Paddling the Great Dismal Swamp

by Bill & Mary Burnham

Paddling the Dismal Swamp

Paddle under towering bald cypress hung with Spanish moss, to the interior of the vast Great Dismal Swamp. Escaped slaves sought harbor in this dense environment, and George Washington built ditches in an attempt to drain the swamp and harvest the timber.

Today it's protected by the 111,000-acre Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge surrounding Lake Drummond, one of only two natural lakes in all of Virginia. The perfectly round, bowl-shaped lake is a mystery in itself. Many believe it was formed by an ancient meteor hitting the earth.

Dismal Swamp Canal

There is only one gravel road in to the lake, but water access is the best way to see Lake Drummond. The put-in on the Dismal Swamp Canal on Route 17 in Chesapeake places paddlers on the Intracoastal Waterway for a short stretch, before turning right onto the Feeder Ditch.

This straight-as-an-arrow canal stretches on for three miles, and is more picturesque than its name implies. Before reaching the lake, there is a take-out to circumvent a small dam. There are restrooms and a picnic area here.

After a short portage, the lake is just a few minutes' paddle up the canal.

Snow Geese on Lake Drummond

Your reward is a vast waterscape interrupted only by twisted and ghostly trunks of bald cypress. Sticking to the shoreline will reduce wind issues and permit glimpses into the impenetrable swamp forest that surrounds the lake. If you go in winter, you might be lucky to see the thousands of snow geese and tundra swan that migrate here.

Keep a visual for the entrance back into the canal. Once out on the lake, it's difficult to see the small buoy that marks this spot. A compass is advisable, as well as bug spray in summer months.