Monday, July 1, 2019

Episode 479 (7-1-19): Exploring the Great Dismal Swamp

Click to listen to episode (5:09).

Sections below are the following:
Transcript of Audio
Audio Notes and Acknowledgments
Extra Information
Related Water Radio Episodes
For Virginia Teachers (Relevant SOLs, etc.).

Unless otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 6-28-19.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of July 1, 2019.

MUSIC – ~8 sec

This week, that excerpt of “Baldcypress Swamp,” by Timothy Seaman of Williamsburg, Va., opens an episode about a large, distinctive place of water, woods, wildlife, and human history in Virginia and North Carolina.  Have a listen for about 25 seconds to some sounds recorded in June 2019 from that area, and see if you know the rather gloomy name for this place.

SOUNDS - ~24 sec

If you guessed the Dismal Swamp, you’re right!  The frogs and birds you heard are a small sample of the life in the Great Dismal Swamp, a large area of forested wetlands in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.  Reportedly named by William Byrd during his exploration of the area in 1728, the Great Dismal Swamp at one time covered an estimated 1.5 million acres.  Between the colonial era and the 1970s, the swamp was changed drastically by development of the Dismal Swamp Canal, construction of miles of drainage ditches, and the timbering of cypress and cedar trees made possible by the drainage. In 1974, about 49,000 acres of the swamp were established as a federal wildlife refuge, and that has since grown to over 110,000 acres, providing what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has called “some of the most important wildlife habitat in the mid-Atlantic region.”  It’s also home to Lake Drummond, one of only two natural lakes in Virginia.

A key feature of the Dismal Swamp is its peat soil. Peat contains decomposed plant material accumulated over many years under wet, low-oxygen conditions.  Peat gives the Dismal Swamp distinctive water chemistry and water-holding conditions, with particular vegetation adapted to those conditions.

As a human habitat, the Dismal Swamp is particularly noteworthy as a refuge to thousands of African Americans fleeing slavery between the 1600s and the Civil War.  While many used the swamp as a stopping point along the Underground Railroad, many others stayed there.  Those Dismal Swamp inhabitants were known as “maroons,” from a French word meaning “to flee,” and Dismal Swamp was only one of many remote places used by maroons before the Civil War.

In the 21st Century, the Dismal Swamp attracts outdoor enthusiasts; fascinates historians and archeologists studying maroon communities; and challenges wetland scientists studying interactions among water, land, vegetation, and the atmosphere.  Despite its gloomy name, the Dismal Swamp can enlighten explorers of its natural and historical intricacies.

Thanks to Trevor Amestoy and Clay Word for providing this week’s sounds.  Thanks also to Timothy Seaman for permission to use this week’s music, and we close another selection by Mr. Seaman with a title recalling some of the recreation and wildlife to be found in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.  Here’s about 20 seconds of “Paddle with the Kingfishers.”

MUSIC - ~ 20 sec


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Ben Cosgrove for his version of “Shenandoah” to open and close the show.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


The sounds heard in this Virginia Water Radio episode were from a video recorded by Trevor Amestoy in the Dismal Swamp on June 11, 2019.  In 2019, Trevor is a senior at the University of New Mexico and is a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) student during the summer at Virginia Tech.  The recording was made while Trevor was assisting in Dismal Swamp research by Clay Word, a graduate student in the Virginia Tech Department of Forest Resources and Conservation.

“Baldcypress Swamp,” from the 2004 album “Virginia Wildlife,” is copyright 2004 by Timothy Seaman and Pine Wind Music, used with permission.  The “Virginia Wildlife” CD was a collaboration between Mr. Seaman and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.  This music was used previously in Virginia Water Radio Episodes 269, 6-8-15, on waters of the United States; 319, 6-6-16, on Barking Treefrogs; and 465, 3-25-19, on snakes.  “Paddle with the Kingfishers,” an unreleased composition, is copyright by Timothy Seaman, used with permission.  More information about Timothy Seaman is available online at

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (2 min./22 sec.) of the “Shenandoah” arrangement/performance by Ben Cosgrove that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Cosgrove is available online at


Map of Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Map from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, accessed online at, 6/26/19.

Map of the ditches and road in the Great Dismal Swamp area, along with the area burned in 2011. Map from Jack R. Eggleston et al. (2018), Hydrologic conditions and simulation of groundwater and surface water in the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina, USGS Scientific Investigations Report 2018-5056, accessed online at, 6/26/19.

On the Dismal Swamp Canal (from Chesapeake, Va., to northeastern North Carolina), April 30, 2005.

Lake Drummond in the Great Dismal Swamp (Virginia cities of Chesapeake and Suffolk), April 30, 2005. 

For some historical photos from the Dismal Swamp, please see Richmond Times-Dispatch, PHOTOS: The Great Dismal Swamp over the years and Tuesday’s derailment, 6/26/19.

The following is quoted from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge,” online at, accessed 6/28/19.

“Comprised of nearly 111,000 acres of forested wetlands, canals, ponds, lakes, sphagnum bogs, evergreen shrubs, and marshy borders, the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is the largest site on the Coastal section of the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail.  The refuge may be explored via 40 miles of nearly level trails and roads, many of which parallel drainage ditches surveyed by George Washington during the mid-1700s….

“Three-mile wide Lake Drummond, located in the heart of the Swamp, is one of only two natural lakes in Virginia.  This tannin-stained, cypress-lined, isolated lake may be visited from the east by small paddled craft, or from the west by road and hiking/ biking trails.

“The Great Dismal Swamp is a naturalist’s dream. Over 200 species of birds, including 35 kinds of warblers, attract birders, most of whom visit the Swamp during spring migration in mid-April to mid-May.  Even after the frenzy of spring migration subsides, wildlife watching in the Swamp can still be very rewarding.  The Swamp remains alive with the summer songs of breeding prothonotary, prairie, Swainson’s, pine, black-and-white, yellow-throated, yellow, hooded, Kentucky, and black-throated green warblers, northern parula, and dozens of other birds.  While searching for the refuge’s many birds, even the most casual observer will encounter some of the Refuge’s 87 species of reptiles and amphibians.  Small mammals are abundant, and large species such as black bear, bobcat, and river otter are encountered with unusual frequency.  In fact, the Refuge may currently provide the best opportunity to see black bears in the entire state.  The Swamp is an excellent locale for studying butterflies of the southeastern United States, including cane-specialists such as lace-winged roadside-skipper and creole pearlyeye.  Note: Mosquitoes are also present in large numbers, so bug spray is highly recommended.”

Bill Bartel, What’s in a Name – Great Dismal Swamp, Virginian-Pilot, 7/26/10.

City of Chesapeake, Va., “Paddle for the Border,” online at; and event brochure, online (as PDF) at

Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center (South Mills, N.C.), “History of the Dismal Swamp,” online at

Jack R. Eggleston et al., Hydrologic conditions and simulation of groundwater and surface water in the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina, U.S.Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2018-5056, August 2018, accessed online at

Ben Finley, Derailment sends 36 train cars carrying coal into Great Dismal Swamp wildlife refuge, Associated Press, as published by Richmond Times-Dispatch, 6/26/19.

Sandy Hausman, Fleeing To Dismal Swamp, Slaves And Outcasts Found Freedom, National Public Radio, 12/28/14.

Sarah Hutchins, Officials declare Dismal Swamp fire out, Virginian-Pilot, 11/23/11.

International Peatland Society, “What is Peat,” online at

Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “Dismal,” online at

Daniel Sayers, A Desolate Place for a Defiant People: The Archaeology of Maroons, Indigenous Americans, and Enslaved Laborers in the Great Dismal Swamp, 2014, by accessed online through Florida Scholarship Online at this link.

Nina Shapiro-Perl and Beth Geglia, “Landscape of Power: Freedom and Slavery in the Great Dismal Swamp,” 2015, 19 min./55 sec. video, online at

Bland Simpson, “Great Dismal Swamp,” 2006, published by NCPedia from the State Library of North Carolina, online at

Bland Simpson, The Great Dismal: A Carolinian’s Swamp Memoir, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1998.  Accessed online at (subscription may be required).

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge,” online at

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Lake Drummond Wildlife Drive” (brochure), online (as PDF) at  This is the source of the USFWS quote used in this episode's audio (see Transcript above).

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Great Dismal Swamp Maroons and the Underground Railroad” (brochure), online (as PDF) at  This is the source used in this episode's audio for the origin of the word "maroons."

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge,” online at

Virginia Humanities’ Encyclopedia Virginia, Dismal Swamp entries, online at

Virginia Water Resources Research Center, Virginia Water Central News Grouper posts on the Dismal Swamp (including on the 2011 Dismal Swamp fire), online at

Sharif Youssef, “The Great Dismal Swamp,” Episode 271 of “99% Invisible,” 8/15/17, 26 min./57 sec. audio (with transcript), online at


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (  See particularly the “Rivers, Streams, and Other Surface Water” subject category.


The episode—the audio, extra information, or sources—may help with the following Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs).

2013 Music SOLs

SOLs at various grade levels that call for “examining the relationship of music to the other fine arts and other fields of knowledge.”

2010 Science SOLs

Grades K-6 Earth Resources Theme
4.9 – Va. natural resources, including watersheds, water resources, and organisms.
6.9 – public policy decisions related to the environment (including resource management and conservation, land use decisions, hazard mitigation, cost/benefit assessments).

Grades K-6 Living Systems Theme
2.5 – living things as part of a system, including habitats.
3.6 – ecosystems, communities, populations, shared resources.
4.5 – ecosystem interactions and human influences on ecosystem.
6.7 – natural processes and human interactions that affect watershed systems; Va. watersheds, water bodies, and wetlands; health and safety issues; and water monitoring.

Life Science Course
LS.9 – adaptations for particular ecosystems’ biotic and abiotic factors, including characteristics of land, marine, and freshwater environments.
LS.10 – changes over time in ecosystems, communities, and populations, and factors affecting those changes, including climate changes and catastrophic disturbances.
LS.11 – relationships between ecosystem dynamics and human activity.

Earth Science Course
ES.8 – influences by geologic processes and the activities of humans on freshwater resources, including identification of groundwater and major watershed systems in Virginia.

Biology Course
BIO.2 – water chemistry and its impact on life processes.
BIO.8 – dynamic equilibria and interactions within populations, communities, and ecosystems; including nutrient cycling, succession, effects of natural events and human activities, and analysis of the flora, fauna, and microorganisms of Virginia ecosystems.

2015 Social Studies SOLs

Grades K-3 History Theme
1.2 – Virginia history and life in present-day Virginia.

Grades K-3 Geography Theme
1.6 – Virginia climate, seasons, and landforms.

Grades K-3 Economics Theme
2.8 – natural, human, and capital resources.
3.8 – understanding of cultures and of how natural, human, and capital resources are used for goods and services.

Virginia Studies Course
VS.1 – impact of geographic features on people, places, and events in Virginia history.
VS.10 – knowledge of government, geography, and economics in present-day Virginia.

United States History to 1865 Course
USI.2 – major land and water features of North America, including their importance in history.
USI.4 – European exploration in North America and western Africa.
USI.5 – factors that shaped colonial America and conditions in the colonies, including how people interacted with the environment to produce goods and service.
USI.9 – causes, events, and effects of the Civil War.

Civics and Economics Course
CE.6 – government at the national level.

World Geography Course
WG.2 – how selected physical and ecological processes shape the Earth’s surface, including climate, weather, and how humans influence their environment and are influenced by it.
WG.3 – how regional landscapes reflect the physical environment and the cultural characteristics of their inhabitants.
WG.4 – types and significance of natural, human, and capital resources.
WG.15 – past and present trends in migration and cultural diffusion, including effects of environmental factors.

Virginia and United States History Course
VUS.2 – early European exploration and colonization and interactions among Europeans, Africans, and American Indians.
VUS.6 – major events in Virginia and United States in first half of 19th Century.
VUS.7 – knowledge of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.

Government Course
GOVT.7 – national government organization and powers.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels.

Episode 250, 1-26-15 – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 255, 3-2-15 – on density, for 5th and 6th grade.
Episode 282, 9-21-15 – on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.
Episode 309, 3-28-16 – on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Episode 333, 9-12-16 – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
Episode 403, 1-15-18 – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 404, 1-22-18 – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.
Episode 406, 2-5-18 – on ice on rivers, for middle school.
Episode 407, 2-12-18 – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.