Head and body above water, the cottonmouth left a sinuous wake as it departed the beaver lodge and swam up the marsh. It was the first of two snakes we’d see on this short introduction to the largest National Wildlife Refuge in the Northeast, the Great Dismal Swamp NWR.
It’s a name you’d imagine on Colonial maps, embellished with sketches of most frightening monsters. But to the colonists of Virginia, it was dismal because they couldn’t make use of it. Mounds of blackberry bushes and ferns top small islands in the tannic water. Thickets of bald cypress and cedar proved impassible, and even when cleared, the acidic soil proved worthless for farming.
So they did what humans have done over the centuries: they subdued it. First came the ditches to build narrow-gauge railways to remove the massive cypress and cedar. Slave labor was used to dig the canals. First among those taming the land: a surveyor named George Washington.
Today, you can walk along the levee adjoining the Washington Ditch for a dry-footed immersion in the swamp, a 9-mile round trip to Lake Drummond.
Lake Drummond is an anomaly among lakes. It is lined by cypress and tupelo, and sand-bottomed: something you won’t see elsewhere in the Northeast. It’s one of only two natural lakes in Virginia. And according to our guide, Penny from Nature’s Calling in Virginia, it came by its name in an interesting way.
“Governor Drummond of North Carolina went hunting, and he got lost. He found this lake and claimed to be the first to discover it,” she said. Of course, many tribes had already camped along the shores of Lake Drummond, and the Governor had strayed across the border of his colony, looking to expand upon his lands. “The Governor of Virginia had Governor Drummond hanged,” said Penny.
It’s said the Dismal Swamp is haunted. Escaping slaves found freedom here by hiding on the pine islands, much like the Seminole on the tree islands of the Everglades. These were small dry spots above a realm of mosquitoes and chiggers, up to a couple acres in size, a place to throw a shack up and vanish. Outlaws came here to disappear. A good-natured logger never came back from his workday. “Other lost loggers said he walked them out of the swamp to safety,” said Penny.
While it once covered a million acres of the Colonies, the Great Dismal Swamp NWR, founded in 1974, protects 112,000 acres. Abundant wildlife – including more than 400 black bears – and botanical wonders that include a 900-year-old bald cypress can be found along its trails, which extend off the one-lane gravel roads providing access. Peak wildflower blooms are in spring and fall. Admission is free.