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Kayaking an Elizabeth City Favorite, Great Dismal Swamp

Posted on 07/17/2018 by Nelson Disla

Even when it’s busy—when many people out to enjoy the oddity of a mild day in early July—I can’t help but see the Great Dismal Swamp through an ego-fueled tunnel vision. Having visited at least a couple times every week, for several months, I’ve come to see the park as my own personal space. And yet, my petty possessiveness is always dwarfed by the swamp’s immensity. There’s no way to transcend the long lineage of its benefactors, from inhabitants 12,000 years ago to George Washington to Elizabeth City author, Bland Simpson. The best I can hope for is to inject my personal space into theirs, for a short while, and that’s okay. Because this many-faced muse—in all of its adventure, freedom, commerce, and poetry—remains here for you and me. Take the Dismal Swamp Canal as an example. It is the oldest operating man-made waterway in the United States, dug at the end of the 18th century. On one level, its very construction is a testament to our devastating inhumanity. Born from the lacerations of slavery, it stretches like a 20-mile scar between the Pasquotank and Elizabeth rivers. But on another level, the canal is a historical cornerstone in the region’s abolitionist movement. It’s an emblem of both histories, and many others before and since. They haven’t gone anywhere, thanks to the park’s continued preservation.

man and dog on kayak wearing life jackets, paddling on dismal swamp canal

But today the canal is used mostly for recreation. Thousands of acres and nearly 17 miles of trails on land make it easy to content yourself with biking, hiking, and picnicking; but if you have a couple hours, you won’t want to miss the unique perspective the canal offers. Canoes and kayaks are available to rent from the visitor center for $5 an hour. Once you’ve pushed off, you can row for miles in either direction. There’s no telling exactly what you’ll find. Just today I spotted several box turtles sunbathing on a log, a swarm of synchronized dragonflies drawing patterns above the water, and a family of four exercising their collective coordination. It’s easy to see why so many people have come out to “survive the swamp,” and why I’ll continue to do so too. Just as the canal’s histories are not mutually exclusive, the canal itself is not a singular experience. It’s not an etch-a-sketch image to be drawn out, erased, and re-drawn—but instead a densely layered space, caught in the constant act of re-creation. Maybe that density explains why things seem to move slower out on the canal. It certainly helps that I don’t know how to paddle. Park hours, from March-October: 8 am-6 pm; from November-February: 8 am-5 pm; daily rental hours: 9:30 am-4 pm.

For more great outdoor adventures, take a look at our Recreation, Sports & Outdoors list.

nelson disla Nelson Disla is a fiction writer and the owner of Pasquotank Pen, a content studio that consults with businesses to deliver high-quality marketing material. He also blogs for non-profits and his own pleasure. You can find more information, and get in touch with him, at

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