The Great Swamp Swamp

Dismal (adjective) – depressing; dreary.

We’re ready.

Such a fitting description of the weather on Friday morning at 8:15, as we faced a 2 hour drive north into southeastern Virginia. Our agenda for the day was meeting author, professor and musician Bland Simpson at The Great Dismal Swamp for a few hours of kayaking and exploring, with lunch thrown in there somewhere.

But first, a little background about this place that is literally named “The Great Swamp Swamp.” It has a really interesting history, as Bland so knowledgeably explained to us. The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge used to be a habitat that covered over a million acres and became a formally protected resource when the Union Camp Corporation donated about 49,000 acres to The Nature Conservancy in 1973. A year later, that land plus more was designated a National Wildlife Refuge, which comes with perks.

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages 112,000 acres in attempts to preserve the ecosystems within the refuge. Pretty neat. I’d definitely never been to a swamp before and had unrealistic ideas of what it was supposed to look like (I was thinking along the lines of a Shrek swamp and that was not really the case).

What’s also cool about this wildlife refuge is that Lake Drummond sits in the middle of it all. It’s roughly about 2.5 miles by 2.9 miles and you can only get to it by the feeder ditch that we kayaked up. As we completed the ~2 mile paddle up the narrow canal, we got to listen to Bland recount interesting facts that he had gathered about the swamp while writing The Great Dismal. A native to Elizabeth County, NC, Bland is practically an expert on mysteries, geography and culture of eastern North Carolina. He is an author, a professor in the English Department at UNC Chapel Hill (go Heels!), a member of the NC Coastal Federation, and to top it all off, a pianist for The Red Clay Ramblers. Oh, and he performed Off-Broadway. So really, what hasn’t Bland done?

Side note: as we were paddling, I had to name drop to him. I said “Bland, I think you’re good friends with my grandmother, Margaret Maron.”

The lunch spot, with time for a little frisbee.

He said, “Oh yes, I’m very good friends with your grandmother actually. In fact, she asked me if I would introduce her at the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame induction ceremony on October 16.”

My grandmother is an author as well, most famously known for her Deborah Knott series, which are also based in North Carolina, similar to Bland’s books. So if you’re looking for something new to read, I can’t help but highly recommend her books. (And she’s getting inducted into a Hall of Fame. Like, c’mon.)

After a quick paddle up the canal, we got to a bit of land in between the ditch and Lake Drummond. Surprisingly, it looked like a park, set up with picnic tables, 2 restrooms and a ramp to take out and put in boats on either side of the land. Between the canal and the lake, there is a dam that

Great Dismal Swamp feeder ditch entrance

controls water flow and can be opened and closed based on water levels in both parts of the refuge. As we finished refueling our bodies and resting our arms, we loaded back into the kayaks, ready to make it to the lake. A little more paddling and we came to the edge of where the canal meets the lake. We gathered around Bland as he read a ballad: The Lake of the Dismal Swamp, Thomas Moore. It was kind of creepy and quite fitting for the day and where we were.

Creepy story


The weather actually couldn’t have been more perfect, on the contrary to what I said earlier. It was cloudy and there was a, dare I say “cool,” breeze the entire time we were out. Way better than scorching sun and stagnant humidity. When Bland finished reading, we had some time to check out Lake Drummond. Not quite enough time, or energy for that matter, to paddle all the way around it but I did manage to find a cool tree sticking out of the water.

The trip was a success and we all returned more knowledgeable of a new ecosystem and wildlife refuge just a couple hours away from us, along with insight into a man rooted in North Carolina and involved in the environment.

(Personally, I think this picture is a good embodiment of The Great Dismal Swamp.