Although this would be our 6th trip south, it would be our first trip taking the ICW route through the Dismal Swamp to Elizabeth City. We had often heard how serene and lovely this route was, but had never wanted to risk taking Orion’s 5-1/2 ft draft through it. The number of submerged logs and stumps and the stories of damage to other boats made us choose the more-traveled, but less interesting Virginia Cut through Great Bridge and Coinjock. However, with Orion Jr’s shallower draft, we had no qualms about finally trying out the Dismal Swamp, and seeing what all the talk was about.
Some of the things we learned about this waterway are that it was built before the Revolutionary War as an essential commercial link between Virginia and Northeast NC. George Washington surveyed its planned route. The canal is fed from the large, shallow Lake Drummond, about 10 feet above sea level. The canal sits at about 8ft. The locks on either end lift the boat traffic to the canal’s height and lower them back to sea level. Running along most of the canal’s southern side is US 17. The northern edge is mostly encompassed in the Dismal Swamp State Park, farms or other rural uses. The area was hotly contested as a vital supply link during the Civil War, and its dense forest made it a refuge for slaves escaping on the Underground Railway before then. The recent fires and subsequent dousing from Irene created a new lake in the Dismal Swamp, as the peat underground burned away, leaving a hole to be filled with Irene’s torrential rains. It is believed a similar process created the much larger Lake Drummond.
We planned to spend only one night at the Visitor Center and leave in time for the first locking at South Mills the next morning. Because of our small size, even though we were tied to the dock, the boats had been rafting to the much more substantial trawlers behind us. However, as the day was nearing its end, we noticed 3 sailboats approaching that were looking for a place to stay. One of three asked to raft to us, but it became quickly apparent that this was a very bad idea. They were a heavy boat, with much higher freeboard, that Orion Jr would not be strong enough to support. Instead, the other boaters around us helped them tie to the dock around us, to other boats behind us and even to a tree on shore. At this point, our early departure seemed in question, but to our surprise, they decided to cast off early as well and we all made it into the 8:30 locking at South Mills with them and 5 other boats.
We were following the weather and therefore most of the other boats as we headed down the Pasquotank out of Elizabeth City Monday morning. The winds were supposed to be 10 knots from the North, and should make for a smooth crossing of the Albemarle. However, that wasn’t the case. The winds and waves were higher than forecast and mostly on our beam as we made our way toward the Alligator River entrance. It was with relief that we finally pulled into the Alligator River Marina and called it a day. It was a chance to do laundry and get a hot shower for the first time in a week. Then we had to scurry inside to escape the deluge of mosquitoes Mother Nature had unleashed in Irene’s aftermath.
After a short day on Thursday, October 27th, Pat and Fred arrived at Dowry Creek, less than a week out of New York. We had been monitoring their progress on the Waterway Net and via phone calls as we could. They arrived on what might be the last gasp of summer on a beautiful warm day that found us eating ice cream in Orion Jr’s cockpit later that afternoon. (Dave wanted to show off his freezer capability to Fred.) That weekend we rented a car and explored this area of northeast NC, traveling to Washington and Bath further inland, south to New Bern for a farewell dinner for Skip and Cherylle, and then out to Manteo and Kitty Hawk by way of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and the village of Stumpy Point on the Pamlico Sound. We managed to join Gail and George as they passed through on a road trip south and had a good time catching up with them.
We have our Portabote mounted on the port side of the boat, which makes port side-to dockings a challenge for getting on and off the boat. However, the boat’s prominent position allowed us to execute a trade we’d been hoping for. Someone with a 10ft Portabote dinghy was looking to upgrade to a 12ft dinghy. We had always wanted to downsize to the 10ft model. The cruiser approached us about making a trade and the deal was struck. Now we have a dinghy that takes up 2 ft less space on deck and is much lighter to launch and store. We had planned on looking for someone to make this exchange once we reached Florida, but never expected it would be so easy to have someone come to us.
We’ve been getting used to more time spent on Orion Jr. She’s definitely more compact, with most less-used items requiring lots of shuffling to dig them out of their hidden storage locations. We started questioning the water in our freshwater system, which caused us to give it a thorough cleaning when we arrived at Dowry Creek. We had never really flushed the water tank thoroughly once it was installed. Since the cleaning, the water is tasting fine. We’ve struggled with showers, while we’ve been staying on so many free docks, but without access to shoreside showers. Once the weather is warmer, we had always planned to shower in the cockpit. However, the temperatures are quickly getting colder and that is a difficult prospect to face. For now, it will be shoreside facilities until the temperatures improve dramatically.
The freezer’s ice-making is working well and the cycling of the bottles is pretty simple. The solar panels are doing their job and we actually have had to turn on devices our first day off the dock to siphon off the extra watts being produced by the alternator and the solar panels. Otherwise, running the generator an hour a day makes up for the power lost overnight. We manage to stay warm overnight and have found that the smaller boat retains the heat much better than Orion.
Docking continues to be a learning experience as the full keel and outboard make her sluggish to respond to any direction given at the helm. Luckily, she’s pretty light and we can manhandle her if we don’t get it quite right. As a result of our docking difficulties in the Alligator River Marina, Dave tried his luck at the helm and docked the boat for the first time in 5 years. He even backed her into the slip. It happened to be the wrong slip, but they let us stay there.
Despite the challenges, though, it’s working so far.