We left early in the chilly morning with Marjorie at the wheel, motoring down the arrow-straight aisle of water through the vivid autumn forest, leaving a soiled brown and beige wake behind us. The water was the colour of Cape Breton tea.
The first attraction of The Great Dismal Swamp Canal is its name. You think, That can’t be real — but it is. The swamp was named in 1728 by Colonel William Byrd II, a founder of a distinguished family. A ribald, acquisitive, and opinionated character, the early Byrd wrote lively diaries. He “rogered” his wife regularly, he reports, and once gave her “a flourish” upon his billiard table. He also left a lively account of his experience leading the survey commission that established the first Virginia—North Carolina boundary line. It ran right through the swamp, which Byrd described as “a vast body of dirt and nastiness.”
Because the swamp almost prevented travel between Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Albemarle Sound in North Carolina, Byrd suggested a canal. In 1764, six investors formed a company to buy forty thousand acres of the swamp, log its hulking cypress and juniper trees, build a canal, drain the swamp, and sell the land for farming. One of the six was a surveyor, who laid down the canal’s route. His name was George Washington.
Washington sold his shares in 1796 to “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, the father of General Robert E. Lee, who never paid him. The canal slowly advanced, dug initially by slaves. It opened in 1805. Though it has been enlarged several times since, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers still only guarantees six feet of water.
The greatest attraction of the canal is the Great Dismal Swamp itself. Such marshes once occupied 30 million acres of the southeastern United States, and even in its modern, shrunken state, this vast ecological nursery still covers 300,000 acres, including a 110,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge. It is home to black bears, white-tailed deer, bobcat, otter, and more than two hundred species of birds. It is one of the few places on this continent where peat is being formed.
Interestingly enough, the swamp is about twenty feet above sea level. Hence the lock at Deep Creek, which lifted Magnus
nine feet when she entered the canal. And although the amber water looks dirty, it is actually super-pure. It’s freshwater, coloured and chemically purified by tannic acids from the juniper, gum, and cypress trees. Bacteria can’t grow in it, so it stays palatable long after most freshwater has gone skunky — a quality that made “juniper water” from the Dismal Swamp invaluable to the skippers of early sailing vessels.
U.S. Highway 17 runs exactly parallel to the canal, though the dense ferns, trees, and underbrush usually hide the motorists from the cruisers. Halfway along the route is the North Carolina border. A couple of hotels at this shadowy, ambiguous border crossing — deep in the swamp, far from towns and officials — once did a thriving business by catering to duellists, fugitives, and couples in need of quick, unscrutinized marriages. Their location at the state line made for an easy getaway from irate parents, bailiffs, or creditors. One hotelier even advertised the speed of his marriages. “In half an hour after their arrival,” he wrote, “‘the blushing bride salutes her wedded lord.’” A local newspaper, reporting on one swamp wedding, blandly noted that, “The fortunate groom was just nineteen, and the fair bride was just forty-five.”
Today, the North Carolina Welcome Center serves both motorists and boaters as they cross the border, providing parking space off the highway and free dockage on the canal. Three or four boats were already tied up there, and Marjorie steered Magnus
onward without stopping. It was a day fit for a magic realist — the black-green trees, the gold and russet leaves, the hard sky capping the long slot of waterway like a cold blue roof.
The ghosts around us, rising like vapours from the still water, included innumerable runaway slaves, for whom the swamp was a natural sanctuary. In the nineteenth century, the swamp sustained an entire fugitive economy based on hunting, lumbering, and shingle-making. Both Thomas Moore and Longfellow wrote poems set in the swamp, and the legendary Nat Turner, leader of the most important slave revolt in U.S. history, is thought to have hidden out here.
churned down this vibrant aqueous highway for twenty-three miles, past ancient rotting pilings with small trees and vivid bushes growing from their tops, past the conical roots of dead cypress trees, past towers of vine climbing the trunks of gum trees and junipers. The leaves were past their peak, but still flared scarlet and gold in the bright, chilly sunlight. Five herons flew ahead of us, rising and taking wing whenever we caught up with them. A small flock of Canada geese crossed the slit of open sky above. The geometric V of our wake lapped the banks of the canal behind us, while the narrow strip of unruffled water stretched out ahead, straight as a highway. It felt like a time out of time.
The little ketch reached the end of the canal at the South Mills lock. In 1862, the Confederacy’s Third Georgia Regiment repelled a Union force charged with cutting rebel supply lines by blowing up this lock. After the North captured Norfolk, Confederate soldiers hid in the swamp, making guerrilla raids on Union vessels and forces.
Today, the lock was under the control of two beagles and an engaging woman who operates both the lock and the adjoining road bridge. (“I s’pose they’re rabbit haounds,” she said, “but th’ only thing they hunt’s biscuits.”) While we slowly dropped down to the level of the Pasquotank River, she regaled us with stories about her pet raccoon, rescued as an infant from a burning stump.
The Pasquotank begins as a narrow, twisting stream, slowly widening as it approaches Albemarle Sound — a backwoods river with only a few fishing camps on its banks. After a quick twist through a railway swing bridge, it delivered us into the declining metropolis of Elizabeth City, population seventeen thousand — the capital city, in effect, of the Dismal Swamp and its canal. Lumbering in the swamp is all but over, alas, and the canal itself has been largely supplanted by the newer route through Coinjock and Currituck Sound. It is an open secret that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would love to close it, a notion that makes Elizabeth City apoplectic.
So Elizabeth City eagerly attracts traffic into the canal, rejuvenating its downtown and providing free overnight dockage for transient boaters. Every afternoon, a golf cart appears at the little park by the transient docks, driven by Fred Fearing, now over ninety years of age, who greets the crews and presents roses to the ladies. If more than a couple of boats are tied up, he invites all the crews to his nearby home for tea and hors d’oeuvres. In the past, Fearing was part of a whole group of retirees known as “The Rose Buddies,” but the others have all died, and he now carries on the tradition alone.
I wanted to meet Fearing, but the town berths lie between pilings — a style of berth new to me but much favoured in the South — and a stiff breeze was blowing across them. A block away was a large city park with a seawall. We knew how to dock Magnus
along a seawall, and we did. Alas, we never met Fred Fearing.
But we were certainly in the snowbird migration. At six-thirty the next morning — the first good day after several days of strong northerly wind — a stream of seven boats pulled out, heading south.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Sailing Away from Winter by Silver Donald Cameron. Copyright © 2006 by Silver Donald Cameron. Excerpted by permission of Douglas Gibson Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.