Thursday, August 5, 2010

Great Dismal Swamp

This took a little longer than I thought...

I said I'd soon get back to that long ride in the swamp down in VA but as usual, life in general kind of caught up with me and the keyboard got sidelined. Here then without further delay, is the adventure in the muggy flatland...

I heard about this place from one of the locals and thought it sounded interesting so a little web research led me down the road and right to the gate.

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

I didn't really know what to expect but their website promised miles of trails and lots of interesting scenery so I loaded the 4500 dirt bike, packed extra Gatorades and headed out. The day I picked for my explorations was unfortunately one of the hottest of the week with heat indexes of around 106 degrees with the humidity hanging at the top of the scale. Not exactly the best weather to explore a low-lying swamp but you work with what you have.

The first thing I discovered was a serious miscalculation on my part on the scale of the place. It's much bigger than it looks on the map so even the parking areas turned out to be a couple of miles off the main drag down some decrepit looking dirt roads. The next revelation was that the whole area appeared to be totally deserted. Mid-week afternoons don't seem to be a big draw.

I offloaded in an empty parking lot and set off down a trail along a 'ditch'. All the trails follow these things which are just as described...stagnant, bug and snake filled swales that run straight and true right out of sight.

The first one I followed was dug in the time of Washington (that's George...of 1776 fame) by hand with slave labor. The idea of chewing a four-and-a-half mile ditch with pick and shovel for any reason in these kinds of conditions is mind boggling in itself. I guess it must have seemed like the thing to do at the time. Each one is bounded by a slightly raised, relatively clear path that you can ride right to the horizon. These things are way too straight and flat for a guy used to trails that go out of sight around the next curve in about 10 yards. Took some getting accustomed to.

As advertised, Washington Ditch led to a large puddle called Lake Drummond. Again, it was absolutely deserted. Nothing stirred anywhere except the local critters and the (swarming, voracious, bloodthirsty) bugs. Stopping meant swatting but I parked on the small observation deck for a breather, a look around and a couple of pictures.

That marker I leaned the bike on had an excerpt from a poem that caught my eye. I quick search when I got home found the rest of the text. It seemed appropriate for the place...

The Lake of the Dismal Swamp

"They made her a grave too cold and damp
For a soul so warm and true;
And she's gone to the Lake of the Dismal Swamp,
Where all night long, by a firefly lamp,
She paddles her white canoe.

And her firefly lamp I soon shall see,
And her paddle I soon shall hear;
Long and moving our life shall be
And I'll hide the maid in a cypress tree,
When the footstep of death is near."

Away to the Dismal Swamp he speeds,
His path was rugged and sore,
Through tangled juniper, beds of reeds,
Through many a fen where the serpent feeds,
And man never trod before.

And when on the earth he sank to sleep,
If slumber his eyelids knew,
He lay where the deadly vine doth weep
Its venemous tear, and nightly steep
The flesh with blistering dew!

And near him the she-wolf stirr'd the brake,
And the copper-snake breathed in his ear,
Till he starting cried, from his dream awake,
"Oh when shall I see the dusky Lake,
And the white canoe of my dear?"

He saw the Lake, and a meteor bright
Quick over its surface play'd,
"Welcome," he said, "my dear one's light!"
And the dim shore echo'd for many a night
The name of the death-cold maid.

Till he hollow'd a boat of the birchen bark,
Which carried him off from the shore;
Far, far he follow'd the meteor spark,
The wind was high and the clouds were dark,
And the boat return'd no more.

But oft, from the Indian hunter's camp,
This lover and maid so true
Are seen at the hour of midnight damp
To cross the Lake by a firefly lamp,
And paddle their white canoe!

Thomas Moore
Norfolk, Virginia

I believe I could picture that white canoe out there under the moonlight. But the idea of being here in this swamp at night gives me the willies just thinking about it. Dismal is certainly the right word in the daylight...nighttime must be perfectly awful.
Leaving the lake suitably melancholy, I had to ride back the same way to hook onto the other trails so after a rerun of the ditch, I found myself at the parking lot again. Still not another soul around so I gave serious thought to giving up for the day and heading back to the beach. Not one to waste a drive by only riding 9 miles, I decided to venture back out and see what I could see.
Other named 'ditches' led further into the swamp and a check of the map had me eyeballing a route on Lynn, Williamson, East, Camp and Middle to make a loop out of it. Lynn was the now-familiar laser-straight line out of sight but the surface was hard sand and the grass was cut so I got into the big rings and flew. A little warning bell was going off in the back of my head about how far I had gone but the going was easy and miles ate up fast. I passed through another empty parking area and navigated to Williamson Ditch; also curveless and endless to the horizon. That nagging little bell got some louder as the trail turned rougher and the grass a bit deeper by the time I hit the East Ditch. I was down to a single Gatorade and the temperature was peaking at mid-afternoon. I was at the furthest point from my vehicle and had to decide to turn back or push on to finish the loop. Six of one...half a dozen of the other. So it seemed.
East, Camp and Middle turned out to be a nightmare. East Ditch had not been mowed in a very long time and the grass was deep enough to hide tree limbs and potholes. I could just barely find the single track and had visions of getting lost in here if I missed the turn onto Camp Ditch. My progress slowed immensely. Occasional rest stops were cut short by airborne assault waves of blood drinking insect life coupled with an intense temperature increase once I stopped generating my own breeze. That little bell was now really loud as I realized my core temperature was getting dangerously high and my liquid supply dangerously low. The van seemed very far away. Having had heat stroke once before and finding it very much not to my liking, I started pacing as much as I could but the tall grass and ever-rougher terrain had me down in the gears and struggling. Camp Ditch was a bright blur of ruts, clinging grass and thoughts of 911. I recognized the signs of being in over my more sweat, a blinding headache and empty water frames. I wondered if they'd find me before the bugs drained every drop of blood if I passed out. Why won't this ditch ever end? The thought of cooling off in the stagnant water was less than appealing since I had no idea what might live in it but I resolved to try even that if the world got to spinning any more than it already was. Episodes of SurvivorMan and mirages of Bear Grylls living on slugs passed through my head. We're having some real fun now!
I remember seeing clouds of butterflies in the wet ruts, large birds flying along beside me and hearing assorted invisible things thrashing in the brush but all that may or may not have been just exhaustion talking. I'll never know how much of that actually happened but eventually, a tee in the trail shimmered out of the west and a very real left turn materialized ahead marking my return to Lynn Ditch and the end of the worst. The heading change to due south got the sun out of my eyes and put me on good surface again for the run back to point 'A'. There was shade and a natural breeze along Lynn so my body temp started down and some of the flashing lights dissipated from my peripheral vision. We win again.
Just as the parking lot finally came in sight, I finally met the only other people I'd seen since I left the van that morning. Two women in hiking gear surrounded by a cloud of bug repellent were walking into the first trail I'd started out on hours ago. They flagged me down and wanted to know what I'd seen and where I'd been. I think I was almost coherent enough to answer but I was mostly grateful to be inside their DEET force field and free of insect attack for a minute. We chatted for a bit but I think they were a little taken aback by the dirty and bedraggled looking idiot raving in front of them. I was just happy to be out of there. They went on their way with a shrug and I limped back to the van and collapsed in the driver's seat with the A/C on full blast.
All in all it was lessons learned and in retrospect, nowhere near as bad as it seemed when things were at their worst. I'm glad I went but I do have a new sticky-note stuck inside my time, don't do anything involving "swamp" by myself and always, always take a closer look at that little mileage scale in the bottom corner of the map.

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