Behind the Scenes at Deep Creek Lock

The Grandjeans commandeered Rode Trip!

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They just left me at the dock…homeless, family-less…

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…and off they went for a leisurely motor down the Dismal Swamp Canal. Bruce and Kathy had traveled from Pennsylvania to experience this magnificent, original stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway. Meanwhile, I’d been left at the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center where I settled into the lounge of the Welcome Center with iPad in hand and utilized the free WiFi for some much needed emailing, phone calling, and writing. The women working in the Welcome Center were most friendly and we chatted intermittently during our work. When finished, I headed back outside to the parking lot and hopped aboard the car hoping that I still remembered how to drive.

I planned to meet Rode Trip at the Deep Creek Lock; 17 statute miles by canal from the Welcome Center. Rode Trip would travel for approximately four hours to reach the lock, but my trip by car would take only 20-minutes. No wonder our land friends always wonder what’s taking us so long! They should try driving their cars around at 4.5 mph…swing by the grocery store on the way home, no problem as long as you don’t mind starting to cook supper at midnight.

There is a bridge just prior to the lock, and as I approached I spotted the lock-tender parking his car at the bridge to open the bridge for a southbound vessel. I parked the car along the roadside to watch. Afterward, I approached the lock-tender to inform him that Rode Trip was traveling northbound and due to arrive within the next hour. “Would you like to wait at the lock?” he asked. “Yea,” I replied, “that would be great.” “Follow me.”

Robert is the lock-tender at Deep Creek Lock. He is somewhat of a rock star among the cruising crowd, especially the snowbirds (seasonal cruisers who head south in the winter and north in the summer). Robert not only does his job spectacularly, but he also knows a wealth of information about the Dismal Swamp, Dismal Swamp Canal, and surrounding areas of Virginia. He welcomes passers-through and provides excellent instruction for safe passage through the lock as well as history and stories and if you are very lucky he’ll demonstrate his skills blowing a conch horn. I followed Robert via car to the Deep Creek Lock and joined him inside the air-conditioned lock cabin. For nearly two hours we talked covering a variety of topics. We were interrupted only once when the VHF squawked and to my surprise (Brian’s voice sounds very different to me over the radio waves) “northbound sailing vessel Rode Trip” was calling to notify Robert that they were at the bridge awaiting the 1300 opening. Rode Trip made fabulous time! They’d arrived one-hour earlier than anticipated and tied at the dock near the bridge until the opening.

At 1320, Robert and I drove down to the bridge. “Come on in,” Robert invited me into the bridge’s control room. Robert hailed the two waiting northbound vessels (a motor vessel had joined Rode Trip at the dock) to inform the vessels the bridge was preparing to open. Then while Rode Trip cast off the dock, instead of my usual task of tending dock lines and fenders…

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…I was behind the scenes watching Robert in action.

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The bridge quickly rose and Rode Trip and the motor vessel proceeded through. (If you are looking closely at the photos, they are all wibbly-wobbly; the iPad could not focus through the old glass window panes. Next time, I’ll ask Robert how old the control house is, he’ll know!) Brian, Bruce, and Kathy gave a wave. Then, Brian did a double-take and recognized his wife through the window. He pointed and I watched them all wave again enthusiastically once they realized I was behind the scenes.

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“That was LOUD!” I commented to Robert while the boats passed through. “That’s not loud,” he replied, “put these on,” he handed me ear protection. Apparently the bridge is enormously loud when going down. I thanked Robert as we returned to our cars to head back to the lock.

Robert was at the ready to assist the incoming vessels.

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Rode Trip entered the lock, lines at the ready.

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Robert recognized Brian; although he sees many captains, he reaffirmed that most are about twice our age. While the lock was preparing to lower, Brian presented Robert with his choice of conch horn. Robert played us a tune!

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Robert regaled us with historical facts while the lock lowered Rode Trip eight-feet down.

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Afterward, we waved goodbye to Brian and Bruce. They would continue to Norfolk. Kathy had come ashore; she was anxious to begin the next expedition of the day…SHOPPING!

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Do the Dismal

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If you haven’t done it yet you don’t know what you’re missing the Dismal Swamp Canal is lovely and worth much reminiscing.

It’s true, we didn’t know what we were missing! Last year, during the month of November, Rode Trip breezed through the Dismal Swamp section of the Intracoastal Waterway in one day. It was cold, we were on a mission. This time through we are stopping to smell the swamp grass and although this sounds hypocritical coming from ocean cruisers, “Wow! This ditch has much to offer.” The Dismal Swamp Canal is the oldest operating artificial waterway in the United States; it was the original Intracoastal Waterway route. The Dismal Swamp Canal traverses 22 statue miles/20 nautical miles inland through Virginia and North Carolina. Now registered as a National Landmark, the canal opened for operation in 1805 after 12-years of construction. Upon opening, its shallow draft enabled only flat boats and log rafts to traverse by being manually towed or poled through. Presently the canal maintains a depth of six feet. Throughout its many years of operation, design flaws have resulted in difficulty maintaining the canal and several changes in ownership. The federal government purchased the Dismal Swamp Canal in 1929 for $500,000 and today the Army Corps of Engineers continues to maintain the canal. Why so dismal? Colonel William Byrd II of Virginia is said to be responsible for for adding the dim description to the canal’s name after having surveyed the land and finding the location repulsive. The canal and the surrounding swamplands have an extensive and fascinating history. You can share in our learning by reading more here .

We began our historical boating tour of the Dismal Swamp Canal by making a sharp turn to starboard, exiting the Elizabeth River and entering Deep Creek. Here we carefully motored down the center of a narrow, winding creek as we approached the first of two lock-drawbridge combinations on the canal. Upon approach to the Deep Creek Lock, we hailed the lock master on VHF 13 and received clear, concise directions for entering the lock. (The locks run 365 days/year, four openings daily; drawbridges are unmanned and open in conjunction with the lock schedule.) Here we go!
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“Good afternoon!” bellowed Robert. He is the lock master for the Deep Creek Lock and after 18 years remains the ‘new guy’ among canal employees. Robert dropped down a boat hook to collect our stern and bow lines. Then he made ready the one other boat in the lock while we held fast ready to tend our lines.
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We’d thought our end of September arrival at the canal was great timing as the seasons go, but as we got to chatting with Robert while the water level rose he informed us, “You’re 35 years early…” He proceeded to share that most people passing through his lock are retired. Shocker! Robert is not only good humored and incredibly kind but he contains a wealth of knowledge about the Dismal Swamp, Deep Creek, and the surrounding area. We so enjoyed his company and fun facts that we decided to spend the night at the Deep Creek dock (totally free) and join Robert the following morning for coffee at the lock. Ahhhh…boy did it feel good after spending seven days aboard to step off the boat onto a dock! And although it felt as though we were in a creek in the middle of nowhere, just up the street less than one mile was a Food Lion grocery store. This tour was off to a good start!
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On the way to the Food Lion we walked across the drawbridge that we’d motor under the following day.
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Oh bummer! We traveled all this way and just missed it!?
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The next morning we were well fed and well rested. We got acquainted with some locals…
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…and then made our way on foot to the lock to start our day listening to Robert’s stories with a fresh cup of coffee in hand. What a treat! Thanks so much for your hospitality, Robert! Afterward we spent some time with our dock-mates, Lilly and Harley, and their dachshund, Hammy. We never miss a good opportunity to get acquainted and swap information. Best of luck to this eager couple with their upcoming adventures!

Topside view of Deep Creek Lock.
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That afternoon we cast-off from the dock at Deep Creek. Once through the drawbridge we had only nine miles to travel before our next stop on the tour.
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