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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Everyone’s Welcome at the Dismal Swamp!

Once again, Brian and I decided to transit the Dismal Swamp Canal portion of the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). This canal was the original ICW; now boaters may choose to transit via the Dismal Swamp Canal or the Virginia Cut. The Dismal Swamp Canal is beautiful, serene, and offers several free docks for transiting boats. During our October 2013 southbound transit, Brian and I spent three days in the canal exploring between the Deep Creek and South Mills locks. There is much history here, and abundant wildlife to enjoy. This year while transiting northbound we stopped once again at the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center’s dock.

The Dismal Swamp Welcome Center is located five miles north of the South Mills Lock. The 150′ dock has ample space and strong pilings on which to secure dock lines. Do visit the Welcome Center and sign-in. For our landlubbing friends, the Dismal Swamp Welcome Center provided a spectacular meeting place. By road, the Welcome Center is located on US Hwy 17N in South Mills, NC just three miles from the North Carolina/Virginia boarder. Free docking and plenty of parking! Visitors can walk across a foot bridge over the canal to visit the Dismal Swamp State Park on the opposite side. The State Park has a wonderful visitor’s center and many trails for hiking and biking.

The eb and flow of travelers through the Welcome Center offered wonderful opportunities to meet travelers. When we first arrived, there were two other sailboats docked. Both were southbound, running from the cold, and we were excited to share our experiences with one another. We also met a woman returning home by car. She walked the dock with her dog, and stopped to chat with us; we found common interests in boating and traveling. The next morning. We had a lovely conversation with a couple who shared our enthusiasm for travel, however, preferred reaching their destinations at a more reasonable (fast) pace and so traveled by car throughout the United States. Later that afternoon, we greeted Danielle, Russ, Ian, Willow, and to our surprise Girl Scout Troop 52.

The Scouts were visiting the Dismal Swamp State Park for an afternoon of orienteering. Brian and I welcomed the children aboard Rode Trip for a tour. They had so many wonderful questions! Since they were orienteering, we showed them our compass and explained how we use the compass to navigate on the water. Down on the cabin, I turned on the fish finder/depth sounder and we studied the screen for passing fish, checked the depth, and water temperature. I explained how we carry our own fresh water aboard wherever we go, how we shower, and yes even a quick tutorial on the composting toilet (to which one of the girls replied, “EEEWE!” I shared some of our beach treasures with them, sand dollars and sea biscuits. We even watched some of Rode Trip’s video clips of sea animals that we have encountered. Such fun!20140831-212712.jpg

The Feeder Ditch and Lake Drummond

The second stop of our Dismal Swamp Canal tour was the Feeder Ditch; directly across from the ditch’s opening is a mini-dock that was just the right size for Rode Trip.

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Within minutes of securing the boat to the dock, Brian and I had hopped into our kayaks ready to paddle the 3.25 mile long Feeder Ditch. The Feeder Ditch was built in 1811/1812 and connects the canal to Lake Drummond, Virginia. A dam and spillway at the lake end assist in managing the canal depth during dry periods.

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We had a beautiful paddle through the Feeder Ditch. Mirror images of the surrounding banks and trees were clearly reflected atop the tea-colored, still water. (The tea-color or amber color in the water is caused by tannic acids from the bark of juniper, gum, and cypress trees. These acids make it difficult for bacteria to grow in the water.) Turtles sat sunning themselves atop just about every exposed log or rock. Towering grapevines sweetly scented our route; yes, Brian sampled quite a few of the perfectly ripened grapes along the way. Soon we had reached the dam at Lake Drummond. Here, we hauled the kayaks onto the shore to walk them around the dam and launch them back into the ditch on the other side.

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There is a small state park at the dam, part of the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge. There are well maintained docks for small boats. There are picnic tables, grills, and a ranger’s station. There is also a marine railway, or tram, used to haul small power boats or dinghies across the shore around the dam and into the lake side of the feeder ditch. The tram is out of order at this time. Here is a view of the lake side/topside of the dam.

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