Arts & Culture

Traveling North Carolina’s Swamps

  • By Bland Simpson
  • Photography by Ray Matthews

Swamps keep their secret wonders hidden well. Under their murky black water, behind impenetrable tangles of vines, and among towering cypress draped in curtains of Spanish moss, adventure lurks.

swamps

My first swamp was Gaither’s Lagoon, just off the west side of the Pasquotank River, a mile or so downstream of Elizabeth City’s striking, curving waterfront, and the ditches that fed it, draining huge cornfields, making possible the turn-of-the-last-century horse-racing track that had become my post-war neighborhood. The lagoon itself was a relatively small cypress backwater, dappled in full noon sun, which flowed slowly under a small bridge we sometimes fished from and, once past it, right into the broad, bay-like Pasquotank River.

The watery redoubt near the bridge has been all gussied up, elegant lodgings called The Pond House, but the natural setting is still — and all Gaither’s Lagoon. As in most places way down east, even with all the cleared land and all the farming, wherever there is water, there is land right near it that is highly sympathetic to it: wet, water-loving land, with shallows sheeting up over it in a wind and rain, advancing, retreating, tonguing up into woods, making swamps.

I don’t recall now the name of the neighborhood boy who found the old 40-gallon washtub and brought it to the edge of a long, lateral ditch into the Lagoon, before coming down the street and rousting me and engaging me in this enterprise, or how exactly we thought the tub, which the two of us 8-year-olds could barely squeeze into (we practiced how we would embark first on dry land) could really be controlled, steered, or in any way made to come ahead on — we had neither paddles nor poles. Still, on that bright Saturday morning, we knew what we were about: We were going boating, heading down the lane of this ditch into the swamp, and we knew that once we reached Gaither’s Lagoon, we could explore at will and leisure, licking honeysuckle when we got hungry. The Pasquotank River itself could soon be ours. What we knew nothing of was “center of gravity.” We didn’t know what “top-heavy” was or meant till we slid the tub into the dark swamp water and then, simultaneously, clambered and half-fell into it, and over it went and we were sloshed and soaked. No shame in it — all of us who lived and played around the swamps and the river were used to getting shoes and socks and pant-legs wet. Yet, a full-body, mucky immersion would require a hangdog explanation to an astonished mother, who would see much more in the way of mess and danger in all this than adventure and glory.

For a few minutes, though, before gravity did what it always does, my boyhood friend and I with our small craft at the ready were as bold as Captain Blood, as ready for the vine tangles and impenetrable thickets ahead of us as Ramar of the Jungle. We had a boat that would float us away from civilization, from nearby cornfields and flower beds; we had what we needed to get us into the heart of the swamp, and out of it, too, if we ever so chose to leave.

•••

Perhaps such affinities run in the blood. One sodden winter’s morning 60-odd years ago, W.E. Sanders peered out a back window of his farmhouse down on Leigh Farm Road in southern Pasquotank County. He was looking across his big fields at the morass they bordered on the west side of Big Flatty Creek, just above the Albemarle Sound, a swamp forest owned for over a generation now by a family up in Elizabeth City, the county seat 11 miles to the north. The mists on such days float and hang thickly, much like smoke, and the very air plays tricks on the eyes, as trees and mists are almost indistinguishable, each from each. Before long, though, something moving, lumbering, now appearing, now disappearing, caught his eye, something way down the logwoods tram-line, a cartway over which mules drew timber-laden flatcars forth from the forest. For some time, at that distance and through the window-light and the drenched air, Sanders took it for a bear, and then through the gray drizzling he saw otherwise.

That was no bruin; the figure was a man.

When the man neared the Sanders house, approaching on the cartway running right by it, Sanders threw on a heavy coat, and an oilskin atop it, and went out to greet and question the stranger who strode up into the yard, dripping wet head to toe.

“Who are you?” Sanders asked.

“I’m Martin Simpson,” my father said, shaking off water like a muskrat come up out of a creek. “And I’m just out here this morning to see about my swamp.”

•••

Our children, when they were but 6 and 7, suddenly became interested in my early childhood, so I began to tell them all about now-faraway Elizabeth City and the swamp and sound country of the distant east, nearly 200 miles from Chapel Hill. 

“What are swamps like?” they asked.

“Very lovely,” I told them, in a wet, gloomy, somber sort of way.

“What can you do in them?”  

“Well, walk, sort of, and boat, sometimes,” I answered.

“Did you ever get lost?” they wondered.

“Yes, once,” I had to admit.

“Were you scared?”  

“No, because I was with my father, and he seemed to know how to move us from turned-around to found, though there were a few moments, as the February afternoon wore on and shadows grew long in the deep, wet woods, when I wondered what it might be like if we did not get out of the swamp before nightfall and wound up spending the whole cold night in there.”

“Why, what would that be like?” they kept on and on.

“Well, there were bears in the swamps,” I said.

“Bears?! Swamp bears?!” Their alarm and sense of danger heightened, and, across all the time and distance since that afternoon I was telling them about, they felt a genuine concern and fear for their own father at an imagined early age in an imagined morass trying to sleep as best he could upon some remote hummock, some bed of cypress knees. Then my son ventured, “If a bear had found you, he’d be a sweet swamp bear.”

And so, just as my father and I had come out of the real swamp, the extreme southern Dismal 50-some years ago, my son Hunter led us out of the dismal quarters of imagination by turning a potential roaming collection of bears into a single one, and then making him out to be personable and kind. We named this conjured creature Swamp Bear, and he came to life in stories of rescue, wherein the children needed help, and Swamp Bear almost magically appeared and gave it to them. He cooked them pork chops at a camp beside a great woods far from home; he appeared with a motorboat and rescued them when they were up in trees, caught in a flood. And so our family gained and have had for years our own emblematic, totemic character who seemed to have walked right out of the Great Dismal and into our hearts and lives: our very own Swamp Bear.

Watch a video of writer Bland Simpson boating up the Great Dismal Swamp Canal at ourstate.com/videos/the-great-dismal-swamp-canal.

The put-in at Buffalo City in mainland Dare County is just a roadside canal several miles south of U.S. Highway 64, and it leads to a narrower canal, the entrance to the swamp forest that was once the busy domain of the Dare Lumber Company. They cut cypress and juniper timber out of the swamps, brought the logs out to the waters of Milltail Creek on train cars to a big wharf there where the creek was lake-like, loaded them onto barges and floated them five miles out to Alligator River, thence nearly 40 miles north across Albemarle Sound and up the Pasquotank River to its mill in Elizabeth City, an enormous tawny brick affair with sluices, slides, and saws. Hundreds of workers lived in the company town of Buffalo City, southeast of East Lake the ferry landing, in shacks and buildings set upon sawdust fill. Entertainment occasionally floated in, also on barges, a floating saloon and dance hall. Everything that moved did so on and over water. When the logwoods played out and Dare Lumber Company gave up in the 1920s, Buffalo City soon became a ghost town, and nothing now remains of it except the name and the memory and one structure — the pilings and trestle frame that supported the wharf, all of this lying under the waters of Milltail Creek at the edge of the swamp woods, rarely to be seen, and only when a nor’easter has blown the waters west into other swamps, those in the Roanoke and Cashie river bottoms, lowering the Alligator River and its tributaries by several feet.

After the big timber was all felled, a well-trained labor force reconstituted itself and turned its attention to a different product, white liquor, East Lake Rye, or if the buyer preferred, East Lake Gin. Made in the swamps on an industrial scale, workers going to work by steam whistle, the liquor floated up to Elizabeth City, then got run by car and truck up the canal bank through the Great Dismal Swamp, to Hampton Roads and its thirsty sailors, the rest of it on up the bay.

Over the years, I have been in the Buffalo City wilds with students in the spring; with my old friend Jake Mills and my son, Hunter, one June afternoon, after we had struggled for much of an hour to find the mouth of Milltail Creek, curtained from Roanoke River, guarding the deep secret; and with daughter, Cary, and my wife, Ann, on an April morning. By canoe or kayak from the landing, the entry ditch leads on into Sawyer Lake, patches of juniper on its wooded banks and 4 ½-foot gators sunning on angled pines fallen over into the lake’s edge.

Back out on broad Milltail, some of us from kayaks once saw the trestle that a three-day gale had uncovered, pulling the water off of it and sending it way west. The old wharf remnant lay so concealed that Tyrrell County waterman Willy Phillips, who knows the Alligator River swamp country like few others, told me later that same day that he had never laid eyes on it, for it was most always beneath the dark water, submerged like memory.

•••

On Good Friday 2000, I led a float on Sweetwater Creek, sometimes also known as “Sweetenwater Creek,” a swampy, mossy tributary of the Roanoke River that flows north just east of Williamston, and that got its original name from a small freight boat’s spilling a load of molasses or honey a century ago. We parked near a pueblo of beehives, got the canoes off-loaded from the trailer of an outfitter who operated Made in the Shade Gallery, a local crafts emporium a few miles east, when he wasn’t getting canoeists onto the water. We set out about 10 a.m. and drifted downstream for several miles, deep into the swamp, till it was impossible to tell which water was the main channel and where it went.

But it was lunchtime anyhow, so we beached on a swamp island. We had on hand a lot of waters and sodas, a pretty good store of apples and oranges. Most of the lunch, though, was in a pair of coolers that had wound up in the slowest canoe, one yet to arrive and that was being operated by a woman who had — unbeknownst to those of us who put the trek together — never been in a canoe a day in her life.

Our island was at least 100 yards or more east of where Sweetwater Creek had divided and begun to braid, well hidden behind the cypress and gumwoods and heavy curtains of Spanish moss. There was no way the folks in the chuck wagon canoe would be able to see any of us, or probably even hear us. I took to a canoe and paddled back out to the main stem, waited and called out, and presently that last canoe slowly appeared, and we went back to the swamp island and fed the multitudes — there were more than 20 on the float, mostly UNC students and faculty, but also Nature Conservancy folks from Manteo and Windsor and even the transportation journalist from “The Old Reliable” in Raleigh.

We held an impromptu class on the hydrology and environmental dynamics of the Roanoke bottomlands, and after a spell we took back to the water and paddled up the lazy stream in the mid-afternoon light, passing the same cypress sentinels we’d seen in the cool morning, now lit up by the warm western sun, every third one of them with a cottonmouth coiled atop one of its knees, soaking up rays.

Before we had come out of the Sweetwater depths, Pat Fox and Holly Herweyer, two of my students on the first date that would lead them to the altar, paddled alongside Ann and Cary and me. Pat, a Westerner, smiled and gestured broadly in awe at the grandeur of these cypress wilds as he remarked: “You know, we just don’t have this in Montana!”

•••

Yet, oh, how we were always warned against the swamps — their desperado hideouts, runaway slave camps of old, moonshiners who had no use for company, ghost lights that could lure you in and lose you. How little use the rationalists have had for them, how little they have seen in them, always wanting to drain them, tear them down and make something other and “better” of them — William Byrd II envisioned a great hemp plantation for the Great Dismal Swamp in the 1700s, and Malcolm McLean saw superfarms for the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula’s pocosins in the 1970s.

Other voices, though, those of many thousands of paddlers, fishermen, hunters, campers, and bird-watchers, see things otherwise. “Ain’t that a pretty black water?” a Halifax revenuer once rhapsodized. And a cousin once plighted his troth: Nothing I love more than a damn swamp! What was it that encouraged a boy, and still enchants and motivates a man, to enter such places and to take his chances with snakes and snappers and unfirm ground, if there is any ground at all, and then, emerging, to want to tell tales about the interiors of swamps — and to want to hear them? Why love such spots?

Our swamps are magnificent portions of our natural heritage, remote, untrammeled quarters where the real wild things are. “In Wildness is the preservation of the world,” Henry David Thoreau wrote, and he was right. Though rising waters will ere long inundate some of the coastal swamps and in time make open waters of them, those same rising tides will also turn dry lands into wet and make new bogs, and mercifully, the swamps — these dense, wild, extraordinarily rich reaches — will always be with us. Here in North Carolina, particularly in the east below the fall line, we don’t simply have swamps — we specialize in them, along with Carolina bays, bogs, pocosins, and marshes. In the land of the Lumber River, Robeson County alone claims 50 swamps.

Sunlight streaming through rust-gold October cypress in some deep reserve, snow lightly frosting Spanish moss in February, fog settling any time of year it wants to in these bottoms — what sights these are. And the millions of songbirds, warblers mostly, that return from the tropics in such astonishing and noble force every spring to our eastern swamps, to nest and breed and sing as if there is no tomorrow, choiring away amid cypress and switch cane and lemon-scented yellow jessamine, what a sound this is. Add in the kingfisher’s scree and the pileated woodpecker’s kuk-kuk-kuk, and the golden sight of the prothonotary warbler shuttling through the thickets.  

As if counterbalancing that joyfulness, the bobcat’s curdling cry will so primitively, immediately raise the hairs on the back of one’s neck, and the barred owl will sing “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?” with such volume and curiosity in empty woods that one can hear his question miles away, the lonesome blues carrying so. A clutch of owls seeking mates every spring put up a mad, lovesick howl that echoes off the sycamore trees on the hillsides above the duckweed-coated waters of Merchant’s Millpond in Gates County, the full moon rising in April and the courtship continuing all night long.

How glad I was to hear friend Eddie Nickens’s report of a day meandering about the swamps of Roan Island, where the Black River and the Cape Fear River and the thoroughfare between them isolate 2,600 acres and keep them wet, a cypress and vine jungle, now a state game land where none who brave it will ever feel pressed by the madding crowd. “Found a piece of a skiff,” Eddie told me proudly. He had drifted alone about Roan in chest waders, literally plumbing its depths and sounding it for wonders. I remember the thrill I felt when another Eddie, this one the Corbett whose lumber-and-pallet firm had long owned Roan Island, described to me an absolutely spectacular cypress, a natural two-trunked wonder, saying those twin trunks (several feet in diameter at breast height) paralleled each other right on up to their crowns at 80 feet, and looked, as he put it, “just like a tuning fork.” 

Had I not had a father who loved to wander in big woods, not had Ferebee cousins over in Camden with Pasquotank River swamp just beyond their backyard, nor grown up with my own neighborhood swamp, Gaither’s Lagoon, I might not have felt such deep fondness for such places. Growing up, too, exploring the eastern reaches of the Great Dismal, roaming at 10 with my Lamborn cousins where shallow ponds shone like mirrors beneath willows in the morning light, developing a feeling of kinship that would later send me off on unhurried tours of other, similar Southern landscapes beyond our state’s borders: the Atchafalaya in Louisiana, the Okefenokee in southern Georgia, the Ashepoo-Combahee-Edisto Basin below Charleston.

Yet, for many years now, our own desert places have had the best stronghold on me. I have left pieces of my heart and soul in the Great Dismal and so many more swampy Carolina spots, and will gladly keep returning, cycling through each grand, wild fastness for the rest of my days, just to see what is moving, flying, blooming there, given the season, and just maybe to see my bride, as I did on our swamp honeymoon almost 25 years ago, standing in the hollow of a huge cypress on the swampy northern edge of Lake Phelps, the old-time Pettigrews’ world, Ann smiling as if this were to be our new home and, if that were so, at the very prospect she would indeed be very deeply happy, as would I.

Bland Simpson is Kenan Distinguished Professor of English & Creative Writing at UNC-Chapel Hill and a longtime member of the Tony Award-winning Red Clay Ramblers. His lifelong relationship with the Great Dismal Swamp is chronicled in his most recent book, The Great Dismal: A Carolinian’s Swamp Memoir. His most recent story in Our State was “Down on the Sound” (September 2011).

This entry was posted in August 2013, Coast, Nature & Agriculture, Outdoors and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Traveling North Carolina’s Swamps

  1. Mary says:

    I highly recommend to stay in Sunbury, there’s a Bed and Breakfast called the Teacherage, it’s affordable and it’s the only place I could find between the two Swamps, the Merchant’s Millpond and the Great Dismal Swamp.
    It ended up being a great stop in our way to the OBX.

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