their beautiful rose bushes along the wharf.  When there are 4 or more boats visiting the free docks, they hold a wine and cheese party for the cruisers.  Elizabeth City exudes southern hospitality, which is all the more reason to give the Dismal Swamp Canal route a try.  Leave the myths behind and experience the magic of the great Dismal Swamp Canal. 

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We passed just before a local farmer pushes a bridge across the canal to transport his cattle across.
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Elizabeth's Dock, also free,  is at the north end of the canal, just before the Deep Creek Lock. 
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Sawdust swirls atop the canal waters from a nearby saw mill.
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Read the sign to see how far you've come or how far you still have to go.



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