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A small bridge operated by the lockmaster is located just inside each lock, and is also opened by the lockmaster in coordination with the lock openings.
A portable sliding bridge, closed only when in brief use, is located at mile 20.9, used by a farmer to get livestock and equipment across the canal.
Either way, this unique part of the ICW is a see-it-while-you-can destination.
Not for everyone The Dismal Swamp Canal provides a beautiful and peaceful alternative for many recreational boaters who want to avoid the commercial traffic, development and congestion prevalent along the main ICW route that runs farther to the east.
Floating logs or submerged snags are not unusual in the canal, especially after a storm, so it’s wise to keep a sharp lookout on the water ahead and be ready for a quick shift into neutral if necessary.
However, during our trip through the canal in May, we found the Dismal to be far cleaner of debris than the main ICW (where we ran into several floating boards or branches) and much quieter — not only due to the absence of commercial shipping, but also because of the jet fighters from Oceana Naval Air Station at Virginia Beach, Va., which buzz the skies over the main ICW farther to the east.
The canal has been closed in periods of extreme drought, when the Great Dismal Swamp’s primary water source, Lake Drummond, has been unable to maintain sufficient water flow and depth.
Major storms (most recently Hurricane Isabel in 2003) also have temporarily shut down the canal because of fallen trees.
But it’s not for everyone: Vessels over 50 feet or drawing more than 5-1/2 feet should not attempt the Dismal Swamp Canal, since the controlling depth is six feet and sometimes less from silting or drought.
Because of overhanging trees and vines, sailboats with tall masts need to stay in the center of the fairway.
The Dismal Swamp Canal Visitors Center is about 17 miles below the Deep Creek lock, and Elizabeth City is about 15 miles below the South Mills Lock on the Pasquotank River.
Because both locations depend so heavily on canal traffic, they shower recreational boaters with remarkable hospitality and offer free overnight docking for transients.
Despite the president’s opposition, Congress has provided the Army Corps with both the money and the statutory directive to keep the Dismal Swamp Canal going.