A Dozen Types of Damp, an Introduction to Great Dismal Swamp NWR


I’ve been trudging and mucking around in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge for almost two months (!) now. I’ve spent my weeks roaming the 113,000 acres of forested wetland – getting to know the land, the history, the plants, the birds, myself, and since I’m the Hydrology Technician Intern, I’ve really been getting to know the water.

The majority of the refuge is made up of forested wetland, it’s home to tupelo sweet gum, red maple, bald cypress, and a handful of Atlantic white cedar, all of which I learned to identify sometime in the past seven weeks, and all of which are strikingly beautiful. The area is an important bird area, and the chirps, tweets, and melodies of the songbirds fill the air. Their sweet calls carry through the trees like my own private symphonic performance.

When I first imagined the swamp in the nervous weeks leading up to my arrival, I pictured something out of a tale parents tell young children to behave. Instead of songbirds, I pictured mosquitoes the size of small mammals, instead of the lush under-story of the forest I imagined a rolling, boiling, stinking muck. With a name like “Great Dismal” how could I not picture a place filled with bugs and danger?

As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The greens are glowing and varied, untouched by man. The old logging roads and ditches run like scars along the land, but Nature has carried on, flourishing in this corner tucked away and protected.

Though the mosquitoes and flies grow large, the butterflies are larger. Vivid, magnificent as they flutter and delicately land on my hands while I stand, waist deep in the ditch network taking measurements.

The beauty of the swamp was something so completely unexpected, that it eradicated any worries I had when I first stepped foot in the state of Virginia. Lake Drummond, the largest natural lake in the state sits in the very center of the swamp, it is the heart, and the way the glassy, deeply stained waters reflect the sky have captured me completely.

My work involved reading the staff gauges all around the refuge, I go and I check the water levels in the ditches, which we can manipulate through the addition or subtraction of boards at the water control structures. I like the concept of working with the swamp to keep it, well, swampy. I clear debris, occasionally getting covered in the organic foam that froths up from the water. The water here is an organic soup- stained deep red and brown from the organic material in the peat soils.

The data collection is a huge perk, I get to roam around and work at the same time, while getting to take in the greens and browns and the yellows of the swallowtails and warblers. I’ve been doing a lot of flow work, too. This means I spend a lot of time in the ditches with equipment that makes me feel quite accomplished. I can’t count the number of times I’ve wrung my socks out this summer-but I’ve learned to not mind getting wet.

It doesn’t matter if you wear waders, knee boots, chest waders, that water and mud will find it’s way to at least some part of you. Every day I return to the bunk house with the rest of the interns, seasonals, and AmeriCorps teams, and I’m a different kind of wet. My socks, my head, my hands, my legs – I’ve come home soaked in ditch water, soaked in salt water from the other refuge I’ve visited, or just soaked in sweat. That’s all right, because in the Refuge system, every day is a different sort of adventure.