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Insect Safari in the Dismal Swamp

SOUTH MILLS — The placid waters of the Dismal Swamp Canal steadily reflected the towering trees and clouds, only slightly disturbed by an intermittent breath of wind that carried brief showers of yellow and brown leaves down to the surface.

The Dismal Swamp Canal is oldest man-made waterway in the country still in use, and is part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.

A couple simultaneously walked their dog and stretched their legs on a short nature trail by the canal.

Another couple rode to the dock on bicycles, then stepped aboard their boat, asking a curious toddler if she had a home. While she nodded, they enthusiastically explained that this boat was their home.

Boats are moored on the canal by the Dismal Swamp Welcome Center. 

The unassuming Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center, established in South Mills in 1989 off U.S. 17 North, remains the only such facility in the country greeting visitors by both a major highway and historic waterway. Its parking lot is connected to that of the Dismal Swamp State Park. The state park opened to the public in 2008 and protects 22 square acres of forested wetland.

The larger portion of the swamp lies in Virginia and is the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge contains Lake Drummond, a 3,100-acre natural lake at the heart of the swamp that was named for its credited discoverer, William Drummond, the first governor of North Carolina (1663 to 1667).

The Dismal is the largest remaining swamp in the eastern United States.

State park visitors walk across a gated bridge that opens in three pieces to allow boaters passage.

Across the canal is the state park’s visitor center, with an exhibition hall of stuffed local mammals—including black bear, a bobcat, a nutria and a gray fox—a display of snakes and a display of four songbirds with corresponding buttons that activate recordings of their unique voices.

On Saturday, October 5, about 15 participants went on an insect safari led by Park Ranger Tony DeSantis. He led the adventure once a month during the summer months, and this was the last expedition this year. Mosquitoes, ticks and other pesky blood-suckers are of course are easily found in the swamp, but other lesser-known fauna are found there, too.

William Byrd II, a wealthy Virginian plantation owner, was one of several men commissioned to survey the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina in 1728. Byrd’s vibrant descriptions of the flora, fauna and difficulties encountered were recognized as often exaggerated, if not entirely fictional, but they effectively painted a picture of rugged northeastern North Carolina.

His March 17, 1728, journal entry stated:

“Doubtless, the eternal shade that broods over this mighty bog, and hinders the sunbeams from blessing the ground, makes it an uncomfortable habitation for any thing that has life. Not so much as a Zealand frog could endure so aguish a situation. It had one beauty, however, that delighted the eye, though at the expense of all the other senses: the moisture of the soil preserves a continual verdure, and makes every plant an evergreen but at the same time the foul damps ascend without ceasing, corrupt the air, and render it unfit for respiration. Not even a turkey buzzard will venture to fly over it.”

One of the first sights on the insect safari was, ironically, a turkey vulture soaring above the treeline.

DeSantis expertly whipped his net above plants and found a weevil and a bright green plant hopper—which literally hops from plant to plant—among his catch.

On a leaf, he identified a spotted cucumber beetle, which eats not only cucumbers, but myriad vegetation. “They can be a pest to farmers,” he said. A sighting of an adult two-lined spittlebug prompted his explanation of its name. “A group of these bugs—their larvae or nymphs in this case—get on plants, get the juice and make this frothy mess,” he said. “It looks like spit.”

A young participant asked about a brown seed-pod-encasement she saw on the ground. DeSantis said it was a rotten pawpaw, which is a fruit that ripens around mid-September. “People make them into breads, make them into custard, eat them raw,” he said of ripe fruit, adding the taste is almost like a banana. The seeds of the rotten fruit will grow into new trees, he said.

Park Ranger Tony DeSantis pulls a seed out of a decaying pawpaw to show a young safari participant. 

Further down the nature trail, he pointed to a kudzu bug.“They eat the kudzu, which is good, but they eat a lot of other stuff we don’t want them to eat,” he said. “I don’t know if they were brought here purposefully to eat kudzu or not.”

DeSantis pointed to an orchard orb-weaver spider and a caterpillar, noting caterpillars also spin webs for themselves. With nets, he caught a dance fly and crab spider and a participant caught a sweat bee.

The alien-looking dance fly, the strikingly green sweat bee and the tiny crab spider—so-named because of its legs positioned all out to the sides—were inspected in clear magnifying boxes, then released.

A dancefly is seen through a magnifying box, appearing more alien than insect. 

In the nearby goldenrod, he noted how the plant attracts all types of bees and wasps. Butterfly activity this year has been less than usual, he said, after releasing a small snail. “I’ve seen very few [Hessel’s] Hairstreaks and skippers…lots of swallowtails, though.”

He shook a nonnative plant called a rattlesnakeweed, which made a noisier version of the sound produced by a rattlesnake.

A large robber fly made an appearance. Although not sure how they were named, DeSantis said, “They’re big predators.”

According to a 2010 article in the Virginian-Pilot, the Great Dismal once included more than 1 million acres and stretched as far east as Back Bay in present-day Virginia Beach. The “great” originally possibly referenced the size, and “dismal” was then a common term for a swamp or morass.

Over the years, fortunes were made, earned and lost in the swamp.

Moses White, whose Pasquotank County mill operated until the 1950s, is rumored to have made more than $1 million from harvesting juniper timber in the swamp, according to George Washington was one of the first and most famous business supporters of the swamp, which he called “paradise,” the website reported. He and several other prominent Virginians and North Carolinians formed two companies that hoped to drain the swamp, harvest the trees and use the land for farming. The company purchased 40,000 acres of swamp land for $20,000 in 1763, according to Washington suggested the north-south canal be built, and the Washington Ditch, still bearing his name, was one of the first monuments to him. The company later gave up on draining the swamp, but cut many of the cypress trees for use in shipbuilding and harvested cedars for shingles.

The extensive ditching and logging have made the swamp drier today than it was historically, notes. Another change is that today’s Dismal is dominated by red maple instead of the bald cypress and tupelos.

An outdoor sign says slaves constructed the 22-mile canal from 1793 to 1805. By connecting the Albemarle Sound to the Norfolk Harbor, businesses could ship goods without having to travel the treacherous Ocracoke Inlet. Moses Grandy, a Camden County slave, ran shingle flats in the swamp in the early 1800s. Such low, flat-bottomed boats were used to transport shingles out of the swamp, and slaves walked towpaths and pulled them with a rope. Grandy eventually earned enough money to buy his freedom, and dictated his autobiography in London in 1842.

The Dismal Swamp is recognized as a part of the Underground Railroad. While some slaves like Grandy worked their way to freedom, runaway slaves used it as a stopping-point on their way north, while others lived as outlaws within the hard-to-navigate area.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp was published in 1856 as a follow-up to her 1853 Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the most well-known abolitionist tract ever written. Dred’s title character is an escaped Chowan County slave.

Far from the desolate vacuum Byrd describes, the swamp can yield a slew of stories, sights and creatures. One need only look and listen.

About the Author

Corinne Saunders

Corinne Saunders is a native of the Outer Banks. She has written for various publications in many capacities since her senior year of undergrad at Appalachian State University. She wrote full-time for a weekly newspaper in the North Carolina mountains and, later, was full-time education reporter for a daily paper close to the coast. She currently freelances to maximize time with her daughter, covering everything from investigative stories to features to environmental issues.