The old dog and the swamp

Published 8:23 pm Tuesday, October 27, 2015

‘They shut the road through the woods/ Seventy years ago/ Weather and rain have undone it again / And now you would never know/ There was once a road through the woods / Before they planted the trees.’

—Rudyard Kipling, 1910

By Susan and Biff Andrews

Email newsletter signup

George Washington surveyed the Great Dismal Swamp, created a “Dismal Town,” and caused a ditch and road to be dug to remove lumber from the swamp to dry land. The ditch and the road alongside still exist, and they furnish anyone who loves to walk in nature a delightful venue to do so.

No creature on Earth appreciates it more than our “point-setter” dog Skylar, also known as “Poot.” A collection of spots and dots on a white background, she was born without a tail and is not self-conscious about it, or about her lack of pedigree.

She makes up for it in walkabout enthusiasm.

When we’re alone in the swamp, which is most of the time three seasons of the year, our dog is in her element. She loves the sights and smells and feel of the swamp. Down the slope to the juniper water in the ditch for a belly-cooler, back up to nose about for otter, deer or bear scents — Poot is a “swamp thang.”

The doctor said “Exercise!” so we walk a mile through a downpour of leaves to the first cross ditch, then return along the same route to the 3/4 mile boardwalk loop through the cypress trees. Total distance: about 2-1/2 miles. Total time: about an hour. One can feel George’s presence all the way. It’s never the same walk twice.

On this trip, we note that all the flowers are gone except goldenrod, the beautiful fall colors from downed red and yellow leaves, and the abundance of critter holes visible on the ditch bank due to low water — they’re working on a dam somewhere.

There are still plenty of birds, especially woodpeckers, but we don’t see any wood ducks this trip, and they’re usually fairly common at this time of year.

Along the boardwalk we note the sizes and shapes of cypress knees, lichens and fern varieties, and then our presence startles an adult doe, who raises her white flag and high-tails it into the undergrowth.

Poot chases silently to the end of her leash but remains on the boardwalk. It’s all a part of the game, so to speak.

A quarter mile further we come upon a young doe standing 20 feet away. The dog can’t see her due to cataracts, can’t scent her due to the strong northeast breeze from behind. The young doe stays calm.

“They fear not men in the woods / Because they see so few.”

We watch as the deer scratches her cheek with her hind foot, raises her tail slowly, lowers it again and then leisurely saunters off into the underbrush, invisible after 30 feet. Total “face time”: one minute. Our old dog remains oblivious.

A final quarter-mile takes us past beautyberry, some amazing burls and a dead tree that is seemingly a collection of a thousand woodpecker holes somehow staying intact.

We reach the parking lot and car and head back to the real world after a golden hour communing with a happy old dog, George’s ghost, a young cervine lady and the falling leaves.

The swamp is beautiful in all four seasons. Soon there will be snow. That’s beautiful, too. Then there will be spring, with its flowers and new foliage, and then — butterflies! We love them all.

Join us, if you will, off White Marsh Road south of downtown Suffolk. The boardwalk is handicapped accessible, wheelchair friendly, with informative signage about the swamp, its denizens and its history.

Dogs must stay on the leash. No bikes on the boardwalk, please, but pedaling the 4.5 miles in to Lake Drummond is also a treat, and there’s a small dock at water’s edge. No bugs, no snakes and no ticks until late spring. Be on the lookout for obvious signs of otter and bear on the trail.

And look for us: we’ll be the ones with the happy speckled dog.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at