In a Swamp, I Realize My Bear Ambition

By Amber Nimocks
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 30, 2008

I've been hoping to see a bear with my own eyes for as long as I can remember.

That's why I'm sitting up a little taller in my seat as we drive U.S. 17 in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, along the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp. I scan the woods and the open, brushy terrain beside the highway. The frequent yellow traffic signs imprinted with a bear's silhouette keep me on high alert.

When North Carolina opened Dismal Swamp State Park earlier this year, I couldn't wait to explore it. I knew I was going to see a bear in there. I just had a feeling.

I grew up backpacking in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I have tackled the Sierras, climbed Maine's Mount Katahdin, tramped through Alaska's Denali National Park. Saw no bears.

That yen was one reason I was drawn to Dismal Swamp State Park, which is neither dismal nor altogether swampy, despite the name. I also was intrigued by the stories of slaves who escaped from nearby plantations into its woods. Some followed the Dismal Swamp Canal, floating south to the Pasquotank River or north to the Elizabeth River, then boarded ships bound for free states. But some remained to establish so-called Maroon communities, staying for generations, the marshy terrain protecting them from capture.

The opening of the state park meant a closer look at a place full of secrets.

European explorers had varying reactions to the million or so acres of dense swamp they encountered between the James River and the Albemarle Sound. Its stifling humidity, mosquitoes and sheer impenetrability deterred many. But a young George Washington called the place "a glorious paradise" when he surveyed it in the 1760s. He helped establish the Dismal Swamp Land Co., intent on logging and draining the swamp and turning it into farmland. That scheme never panned out entirely, but over the centuries, lumber companies managed to log countless acres for Atlantic white cedar and bald cypress. That is why today's Dismal Swamp is thick with sycamores, red maples and sweet gum.

It's also thick with bears, Park Ranger Tony DeSantis told me. Between 300 and 350 black bears live in the state park and the adjoining wildlife refuge, he said. The best place to see them is along one of the bike trails that run deep into the woods.

The park visitors center houses a display on the political and natural history of the tract. Also on display are excerpts from the biographical narrative of Moses Grandy, a slave who bought his freedom with the dollars his owner paid him to work, waist-deep in mud, digging the 22 miles through the swamp to build the canal. Grandy said of his emancipation, "I felt myself so light that I almost think I could fly." Today the canal, part of the Intracoastal Waterway, serves as one leg of a thoroughfare for pleasure boats cruising between Elizabeth City, N.C., and the Chesapeake Bay.

On our first visit, my husband and I launch our canoe into the canal from the bridge. We paddle a narrow canyon of water between tall walls of hardwoods and loblolly pines. The gentle wake from 30-foot catamarans and sailboats rocks our tiny craft as they glide past, and the floating is pleasant, but since the canal does not enter the swamp, my only contact with wildlife is the sound of creatures crashing through the brush behind the wall of trees. We turn around after a couple of miles and head for lunch in Elizabeth City.

I return to the park alone early on a Saturday. Hubby and son stay behind, as wildlife spotting with a talkative toddler is an exercise in futility. Like the canal, the bike path, an old logging road, is a tunnel through the tall trees.

The path is flat, but the sand is thick, which poses a pedaling challenge. For about two miles, the path runs parallel to the canal and U.S. 17, and the sound of traffic on the highway cuts through the trees. When the path turns west into the swamp, the sounds of the highway fade, and soon the only noise is from my tires turning on the sand. I scan the thick brush and woods on both sides, determined to see wildlife. I think about Grandy, who described how his mother would lead him and his siblings away from their master's plantation into the woods, where they would live for weeks at a time, hoping to avoid being sold. Inevitably, the master would coax his mother back to the plantation, and most of her children were sold away.

I glance back down the path and see a slender, brown figure off in the distance in front of me. The deer sees me, turns its fluffy white tush in my direction and bounds back into the forest. I keep staring down the long tunnel in front of me and pick out a large, dark blob on the side of the path, against the trees, beyond where the deer had been. I grab my binoculars.

"That," I say quietly to myself as the blob comes into focus, "is a bear."

To my delight, the bear turns so that I can see its profile and wanders into the middle of the path. Its four thick legs are silhouetted against the light coming from behind it, its round rump starkly outlined. The black point of its nose contrasts with the brown band above it.

It pauses, turns and looks right at me.

A tinge of panic flutters my heart as I think about how fast a bear can run. Then I recall that the park's bears are shy of humans. I wonder how I must look to the bear, standing in the middle of the road, a pale, mostly hairless creature with two legs and a set of wheels. The bear stands sniffing and scraping in the path for perhaps a minute more, then bounces back into the brush.

I ride to where it was standing and stop, breathless.

Silence surrounds me. Tall hardwoods rise on either side. The undergrowth is so thick, it's hard to see through it. I consider the security that so dense a place provided to fugitive slaves, its hostile terrain their refuge, their own -- bears and all.

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