In Praise Of The Great Dismal Swamp, VA to NC AICW Alternate Route
The Great Dismal Swamp Canal route southbound departs the AICW south of Norfolk at Statute Mile 7.2 and begins officially at Deep Creek Lock at Mile 10.6. The Visitors Center is at approximately Mile 28. Elizabeth City is south of South Mills Lock at Statute Mile 50.7 and is A SALTY SOUTHEAST CRUISERS’ NET SPONSOR!
Cruising between Norfolk, VA, and the Alligator River, NC, Captains must face the decision whether to go the Great Dismal route or the Virginia Cut route. I’d pick the Great Dismal every time.
First of all boaters traveling south will meet very possibly the worlds friendliest lockkeeper Robert ‘“ who is also an expert on the local history and fauna of the swamp. You can stay overnight in his Deep Creek Lock approach at the Elizabeth Dock ‘“ right next to a charming park and within walking distance of a grocery store.
Then you have the North Carolina Visitors Center with a museum all about the Swamp and a huge selection of free maps and brochures with spotlessly clean restrooms and friendly staff.
South Mills Lock, 23 miles south, will also get you in and out inside a half hour at the scheduled opening times ‘“ and in their approach you can dock for a while and buy the best southern fried chicken I’ve ever tasted. Always a bit of an adventure going through a lock’¦’¦..
Lambs Marina also (at the southern end of the swamp) offers a large selection of services, the only fuel stop between the Alligator River and Portsmouth and the lowest slip rates on the entire ICW. (see their web site at www.lambsmarinanc.com ) Transients are welcome!
And finally you have Elizabeth City with a great tradition of welcoming visiting boaters via the `Rose Buddies’, the substantial Albemarle Museum and free pickup service by a local grocery store.
Contrary to scuttlebutt often heard, the Great Dismal Swamp Route is not `shallow in places’ . Mid channel is a carefully maintained minimum 7 ft and often much deeper. There are said to be cypress logs floating everywhere ‘“ I have yet to see one. The Corps of Engineers do an excellent job of dredging all year round. They also by the way trim overhanging tree branches ‘“ so you have no danger of your mast being damaged providing you stay in the channel.
By contrast, the Virginia Cut Route is said to be faster and safer ‘“ that must have been written by the big sportsfishers barreling along at 15 knots in front of their 6ft wakes! Or the huge barges frequently seen who cannot stop even if you are dead in front of them. More or less once a week I hear of some boat aground south of Coinjock calling for towing assistance. None of these things happen frequently on the Great Dismal.
The Swamp route itself is somewhat spooky in a pleasant way. Full of history starting in the days of George Washington when a ditch was manually cut by slaves in an attempt to get lumber to the northern cities of Chesapeake Bay. As you travel through you get a sense of prehistoric times with many kinds of animals to be seen in their natural surroundings ‘“ maybe if you’re lucky, one the substantial number of black bears on the prowl. I think of Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in the African Queen.
Two great mooring spots to note. First at the top end, just north east of the Deep Creek Lock, what locals call the `Hole in the Wall’ – 12 ft water inside, 6 ft at the entrance. And don’t miss mooring behind Goat Island just south of the South Mills Lock. Be sure to check out the wood dock and boardwalk which goes all over the island.
By contrast the Virginia Cut is ‘“ well let’s face it fellow Captains – Boooooring’¦’¦..
So I raise a toast to the Great Dismal Swamp Canal ‘“ May it never close.
You should try it sometime. You’re always welcome.
Captain Parky, MV ‘˜Pisces’
I find the Dismal Swamp Route more enjoyable. Elizabeth City is one of the gems of hospitality with its free town dock, “wine” and “cheese” parties, and waterfront events. The upper Pasquotank River is simply beautiful (kind of like the Waccamaw), and the canal is gorgeous. If you have time, tie up for the night at the welcome center, or dinghy up to Lake Drummond. Whichever way you go, have fun…they’re both nice routes.
Depending on your preference, either route is worth the trip. The Dismal Swamp is beautiful and much more peaceful and remote. The stop at Elizabeth City is wonderful. Traveling through the DS Canal means slow going and you have two locks to time for your transit. The Welcome Center is always everyone’s favorite stops. It will take a bit longer than the traditional ICW route if you are in a hurry, which I hope you’re not. There have been occasional issues with debris in the Dismal Swamp Canal so go slow and pay attention, and of course your draft will matter. On the other
hand, we often like to stop in Great Bridge and take advantage of the free tie up and the short walk to restaurants and shopping if taking the ICW route. Have a great trip.
We’ve done both and if your draft will let you, take the dismal swamp route at least once. It’s awesome. Especially the part of the river leading up to it from Elizabeth City. Take care to time your arrival at the south lock as
they won’t let you in to wait. Stop at the visitors center. Take your time. Spend the night. Check with the lockmaster at the north lock to determine what time he’ll open the bridge if you want to tie up on the long dock.
Take a look at the distance if you plan to do it in one day. That will mean skipping the visitors center and traveling around 6 to 7 mph (5 -6 knots).
But, if you’re a full displacement boat, at 6 – 7 mph you’ll start to lift stuff off the bottom (old logs) that could hit your props or rudder (depending on how they are protected) and definitely throw up obstacles for the boats following. You’ll also suck a lot of water away from the banks at this speed which will exacerbate erosion.
If you go the Coinjock route, make sure you get your order in for the Prime Rib early. The 32 oz is ridiculously large.
Bob & Kemba DeGroot
We appreciate all of the kind words and raves. Of course, we are in favor of everyone whose draft will allow, visiting the Great Dismal Swamp Canal. It truly is one of the `last Wild Places, and a step back in time. Come enjoy the view.
Donna Stewart, Director, Great Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center