“Deep Creek Lock, this is Pisces requesting a lock through,” said the deep voice on the VHF radio.
“Roger that, Captain. I’ll be opening the gates at 1100 hours. Have your fenders and lines ready on the starboard side and proceed in slow and easy half-way up when you see the green light,” came the immediate reply by rote.
“Will do. This is Pisces standing by on Channel 13.”
That is a fairly typical exchange between southbound boaters and Robert Peek, lockmaster at the Deep Creek, Va. ingress/egress to the 22-mile Great Dismal Swamp Canal. Not only is Peek the lockmaster, he is also master of the Deep Creek Bridge and Dam, titles held most of his 16-year tenure.
Peek acts as an unofficial ambassador and historian for the historic Great Dismal Swamp. Just ask any one of the 3,500 boaters who choose the alternate ICW route between Norfolk, Va., and Elizabeth City, N.C., each year.
“Many of my customers are repeaters,” said Peek. “After a while, you develop a special connection with some of them.”
So it is with Arnold Parkinson, who single-hands 43-foot Pisces with Addie, his diabetic cat. Peek chatted with “Cap’n Parky” like old friends as Pisces neared the lock wall and Peek reached down to nab the aft line with his long boat hook. No instructions needed as the men have done these maneuvers many times before.
The water level in the lock rose to meet that of the canal, and Pisces began the short trek to the bridge and the free dock just beyond where Cap’n Parky planned to do some provisioning and spend the night. Meanwhile, Peek donned his bridge master hat, drove his pickup to the bridge, stopped automotive traffic, and raised the single-span bascule bridge. Two northbound sailboats waited until Pisces was clear before proceeding to the lock.
“He has a girlfriend in every port,” Parkinson said of Addie as he secured his lines. “He’ll probably go mouse-hunting ashore later this afternoon, but when the engine starts in the morning, he’ll be back. Without fail.”
Peek hurried back to lock-through the waiting boaters.
This was the first Dismal Swamp Canal experience for Brian and Michelle Cole on Jennie B from Brooksville, Maine, and Marja and Stephen Vance on Motu from Seattle, Wash. Both couples are full-time liveaboards.
Peek, who has a long-ranging reputation for entertaining boaters by playing one of his many conch shells, was excited to learn Jennie B had recently been to the Bahamas.
“Did you bring me a horn,” he asked the Coles. The flowerbeds and gardens near the station house, which Peek built, are lined with sun-bleached conch shells from visiting boaters.
The two-lane Deep Creek Bridge is scheduled to be replaced by one with five lanes – two for each direction of traffic and one for emergency vehicles.
“It might end up being wider than it is long,” laughed Peek as he worked switches and levers to raise the bridge for Joy Sea III, a Donzi cruiser, to pass through at 1:30 p.m.
After Peek drove back to the lock house, Joy Sea III was ready to lock through. As part of their North Carolina Loop trip from Elizabeth City to Coinjock, this was the first time the four boaters had made the canal trip. In his element as historian, Peek asked if they would like to know about the swamp as he handed them an informational brochure. He peeled off detail after detail, bringing history alive:
• The Swamp has one of the highest populations of black bears in North America.
• Deep Creek is the oldest continuing lock in the country.
• Construction began in 1793 and was completed in 1805.
• It is one of the few places on this continent where peat is being formed.
• The water in the canal is fresh and potable, preserved by tannic acids from tree bark.
• The Swamp is fed by artesian aquifers from the Virginia and North Carolina mountains.
• The 25 hp General Electric motors which open the gates are original, from 1938.
The list continued. Then he offered to play a song on the conch shell. Grabbing one of the larger ‘horns’ from the garden, Peek wiped off some dirt, positioned his hands just right and blew a few notes warm-up notes before performing a jaw-dropping rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
“I’ve been blowing the horn for a lot of years, but a buddy of mine told me he wouldn’t be impressed until I could play ‘Saints,’ so I learned,” said Peek. “My wife and I heard about a competition in Key West, so we went. I had Old Blue, my favorite horn with me and decided to warm up before the contest. I played ‘Saints’ and nailed it. The organizers told me I couldn’t compete as six people just dropped out, ‘because of your little stunt.’ They told me I could be a judge and judges drink for free. That worked for me.”
As lockmaster, Peek has helped many boaters avoid disaster. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has recognized and awarded Peek several times for going above and beyond his duties. A few years ago, the owner of a new boat couldn’t get the transmission into neutral or reverse to slow his forward motion.
“He was coming into the lock at four knots and couldn’t back her down,” said Peek. “He was facing 108,000 pounds of steel at the other end, with nowhere to go. He just froze. I yelled at him to bring the boat over to me at the wall.”
Peek grabbed lines from the boat and wrapped them around the bollards. As each line grew taut, he released it, ran forward and wrapped it around the next bollard. He was able to slow the boat’s speed and bring it to a stop inches from the steel doors. A bolt had worked its way out of the transmission linkage and was a quick fix.
A few years ago, during the southbound migration of cruising boaters, Peek managed to squeeze 19 boats into the lock. Cap’n Parky and Addie, onboard Pisces, were part of the pack.
“Most everybody was good natured about the whole affair,” said Parkinson, a native of England. “Fenders and lines were everywhere. When we thought the lock was full, Robert here managed to fit one more inside. She ended up crosswise at the back, but it worked.” To Peek’s credit, he said he has never left a boat behind.
Dedicated to the swamp and his job, Peek has missed only one day of work in 16 years and on that day, he called in sick from the hospital emergency room. Since 1996, he has spent every hurricane at the lock. The locks and bridges are designed to never fail and barring a major disaster, “we can have them operational within hours.”
It costs from $800,000 to $1.2 million dollars to operate the Dismal Swamp Canal per year. Peek said the U.S. government “quietly” closed more than 100 canals across the country between the years 2000 and 2010. When the Dismal came on the chopping block, Congress received more than 35,000 e-mails in one month in support of keeping it open.
“Part of that is because I called 35,000 of my closest friends,” said Peek. “I am passionate about the Dismal Swamp and its canal, and it is anything but boring or dismal.”
In addition to his official duties, Robert and his wife Jackie own and operate Great Dismal Adventures, which offers waterway tours of the canal and nearby Lake Drummond every Spring and Fall. Visit www.GreatDismalAdventures.com for more information.