The Great Dismal Swamp


Traveling the Great Dismal Swamp Canal can be confusing. Where’s the canal bank?

We got up before six today, did some final checks. By 6:30 there was just enough light so we untied, turned the boat another 90 degrees in a tight spot and eased out of the marina between all the boats. Maybe “eased” is not quite right, since it was so tight between the boats and Star Gazer is so wide. At slow speeds response to the rudder is slow, so I used the bow thruster, which makes quite a racket in the morning quiet, to weave just a bit to clear a few prominent bows along the way.

We were out of the marina entrance before 6:45 and on our way. It was 15 miles up the now much narrower and winding Pasquotank river to the lock at the Dismal Swamp entry. The lock only opens at 8:30, 11:00, 1:30 and 3:30 each day. We did OK time wise and so could slow down for the last half of our way to the lock, much of which was a very narrow and straight 4½ mile long ditch called Turner’s Cut. Paul took many pictures, and I can’t help putting many of them in here. Paul took a few videos before the first lock also.


Looking back as we left the marina entrance.


Pasquotank river bank on the way to the canal.

The waters in this part of North Carolina have a lot of tannin. A brown color appears even in a small amount washing over our swim platform when we are underway. This causes the reflections to appear darker and more brown.


No, it’s not upside down. Further on up the Pasquotank.


Pasquotank yet further, just before Turners Cut. We debated if it was prettier than the canal.


Turners Cut. A straight shot for 4 miles. It’s still early in the morning, so there is mist in the distance.

We got to the lock just a few minutes early. With little current and wind, it was easy to stay put until the lock opened. No other boats entered with us and we met only three other boats coming the other way the entire time, and that was in the last part of the canal. No other boats and no wind in that narrow waterway made the water surface like glass all day both before and during the canal transit. We have never seen anything like this before except sometimes in the very early morning, and never before in full daylight.

I called the lock master just to check that everything was going according to schedule and it was. The same man gets incoming boats through the lock and then drives over to the drawbridge a few thousand feet beyond and opens that up first for incoming and then for any waiting outgoing boats. We were the only incoming at 8:30 and there were no outgoing on the other side. Once through the lock we idled slowly toward the bridge and in a few minutes the alarms sounded and it went up. In this video, notice the brown tannin in the water as it comes through the lock gate. Later notice the draw bridge in the distance that has not yet raised.

The top picture shows how it was as we cruised through the 22 miles of canal at 5 1/2 knots. More than 10 times we heard and felt a thump, some quite loud and jarring, others less so. The 2nd lock master said they had made a mistake when letting out excess water from recent rains and let the level fall 6 inches too much. There were some sunken trees and limbs in various spots. These are mostly horizontal so our keel, which is lower than the props on either side, must hit them and force them down, or us up, so the props don’t hit. At least the props still seem OK.

Once beyond the lock and bridge we had 22 miles to the exit bridge and lock. Most was pretty remote. There was a road on our right behind some trees along some of the route, and we could see a bicycle trail on right sometimes. The canal is near the east edge of the swamp. Most of the trip was just a slow easy glide on a surface of glass.


Draw bridge, back view & the  visitor center float/drawbridge

We went slow to enjoy the trip and to hit things less hard, and we arrived at the 2nd lock and bridge between their opening times. There is a seawall to the right just before the drawbridge with room for one boat to tie to. Being the only boat around we tied up and waited about an hour while we had lunch. The lock master had been off somewhere when we arrived but later called on the radio and said he’d give us a few minutes heads up so we could start our engines and get ready. He did this, opened the bridge for us and then went on ahead as we eased on into an already filled (we were locking down) lock.


State line, view from Deep Creek bridge, entering Deep Creek lock.

On this day being a lock master was a lonely job, so after tying up he answered all questions we had, including about the thumps our boat had taken. He said it was unlikely our type of boat would have any damage from the canal. None of us were in a hurry. We talked for nearly half an hour.

Paul thought that the Dismal Swamp was a wonderful way to go, but with all the stuff we hit it is something that only needs to be seen once. When we go back south soon we will take the alternate route since it is also worth seeing. It is part of what, along with the Dismal Swamp route, is called the “North Carolina Loop”. My opinion is that we will take the Dismal route again in the future. There is nothing quite like it.





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