Destination: Great Loop

By admin ~ July 31st, 2010. Filed under: Destinations.

A Hundred Miles  of History

The Carolina Loop is an easy cruise or a trip back in time

Text and Photos by Beth Adams-Smith

There’s the Great Loop, the Triangle Loop, and the Chicago Loop—but the Carolina Loop? That was a new one on me–but a closer look revealed a perfect week-end cruise through several compelling chapters in the American story accompanied by good food, charming historic districts, fishing, wildlife sightings, photo ops, and three locks.
The Carolina Loop is actually the combination of two man-made waterways—The Dismal Swamp and Albemarle & Chesapeake (aka the Virginia Cut) Canals—that shaped the Virginia Tidewater and Carolina Sounds in the 18th and 19th centuries. At a time when goods shipped between the Elizabeth River and Albemarle Sound had to be transported overland through dense lowlands and forests, the obvious answer was to link them with a canal—an idea first espoused in 1728. Construction of the Dismal Swamp Canal began 65 years later. Dug by hand through logging property, it was completed in 1805,  but was so shallow that it was useful only for flat boats and rafts until it was widened and deepened in 1829.
The history of the A & C Canal is almost as difficult. First authorized in 1772, permission from Virginia wasn’t granted until 1850 to the Great Bridge Lumber & Canal Co. The Virginia Commonwealth was a major stockholder in the Dismal Swamp Canal and saw in the A & C a competitor, which would undoubtedly reduce its toll income. Construction finally began in 1855 and was completed in just four years using seven steam-powered dredges. Virginia was right; the A & C eclipsed the swamp route. To add insult to injury, the Federal government bought the A & C in 1913 and removed its tolls. That was the death knell for the Dismal Swamp route, so in 1929, in an “act of fairness,” the Feds bought the now-bankrupt canal. Both waterways are now toll-free and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Start the Carolina Loop just south of Norfolk. Cruise down the Elizabeth River, provision at Great Bridge, continue along the A & C Canal to North Landing River, cross Currituck Sound and spend the night at Coinjock. The next day, dip briefly into Albemarle Sound before heading north on the Pasquotank River to Elizabeth City (where a lay day would be well spent). Finally, complete the loop with a cruise up the Dismal Swamp Canal back to the Elizabeth River with a stop at the North Carolina Welcome Center

Great Bridge – After navigating the 220-foot Great Bridge Lock, one of the largest on the Atlantic Coast, the expansive Atlantic Yacht Basin sprawls along the starboard (south) shore with 1,700 feet of face dockage–including a 220-foot fueling station. Strip malls are within easy walking distance for provisions. Opposite, the ambitious under-construction, Great Bridge Battlefield & Waterways Park commemorates Virginia’s first successful Revolutionary War land battle—phase one is expected to be completed this fall. Farther along the A & C Canal, the modest Centerville Waterway Marina has 900 feet of side-tie dockage on a quiet, pretty stretch just west of the old steel Centerville Swing Bridge. Four small shopping centers are a quarter mile walk–and the marina owners will even come and get you and your provisions.

North Landing River
– Relax and enjoy one of the most pristine, breathtaking sections of the Atlantic Intracoastal; keep your camera handy. This region is on the Atlantic Flyway promising all manner of birds and waterfowl—sometimes in flocks of thousands. On the west bank, sits the 7,500-acre North Landing River Preserve, one of the East Coast’s largest unspoiled freshwater marshes. Next up, to port, is the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge—8,200-acres of wetlands, woodlands and croplands bordering Currituck Sound. Watch for endangered peregrine falcons and the resident pair of nesting American bald eagles.

– Currituck Sound narrows to a ditch at Coinjock. Dueling marinas face each other across the water–each offers easy, side-tie dockage, fuel, well-stocked shops, Wi-Fi and restaurants. Midway Marina to starboard, with more than 1,600 feet of dockage (alongside and tucked into two basins), offers a pool, motel rooms, Crabbie’s restaurant with inside and deck dining, nearby Veterans Park and a one-mile walk into Coinjock. Coinjock Marina’s 1,200 feet of side-tie sprawls along the port side and caters to larger powerboats and megayachts as does its ships store, boaters’ bar and upscale market. The large, airy dining room overlooks the new eating deck and the docks. No other facilities or stores are walkable from this side of the ICW.

Pasquotank River & Elizabeth City
– At about Mile Marker 65, the ICW heads south across the Albemarle–but the Loop route rounds the point and heads north into the beautiful Pasquotank River. At its head, delightful, historic Elizabeth City is a town that dubbed itself “The Harbor of Hospitality.” During the north/south migrations, the late Fred Fearing’s “Rose Buddies” greet visiting boaters with a rose, local brochures and a wine and cheese reception each afternoon. Stop by the adjacent Tourism Office for a map of a self-guided walking tour of the four National Register Historic Districts. The closest are the Main Street Commercial and Residential Districts, which are awash in intriguing restaurants, theaters, galleries, B&Bs, provisioning sources, and many services all housed in restored 19th century buildings. On Saturday mornings, the Farmers Market is practically dockside. If you still need food, Farm Fresh supermarket offers a shuttle service.
Dominating the waterfront, the dramatic green-roofed Museum of the Albemarle has a small but carefully composed collection enhanced by nationally significant traveling exhibits. A restored Shad Boat, suspended from the ceiling, greets visitors at the main entrance. Complimentary dockage is available right downtown at Mariners Wharf along the brick promenade, but expect very short stationary finger piers, no power or bathhouse. The location and the usual camaraderie among cruisers can’t be beat. For more services, including full-fledged docks, power and Wi-Fi, the butter-yellow Pelican Marina is directly across the harbor–a quarter-mile walk over the bridge from downtown. The Marina Restaurant is virtually onsite.

Dismal Swamp
– After Elizabeth City has spoiled you with graciousness, those whose vessels meet the draft restrictions head north into the historic Dismal Swamp Canal. On the way, a narrow 300-yard inlet off the Pasquotank leads to Lamb’s Marina, which has a store, seafood market and the only fuel in the area– diesel delivered by truck to the dock nearest the River.
The Canal feels like a forest primeval. Trees lean in from both banks narrowing the strip of visible sky creating a bower for boats to quietly slip through. Five miles north of South Mills Lock & Bridge, the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center’s 150 feet of complimentary face dock lies on the canal’s east bank. Picnic tables are sprinkled about the well-maintained grounds. On the west side, the newly-built, Craftsman-style Dismal Swamp State Park’s Visitors’ Center sprawls along a ridge above a unique draw-swing-draw foot bridge. Inside are exhibits on the Swamp’s flora and fauna and outside are 22 square miles of park featuring 16 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails and a boardwalk that reaches into the swamp.
Close the last of the loop as you head north to the Virginia border and another few miles to the Deep Creek Lock and Bridge. From there, Norfolk and Portsmouth are just over the horizon.

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