South of Ocracoke, across the inlet, is Portsmouth Island and a ghost town of the same name. Though as a community it began and survived alongside Ocracoke for hundreds of years, Portsmouth’s more limited access proved it’s undoing. It was abandoned almost 40 years ago, and came under care and control of the National Park Service. There was never any electrical power on Portsmouth, though a few small generators operated when needed. Mostly the residents continued to live well into the 20th century much as they had in the 18th. Many of the houses are preserved intact, as are a church, a general store, a school, a post office, and the decommissioned life saving station once manned by the Coast Guard. Almost all are open to the public and cared for by volunteers alongside the Park Service, who only seems to provide assistance when funding is available.
The last ferry from Hatteras leaves at midnight. It’s then a forty minute ride through a deep and disturbing darkness to the northern tip of Ocracoke Island.
These are some of the most treacherous waters on the Atlantic Coast. In recent years, the Coast Guard has averaged 10 rescue missions a month in Oregon Inlet just north of here. Charts for the region don’t show channel markers; instead are displayed just warnings such as this:
“Hatteras Inlet is subject to continual change.
Entrance buoys are not charted because they are frequently shifted in position.”
On the way back, when we got to the Spillway, there was a group of Boy Scouts setting up camp for the weekend. They had arrived back at the landing just as we were pushing off, and behind us had paddled the three miles to the Canal Tender’s camp with all their gear. At the camp, one of them found a rope swing and promptly broke his leg. The Scout leaders (a couple of dads worried about what their wives would say, no doubt) had called 911, and a rescue boat and helicopter were on the way. There was no room to land the helicopter, so they were going to have to take him back to the landing by boat. As we motored down the Feeder Ditch the rescue boat came roaring up the canal, and we got to the ramp just as the helicopter arrived, so we watched them load the hapless fellow into the back and take off for Norfolk.
The cypress trees rising up from the lake have been separated from shore for a very long time, in some cases centuries. Even when they die, their stumps remain longer still, as cypress is a very rot resistant wood. The result is that each tree, and it’s remaining stump, isolated from the rest of the swamp for so long, becomes a complex ecological microcosm, with insects, plants, fungi, etc., all living interdependently. They’re beautiful, like little Zen bonsai gardens.
In 1943, a WWII pilot out of Norfolk had engine trouble while flying out over the Atlantic. He managed to maneuver back over land before the plane went down, and ditched in the middle of Lake Drummond. The plane is apparently still there and, in drought years when the water recedes enough, the wreckage rises above the surface like a ghostly specter from the past. Knowing this is a little creepy when you’re far from shore in a small boat, and you can’t see more than a few inches below the black, oily surface.
There are many odd things about the Dismal Swamp. One of them, perhaps the most odd, is this:
At the heart of the swamp is Lake Drummond, a two and a half mile wide egg shaped saucer of black water, fringed along an indefinite shoreline with bald cypress. Most swamps are, by definition, shallow depressions in the landscape where water collects and can’t escape, forming bogs. Not so here. The highest point in the Dismal Swamp is actually the center of the lake in the center of the swamp. Water does not flow downhill to the lake – it wells up from the sandy bottom of the lake itself, and seeps out into the surrounding landscape to form the swamp.
Spillway between Lake Drummond and the Feeder Ditch
It’s Spring Break for the girls. Emily is already in Spain for the start of a 10 day trip with her AP History class. Terri has a new job, and is staying close to home. Amanda and I decided to use the time off and take a little trip I’ve been wanting to take for some time, swinging down through the marshy parts of Virginia and Carolina, then on to Ocracoke Island. First stop: the Great Dismal Swamp.
This place has always fascinated me. Though criss-crossed with canals and drained to a fraction of its former size, the Swamp once covered all of southeast Virginia, and a full third of eastern North Carolina all the way from the fall line to the coast. My grandmother’s family settled here in the 1700’s, in places with names like Gum Neck and Frying Pan, and I grew up on stories of ancestors hunting black bear and wildcats deep in the swamp, and of ghost stories, and people disappearing in a black water wilderness. This was a chance to pass on some of those stories, and to see where they actually took place.
We brought the boat and the stealthy electric motor, so the three mile cruise along the canals and “ditches” from the boat ramp into the middle of the swamp was a quiet glide.
The boat launch is on the eastern side of Dismal Swamp Canal, which connects the Chesapeake Bay with Albemarle Sound down in North Carolina, separating the easternmost counties of both states from the mainland, making them all essentially a big island. This presents a problem for people who live on the west side of the Canal, because the road is on the east side. We saw one farmer’s solution in action: He had built a small ferry of oil drums and plywood and, with a cable running slack along the bottom from one side to the other, we saw him pull himself across, hand over hand, to where he kept his car on the other side.
From the Canal, the Feeder Ditch strikes a rhumb line due West for two miles into the heart of the swamp to Lake Drummond. It’s a strangly euclidian path through a completely chaotic canyon of wilderness, confusing your perception of time and distance. The experience is more than a little surreal.