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Take a deep breath

When tourism and economic development officials in Suffolk talk about the things that make their city great, it must take a while for them to get used to the idea of mentioning the Great Dismal Swamp in a list that includes rivers, farms, education and history.

Suffolk has more than its share of the attributes that serve to attract visitors and investors. Surely it must be tempting to gloss over — if not avoid entirely — the issue of the vast swamp that covers much of the city. Swamps, after all, can’t be developed; they aren’t usually photogenic; and they’re best known for a certain odor that matches well with the boggy, mucky landscape they create. It’s likely that there is a vanishingly small number of municipal development offices nationwide using photos of swamps on the covers of their promotional packages.

Still, though, it’s clear to anyone who has traveled there that the Great Dismal Swamp is a true — if somewhat ironic — Suffolk jewel. Few cities the size of Suffolk can boast the variety and abundance of wildlife that makes its home within the swamp’s refuge. Few places in Virginia are still as untamed as the swamp. And few places in Hampton Roads have the potential eco-tourist drawing power as this national wildlife refuge.

With 112,000 acres of unspoiled wilderness, the refuge has a little something for everyone who loves the great outdoors. From birding festivals to canoe trips — all the way up to bear hunts (the bears are making out fine, despite the hunters’ best efforts) — the Great Dismal Swamp offers many opportunities to leave the easy chair behind and reconnect with nature.

And with the help of people in the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps program — which recently had a team of young adults stationed at the refuge to help with controlled burns and other “cleanup” projects — the swamp will continue to be a feather in Suffolk’s cap.

Make a visit. Take along some bug spray and breathe deep of the swamp’s essence. You might just be surprised at how good it smells.