personal anecdotes

My Great Dismal adventure

Cypress trees in Lake Drummond, viewed from the end of the Washington Ditch Trail

Last week, as research for my next novel, I traveled to the east coast to visit the Great Dismal Swamp.

The swamp, which straddles the border between Virginia and North Carolina, was home to a maroon society that persisted from the early 1700s until the end of the Civil War. Though the majority of the maroons were escaped black slaves, their number also included poor whites fleeing indenture and other legal trouble, as well as Native Americans displaced from the surrounding country. During the Revolutionary War, the maroons sided with the British against the slave-holding Americans; in the Civil War, they fought with the Union. Even when not actively at war, the maroons were a constant thorn in the side of the local planters—raiding plantations, encouraging slave revolts, and offering asylum to any fugitive who could make it into the deep swamp without dying.

Click to enlarge

The planters fought back by messing with the ecosystem. In 1763, a Virginia militiaman named George Washington founded the Adventurers for Draining the Dismal Swamp, which dug the first of many canals intended to lower the water table and allow harvesting of the swamp’s timber. Although the ultimate goal of converting the Great Dismal into farmland was not achieved (turns out it’s a lot harder to drain a swamp than you might think), the present-day Great Dismal is smaller and drier than it once was, and a network of old logging trails maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides relatively easy access to hikers and bicyclists.

I flew into Norfolk on Sunday night. The cabbie who picked me up at the airport spiced up the ride with a graphic description of what happens if you get bitten by a copperhead (one of three species of venomous snake native to the swamp): “Whatever part of you gets bit swells up real big, and if you don’t get to the hospital that same day, you’re losing it.” Cool!

My hotel was in Suffolk, a town created by God to test the faith of people with peanut allergies. Mr. Peanut is a local mascot, Birdsong Peanuts has a processing plant just off the main drag, and even the Railroad Museum has a room dedicated to the peanut industry. The fields surrounding the town are currently filled with bright yellow crops that I thought might be peanuts as well, which led to some fun speculation about whether the above-ground part of the plant carries the same allergens as the buried nuts, but these crops turned out to be soybeans, so I didn’t get to put it to the test.

At the hotel I met up with my old college buddy Jeff Schwaner, who lives a few hours away in Staunton. After an early breakfast the next morning, we got in Jeff’s car and drove down to check out the Lake Drummond Wildlife Drive. This was my introduction to the deceptive nature of distance in the swamp. The drive is only six miles long, which on paper looks trivial, but the condition of the road is such that, even if you don’t constantly stop to gawk at stuff, it takes a long time to get to the end.

And there’s a lot to gawk at. After passing through a dense pine forest, you come to a more open cypress marsh, and eventually reach the Lateral West Fire Scar, where huge fires in 2008 and 2011 burned away the trees and several feet of peat soil.

The Scar is home to a fantastic number of swallows and other bug-eating birds. Along the Drive we also saw two species of vulture (turkey and black), a red-shouldered hawk, a raccoon who didn’t want his picture taken, lots of turtles, and what is possibly the world’s dumbest heron: Startled by the approach of the car, the heron flew a short distance along the roadside ditch and then stopped, only to get spooked again when we caught up with him. We ended up chasing the poor guy the better part of a mile before he figured out he could just leave the road to get away from us.

At the end of the Drive is Lake Drummond, a freshwater lake formed several thousand years ago by (a) a gigantic peat fire, (b) a meteor strike, or (c) shifting tectonic plates—my vote would be for (b), but hey, I like drama. It was a very windy day, and as you can see in the video below, the lake surf is brown. That’s because the lake is basically a big bowl of peat tea; the high acid levels supposedly kill most microorganisms, rendering the water safe to drink without boiling or filtering (though it does leave a bitter aftertaste).

Around noon, Jeff dropped me back at the hotel and we said our goodbyes. I spent the rest of the day wandering around Suffolk and then hit Kroger’s to buy dinner and supplies for the next day’s hike.

Tuesday’s route

Tuesday I left the hotel around 7:30 and walked the two miles and change to the Jericho Lane trailhead. On the way in I passed a guy in a Fish and Wildlife Service car, and after that I didn’t see another human being for nearly eight hours.

The Hudnell Ditch Trail, early AM

Posted signs warn you not to leave the trails. In a lot of areas, that isn’t even an option, because the undergrowth is so dense. The quality of the trails varies. Fish and Wildlife has earth-moving equipment stationed at various points around the trail network that it uses to keep the plants at bay. Trails that have been recently cleared (like the Williamson Ditch Trail when I was there) are a muddy mess of tread tracks, while trails that haven’t been tended in a while are covered with new growth that will clean the mud off your shoes before tripping you up. There are also unmarked obstacles: at the Hudnell/New Ditch Trail junction when I went to turn north, an ongoing repair to the canal system had left a moat in my path that I had to Indiana Jones my way across.

Very quickly I realized I’d been lucky to come in November, rather than August as I’d originally planned. Even this late in the year, temperatures rise quickly from the low 40s at sunup to the 70s by noon, with high humidity. I was fine as long as I took advantage of the shade and drank plenty of water, but I wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far if it had been even ten degrees hotter.

As it was, I made it all the way to the end of the East Ditch Trail. My goal for the day had been to reach the CSX railroad tracks that run along the side of U.S. 13, which according to my map was at least theoretically possible. I did make it to the Norfolk Southern Railway tracks, which run about a mile and a half farther south, but beyond them the trail got very rough, and it dead ended at a mass of reeds about a quarter mile shy of the highway.

From upper left: Norfolk Southern RR; North Ditch Canal looking west; the unkempt East Ditch Trail

My Tuesday animal sightings were limited to birds, butterflies, and a distant shadow that might have been a deer. I saw plenty of deer and raccoon tracks, though, as well as some fur-laden scat that had probably come from a coyote.

I left the swamp and got back to the hotel a little after four, having walked about 25 miles. I called my wife, Lisa, and found out that my Fitbit had been firing off a steady stream of congratulatory emails throughout the day, which was comforting to her, since each new progress badge meant that I hadn’t (yet) been eaten by a bear.

The following morning—my last day in the swamp—I took an Uber to the Washington Ditch Trail Head. As you’d guess from the name, this trail follows the canal that Washington’s Adventurers dug back in the 1760s, and it ended up being my favorite trekking spot.

Near the beginning of the trail I met a retired woman who said she comes out to the swamp almost every day to take pictures. The area where we were standing had a lot of wrecked trees, and at first I assumed it was another fire scar, but she said this was actually caused by a tornado:

We chatted a while and then I continued down the trail. It was a couple miles farther on that I heard a big splash and saw otters swimming in the canal beside me. Like every other animal I encountered in the swamp, they were shy, but I managed to get some video before they disappeared:

Seeing these guys was the high point of my trip. After they took off, I had lunch at the Lake Drummond overlook at the end of the trail (the lake was totally calm, very different from Monday) and then doubled back to the Lynn Ditch Trail to begin the long walk north to my exit point.

Wednesday’s route

I was pretty hot and tired, but the memory of the otters kept me going. And then a little while later I had my second exciting animal encounter of the day. I saw a shadowy figure of some kind up ahead, and picked up the pace, hoping to get close enough to identify it before it disappeared. I’d just pegged it as a deer when it turned around and stood there motionless, looking right at me and doing its best Michael Myers impression:

It held this pose long enough that I began to wonder whether I would become one of the 120 Americans killed annually by deer (which would be, I admit, hilarious). But finally it turned tail and ran off.

By 3 PM I’d reached the Jericho Lane exit, but rather than go out that way, I continued northwest to an exit marked on my map as “Lamb Avenue.” I couldn’t be sure this route wouldn’t dead end the way the East Ditch Trail had, but I decided to chance it, and despite a couple tricky spots, I did make it out.

For my last adventure of the day, I asked the Google map app on my phone to find me the quickest route back to the hotel. Despite my specifying a walking route, Google proceed to direct me down a busy highway with no sidewalks. By the time I realized this, I was too tired to backtrack again, so I just limped along the breakdown lane and hoped the cops wouldn’t mind. Thanks, Google!

On Thursday morning I took a last walk around Suffolk, and then it was time to head for the airport. I got home without incident and spent last weekend recovering from jet lag and various hiking-related aches and pains.

It was a great trip. In terms of my research, I got what I needed, and I had a lot of fun besides. (Otters!) I’d definitely recommend a visit if you’re in the area.

In addition to the hiking trails, there are boat ramps at the end of the Lake Drummond Wildlife Drive and along the Dismal Swamp Canal that allow you to explore the swamp by water. Both fishing and hunting (in season) are allowed with permits. And if you’d like to spend the night in the swamp, the Army Core of Engineers maintains a free public campsite, accessible only by boat. Just remember to watch out for copperheads.

Zoo note

Lisa and I took advantage of a break in the rain on Saturday to hike up the hill to the Seattle Zoo. Despite it being a weekend the place was pretty empty, which we liked—nothing like having your own private animal park to stroll around in. If you’re in the area, and especially if you have a zoo pass, you may want to check it out. The snow leopard cubs (usually outside between noon and 3) are getting big, and you can just walk up and look at them now without waiting in line.

I’m sure this isn’t in any way hazardous

Today was garbage day, and Lisa and I had our first yard-waste pickup in over a year. We discontinued our yard-waste pickup when we moved to our new house in Ballard, on the theory that it was silly to keep paying for that when we don’t have a yard. But under Seattle’s new mandatory composting rules, we don’t have a choice—food scraps and food-soiled paper are no longer allowed in the regular garbage; they’ve got to go in the yard-waste bin.

Financially we may still come out ahead on the deal, if we’re able to downsize to a smaller (and cheaper) regular-garbage bin. But the new rule does raise a logistical question: if you live, say, in a third-floor walk-up, and you don’t want to keep the yard-waste bin in your apartment, and you don’t want to run down to the curb every time you need to scrape chicken bones off a plate, what do you use for short-term storage of rotting meat and vegetable matter? Of course the obvious answer is “a spare trash container with a lid,” but a circular we got recently from Seattle Public Utilities offers this alternative suggestion:

CHILL IT! Put leftovers in a container or wrap them in paper, then place them in your refrigerator until collection day. This may sound strange, but residents claim this system works great!

…which, I have to admit, makes me a bit nostalgic. Back when I worked as a cook’s help at Cornell Dining, we used to store spoiled leftovers in the walk-in refrigerator all the time. Only in those days, we didn’t call it environmentalism. We called it a health-code violation.

In which Cory Doctorow helps me get a (reading) date

Cory Doctorow is in Seattle to promote his new novel Little Brother, and thanks to Leslie Howle and Eileen Gunn, Lisa and I got to hang out with him for a bit over the weekend. It was a good time. Cory and I share quite a number of interests, some of which I knew about (SF, copyright law, privacy and security issues, Internet trivia and significa), and some of which I didn’t but could have guessed at (horribly impractical designer Japanese watches, MMORPGs, baroque baby-naming schemes*).

We tagged along to Cory’s reading at the Ballard Public Library (N.B., he’s got one more Seattle-area appearance, 7 PM tonight at the Ravenna Third Place Books, and if you’ve been thinking of going you really should, as he puts on a great show). Afterwards, with a little encouragement from Lisa, I introduced myself to Suzanne Perry, the events coordinator from Secret Garden Books who’d helped arrange Cory’s appearance, and mentioned that (a) I’m now a Ballard local and (b) the paperback of Bad Monkeys is due out in August. The upshot of which is, I’ll probably be appearing at the Ballard Public Library myself sometime this summer.

In the meantime, I’ve already finished Little Brother (more about that later) and am trying to decide which Doctorow book to try next. Suggestions welcome.

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*One minor discussion thread at Leslie Howle’s place was about naming a kid with an eye towards frustrating data collectors, e.g., choosing a name that would function as a command string if transmitted via modem. (Cory noted parenthetically that this particular e.g. was less cool now that modems were disappearing, which leads naturally to the Matt Ruff twist on the idea — saddling some poor child with a defunct command-string name that, because of its uniqueness, makes them much easier to identify and track.)

Ten years

It was ten years ago today that Lisa and I—battling sinus infections that we’d contracted the week before—spoke our vows on the platform of the Bradley Beach train station. We were supposed to get married in a gazebo on the beach, but the torrential rain, being driven sideways by the wind, would have drowned the entire wedding party before we got to the first “I do.” So we retreated to the train platform, which offered at least some shelter from the elements, and hurried to finish the ceremony before hypothermia could set in. The applause of the guests as I kissed the bride was drowned out by the arrival of a very loud commuter train.

Luckiest day of my life.

This must be that “literary scene” the interviewers are always asking me about

Lisa and I have been unusually social this past week. Last Saturday night we went over to Leslie Howle’s place for a dinner being held in honor of Elizabeth Hand and John Clute, who were in town for the weekend. It was good to finally meet Liz, although an initial fifteen seconds of confusion reminded me of a basic fact of the universe, which is that just because you’ve seen someone else’s author photo doesn’t mean they know what you look like. (As John Crowley might say, that’s Relativity.)

Sunday was brunch at Eileen Gunn’s place, where Ted Chiang and I had an interesting conversation about what sort of TV shows we’d create if they let guys like us create TV shows.

Monday night we caught Liz Hand’s reading at Richard Hugo House, and scored a signed copy of Generation Loss.

Finally, last night we went to Ursula Le Guin’s reading at the University Book Store.

All of which has been fun, although it looks like there’s going to be a price to pay: this morning, we’re both showing signs of coming down with colds. Good thing we’ve got some new books to read.

Starling update

Turns out this nesting in vents thing is a common problem. My favorite of the proposed solutions comes from Calvin W. Schwabe:

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STARLINGS IN CRUST (Etourneaux en croûte à l’ardennaise) / FRANCE

Remove the backbones from some prepared starlings. Rub them with a mixture of salt, white pepper, and mixed spices. Stuff with a bread stuffing containing the birds’ livers, some mashed juniper berries, and, if available, some liver pâté and truffles. Wrap each bird in a piece of pig’s omentum. Pack tightly in a shallow baking dish on a bed of the backbones, chopped onions, and chopped carrots, all browned in butter. Paint the birds with a lot of melted butter and braise in a hot oven for about 10 minutes. Unwrap the birds and place them in a large bread croustade that has been buttered, “melba-ed” in the oven, and sealed with a paste made by blending in an electric blender some fried chicken livers, mushrooms, and egg yolks. Bake in a moderate oven for a few minutes and at the last minute pour in a sauce made by reducing a cup of sherry added to the braising pan, straining, and adding a cup of demiglace or other rich brown sauce. Garnish with some pieces of truffles lightly sauteed in butter.

STARLING STEW WITH OLIVES (Karatavuk yahnisi) / TURKEY

Fry some chopped turnips and carrots. Add a little stock and a glass of red wine. Place some starlings or other small birds in the pan. Add a thin purée of boiled potatoes mashed with beaten egg, dry mustard, and some stock and a little beer. Cover with stock and cook for about 30 minutes, adding some ripe olives near the end.

* * *

…in the end, though, we decided to just ask the landlord to nail some wire mesh over the vent opening. Maybe next time.

Not smart, just persistent

Part of settling into a new house is learning its little quirks. This weekend, we discovered a new one: the flap that covers the external vent for the oven exhaust fan does not close completely when the fan shuts off. The local starlings have noticed this and decided to build a nest in the exhaust pipe. Given birds’ sensitivity to Teflon fumes, this is not a good long-term survival strategy, but you try telling them that.

A change of venue

While I was away in France and Germany, our landlady called to say she was planning to sell the house, so since I got back Lisa and I have been busy relocating.

We’d hoped to stay on Queen Anne, but rents have really shot up over the past five years, and given what we need—room for two home offices, plus wall space for more than a dozen 7-foot-high bookcases—it didn’t make financial sense. So we expanded our search horizon to include Ballard, Phinney Ridge, Green Lake, and Wallingford, at which point our housing karma kicked in and we found a great place.

It’s definitely a change, which in a way makes the transition easier. The Queen Anne house was a brick Tudor built in the 1920s. The new rental is modern construction, less than a decade old, but what we give up in cove ceilings we get back in sunlight and amazing views—you can see the Olympic Mountains from the living room, without standing on tiptoe. And we’re near a major bus route, so even though we’re farther out from downtown it doesn’t take much longer to get there.

The move was time-consuming but relatively painless. Lisa’s parents flew in to help out, and for the heavy lifting we hired Hansen Brothers (we’d used them for our previous move, and they remembered us—maneuvering large objects down a spiral staircase tends to make an impression). Rent-a-Yenta and Stanley Steamer did a nice job cleaning up the old place after our stuff was out.

The one major hassle involved AT&T Broadband, our DSL provider. With all of our other utilities, we were able to switch addresses online, or with a single phone call. To move the DSL, though, we first had to cancel it at our old address, wait for the cancellation to be finalized (the DSL stops working immediately, but the paperwork, or whatever, doesn’t go through until the end of the current billing cycle), and then reorder it at the new address. It took about ten phone calls to straighten all of this out, and meanwhile we were without Internet access for three weeks. Hence my lack of recent blog posts.

Anyway, we’re pretty much unpacked at this point, so once I catch up on email, and get over the novelty of being able to watch YouTube again, it’ll be time to get back to work on The Mirage.