The Cursed Swamp

Abandoned to terror and mystery for years, the East Coast's Great Dismal Swamp is giving up its secrets as hunters and naturalists find it brimming with life and primeval beauty
November 26, 1962

Drivers whirring southward on U.S. 17 come to a stretch of road in southern Virginia where there is no temptation to stop or even to slow down. No matter what the time of day, the road seems to darken along this passage. A canal runs beside the highway; its waters are black and ominous, its banks hung over with heavy stands of willow and maple. Cypress knees huddle along the fringes; waxy-leaved bay bushes shut off the view of the woods beyond, and vines spiral up through Spanish moss until they reach the tops of the trees and meet the parasitical mistletoe, the botanical freeloader of the forest. The canal itself looks so opaque and unpleasant that the visitor finds himself mentally populating it with cottonmouth moccasins and alligators and all the reptilian powers of darkness. The few identifying signs on the right-of-way tell the driver only what he has suspected all along—that he is in an area inhospitable to man, characterized as well as anything by its name: The Great Dismal Swamp. For decades now drivers have reacted by tromping on the gas pedal, eager to be away from a place so funereal and grim, eager to get on down the road a piece to the well-tended gardens where $1 tours are conducted and the water is clear and tinted blue, the way God intended.

This is the driver's loss; the Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina, almost two-thirds as large as Rhode Island, as wild as Bechuanaland, remains one of the last major repositories of eastern wildlife, both southern and northern varieties, a boggy, watery wilderness full of secrets.

Indeed, man is only now beginning to know the swamp; books are being written about it, studies are being made and each year a few more bold adventurers are swallowing their fear of snakes and bears and bobcats to venture into the dank interior. They find fox fire and screech owls and prothonotary warblers, skinks and wood ducks and timber rattlesnakes, black gum and tupelo trees and bear briers. Sometimes they find just about everything except their way out, and then vast rescue expeditions must be laid on, with the swamp becoming almost diabolical in the tricks it plays to keep the traveler from breaking free. The floor of the swamp is a litter of humus and wet wood and peat; it absorbs and cushions sound, like acoustical tile. Sometimes rescue parties and lost explorers circle around each other for days, never more than a few hundred yards apart but never hearing each other's calls and shots in the deadening forest.

Luckily, most visitors to the swamp have enough sense to stay on the beaten path. The name of the swamp is enough to keep them from wandering into its blackness, and if the name is not enough, there is the grim folklore. Augustine Herrman, an early mapmaker, described the area in 1670 as "Low Suncken Swampy Land not well passable but with great difficulty. And herein harbours Tiggers Bears and other Devouring Creatures." In 1728 Colonel William Byrd II of Virginia was commissioned by the Crown to chart a dividing line between the colonies of North Carolina and Virginia through the swamp. Though he himself barely set foot into the interior, Colonel Byrd waxed unenthusiastic in an early report. "The ground of this swamp," he wrote, "is a mere quagmire, trembling under the feet of those that walk upon it.... 'Tis remarkable that, towards the heart of this horrible desart, no beast or bird approaches, nor so much as an insect or reptile. This must happen not so much from the moisture of the soil, as from the everlasting shade occationed by the thick shrubbs and bushes, so that the friendly warmth of the sun can never penetrate them to warm the earth. Nor indeed do any birds fly over it...for fear of the noisome exhalations that rise from this vast body of dirt and nastiness." Byrd hung on it the name Dismal Swamp. French visitors, not to be outdone rhetorically, called it the marais maudit, the cursed swamp.

Today natives of its environs are quick to claim that the swamp is neither cursed nor dismal. Professor John Baldwin of The College of William and Mary, a biologist who has organized a massive study of the swamp right down to its tiniest insect, is still capable of feeling anger toward Colonel Byrd for tagging it with such a dreary name. "Colonel Byrd was a liar," Dr. Baldwin says, "and I don't mind if you quote me on that. He was just trying to make the swamp look worse than it really was so he could get more money out of England for the surveying."

It is axiomatic that nothing can bear so depressing an appellation as the Dismal Swamp without attracting the attention of poets and novelists. The Irish poet, Thomas Moore, reportedly sat in a tavern in Norfolk and composed a ballad about a lunatic lover seeking his dead sweetheart in "The Lake of the Dismal Swamp." Sipping and writing, Moore told of "tangled juniper, beds of reeds,/Through many a fen, where serpent feeds,/And never man trod before."

Longfellow was excited by

Dark fens of Dismal Swamp....
Where will-o-wisps and glow worms shine,
In bulrush and brake:
Where waving mosses shroud the pine,
And cedar grows and the poisonous vine,
Is spotted like the snake.

The fewer the men who went into the swamp, the wilder the tales about it. Harriet Beecher Stowe made it the setting for her novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. Runaway slaves added to the mystery by holing up deep in the interior. An enterprising reporter from Harper's New Monthly Magazine wrote a description of one in 1856:

"...I saw a gigantic negro with tattered blanket wrapped around his shoulders and a gun in his hand. His head was bare, and he had little clothing other than a pair of ragged breeches and boots. His hair and beard were tipped with gray, and his purely African features were cast in a mold suggesting the highest degree of strength and energy."

Now the last runaway slave is long forgotten, and the swamp is slowly changing. Independent loggers have come and gone, most of their attempts destined to fail, their efforts memorialized by dozens of abandoned camps, each with its own small mountain of sawdust slowly dissolving into the earth alongside a few old trails. Fires have ravaged the swamp; there is little to do but let them run. They burn down into the peat, scoring long tunnels through the earth, and pop out miles away from their starting points. Sometimes the fires burn for two and three years. When they finally go out, new roots and humus form a crust over the tunnels, and the visitor to the swamp suddenly finds himself up to his waist where the ground had seemed solid.

Such soil looks dark and fertile, and ever since the days of George Washington men have laid grandiose plans for draining Dismal Swamp and converting it into rich farmland. Washington and Patrick Henry were members of a company called Adventurers For Draining The Dismal Swamp. Their slaves dug long ditches into the heart of the swamp and managed to lower the water level and expose some tillable land. But crops either failed to grow or produced weird specimens like stringy cotton with blue and yellow fibers. Washington's own attempts to grow rice failed, and he died with his Dismal Swamp accounts showing a loss. Soil specialists, had they existed, could have told him that the peat bogs were formed largely from the droppings of southern white cedar, which lays down an acidic humus suitable mainly for growing more southern white cedar. It is the leachings from this tree, locally called "juniper," which form, along with trees like gum and cypress, the characteristic reddish-black water of the canals and Lake Drummond, "the Lake of Dismal Swamp." Mariners used to collect the water in barrels for long ocean voyages; it never went sour at sea.

Despite the high acid content of the swampland, entrepreneurs still cast covetous glances at it. As recently as a year ago, one such visitor arrived in Suffolk, Va., on the northern rim, to announce plans for converting the swamp into a huge farm of incredible fertility. He told an audience of Suffolk residents that the swamp eventually would have to go anyway, and they might as well start getting some good out of it. "Hmph," said a local lady. "He doesn't seem to know that we love our swamp. Somebody's always saying that the swamp will have to go. Where's it going?"

More enlightened have been the efforts of the Union Bag-Camp Paper Corp., which owns timber rights to some 50,000 acres of the swamp. Union Bag is struggling to make the lumber a paying proposition (it has even considered logging by helicopter or barrage balloon), but its experiments with heavy machinery have failed. The dozers and logging trucks simply broke through the crust of humus and roots and settled into the muck. Now the company has dug maintenance ditches down through the peat to the sandy bottom of the old ocean, and locks control the water level. The sand heaped up alongside the ditches has been smoothed out to make narrow roads, and down these passageways, in small but happy numbers, come the hunters: those who hunt for sights and sounds and those who hunt for game. It would be all but impossible to find another place in the East where both groups of hunters are made so joyous.

M. Dewey Howell Jr., whose family has roamed the area for six generations, took me through the swamp recently. Howell is a gun hunter, but now and then he finds himself, out of an extremely generous nature, escorting bird watchers and animal watchers. "They almost go out of their heads," Howell says in his deep Tidewater accent. "You have a awful time gettin' them back."

Howell, an energetic man who holds down half a dozen jobs in his home town of Suffolk, is no bird watcher ("Any bird that has a little yellow in him, to me he's a wild canary"), but through the years he has become a sort of birdwatcher watcher. Since he sees bird watchers only in the Dismal Swamp, he is under the impression that they are the happiest people on earth. "Just the sight of a prothonotary warbler is enough to set them off," he says. "There's another little bird that specially gets them excited. I wish I could think of the name of it, a little blue bird with a orange head, it's a orange-throated swampbird or something like that. Anyway, when they see this bird I practically have to fight 'em to get 'em to go home."

The high point of Dewey Howell's career as a bird-watcher watcher came a few years ago when he took a group from Wilmington, Del. into the swamp. On the way along the bumpy sand road toward Lake Drummond, Howell told the birders a story. "I saw a osprey come down and take a fish out of the lake and fly up," he said, "and then a eagle run that osprey straight up in the air, up and up, until finally the osprey had to drop the fish, and that old eagle swooped down and caught the fish before it reached the water." Howell could see the looks of disbelief crossing the faces of the bird watchers, and he fell quiet. The group reached the lake, and there was an osprey fishing. "Sure enough," says Howell, "he got a fish out of the lake and here comes this big old bird from across on the west shore. The bird watchers said to me, what's that, and I said that's a eagle, and wouldn't you know that eagle came over and did exactly the same thing to that osprey all over again. Exactly."

The secret of Dismal Swamp nature study is silence and immobility. The visitor rests his back against a gum tree and makes himself inconspicuous, and after a while the swamp comes to life. A wood duck flashes into view, all white and blue except for his crest, which is an iridescent purple and green. Along comes an all-blue indigo bunting. A hummingbird flits by; a wild goose thrums overhead, and the warblers fill the woods with music. Sometimes the observer sees a skink, which, as Horace Sutton once pointed out, is not a misspelled skunk but a lizard. In mating season the male skink runs through the brush with his mouth open, charging pell-mell at any other skink he sees. If the other skink reacts aggressively, he is a male; if he runs or remains docile, he is a she, and nature takes its course. Love takes many forms in the Dismal Swamp.

If the visitor stays till nightfall he is likely to see fox lire, a sort of cold light given off by certain fungi on decaying wood. The visitor must be warned of this in advance, else the scientific explanation of fox fire may have to be provided by someone who can run faster than the tenderfoot who has just mistaken it for a ghost of the Dismal Swamp. Harder to explain, indeed impossible to explain, are the reports of white puffs of luminescence coming from the center of Lake Drummond at night. Legend has it that an Indian maid, long deceased, comes out to paddle her ghostly canoe across the lake. Some claim to have seen her, but others argue that the sightings are the product of an excess of white moonshine, another product of the swamp and one noted for its dramatic effects on the optic nerve. It is a documented fact that the Lady of the Lake, as she is called, has never been seen by a teetotaler.

One needs no alcoholic assistance to see the deer of the Dismal Swamp, but even these animals carry out the strange motif of the "horrible desart" by being different. The bucks come big and fat, but their horns are short and oddly formed and sometimes resemble the horns of cattle. Many of the bucks have a single horn, or tiny horns that would look more natural on a chamois. The hunters of the Dismal Swamp say that these deer have been produced by natural selection, that deer with huge spreading racks could not survive in the thickness of the swamp and were quickly culled out by predators. Scientists say that the deer have deformed horns simply because the soil is thin in the mineral content that produces big racks.

Whatever the reason, the deer of the Dismal Swamp are hunted with a vengeance during a special October-November season each year. The enlightened companies now in control of the swamp parcel out the land to clubs—no one else may enter during the season—and each club stands or falls on a single man who handles the hounds. Running deer with hounds is considered a cruel sport by many, but the fact is that in the Dismal Swamp there is simply no other way to hunt them. If hunters stalked deer on their own the scene would soon resemble a Civil War battlefield, with hunters falling into ashpits, sinking into quicksand and wandering off into the deep woods, never to be found again. A hunt-master like Joe Barnes, who spent his boyhood in the swamp, stations his hunters atop poles along a drainage ditch or along a clearing in the woods, then casts the dogs into the swamp near by. The hunter sits—and sits. If he moves from his station, thus coming into range of other hunters, he is likely to find himself booted out of the club. If he is patient enough to sit, sometimes for 10 hours at a stretch, he will see deer. The dogs keep them in all but constant motion.

The deerhounds of Dismal Swamp are carefully bred by the huntmasters, who mix Walker hounds with Plotts and Black and Tans and Triggs and red bones and blueticks. The resulting dogs are schizophrenic combinations of tenderness toward man and malevolence toward deer. Barnes, huntmaster of the Black Cats Hunt Club, has 16 of them, bearing names like Phoebe, Scrawny, Bimbo, Ike, Mike, Red, Rusty, Rusty Jr., Jake and Rattler. Joe Barnes can get rhapsodic about them:

"I love to hear 'em run, I love to hear 'em pack. You take 15, 16 dogs on a deer and if that ain't pretty music. Oh, how they kick it up! They yodel and they roll their voices and the little ones squeal. I can tell every one of my dogs a half a mile away."

The reverse is also true, I discovered. When Joe Barnes gets near his camp along the edge of Lake Drummond and cuts the motor of his boat for the drift in, the dogs begin howling; and when he walks back to their chicken-wire enclosure they set up a din of affection that tries the ears. Sometimes after a long day's hunting one dog will fail to respond to Barnes's fox horn and will remain, lost, in the swamp. On such nights Barnes will sit out in front of his cabin waiting for the dog until dawn. Once one of his dogs was stolen, and Barnes carried out a nine-month search for him. He never found out exactly where the dog was being hidden, but he did learn the approximate location from an informant. "I knew the dog was somewhere on Factory Street in South Suffolk," Barnes says, "and when I found that out, I went right down there with my big pistol and I musta told a dozen kids that my dog was in that neighborhood somewhere and when I found the man who had him I was gonna shoot him right through the head. That night Big Red was let loose, and I picked him up the next morning. He's half Walker, half bloodhound, and he's out running the deer again."

Dewey Howell runs 58 dogs for the Lady of the Lake and Jack's Hunt clubs and, like Barnes, he knows every dog by name and watches after them like children. On the morning of a hunt Howell stations his hunters in their tree perches in the areas assigned to the two clubs. He goes back to the clubhouse alongside Lake Drummond and loads eight dogs into his boat. Howell steers back across the lake, the dogs whimpering for action, quivering slightly in the early-morning coolness. Thirty feet from shore they start jumping over the side, wade through the muck and take off into the woods. Behind them comes Dewey Howell, transformed now into a one-man cheering section. "Go, White Man!" he cries to one of his dogs. "Get on there, Rock! Oh, Shag!" Shouting at the top of his lungs, he pursues the dogs a quarter of a mile into the swamp. Suddenly the last one has disappeared; still Howell keeps urging them on. The dogs are running far ahead, trying to pick up the scent of a deer that has foraged all night and now lies fast asleep in the woods.

For 10 or 15 minutes the swamp is silent. Then a single bark comes from up ahead. Seconds go by, and there is another bark. Then other dogs join in, and all at once the barks blend into one long cacophony of howling and yodeling. "They on the deer!" Howell shouts. The woods are full of racket, coming from what seems to be all directions, and after a shot rings out Howell translates what happened: "Old Timer started the deer. He was the first one to hit the cold trail of the deer. The other dogs, they sensed that he had already struck, so they didn't follow him. They went on up ahead of him and they got to the hot scent, where the deer had lain all night, ahead of Old Timer. Then the dogs split into two packs. What happened was they must have jumped a buck and a doe that were lying together. One went one way and one went another. Most deer won't do that; they'll run right together. But in Dismal Swamp they always split up. The one that ran over toward the ditch, somebody must have shot him."

Howell explains why he shouted at the dogs. "It's exactly like a football game," he says. "They need encouragement. They need to know you're there with 'em, rootin' for 'em. I holler their names and cheer 'em on. They like that."

All day long Howell will make the motorboat trip back to the clubhouse, selecting more dogs and casting them into the woods where hunters are stationed. At the end of the day a fox horn summons the pack home, all but a few who may stay out two or three days or forever. The bane of the huntmaster's existence is the migrating deer, who is merely passing through the Dismal Swamp. If a dog picks up the scent of a migrating deer, he will stay on the trail for miles, and the huntmaster has to scratch one hound from his list.

At the end of the day the hunters reassemble at the clubhouse, there to point with pride or make excuses. There is an ironclad rule of the Dismal Swamp hunt clubs that any hunter who shoots at a deer and misses must have a section of his shirttail cut off and tacked to the wall. "He is welcome to a trial," says Howell, "but it always comes out the same: he loses. We figure he shouldn't be shooting at the deer unless he has a good, clear shot; we don't want a lot of cripples running around. And if he has a good clear shot, he shouldn't miss." Howell recalls one hunter who missed: his late father, Dewey Howell Sr., a dead shot and a man who had spent much of his life hunting deer. "I was so proud when my daddy missed that deer," Howell recalls. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, so I started slicing away at his shirttail. My daddy said, 'Here, let me help you,' and he lifted his shirttail way up and helped me cut it right below the neckline. I said, 'Daddy, how come you so helpful?' and he said, 'Son, I'm wearing your shirt.' "

Presiding over all this, in his capacity as game warden, is a ruddy-faced sandy-haired man named W. Shelton Rountree, who has spent most of his own life in and near the swamp and who has been named Virginia's warden of the year. Rountree rules the hunters with a combination of gentleness and sternness; he never raises his voice, he never bawls anybody out and he never lets anybody off for any infraction whatsoever. Dozens of times he has been routed out of bed in the middle of the night to round up search parties for lost hunters. In 1955 he led a rescue party on a hazardous hunt for a father and son, lost while squirrel hunting. To get more help, he wired the Coast Guard in Norfolk:

TWO HUNTERS FROM PORTSMOUTH WENT IN DISMAL SWAMP ABOUT SEVEN MILES SOUTHEAST OF SUFFOLK ON THE MORNING OF 12 DECEMBER AND FAILED TO COME OUT OF SWAMP LAST NIGHT.

Within hours, Rountree found himself in charge of 400 men, among them sailors, coast guardsmen, Indian guides, professional hunters, marines and Red Cross workers. It took three days, but the father and son were found, shivering and hungry. Hours before Rountree's men came across them, the father had grown so weary and embittered by the swamp that he had begged his son to shoot him.

Just after dark on another evening, Rountree and a fellow warden went into the swamp looking for poachers. They heard a man approaching, and Rountree called out in the direction of the sound. The answer was a load of shot fired into Rountree's left arm. The poacher was found and sentenced to prison two years later, largely because of Rountree's own efforts. Despite the loss of his arm, Rountree does business as usual and even finds time to do a little hunting. But mostly he likes to roam around the swamp, listening to the warblers, pointing out to visitors where a deer has polished his horns against the stump of a tree. "You hear things in there you can't hear anyplace else," he says. "I swear there's no place in the world like our swamp. You go out there at night on Lake Drummond and you make a cry and it just rolls around you. It seems to come from every direction, and then you go into the woods and you hear a hoot owl. That hoot owl is a lonesome, hollerin' dude at night. Every once in a while you'll hear a bear rippin' away at some decayed old tree on the lakeshore, tryin' to get at the bugs. And he'll rip and rip at that tree until it comes down with a crash that just about takes your ears off. And I've seen the fox fire, too, glowing down the road, and I've seen some other lights, too. People say they come from luminous gases coming out of the earth. I've seen them come up and glow there just like the filament on a light bulb, and I would run toward them and they would disappear. I swear there are things in that swamp nobody has ever seen."

Like most of the people in Suffolk and the other towns on the rim of the swamp, Rountree cringes at plans to turn the swamp into a big farm or other ideas for changing it at all. "The plain truth is we admire our swamp," he says, "and we don't want to see it changed."

The change that Rountree dreads is bound to come. A studious British writer, Charles Frederick Stansbury, wrote in 1925: "The time to see the swamp in its primeval loveliness is now and in the very near future, for like all things beautiful it must pass away before the encroaching commercialism of the times." Rountree and Joe Barnes and Dewey Howell and all the wanderers of the Dismal Swamp hope that the change will take forever.

PHOTOTONY TRIOLO PHOTOTONY TRIOLOPerched on a giant shooting stick in a clearing deep in the swamp, a hunter waits for deer, stirred up by hounds, to come within range. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOCheering on his dogs, Dewey Howell pursues them into the swamp until the last disappears. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOWarden Shell on Rountree rules swamp with patient firmness, often rounds up lost hunters.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)