A night in Great Dismal

Published 7:49 pm Thursday, January 4, 2018

By Wendell Cooper

I woke up around 2 a.m. Easter morning in the Great Dismal Swamp. The moon was near the horizon, and the tops of the trees glowed pure white. I was deep in the woods, two miles east of Washington Ditch and just north of Lake Drummond. I looked to the west and found parts of the Big Dipper through the thick foliage. Its leading edge stars lined up with Polaris. Finding north confirmed that I had been traveling almost due west until I ran out of light. In a few hours I would be reported as missing.

The day before I realized my bike route wasn’t going to get me out before dark, and I decided to cut across three miles of pathless swamp to reach the lake end of Washington Ditch. My bearings were good. My judgment was not. I cover about six miles of dirt road per hour with my bike. But once you step off the path, the math changes. Each uncharted mile on foot through the brambles was going to cost me nearly three hours. I made my bed as darkness fell.

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The Dismal Swamp is beautiful at night, but I was too worried to enjoy the view for long. I had contacted my daughter and my girlfriend just before my phone battery died. I had to get out of the swamp before somebody got worried and called the police. I picked off the ticks and covered myself with leaves to stop the mosquitoes.

I had wanted to keep walking through the night, but I knew better. There are holes in the swamp. On Saturday I had begun walking through long, thin puddles to avoid the thorns that ripped my clothes and flesh. The stagnant water actually felt good on my tired feet, but without warning my next step would find me up to my neck in jet black water. Experts say there isn’t quick sand in Dismal Swamp. I think that is a technicality. Whatever is at the bottom of those holes doesn’t give your feet up without a fight. Twice I had to grab tree branches and pull my whole body up to clear the muck. I wondered what might have happened if the holes had been deeper.

After two hours of walking on Sunday morning, I started to show symptoms of dehydration. It had been 24 hours since I had anything to drink. I found a spot with no animal droppings nearby and dug. The peat soil was soft and less than two feet down, I felt the water. By chance I had a pill bottle in my pocket that held about two ounces. I filled the bottle and brought it to my lips, but I couldn’t make myself drink. The water was brown. I got up and fought the thorns again. It took three more tries before I drank the water. On my fourth dig, my hand cramped so badly I could hardly use it. From then on I dug and drank every time I rested or fell. I have a few scars from the thorns, but they cut me so many times I stopped paying attention. I only remember one particular vine. I was walking faster than I should have been and couldn’t stop when it hung my ear. I remember that one like it happened in slow motion.

I turned slightly south as I neared Washington Ditch. I came out a hundred yards from Lake Drummond. From here, I walked five miles towards White Marsh Road. Between the highway and the parking area, a young family stopped. They gave me food and a gallon of water, and they called a close friend to take me the last few miles to my truck. I wouldn’t let them take me because I was covered with ticks, and they had a small child in the car.

I didn’t make it out in time. My girlfriend had called my daughter, and my daughter had called the police. They were there by my truck organizing a huge search on their day off. Let me tell you, those guys are special. Every one of them was ready to go in to save me, and each of them told my daughter that I was going to be OK. None of them believed it. As I apologized to the last one, he said, “Don’t worry about it. Usually when they call us, somebody is dead. I’m just glad you made it.”

Thanks, guys.

Wendell Cooper is a field agronomist living and working in Suffolk. Email him at wtc_ag@yahoo.com.