Friday, August 2, 2019

Through the not-Dismal Swamp

August 2
Entering Chesapeake Bay

Intermezzo has now entered the Chesapeake Bay and is heading north to Tangier Island, our next port of call. Yesterday we sailed from Elizabeth City, NC through the Dismal Swamp to Portsmouth VA.

We left our dock in Elizabeth City yesterday morning and continued up the Panquotank River with a cool breeze blowing, wispy light clouds above us, a line of cumulus ahead of is the distance. The air felt refreshing after heavy rain during the night. Trees grow right out of the water on the banks of the river, which sparkled in the morning light. The river winds in sinuous curves, reminding me of our river trip to Pedregal in Panama. Here the river is the color of Coca Cola from all the woodland tannins.

Shortly upriver from Elizabeth City, we passed through our first railroad swing bridge, the type of bridge that pivots about a vertical axis and rotates horizontally to open up a passage. The gap between the bridge and its abutment was barely wide enough for Intermezzo to pass through.

Being a slow moving boat on a scenic river has the advantage of being able to notice things that you wouldn't if traveling faster. The edges of the river are carpeted with tiny, delicate, bright green water plants floating on the surface. Tendrils of these plants extend into the river channel like spray from an airbrush. Stretches of the river are covered by the thin layer of floating plants from bank to bank. Intermezzo's hulls leave two furrows as we pass through the floating green carpet. Looking down closely at the undisturbed green surface from the deck, you see thin meanders and small pools of clear water amongst the green, it looks like the Amazon jungle would from 20,000 feet in the air.

We left the Panquotank, turning into Turner's Cut, a manmade straight shot to the Dismal Swamp Canal. The cut is very narrow, the upper limbs of the trees on its banks encroaching into the canal's airspace overhead. Three dimensional piloting required here and later in the narrow sections of the Dismal Swamp, dodging tree limbs above that could tangle with the mast and logs and stumps below which could wallop the hulls or bang a prop. The forest squeezing in from each side gives off a sweet herbal odor, basil, bay leaves, oregano, from baking in the hot sun.

We locked up into the Dismal Swam Canal at South Mills, an eight foot lift up in a small lock operated by a taciturn lock keeper. A miniature version of locking up in the Panama Canal, the last time Intermezzo was confined by slimy concrete walls. This time, only one line handler, Renee, rather than the four required by the Panama Canal Authority. And not much handling required, either, as the boat slowly rises in the almost placid waters of the lock. After the lock comes a bascule bridge. The lock keeper hops in his car and drives the short distance to open the bridge by the time the boat gets there.

There is nothing dismal about the Dismal Swamp, except the highway that runs alongside the canal for a third of its length. The noise from the traffic barely hidden by the trees on the bank seems so out of place with the natural beauty of the woodland on the other side. Once we left the highway behind us and entered the National Wilderness Area, we enjoyed dense, mostly deciduous forest on both sides, interspersed with fragrant pine trees. The Dismal Swamp isn't actually a swamp, it's a high wetland, hence all the trees. (I don't think my wetland terminology is correct, but I don't remember the proper technical designation. I know someone who does and who will no doubt correct me.)

The green carpet of water plants disappeared, I'm guessing because the water changed from brackish to fresh as we ventured up the canal, away from the locks. The surface of the water is black and reflects the trees on each bank, the reflection of the sky between the trees creating a silver blue road for Intermezzo to follow.

At the end of the canal we passed through another bascule bridge and then locked down at Big Creek, this time the lock operated by a talkative and knowledgable Robert Peek, who described himself as the local historian for the Corps of Engineers. He recited a well-practiced summary of the history of the canal during the twenty minutes it took for the water to lower in the lock, this time a 13 foot drop. He also recommended where we should dock for the night in Portsmouth, where we should eat and where we should go for entertainment. A very nice and informative man who enjoys his job.

Just a few miles beyond our exit from the swamp, we were surrounded by infrastructure and industry. Highways, bridges, oil tanks, wharves, warehouses, tall heaps of aggregate, chemical smells, noise, trains, cars, airplanes, ships; such a sudden and crazy transition from green abundant nature.

We had to wait about 45 minutes for a coal train to pass over a railroad bridge so it could open for us, which in turn allowed the Gilmenton highway lift bridge to be raised for us to pass under. Our one little boat caused hundreds of vehicles in heavy rush hour traffic to be brought to a standstill high up on the approaches to the bridge, so we moved along at full throttle to minimize our impact.

We passed by the some of the docks for the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, part of a sprawling complex of naval facilities surrounding these sheltered waters at the confluence of the James Nansmond and Elizabeth Rivers and the Hampton Flats, collectively referred to as Hampton Roads.

Mr. Peek recommended by dock at the city of Portsmouth's free docks, but there was a free open air concert taking place there and the docks were all occupied by spectators. So we tied up to the face dock of nearby Ocean Yacht Marina. The marina office was closed, so we were sort of squatting on the dock, but were assured by an adjacent slip owner that we were not taking any other boat's space. We walked into town, had a nice seafood dinner, enjoyed the last few songs of the funk music concert, washed that down with a local brew, and then strolled around the historic downtown in the warm, dark night. Downtown Portsmouth is really nice, a nice commercial area of mainly historic buildings and churches, elegant vintage homes, small nicely landscaped parks and quiet streets with wide, tree lined sidewalks. The rugged, imposing naval industry surrounding the town is all but hidden away.

After a wee dram of rum upon our return to Intermezzo, it was time to get some sleep in preparation for a dawn departure for the Chesapeake Bay.