The Great Dismal Swamp Canal And Welcome Center
by Captains Chuck Baier and Susan Landry
When we tell other boaters that we plan to travel the Great Dismal Swamp Canal, many respond that they would love to do it but are afraid to try. I already know the answer but I still have to ask, why? The answer is always the same. They are afraid that they will hit a log and damage the keel of the boat or their props or rudders. The canal has a reputation for debris floating in the water and, especially, lurking under the surface. The question then becomes, is that reputation and fear justified? The answer isn’t that simple; its yes and no. Is that fear and reputation enough to avoid a wonderful experience. It wasn’t for us. After several trips up and down this stretch of the AICW, we vowed that this time we would do the Dismal Swamp, no matter what.
Entering South Mills Lock
Heading northbound, a small detour to Elizabeth City is required, the perfect place to prepare for the canal transit. As we pulled off the town dock in Elizabeth City, it was necessary to time the trip from the drawbridge to the first lock at South Mills. There are two locks that need to be negotiated, each with their own drawbridge. The normal lock schedules for both locks are at 8:30, 11:00, 1:30 and 3:30 seven days a week. If you’re northbound, the schedule will be about 30 minutes later at Deep Creek Lock, southbound about 30 minutes later at South Mills. The distance from the bridge at Elizabeth City to the South Mills Lock is about 18 miles. We cleared the bridge at 8:30 AM and adjusted our speed to make our arrival just before the 11:00 AM lock through. Taking the trip along the Pasquotank River in the early morning reminded us of the Waccamaw River, one of our favorites. This isn’t an area you want to hurry through, rather it should be enjoyed at a slow pace. If you’re in a hurry, take the standard Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal route.
Arriving at the South Mills lock about ten minutes ahead of schedule, there were two other boats already waiting. One was a trawler we had met at the town docks in Elizabeth City. The lock opened promptly at 11:00, and we slowly pulled into the lock as the Lockmaster picked up a bow and stern line from each boat so we could tie to the wall. Northbound boats are raised about 8 feet, depending on water levels on the river and in the canal. The controlling depth for the canal is 6 feet, but can vary depending on rainfall, or lack of rainfall, and other environmental factors. We found the shallowest water to be 6.8 feet and the average depths to be 8 feet. There have been some years in droughts when the canal was closed and years when storms have closed the canal. The lock transit went smoothly and took about 20 minutes. As the gates opened for us to exit the lock, the Lockmaster had to drive quickly up to the drawbridge to open it for the boats. There is a free tie up at the seawall just before the drawbridge at South Mills if you want to stop for groceries or a bite to eat.
Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center Dock
The entire canal is a no-wake zone with a maximum speed limit of 6 miles per hour. Traveling along the canal is almost a surreal experience. The channel is very narrow with overhanging trees, and water the color of a good cup of coffee, minus the cream. There are possibilities of hitting flotsam in the canal, but keeping a sharp eye forward, staying in the center of the channel and going slowly minimizes that possibility. Staying in the center of the canal also keeps the boat away from stumps, logs and fallen trees along the banks. Be watchful of critters swimming across the canal. We found several places where trees had fallen into the canal and blocked sections out to the center. These were all easy to see and avoid. Boat wakes often increase the problem by dislodging logs and branches that would normally be secure along the banks. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does an excellent job of clearing debris from the canal. They encourage boaters to report any problems to the Corps, the Lockmasters or the folks at the Welcome Center. Be sure and give exact locations with your report as they relate to the mile marker posts along the canal. They will promptly send a small boat to try and correct the problem immediately and if the job is too large, a barge is sent down the canal with equipment to handle just about anything.
The Great Dismal Swamp Welcome Center is at about mile 28. If coming from the south, the first thing you see is a pedestrian bridge across the canal that seems to be blocking your path. This bridge was built to get folks from the highway, across the canal, to the state park on the other side. The Park Rangers are always watchful of boats approaching and almost always have the bridge open well before you arrive. If they happen to be busy and don’t see you coming, a short toot of the horn will get their attention and the bridge will quickly open. Once immediately north of the pedestrian bridge on the east side of the canal, is the Welcome Center and a free face dock long enough to tie up 4 or 5 boats, depending on size. Depths alongside the docks when we were there were 5.5 feet with a soft mud bottom. When docking, be sure and keep the space between your boat and the next as close as possible to make room for others. During the busy transient season, you will be expected to raft up with others. The dock can be busy and crowded in season. When we visited in July, we were one of two boats at the dock.
Deep Creek Lock
The Visitor and Welcome Center is both a rest stop for the busy highway and for the Canal. The staff at the Welcome Center has earned a reputation for being friendly and extremely helpful to boaters over the years. The Welcome Center provides 24 hour restrooms, free Wi-Fi, free loaner bikes to ride the bike trails and if boats are delayed in transit for whatever reason, they have provided transportation to South Mills for groceries if needed. There is also a water bib at the north end of the dock. The State of North Carolina has put a sign on the faucet that says “non-potable water,” but this is the same water that is piped into the restrooms and water fountains at the center. We put it in our tanks and found no problem. It is the same water provided to the residents of South Mills. There is also a lounge in the air-conditioned Welcome Center with a TV, book exchange, and a desktop computer connected to a printer if needed. Internet access is available at the lounge computer for those that don’t use one on their boat. On the park-like grounds there are many shaded areas with picnic tables and outdoor grills. The staff at the Welcome Center can often provide charcoal.
Across the pedestrian bridge is the State Park, where you will find extensive hiking trails, bike rentals, and canoe and kayak rentals to paddle the canal. If you explore the hiking trails, be sure and use a good insecticide. During certain times of the year, the biting yellow flies can be brutal (June/July), and of course, there is the always present mosquito. Another concern for hikers is ticks, and precautions need to be taken. It’s best to wear light, long sleeve shirts, hats and long pants. Check often for the little critters while on the trails. This is a wildlife sanctuary and the state does not allow for pesticide spraying at any time. When you cross the pedestrian bridge, be sure and register with the Park Ranger before going on the trails in case you get lost or have a problem, they will know to come and look for you. The State Park has its own Welcome Center where their bikes can be rented and a fabulous exhibit on the history of the area and the canal. There is also a nice display of animals native to the swamp that have been mounted by a good taxidermist. You feel like your eye ball to eye ball with the real animals.
Semi-floating Logs in Dismal Swamp Canal
There is no set limit on your stay but there is no long-term docking. Once you have enjoyed all the Welcome Center has to offer, it will be time to continue on. We headed north and one stop often overlooked is the tie up and dinghy ride over to Lake Drummond. Lake Drummond is the largest lake in Virginia and has a major affect on the water levels in the Dismal Swamp Canal. About 7 miles north of the Welcome Center there is a small dock to which you can tie your large boat. To the west is Drummond Feeder Ditch Canal that will take you to a spot where you will find a small trolley to put your dinghy on and haul it a short distance overland to Lake Drummond. The lake is large and flat and the shoreline all looks the same. It is best to take a handheld GPS with you to find you way back to your starting point when your day of exploration is over. It might also be helpful to tie a bright ribbon to a high tree branch near where you enter the lake. If the wind is up, the lake can be uncomfortable, so be aware of the weather. It can be very calm in the canal and very windy on the lake. Continuing northbound, you will come to the drawbridge at the Deep Creek Lock. You will need to call the Lockmaster and wait for him to drive down from the lock. If he is locking boats southbound, you will have to wait a bit longer. (There is also a seawall there on the east side before the bridge to which you can tie directly across from a grocery store.) Once the bridge is open and then closed again, he will then have to drive back to the Lock and open the gates for you to enter. There is a free dock on the west side between the drawbridge and the lock called Elizabeth’s Dock. It has about 8 feet of water alongside and is about a half-mile walk to the town of Deep Creek. In Deep Creek you will find groceries, marine and auto parts, a hardware store and a few restaurants. If you’re proceeding into the lock, have large fenders out for the lock walls and long lines at the bow and stern to pass up to the Lockmaster.
Robert Peek - Deep Creek Lockmaster
Robert Peek is the Lockmaster and he will keep you thoroughly entertained through the entire locking process. Robert can tell you anything you want to know about the history of the canal and the current conditions. If you don’t ask, he’s going to tell you anyway. Don’t be surprised to have Robert offer a fresh cup of coffee to anyone on board. If you have been to the Bahamas, Robert is always looking for replacement conch shells for his conch blowing lessons. You will get a lesson and demonstration whether you want it or not, and why wouldn’t you want it? We found Robert to be a pleasant surprise and he makes transiting a lock a truly enjoyable experience. The locking process can take 20 to 30 minutes, but sometimes Robert gets really involved, so be prepared to take a little longer. It will be worth it. The Deep Creek Lock dropped us down 8 feet, and as the gates opened for us to exit, we got a big, “see you next time” from Robert.
The Dismal Swamp route connects to the AICW route just south of Norfolk. If you turn left at the intersection, you can proceed to the Norfolk/Portsmouth area. But for us, we weren’t quite finished with locks for the day. We had plans to visit with friends in the Great Bridge area, so we turned right instead. We needed to transit the Steel Bridge lock, which only opens on the hour, so we topped off our fuel at Top Rack Marina. They usually have the best diesel prices on the Waterway. Once topped off with fuel and through Steel Bridge, we proceeded through the Great Bridge Lock to the free tie up on the wall between the lock and the bridge. But that’s a story for another time.
Chuck Baier and Susan Landry
Trawler Beach House
Beach House Publications
Thanks to Chuck, Susan and Claiborne for the great stories and photos about a trip through the Dismal. We enjoyed having Chuck and Susan spend a couple of days in our neck of the woods! A quick note on the lockings…..there may be a slight delay if boats are coming from both directions, because boats coming into the canal are typically locked “up” first. But, the ACOE’s locking schedule is 8:30, 11am and 1:30, 3:30pm, no matter which direction you come from. So please be there at the appointed hour so you won’t miss your locking. We love to see your boats on our waterway!
Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center