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A Voyage Along The Ditch: Marshes, Lagoons, Creeks : Canal: The waterway stretches from Virginia to the far side of Texas, but most travel along only on a portion of it.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The sun does it. Geese do it. Golfers do it. They head south. And joining this migration every winter is a motley maritime parade of sun lovers, snow haters, nautical nomads, sailors aboard mirror-varnished yachts or sailboats, escapists, retirees, hired captains, recently fired businessmen, the generally restless boat people--all wending their way toward solar warmth down a crooked, cranky, shallow and often clogged artery officially known as the Intracoastal Waterway, but more familiarly as the ICW or just The Ditch.

You can take the ICW from Norfolk, Va., all the way to Brownsville, Tex., on the Mexican border. Few do. Most stop somewhere below the frost line or jump off from Florida for the Caribbean.

The Ditch gyrates as erratically in its meanderings as a pinball. The Dismal Swamp Canal just below Norfolk, which dates to Colonial times, runs through hardwood forests as straight as a musket barrel. In South Carolina and Georgia, it keeps doubling back and forth on itself like a cramped intestine, snaking through an endless sea of lion-hued marsh grass.

Some of The Ditch was dug by slaves. More by dredges. Much more by nature via lagoons, creeks, rivers, bays and such that lie just behind the Atlantic coastal beaches. Currituck, Pamlico and Ossabaw sounds. Tybee Roads. Rivers named Pungo, Pee Dee, Ogeechee, Loxahatchee and Waccamaw. Calabash Creek.

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Sometimes The Ditch is as peaceful as a poem: soras and rails cackling as the sunset turns their marshes gold and a harvest moon silvers the other bank. Massive live oaks gnarled with age wave their veils of Spanish moss over tidal pools in Beaufort, S.C.

Other times The Ditch is a froth whipped up by water-skiers and high-riders near coastal playgrounds like Myrtle Beach, S.C.

In Ft. Lauderdale, it is a canyon trapped by high rises.

In the Carolinas, wooded banks part to reveal glimpses of lush golf courses. Sometimes The Ditch runs rust red with tannin from cypress swamps, sometimes pale blue where it flirts with the sea.

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Rarely nowadays does one see picturesque shanties with rickety docks tottering into the channel. They have been replaced by comfortable homes with sturdy docks at the end of which sport boats hang in slings to keep them from being battered by the wake of speeding powerboats.

For the sailboater chugging along at a little over 6.5 m.p.h, powerboats--known in the wind fraternity as “stinkpots"--are the most unpleasant fact of life possibly ahead of drawbridges, of which there are hundreds. One bridge in North Carolina floats.

Some bridges, especially in North Carolina, are as hard to get open as a Calabash oyster. If you are 30 seconds late for an hourly opening, tough stuff.

Ostensibly the ICW is maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers for barge traffic. But barges are rarer than bald eagles perched periodically atop dead trees.

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The only commerce visible are bat-winged shrimpers dragging the inlets; laughing gulls, royal terns and pelicans fishing; an outlet center with docks outside Myrtle Beach; the gambling ship Emerald Princess taking her slot machines and craps tables offshore nightly from Fernandina Beach, Fla., and marinas big enough to house the Spanish Armada.

Those who can live without TV or phone hookups pass up marina amenities to enjoy evening solitude up a creek or fall asleep in a swamp to the glurps, burbles, plops, hoots and screeches of its spooky night life.

Easily the most gracious stop is Elizabeth City, N.C., where transient boat people are given free 48-hour dockage, the women a red rose (making them the town’s Rose Buddies) and everybody a nightly wine and cheese party at wharfside. Contrasting with this are places in Florida which charge $5 just to tie up a dinghy.

Some stops are advisable if not mandatory: Georgetown, S.C., with ancient homes here and there on leafy streets; Charleston’s architectural jewels and she-crab soup; Savannah’s historic squares, moss-drooping trees, jazzed-up old riverfront; St. Augustine, Fla., ancient, tacky and charming all at once with an old Spanish fort.

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In between are vast stretches of marsh with no sign of humans for miles, Florida backwaters where slow-motion manatees eat water weeds alongside your hull, Cumberland Island, Ga., National Park with twisty oak forests, palmettos, an unbeatable beach and squadrons of mosquitoes.

The people are as varied, ashore and afloat. A moonshiner from the swamps of Elizabeth City went straight by making toy stills for kids. An ophthalmologist from Princeton, N.J., whose South Carolina plantation still grows rice, once the staple along with indigo and cotton that made the region rich but whose cultivation has vanished, turns the proceeds over to care for impoverished blind. There’s George Wallace, a latter-day Huck Finn from Hampton, Va., chugging down The Ditch in his tiny boat determined to make the Bahamas by his 28th birthday. The Nova Scotia boat wife who dyes her hair so the gray caused by maritime misadventures won’t show.

Although it is almost 1,100 miles from Norfolk to Miami, there is a certain neighborliness to The Ditch, particularly among sailboaters. Someone who was a fellow Rose Buddy in Elizabeth City shows up weeks later in Fernandina Beach, swapping stories like a long-lost friend. You nod approvingly at the guy whose dinghy blew away in a gale in North Carolina and is now more wisely lashing it on deck in a hard blow in Florida. “Spyglass,” a handsome sloop out of Michigan, was pushing hard in North Carolina. She’s lolling lackadaisically in the sun weeks later at Jekyll Island in Georgia.

With shortening days, rush-hour bridge closings and maybe a pause to admire a flight of scarce wood storks, a sail sailor is hard pressed to cover 70 miles in a day, more likely settling for 40 or 50.

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The Ditch, albeit an artery from cold to warmth, invites contemplation. That’s because, like an artery, it gets in your blood.


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