Exploring the wildlife and history of the Great Dismal Swamp

Published 7:35 pm Friday, April 21, 2023

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Suffolk has a lot to offer both visitors and locals. The city has various shops, diverse eateries and a variety of events that provide something for everyone. Despite its downbeat name, there is another not-so-hidden gem many folks pass right by, the Great Dismal Swamp. 

The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge offers a unique expanse that visitors from all over can visit to see its wildlife, rare plants and learn about its unique history. For nearly 20 years, Suffolk Tourism has taken willing participants on a safari to explore the swamp in the best way possible, with a narrated tour. 

The Great Dismal Swamp Safari is one of Suffolk Tourism’s more popular tours as it runs multiple times a month. The tour starts at the Suffolk Visitor Center on North Main Street where folks can view the Great Dismal Swamp Gallery which holds a variety of preserved animals, historic and wildlife information. Then the tour-goers load up on the bus to go down to Lake Drummond to see what they learned up close.

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“Tours are approximately three hours and is full of fun and information,” said Theresa Earles, Suffolk’s tourism development manager. “It isn’t guaranteed that wildlife will be seen but participants usually see turtles, deer, beaver lodges and dams and lucky tour-goers may even see a black bear foraging for berries.”

During the three hours, folks aren’t sitting on the bus the entire time. When they sign up, folks are encouraged to wear comfortable shoes and weather-appropriate clothes as they have a chance to walk around the boardwalks to get a closer look than behind the bus windows.

While on the bus, the tour-goers will hear from Great Dismal Swamp expert and tour guide Penny Lazauskas. Lazauskas leads numerous tours of the Great Dismal Swamp to teach others about the nature around them and how to preserve it through education and understanding. While on the bus and walking the boardwalk, Lazauskas gives interesting educational information about native wildlife, habitat preservation and the vast history of the Swamp.

Many may think of the swamp as just a murky collection of water and trees, but as the tour says “the Great Dismal Swamp is anything but dismal.” While in the swamp, folks can see a 900-year-old cypress tree among other native and rare plants. Although they are not always active, tour-goers can try to spot black bears, river otters, bobcats, snakes, frogs, lizards, salamanders, turtles and over 200 species of birds. 

“For most tour goers, the realization that this incredible wilderness still exists and provides so many opportunities for visitor engagement is a welcome surprise and a treasured experience,” said Earles. 

Along with its wildlife, the swamp holds a fascinating history. During the tour, folks will be able to see where African-Americans during the time of slavery in the southern United States used the swamp to escape to freedom. While walking the boardwalks or driving the path, tour-goers can imagine what it may have been like for those people to travel through to swamp or choose to call it home as some remained in the swamp to live a life of freedom. 

From nature lovers to history buffs, this tour has something for everyone as the whole family is welcome to participate. The bus only allows for 14 passengers each tour and fills up quickly. For those who can’t get enough of the swamp, Lake Drummond is also known as a great place for photography, running and hiking, fishing, hunting, canoeing and kayaking.

“Throughout the years, other specialty tours have been added to our Great Dismal activities including guided nature walks, Underground Railroad Pavilion tours and kayak excursions of Lake Drummond,” said Earles. “We find the best way to truly explore the Great Dismal is with an educated and entertaining expert on an official tour via Suffolk’s Tourism office.”