SUFFOLK, Va. — The Great Dismal Swamp is at its best in early morning before the wind rises and the mosquitoes stir.
It's so quiet that the slightest sound--a sudden shower of dead leaves fluttering to the ground, the whirring call of an owl, the faint gurgle of water from Washington's Ditch--makes you snap to attention.
You keep an eye out for snakes, but you don't have to worry. They won't be on the road until evening, and if you're tramping through the swamp you will make enough noise to frighten them away.
Walk 3 1/2 miles from the gate that guards the refuge from unauthorized vehicles and find its heart, Lake Drummond, an irregular circle of still, silent, mahogany-colored water. Seven streams flow from this shallow lake, which is rimmed with trees.
A duck glides a few feet above the lake's surface, then splashes in, feet first, setting off ripples that break the stillness. There it rests, its long neck extended, its head swiveling to survey its domain.
As you explore the Great Dismal Swamp, you quickly realize that the duck is more at home here than you could ever be.
The Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge covers 106,000 acres in Suffolk and Chesapeake counties here in Virginia and in Gates, Camden and Pasquotank counties in North Carolina.
More Peat Bog
Since 1974 it has been under the control of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Part of the swamp in North Carolina is a state park.
Great Dismal is more a peat bog than a swamp, not nearly as watery. It has roads, trails and waterways, so you don't have to slog through stagnant water and muck to explore it. But most of its land is heavily forested and its soggy ground is home to snakes, ticks, yellow flies and bears.
William Drummond, the Colonial governor of North Carolina from 1663 to 1667 and the discoverer of the lake that bears his name, went into the swamp with a hunting party. He was the only one who emerged alive. No one knows what happened to the other men.
Col. William Byrd II, who helped survey the swamp in 1728, found it a nasty place. He often gets the credit for dubbing it "Dismal," but records have shown that the name was used at least a year or two before Byrd went into the swamp. Others say Dismal came from the Indian name for the swamp.
If you had visited the area during the Ice Age, you would have found ocean-front property. If you dig in the swamp you might uncover a seashell. And if you submerge yourself in the shallow waters of Lake Drummond you will find white beach sand on the bottom.
The swamp isn't on low ground, it's on a slope. And Lake Drummond isn't at the swamp's lowest point but at one of its highest. And most of the streams that cross the swamp flow out of it, not into it.
It's a Mystery
It's a mystery, but then the swamp is a mysterious place, home to eerie legends and tall tales. Take the story of the phoenix, the firebird that Indians believed once inhabited the swamp.
The basin that is Lake Drummond was formed, so goes the legend, when a baby phoenix fell from its nest and set the land on fire.
Here the earth burns. Peat covers the swamp at depths ranging from a few inches to 20 feet. It began forming thousands of years ago, and its presence makes the swamp vulnerable to fire.
In 1923 the swamp caught fire and burned for three years. In 1974 a peat fire destroyed several hundred acres of swamp. Another year, five peat fires burned at once. Lightning can set the earth afire.
To protect the swamp against fire and drought, the Fish and Wildlife Service has installed water controls that enable the staff to hold water back from portions of the swamp and to flood other sections. But man didn't always have such a protective attitude toward the swamp.
George Washington, who visited the swamp in 1763 and found it "a glorious paradise," nevertheless wanted to drain it and dig a canal through it to connect Chesapeake Bay and Albermarle Sound.
He formed two companies--Dismal Swamp Land Co. and Adventurers for Draining the Great Dismal Swamp.
His first achievement was Washington's Ditch, a five-mile canal stretching from the edge of the swamp to Lake Drummond. It is believed to be the oldest man-made waterway in North America.
Washington was a better politician than surveyor. Those digging the ditch had to make a 90-degree turn near its end, or they would have missed the lake. Washington failed as a swamp farmer, finding that peat wasn't suitable for growing cotton and rice.
The interstate canal Washington had talked about was eventually dug and opened in 1805, six years after Washington's death.
Much of the swampland eventually came under the control of Camp Manufacturing Co., a predecessor of Union Camp Corp.
Union Camp donated the land, valued at about $12 million, to the U.S. Department of the Interior through the Nature Conservancy in 1973. It was at that time the largest single land donation made to the government for wildlife refuge.