Drum roll, please….the legendary Dismal Swamp Canal…and on through to Elizabeth City and Upper Pungo Sound. Thrilled we did it, but once was enough! November 2 – 5, 2018.


There’s much debate about the Dismal Swamp Canal in the boating world.  Some say it’s beautiful, but others complain about the potential hazards in the water, the amber-colored water, and the slow progress to get through.  We really wanted to do it, and were told that the fall is a good time to take the trip due to the foliage….so we went for it!  Knowing that we could follow our friends Kathy and Braendon aboard Papillon, who have previously traveled through the “swamp”, was a comfort. We left Tidewater Yacht Marina at 7 am, as we wanted to catch the 8:30 am opening of the Deep Creek Lock. If we missed that opening, we would be waiting until 11 am…not what we wanted, as that’s a long time to idle a boat, most especially in icky weather!  The morning was gloomy with spots of rain, 70 degrees and humid.

Gloomy morning leaving Tidewater Yacht Basin

A short way down the river, just after passing under the Route 64 bridge, we turned down Deep Creek, which leads to the Dismal Swamp Canal.

Entering Deep Creek

As soon as we turned into the creek,  we began seeing the amber-colored water, caused by the tannic acids from the bark of the juniper, gum and cypress trees lining the water, which prohibit the growth of bacteria.

There were a lot of boats waiting for the lock, and we would end up traveling through the canal, and further, with many of the boats we encountered at the start. Hey, we’re all heading in the same direction!

Deep Creek Lock, Braendon and Kathy/Papillon

Just after the lock is a bridge that has to be opened, but you need to wait for the lock master to finish locking everyone through. Once he’s done with that, he gets in his car and drives down a narrow road along the canal to the bridge, so he can open it for the boats from the lock!

The bridge at Deep Creek Lock

The Swamp is narrow, with the trees actually growing in the water, and we did bump a few things (who knows what)…4 times, actually! Fortunately, we bumped without any consequences. It’s literally single file travel, but the scenery is beautiful.

The caravan enjoying the beautiful Dismal Swamp

We got to the Great Dismal Swamp Visitor’s Center at 12:30 pm.  There is a short bulk head for tie-up, and as the day goes on, more boats come in and raft up to those already tied up.

There is a small foot bridge from the The Dismal Swamp Visitor’s Center to the park, with well maintained walking trails.  We went over to check it out, and enjoyed a quiet stroll through the woods.  We even saw a huge buck! Despite our best efforts, he moved too fast to grab a picture of him.

The effects of the light on the water with the bubbles and leaves was beautiful!

The next morning, after everyone had agreed to an early departure from the Visitor’s Center (because you can’t leave until the boats rafted to you on the outside leave, or at least untie from your boat!), we headed on to the next lock and bridge enroute to Elizabeth City.  The bridge at South Mills and the lock after it, are once again, controlled by one lock master.  So, after he opened the bridge, he hopped into his car and drive down to the lock to let all of the waiting boats inside. Once you pass the lock, you’re nearly at the end of the Dismal Swamp Canal, when it opens up into the Pasquotank River, which is beautiful and wide, as compared to the Swamp Canal.  

The trees, the water, and the algae in it were all fascinating and beautiful.

Beautiful algae growing along the shore of the Swamp

We are always on the lookout for wildlife on our journey, and today gave us a rather unique one…a big snake (maybe 3′) swimming across our bow.  Glad we were on the boat and not in the water with him!

The crew, hard at work….

Passing under the twin bridges approaching Elizabeth City.

Elizabeth City sits on the Pasquotank River which is the first river in the country to receive an Underground Railroad Network designation, as it was an active route for freedom seeking slaves.

Elizabeth City, Museum of the Albemarle, wharf roses and The Flour Girls

We arrived in Elizabeth City 11:45 am, which gave us more than enough time to wander around this small town and explore the Museum of the Albemarle, which is small and interesting… and free! 

The free docks at Mariner’s Wharf were, as advertised, basic, with short finger piers and an unfortunately sketchy homeless population along the waterfront.  We did not get a visit from the famed “Rose Buddies”, but enjoyed the roses nonetheless.  In 1983, two Elizabeth City boating enthusiasts started hosting impromptu wine and cheese parties at Mariner’s Wharf to welcome arriving boaters.  They also gave the ladies on board roses from their garden.  They were dubbed the “Rose Buddies” and they attracted national attention when Willard Scott donated a golf cart to them to help them transport party supplies to the docks.  While we did not have a visit from the “Buddies”, we did sneak a cutting of the roses planted at the wharf.

In our opinion, Elizabeth City can be skipped.  Yes, it’s a charming old town, but there is a serious homeless problem at the waterfront, and Nancy felt uncomfortable enough to carry her mace with her when she left the boat.

We did enjoy a quiet evening on the boat, with a delicious dinner from the grill and a lovely sunset.

Along with most of the other boats at Mariner’s Wharf, we got an early start…6:42 am.  As you head down the lower part of the river, you pass a Weeksville Dirigible Hangar….or in plain English, a Blimp Hangar!  It’s an airship manufacturing, storage and test facility originally built by the Navy in 1941.  It’s only 1 of 8 that still remain in the U.S.

Being chased by birds on the Albemarle Sound, and the Weeksville Dirigible Hangar (Yup, they make Blimps!)

The next part of the trip can be a challenge….crossing the 50 miles of the Albemarle Sound.  An east or west wind can really stir up the relatively shallow waters of the sound, and we crossed with east/northeast wind blowing at 10 – 15 mph.  It was bouncy, to say the least, toppling a couple of tables inside the boat! And, once again, we were followed by A LOT of birds!

We were glad when we got through the Alligator River Swing Bridge to get into the Alligator River – Pungo Canal.  There was now a big parade of boats, as there is where the Dismal Swamp and Virginia Cut travelers converge! The currents around the bridge are pretty crazy and a lot of boats in front and in back of us stirred things up as well!  After the bridge, things calm down!

The Alligator River Swing Bridge

We were originally planning to anchor just before the canal, and did pull off the channel and start to drop the anchor, but the wind was just blowing a bit too hard.  So, we raised the anchor and continued on.  The bright spot was seeing a bear along the water’s edge further down the river! The canal is scenic and heavily wooded at the beginning, then areas that have burned out with the beginnings of second growth and again, narrow…not as narrow as the swamp, but narrow nonetheless!  

The Alligator-Pungo River Canal

At the end of the canal, we turned right off the river and spent a peaceful evening at anchor. Shout out to our younger son, Bryan, who was celebrating his 26th birthday this day!

 Pungo Sound

In the morning, we’re off to Beaufort, NC!

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