Archived Story

Hot and bothered in the swamp

Published 8:01pm Saturday, June 15, 2013

When staff writer Matthew Ward suggested I might like to tag along with him on a trip into the Great Dismal Swamp to take photos for an upcoming magazine feature on archeological investigations into the encampments of freed and escaped slaves that existed there during the Civil War, I pictured butterflies and dragonflies, flowers and frogs, with maybe a deer or a bear thrown in for good measure.

With the exception of the deer and bears, those are all things I’ve seen in the swamp before. They are all among the reasons that I have loved my visits into this vast natural area.

What I did not expect is that we’d wind up making this visit on Thursday, the hottest day of the year. As hot as it was when I left downtown Suffolk at 9:30 a.m. or so, it was 97.5 degrees hotter in the swamp. With 138-percent humidity. With each step I took, a new rivulet of sweat found its way into my eyes. As Matthew and our guide — a skinny, young college student who apparently doesn’t perspire — set out ahead, I looked for opportunities to stop and photograph the flora while I attempted to wring oxygen from the soaking air.

Bullfrogs mocked me as I trudged along with heavy camera equipment hanging from my neck and strapped to my back. Dragonflies flitted about the edge of the woods on both sides of the road. I expected to see them burst into flame when they flew into the sunlit areas. I thanked God for the straw hat that was protecting my bald head, even as it began to disintegrate in a sweaty, wet mess.

My thoughts kept turning to those poor souls who made their home in this unforgiving place a century and a half ago. Added to the discomfort of Virginia summers and the unabated cold they would have endured during the winter, they would have faced the ever-present danger of discovery by men who worked in the swamp harvesting its resources.

With those thoughts in mind, I kept my mouth shut about the heat, the humidity and whatever other discomfort I might have been experiencing, and I continued to keep quiet as our guide brought us to the rickety “bridge” she had built to help her and the other researchers cross the wide, water-filled ditch and into the woods where evidence of one of the encampments had been found.

First she crossed, and then Matthew followed. Then she came back for my camera equipment. With each crossing, I watched the 2-by-4 structure bow a bit. I suggested they test it for my weight by having Matthew carry our guide across. Everybody laughed, but I wasn’t kidding.

As it turns out, the water in the swamp is nice and cool on a 96-degree day. And I didn’t encounter any snakes, either, though I didn’t hang around waiting for any to find me.

The researchers had a nice little setup where they’re digging and screening for artifacts. I got some great photos. Matthew has a nice story, and our guide will surely have something fun to tell her fellow grad students.

I do hope they’ve found some way back across the ditch. When the temperatures fall back into the 70s, I think I’ll go and check.

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