Magazine article American Forests

Swamp in a QUAGMIRE

Magazine article American Forests

Swamp in a QUAGMIRE

Article excerpt

The Great Dismal's ancient trees and elusive wildlife have endured for centuries. But can they survive when civilization intrudes?

The April waters of the Great Dismal Swamp are so cold my shins ache. Thankfully, my flooded boats trap water against my skin like a scuba diver's wetsuit so my feet stay relatively warm. With countless roots and fallen logs hidden under the brown, knee-deep water, each step is a calculated risk. And numb feet would turn a possible fall into a certainty.

In front of me, Bryan Poovey, an officer at Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, travels a serpentine route through a flooded maze of trees and poison ivy vines to an ancient cypress, one of the swamp's oldest and largest trees. I could have borrowed his hip boots and wandered in to find it myself, but I haven't forgotten his embarrassed admission of becoming lost after venturing only 30 yards into the swamp.

"If you don't have a compass and if you can't see the sun, it's just a big, green maze," says a grinning Poovey. "It all looks the same."

From the inside, perhaps. But the Great Dismal Swamp, which spans 109,000 acres in Virginia and North Carolina, is but a boxy shell of its former self. When Europeans arrived, the Dismal stretched unbroken from Norfolk south to the Albermarle Sound in North Carolina and from the Suffolk Escarpment eastward to the dune lines of the Atlantic Ocean.

It was so vast and so thick that many who entered never returned. A young Robert Frost, despondent over a broken heart, came here to "disappear" but changed his mind. As the November night fell over the swamp, Frost had a change of heart and headed for home the next day.

Bending low at the waist and squatting down, I scramble beneath a massive fallen tree, clutching my camera to my chest to keep it from being dunked. Each step sends a cloud of leaf matter swirling to the surface, giving the water its distinctive brown color. Waiting on the other side, Poovey offers an observation wrapped in his western North Carolina accent. "Normally it's not this deep. But beavers have plugged up one of the ditches, so this area has flooded. It should get shallower as we get farther in."

As we step around a thick bush, a small opening appears and a massive cypress rises high out of the swamp. Poovey climbs onto its island-like base and runs his hands across the bark, his eyes scanning two parallel marks cut deep in the wood. "There's been a bear here."

A quick check on the opposite side shows a trunk so marked and cut it looks like a cat's scratching post. Poovey points to a hollow spot about 30 feet up where a large branch has broken away to reveal a hollow trunk. "I bet she's got cubs up there."

For centuries the Dismal was considered a wasteland, a wet, forbidding place good only for clouds of mosquitoes, misery, and hunting. Today, it's recognized as home to black bear, bobcats, endangered species, and the threatened Atlantic white cedar. It's also a critical stopover point for migratory songbirds.

The Dismal is perhaps most of all a survival story, a triumph of nature's determination over man's persistence. But although humans are awakening to its importance as an ecosystem, the fight to save the Dismal is not yet won.

Since the earliest days of settlement, folks wanted to drain the Great Dismal Swamp and convert its rich, black soil to farmland. George Washington saw its fertile soil and massive trees as an economic opportunity and helped establish the Dismal Swamp Land Company to begin draining and lumbering operations. A five-mile-long ditch, dug by slaves, was cut through the swamp from near Suffolk to Lake Drummond. The ditch, which to this day bears Washington's name, was used to float out cut logs and drain the western reaches.

The swamp was so rich in trees and so vast in size that logging operations continued in its heart from the 1700s up to 1973. …

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