Boaters who transit the Dismal Swamp Canal, which George Washington called a "glorious paradise," experience the serenity of the pristine, untamed wilderness that once covered more than 1 million acres of southern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.
However, the canal gives just a taste of Dismal Swamp, one of North America's great wetland forests. To experience what lies within the dense stands that line the narrow waterway, tie up at the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center and walk across the pontoon swing bridge into Dismal Swamp State Park.
The park's visitors center orients you to Dismal Swamp and the changes to its flora and fauna through the centuries as man hunted, drained, logged hardwoods and dredged a canal in 1805 through its midst to connect North Carolina products to Chesapeake Bay markets. The park protects 14,000 acres of forested wetlands; the surrounding Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge protects another 111,000 acres.
Interactive exhibits depict 12,000 years of the Dismal Swamp - from prehistory and the swamp's importance to American Indians, moonshine makers and slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad to the more than 200 years of economic exploitation and today's emphasis on maintaining ecological balance. "The Web of Life" and "Denizens of the Dismal" illustrate what you may see outdoors.
A 2,000-foot boardwalk allows you to penetrate the realm of tall trees draped with densely tangled vines. Without the boardwalk you'd have hard going. "Walking in the swamp would be like slogging through chocolate pudding," says park ranger Signa Williams, head of interpretation and education.
Once you've rounded a few bends, wildflower scents fill the air and the only sounds are bird songs and possibly the scuffle of an animal - deer, raccoon, otter, fox or perhaps a black bear. "As long as wildlife remain wild and are not fed, they will not bother people," Williams says.
You can also hike or bicycle 16.7 miles of trails (each 0.5 to 5.4 miles long). Most follow drainage ditches or former logging roads. They offer varying habitats for plants and wildlife, including 43 species of butterflies. Williams suggests hikers and cyclists use plenty of insect repellant and check carefully for ticks, especially if they've been on grassy paths.
Williams encourages visitors to take the necessary precautions, then enjoy the mysterious depths of Dismal Swamp, which for the most part has defeated attempts by man to tame it.
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This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue.