Friday, August 22, 2008

Canoeing in the Dismal Swamp by John Boyle O'Reilly

Published: Boston, Pilot Publishing Company; Athletics and Manly Sport, 1890, Pages 350-452

THE Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina is one of the celebrated features of the American continent. Its name is almost as familiar as Niagara or the Rocky Mountains. Its limits are not easily defined, no careful survey or good map of the region having ever been made. It lies in two States, on the Virginia side in the counties of Nansemond and Princess Anne, and on the North Carolina side in the counties of Gates, Pasquotank, Camden, and Currituck. Almost in the centre lies Lake Drummond, or "the Lake of the Dismal Swamp," which is seven miles by five in extent, according to local records, but three miles by two and a half by our measurement. The area of the swamp is between eight hundred and one thousand square miles. Its reputation is that of a morass of forbidden and appalling gloom, a region impenetrable to the search of student or hunter; the fecund bed of fever and malaria, infested with deadly serpents and wild beasts; the old-time refuge of fugitive slaves, who preferred life in its lonely recesses to the life-in-death of the slave-quarter and the man- market. It is supposed by the outer world, and even by those who reside on its borders, to be a hopeless wilderness, an incurable ulcer on the earth's surface, a place that would have been long ago forgotten but for its shadowy romance,--for its depths were once enlightened, though it is over fourscore years ago, by the undying song of a famous poet. Some of this evil character is true, but most of it is untrue, and much of the slander has not been accidental, but deliberate. It is true that the hunted slave often heard the baying of the bloodhounds as he crouched in the cane-brake of the Dismal Swamp, or plunged into its central lake to break the trail, and true also that its hundreds of miles of waterlogged forest is infested with repulsive and deadly creatures, reptile and beast, bear, panther, wild-cat and snake; but it is not true that the Dismal Swamp is an irreclaimable wilderness, the pestilent source of miasma and malaria. The Dismal Swamp is an agony of perverted nature. It is Andromeda, not waiting for the monster, but already in his grasp, broken and silent under the intolerable embrace. The Lake of the Dismal Swamp is the very eye of material anguish. Its circle of silvery beach is flooded and hidden, and still the pent-up water, vainly beseeching an outlet, is raised and driven in unnatural enmity to the roots of the tall juniper, cypress, and gum trees, that completely surround its shore. The waves that should murmur and break on a strand of incomparable brilliancy, are pushed beyond their proper limits, and compelled to soften and sap the productive earth; to wash bare and white the sinews of the friendly trees, and inundate a wide region of extraordinary fertility. The bleached roots of the doomed trees seem to shudder and shrink from the weltering death. There is an evident bending upward of the overtaken roots to escape suffocation. The shores of the lake are like a scene from the "Inferno." Matted, twisted, and broken, the roots, like living things in danger, arch themselves out of the dark flood, pitifully striving to hold aloft their noble stems and branches. The water of the lake, dark almost as blood, from the surface flow of juniper sap and other vegetable matter, is forced from six to ten feet above its natural level, and driven by winds hither to this bank to-day and thither to-morrow, washing every vestige of earth from the helpless life-givers, till its whole circumference is a woful net-work of gnarled trunks and intertwined fibres, bleached and dry as the bones of a skeleton, and sheltering no life, but that of the blue lizard and red- throated moccasin.
Picture from this site, great pics!