‘It’s So Peaceful Out There’: An Interview with Dismal Swamp State Park Ranger Katie Sanford

“Defiant people entirely undermined and left the racist and brutal modern world. They created a social and economic world of their own. This was the civil rights, occupy, and labor movements all rolled into one and made inspiringly manifest for more than two hundred fifty years. I marvel at it every day.”

—Dr. Daniel Sayers

The Great Dismal Swamp, which borders Virginia and northeast North Carolina, was dug by hand, primarily by enslaved people, between 1793 and 1805. The swamp is on the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, as it was home to Maroon colonies (once enslaved individuals who built homes and communities within swamp environs between the 17th and 19th centuries) and freedom seekers traveling on the Underground Railroad. At roughly one-tenth of its original one-million acres, the swamp is still the largest in the eastern United States. Here, Dismal Swamp State Park ranger Katie Sanford describes the conditions for survival those fleeing bondage endured, and brings to life the natural features that make the park a sanctuary for runners, cyclists, outdoor enthusiasts, and those seeking to connect with history.

Can you share a bit more about maroon colonies and freedom seekers?

The term freedom seekers can refer to those who stayed longer as Maroons, and those who continued elsewhere on the Underground Railroad. Some remained because they didn’t want to leave family members who hadn’t escaped behind. Some waited temporarily for passage further north or, believe it or not, further south; Spanish Florida at the time was a place they could live in freedom as well. Some set up semi-permanent colonies. Maroons may have helped some of the just-passing-through folks with a meal or a place to stay for the night. Some freedom seekers worked on the 22-mile-long canal, became very familiar with the swamp, and then escaped into the swamp.

We think the swamp’s most important role is probably for the Maroons who lived here. The belief is that the largest Maroon colony in the U.S. was here and could total as many as 50,000 people. Surviving was not easy. There are pawpaws and grapes and small game. There are briars everywhere. If you look into the trees, you can’t see far. It blows my mind that bears and other animals can walk around in there, because it’s not easy-going. It was and still is a good place to hide if you don’t want to be caught or found.

Does the swamp look the same today as it did then?

It’s much drier—where there were Cypress and cedar trees and lots of standing water, today we’ve got oaks, maples, hardwoods. Colonists saw no value in a swamp, and wanted to drain it and harvest all the timber; cedar shingles were a top product. Draining made it drier, but not dry enough to convert to farmland. Today it’s really pretty, but it doesn’t look like everyone expects. Today we know a lot more about swamps and their value—we’ve done a 180 on swamp management. We’re trying to make water stay in and plant trees.

What did survival look like?

Back then, you would’ve had deep areas—Dr. Dan Sayers, whose archaeological work looks at topographical elevations and pinpoints the [most likely dwelling sites], probably on higher ground, wades thigh-deep through the muck to get to them. There’s deep pockets of peat soil. A lot of things have thorns. We have a very large healthy population of ticks. We have mosquitoes, biting flies, venomous snakes, bears. There are many hazards.  Most of the artifacts he finds are pinky-fingernail sized. He thinks that they maybe did gardening, or small arrays like corn or grain, and may have been able to repurpose some Native American tools that were left behind.

What were the dwellings like?

Because their existence and survival depended on secrecy, there’s a lot we don’t know about the Maroons. Some images show maybe a temporary structure, like a lean-to. I would imagine cypress and cedar would’ve been the first choices for those. Another thing that grows out here commonly is river cane, which may have been a roofing material.

Do fish survive in the swamp?

Our water here is very acidic. Tannins from cypress and cedar back then and oak trees today make it look really brown, though it’s actually really clean. So, there was an abundance of good drinking water, but the pH is around 4.5, so it’s not very fish friendly. There’s a handful of catfish in the canal.

What are some of the parks’ current initiatives?

We had a big wildfire in 2011 and so we recently planted 10,000 baby Atlantic white cedars in fire-scarred spots. We just had major maintenance done on a complex hydraulic bridge that allows pedestrian access into the park.

What do you love about this park?

We’ve got loads of neat wildlife you can see often. My absolute favorite thing to do is teach school programs. We have a busy spring field trip season, and regularly have a hundred kids running around the park for a couple hours in the mornings. It’s amazing how many kids live close by and have never been in the woods. I had a child take my hand on the trail one day and ask me if we were going to die in the woods, and I was like no, we’ll be fine, it’s a fun place to go. We almost always find something, whether it’s a frog or a turtle. Recently we were dip netting for aquatic insects on the boardwalk and they were finding dragonfly larvae and crayfish and they just had a blast. So, it’s very rewarding.

What brought you to this park?

I’ve known since middle school that I wanted to be a park ranger. It was mostly the love of the outdoors. I had a seventh-grade science teacher who told us we should know where we wanted to go to college and what we wanted to do when we graduated. I thought I’d like to go to Virginia Tech and be a park ranger. So I went to Virginia Tech, majored in Wildlife Science, and here I am.

Are most visitors aware of the park’s history?

We definitely have folks who come for that reason. The historical significance has become more well known, especially with the newer books. Dr. Sayers probably has the most thorough information. Another book has just been recently published, Dismal Freedom: A History of the Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp, by J. Brent Morris.  

Parks often summon a sense of awe, for their natural beauty. Do you feel that here?

Absolutely. At every state park in North Carolina—we’ve got about 40 and more in development—it’s obvious why that site needed a park designation. There’s something special about all of them. Like here, you can stand in the middle of the bridge and look north and see 17 miles up the canal to Deep Creek, in Chesapeake. You stand there and think, this whole thing was dug by hand? The fire scar is another wow spot. You can see all the way up to Lake Drummond in Virginia. There’s almost always eagles or otters or ducks and other really cool wildlife. Seeing an eagle gives me a little extra happy feeling. They’re very regal and pretty. I never go anywhere in the park without a camera.

What are some ways you recommend a visitor experience the park?

We recommend visiting during spring and fall. Winter isn’t bad either. A swamp in the summer is hot and buggy, and those conditions are less fun. Walking the boardwalk behind our visitor center is a bucket list thing, and often will give an appreciation of what the swamp might’ve looked like back then. Inside, an exhibit hall walks you through time, with images and stories about local folks. For example, Moses Grandy, a well-known waterman, was born here in Camden County. He purchased his freedom three times before that was honored. You can hear excerpts from his book. You see how the swamp changed over time, that there were narrow gauge railroads here during logging times, and the plants and wildlife here today.  

This is a big park, with over 20 miles of trails. On a bicycle, you can pedal out and walk across one of the water control structures. On a 16-mile round trip, you can ride to the spot where the 2011 wildfire was, which is a beautiful view. You almost always see deer, turkeys, butterflies, and wildflowers. The first trail runs parallel to Highway 17. There’s road noise for the first few miles. Once you pass that and head west away from the highway you are likely to see interesting wildlife and it’s just, it’s a lot quieter and so peaceful out there.

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