From Swamp to “Jungle”

How strange to travel by boat from a remote swamp to a “concrete jungle” in the same day. It’s quite the transition, from the narrow canal of The Great Dismal Swamp to the wide, industry-lined waterways of Hampton Roads (Norfolk/Portsmouth/etc.). One of the memorable days as we enter our 9th month on The Great Loop! It’s also strange for this retired Navy officer to be back in “Navy HQ,” as I call Norfolk. It’s the largest naval station in the world, and we can see some of that Navy activity from our dock in Portsmouth, Va.

Speaking of Virginia! We arrived in the 13th state of our boat journey yesterday while transiting the Dismal Swamp. This has been my home state since 1990, when the Navy sent me to the Pentagon. I left active duty a few years later (staying in the reserves) and entered federal service to work in the nation’s capital, right across the Potomac River from Virginia. So I’ve been a Virginia resident for 30+ years. (Michigan is still “home” too, especially since we began this boat journey there–and, my waterfront camp there still calls to me. The question of whether to build on it this year looms large.)

We’ve sure enjoyed the company of two boats we met in Elizabeth City four days ago. Photos and captions of our journey to Hampton Roads/Portsmouth, below.

Yooper Too pulled out in front of us as we left the visitor’s center. Note the black mile-marker on the right, which tells us we are at Intracoastal Waterway Mile Marker 28. Just 28 miles to Norfolk and Mile Marker 0!
The Dismal Swamp is unusual in many ways. For one thing, peat moss grows here. We used peat moss in our compost toilet until I learned that it takes a long time to regenerate. We use mostly coco coir now.
We watched for debris because of the storm that passed just north of us the previous night. We felt one or two small “thunks,” but nothing concerning.
As we approached a bridge that needed to open for us, the other boats were already tied to the nearby wall to await the opening. They invited us to “bumper up” with them — meaning tie our boat to theirs, with bumpers in between. So we did.
As we pulled alongside Tranquility, a sudden gust of wind nearly sent us into her beautiful wooden dinghy. Yikes. This is why one can never become complacent.
Edith B was already at the wall, so there were four of us hanging out there…
John from Yooper Too delivered home-made muffins. Yummy! John advertised for a Looping boat to join for awhile, and that’s how he became Brian’s First Mate. They didn’t know each other beforehand. This isn’t common, but it does happen. Another unusual thing about our two “buddy boats” is that both of them have two men on board. (Wives are on shore.) I love the unconventional, as you might have guessed!
Jeff and Mary from Many Moons, John from Yooper Too, Sid from Tranquility, all await the bridge opening.
Soon after the bridge, we encountered the northern lock of the Dismal Swamp canal. This lock went more smoothly than the southern one because we knew what to expect (the immovable bollards, bow and stern lines, etc.) — but we did contend with buffeting winds.
I’m hanging onto this line while the boat drops about 10 feet down.
The lockmaster here died last year. He was known for blowing all kinds of conch shells. You can see the piles of conch shells piled up in his honor.
After leaving the man-made part (canal) of the Great Dismal Swamp, the channel started to meander again as we approached Portsmouth.
And then…wow. Back into civilization! (That’s Yooper Too ahead of us, seen through our boat rails.)
Bridges and more bridges, as we approach Hampton Roads….
…and some really big ships along the waterfront….
…and cranes….
Jeff’s eyes were darting everywhere. As we passed by this Navy ship, which he was “oohing” over, I almost yelled. “Jeff! We’re almost there! Pay attention!” The free dock we were aiming for was behind a small entrance which was hard to find. “A water taxi goes in there too,” I said, “so we need to watch…!”
Our arrival into this square “landing” was eventful. Winds were gusting. We couldn’t see where we to go. We didn’t know how much of the dock we could use and we knew at least three boats were already there. We tried to reach our buddies there, to get some “intell” and help with lines, but they couldn’t hear us. An arriving water taxi honked its horn and forced us to enter and figure it out. (You can see the taxi entering the opening in this picture.) I yelled out for help on the dock, and somebody did come running to grab our lines and pull us in against the gusty wind…but it was pretty exciting! Many Moons is at the back in this picture.
You can see, right across the river from us, the Navy ship that distracted Jeff as we arrived. That’sUSS Wasp, an LPH — meaning Landing Platform Helicopter. It’s sort of like a small aircraft carrier. I served briefly on one of these in Panama.
Shortly after arrival, Jeff visited with other boaters as if our arrival was easy. I needed a little time to decompress. (He’s the one who has to handle the boat in winds with one engine and no thruster, but I’m the one who has to secure it to the dock. Both can be tough.)
This is a wonderful free dock in Portsmouth, Va. (Once you are comfortably inside it!) The town is wonderful too. I already know Norfolk well, which is one reason I opted to go to Portsmouth, just across the river.
I love museums, so stopped in immediately to this one, right at our dock. You never know what odd or unexpected thing you’ll learn in a museum, even a small one like this….
For example,. this battle rattle, which was used to call sailors to arms in the days of wooden sailing ships. It made a drum-like sound.
And, this Lightship. A floating lighthouse! I never knew about them before….
We took the water taxi across the river to Norfolk and found this unusual memorial on the waterfront. These are “final letters,” written by military members just before they were killed. Brian, John and Jeff are sitting on the stone bench in contemplation.
Battleship Wisconsin, now a museum on the Norfolk waterfront. It hosts Navy ceremonies, and I held a small Change of Command Ceremony here many years ago, handing over my command to someone new.
We explored the historic part of Portsmouth by foot. It’s a clean and friendly place. I’d come here again!
My former mentor, fellow Navy captain and good friend Chris Miller came over from Norfolk to drive me to the Navy Exchange and Commissary for provisioning. Thanks, Chris!!
We made good use of this water taxi ($4 round trip), which went from our landing to Norfolk every 30 min.
Norfolk waterfront, from the water taxi.
Boo loves to get brushed. If I’m not quick enough about it, she brushes herself. 😄

6 thoughts on “From Swamp to “Jungle”

  1. The Dismal Swamp was one of my favorite links of the Great Loop. Robert Peek was the Deep Creek lockmasters. We had my sisters grand children on board. Mr Peek played us some tunes on his conch shells and gave us a thorough description of the history of the area. Yup we were a captive audience as I was holding the line to hold our boat to the lock wall. Lol! I was very sorry to hear that he had passed a few months later. He spent 25 years refining his craft and made his part of the ICW something that was really special.


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