Riverdave's Journal
Spring 1998
A journey from Durham to the coast begins in my own back yard ...
This essay is an adaptation of two articles that were published in the Durham Herald-Sun Newspaper on 11/15/98 and 11/22/98.

          A pile of logs on the river's edge erupted as my lazy paddling was jolted to confront a new reality - I had startled a snoozing, twelve foot alligator.  The giant reptile crashed into the river only fifteen feet from my boat. I waited nervously for it to reappear and felt a ripple as it passed underneath my boat and surfaced about thirty feet away on the other side. This enormous Carolina crocodilian then rested its head on the surface of the river.  We intently exchanged uneasy stares for more than a minute as the two of us wafted quietly together down the river.

          Before long, the gator slowly lowered its head into the Cape Fear River and vanished. Although I had paddled with gators in other parts of the South and with caiman along the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers, this was my first experience with one in my home state. I never had heard stories of gators overturning small boats like mine. But I guessed that if that twelve footer had so desired, he easily could have tossed me up and gobbled me like a dog biscuit. 

          But that exciting encounter, just below the confluence of the Cape Fear and Black rivers, was just what I was yearning for when I set out in my inflatable kayak from my home along New Hope Creek in southern Durham County to paddle the Cape Fear basin, two hundred and forty miles to its outlet at the sea.

          I was hoping that a river adventure from my Piedmont home to the coast along North Carolina's largest river would provide intimate wildlife encounters and challenges with the four great elements of water, wind, sun and land.  Perhaps most of all, such an adventure might help me to understand the connectedness of an entire river basin, from its headwaters to its outlet at the sea. My plan was simple - to paddle during late winter and early spring at the season of highest water levels with added El Nino rains.  My expedition would require two weeks of paddling at an average speed of three miles per hour.

Piedmont headwater impoundments

          I left my home at Leigh Farm in South Durham on a sunny winter morning and began paddling south on the inundated flood plains along New Hope Creek. This is the only time of the year one can paddle New Hope Creek, because in 1996, Hurricane Fran sent huge trees crisscrossing its channel making passage during the shallow season impossible.  With late winter and early spring rains lifting the creek water out of its banks and flooding the surrounding forest, I paddled among the maze of trees with relative ease, as the Army Corps of Engineers' subimpoundments backed up water even more. It felt as if I was paddling the seasonally flooded "varzea'' forests of the eastern Amazon, which I had visited just two months earlier.
          Passing under the Interstate 40 bridge, I continued further south through five more miles of flooded forest, at times even losing the creek channel. White-tailed deer often bounded with huge splashes through the water in front of me. I navigated the flooded forest by several means. I had brought a compass for emergencies, but decided to test my familiarity with the elements.

          The afternoon sun to my right kept me oriented in the correct general southerly direction. I watched for the water flow of the main channel, which was a light muddy color as opposed to the standing, black forest water. The wind blew from the south that day so I kept it in my face as best I could. I watched the canopy above my head for signs of the common creek bank trees of sycamore, river birch and ironwood and I kept my eyes on a distant north-south ridge that was easily distinguished by its covering of pines.

          Soon the trees thinned out and showed signs of decay. This was the backwater of Jordan Lake. The sky emerged again, dappled with sunset pastels. It took two days of flatwater paddling, continuing south, to cover Jordan Lake in my keel-less inflatable kayak. I was struck by the number of black and white winter birds on the lake.  There were loons, cormorants, coots and buffleheads -- all diving birds, finding a refuge inland at Jordan Lake from the more severe winter coastal weather.
          Jordan Lake was easy to navigate because of one important natural feature. Edward's Mountain, a lone monadnock with three peaks in northern Chatham County, loomed to the west most of my way.  I had led many hikes over those peaks in the years before a large residential and golfing development had straddled its back. From a distance, that mountain stood as a silent reminder of happy times with friends and family in the wild.  From a distance I could not make out the recent destruction of that little refuge for anoles and ovenbirds.  The mountain seemed to be enshrouded in a blue haze, both in my vision and memory, as it dominated the western horizon from almost any point on Jordan Lake.

          Eventually, I bumped my boat at the base of the Jordan Lake Dam and scaled the grassy slope to a Corps of Engineers deck overlooking the huge artificial impoundment. A sign attempted to explain that the dam was built to control flooding in the lower Cape Fear River.  A steam cloud from the Shearon-Harris nuclear power plant hung ominously in the distance over my shoulder to the east. On the deck, one looks directly into the place where New Hope Creek once merged with the Haw River. It must have been a lovely meeting of waters. As I thought about how strange it is that the confluence is now submerged in this enormous reservoir, I silently wished to be one of the lucky ones who still had memories of that sacred spot.

          From below the dam, the waters of the Haw River gushed into a channelized bed lined with great blue herons awaiting the opportunity to make a grab at passing fish. Not far downstream, I arrived at Mermaid's Point at the Haw's confluence with the Deep River on the border with Lee County. Here is the commonly recognized beginning of what is called the Cape Fear River. My oldest daughter Melody had joined me for the day, and we lingered in our boats at that auspicious junction, pondering the wonder of North Carolina's largest river and meditating on what might lie ahead of us downstream. Large CP&L and Weyerhauser plants suddenly overshadowed us on the east bank. But soon we were alone again on the river, munching on sweet hackberries that hung low on branches above the water.

          The first seven miles of the Cape Fear River consists of flatwater backed up behind still another impoundment known as Buckhorn Dam. As I approached the dam, it became obvious this was a popular spot for fishermen.  Pulling my boat out and walking up the embankment, I hollered above the roar of water spilling over the dam to a couple of men using cast nets at its base.

     "Whatcha casting for?''
     "Shad!'' came their swift reply.
      With that, they hauled up a net full of small, wriggling, silvery fish which I quickly recognized as gizzard shad. They immediately dumped their catch into a large cooler.
     "They're for gettin' catfishes,'' the older of what appeared to be two brothers explained.
      I pointed to the dozen or so boats patrolling back and forth below the dam, just out of reach of its hydraulic.
    "Is that what all those fishermen are after today?''
    "Yep, and we'll be joinin' 'em soon.''
     My curiosity satisfied, I moved my boat down the slope below the dam to share the river with the fishermen.

Sandhills bluffs and whitewater

        Below Buckhorn Dam I entered the whitewater section of the Cape Fear that extends downstream twenty-four miles as the river elevation drops seventy feet. To the southwest begins the Sandhills region which abuts the river with high bluffs. The best known of these bluffs are found in Raven Rock State Park about eight miles below the dam. Nestled in a hillside of rhododendron, mountain laurel and fringe tree, this rocky bluff represents an excellent example of the shaded, north-facing slope phenomenon with its cool montane habitat in a non-mountainous region.

          Just downstream I spied an amazing burst of early spring color  with red coral honeysuckle, yellow Carolina jessamine, pinkster, white dogwood and blackhaw, all within a 10-foot patch by the river. It was near the opposite shore, and the water was flowing quite rapidly. I swung my boat around and desperately tried to paddle upstream to cross the river for a close-up photograph. But the current was too strong, and I wistfully watched the color fade as the swift water renewed its claim on my boat.

          Many of the rapids along the Cape Fear are formed by ledges with a drop of two or three feet, the remains of crumbling 19th century mill dams. Several long boulder fields glistened as the moving water carried my inflatable kayak with ease.  The only serious rapid of the day came as I was channeled into what is known as "Connie's Chute,'' a long and narrow arrangement of rocks with standing waves in fast-moving water. I let out a loud whoop and holler and amused myself with the echo of my voice resounding off the river slopes.
          At Lillington, I pulled into Howard's, a restaurant with a marvelous view of the river. On the lawn by the water was a fleet of canoes with a group of Fort Bragg soldiers who had paddled down the Cape Fear's whitewater section just ahead of me. I was set to order a barbecue sandwich when I saw the "Closed Mondays'' sign on the door. Disappointed, I crossed the street and settled for a visit to a Dairy Queen and returned to my boat to proudly prop my feet up and relax with an extra large Butterfinger Blizzard.

          South of Erwin, I paddled to where the Little River flows in from the west as a boundary between Harnett and Cumberland counties. I encountered the first bald cypress trees of my journey at the mouth of this river and then made my way a short distance up this canopied waterway with its black waters and ringing chorus frogs.  Just a few weeks earlier I had paddled on the headwaters of the Little River at the Southern Pines reservoir. Retracing the map of my home state along its waterways continued to help tie the land together for me.

          On arriving at Fayetteville I passed under a series of five bridges, then wafted by the new Cape Fear Botanical Gardens and came to the area of the old port of Campbelltown. Today, it is marked by a marina located on the east side of the Person Street Bridge.  Upon entering the marina's bait and tackle shop, the person behind the counter  greeted me with a friendly,

     "What can I do for ya?''
     "Well, I'm paddling down from Durham and I just wanted a little advice on how to approach the locks east of Fayetteville.''
      A stunned moment of silence passed as shopkeeper Wanda Raymes strained to comprehend my origins.
     "What kinda boat cha got?''
     I pointed, and she stood on her toes to peer out her window at my small inflatable boat resting on the pavement in front of her shop.
     "You better call the lockmaster downstream before you set out,'' she replied, revealing an incredulous smile on her face.
      As I headed out the door with the lockmaster's number Wanda had given me, she called back to me,
     "Hey, you gonna pay the launch fee?''

          I grinned and apologized for my forgetfulness.  I thought I could get by on the charm of my unique river expedition. But Wanda, who lived in a trailer beside the marina, knew only too well how to deal with the parade of river boys and their boats who have passed her bait and tackle shop over the years.

          My friend Josie McNeil from Venezuela met me at this point to check on my progress, to share tales from the Orinoco and to join my paddling adventure for a couple of days.  Just south of Fayetteville, Rockfish Creek joins the Cape Fear from the west and with Little Creek, was the only other major tributary that I had encountered since passing Mermaid's Point. Like the Little River, the Rockfish drains the Sandhills region of North Carolina and is a dark, blackwater creek.  I recalled paddling on the reservoir upstream at Camp Rockfish as a teen with my Methodist youth fellowship. It is remarkable how so many spiritual retreat centers are located next to water.  I pondered with metaphor how water from one spiritual pool drains away and eventually finds its way to another ...

Locking down into the Coastal Plain

          The next section of the Cape Fear introduced me to the upper coastal plain, with its swamps and a series of three locks occurring in Bladen County. With the help of early spring flood waters,  Joise and I were able paddle around the locks in adjacent flooded fields. Normally, the lockmasters are quite happy to bring paddlers through their gates.  Business has slowed since barges stopped passing through several years ago. But the Cape Fear locks were all submerged as we passed on by. There was lots of turbulence in the middle of the river as the water poured over the old dam structures, but that was not a problem for us as we had plenty of time to detour on the southwest side of the river.

          Bladen County was loaded with avian wildlife including hundreds of wood ducks exploding out of the water as we approached. pileated woodpeckers streaked back and forth across the river, and great flocks of "butter butts" - the yellow-rumped warbler - sputtered in the trees.  Even a rare pair of anhingas silently soared high above the river.  A pair of red-shouldered hawks battled a barred owl for territory. Great blue herons "gronked" at us around almost every bend, and kingfishers chattered as they flew from one dead snag to another.

          Trees along this section of the river included towering elms, ashes and maples, often laden with mistletoe, resurrection fern and Spanish moss. We eventually made our way to Torrey Park at Elizabethtown. I always appreciate towns where there is a commitment to maintain a river front park. Is there a better way to enjoy a town than just to relax on a bench under a grand old elm at the river park and watch the water and wildlife waft by?  In Elizabethtown I bade farewell to my paddling partner, determined to finnish the final leg of this adventure by alone.

          The next sixty miles into Wilmington are the Cape Fear's wildest stretches. Large sandy bluffs containing exposed fossil shells rise on the north facing slopes in Columbus County, but now revealed vegetation very different than the montane species found back upstream ar Raven Rock. The north-facing slopes of these coastal sections yield the more aromatic shrubs and trees, such as wax myrtle, titi, redbay and the yellow blossoms of horse sugar.

          I hoped to camp on Roan Island, a four mile strip of land in the middle of the Cape Fear in Pender County that recently received a protected status. I looked in vain for a hummock of pines that might be above the flood water line, but the entire island on its south side was submerged. Instead, I camped on a raised area on the opposing bank, kept awake for most of the night by prowling opossums and browsing white-tailed deer.  For fun, I fine-tuned my imitation of the barred owl's nasal-like call. After falling asleep in the predawn hours, I abruptly awoke to the call of a Louisiana waterthrush perched above my tent. Soon the  heavy hammer of pileated woodpeckers encouraged me to pack my gear and move on downstream.

          For most of the day I had been carefully scanning the water's surface and banks for alligators. I had heard that they were common in this lower section of the Cape Fear. I soon passed the confluence with the Black River in Brunswick County with its towering ancient cypress trees, the size of which I had yet to see. A team of biologists from UNC Wilmington were out in a research vessel at that auspicious junction. I paddled up as they were hauling in nets with large fish for tagging.

     "What are you doing here?'' they asked.
       I gave my general answer, and posed my own question. "Well, what are you studying?''
     "We're tagging American shad,'' a graduate student dressed in waders said. She then lifted a two-footer up on a hand scale while another student recorded the weight in a notebook. "We're monitoring the movement of this migratory species in hopes of learning how to restore its once great breeding runs up this river,'' she added.
     "How is the tide running up ahead?'' I inquired.
     "Looks like you'll be catching it just right as it will be turning out about now.''

          With that good news, I pushed ahead and shortly turned a bend and found myself drifting alone on the river once again.  Or so I thought. It was at this point that I had the encounter with the twelve foot alligator mentioned above.  "The confluence of two rivers is always a sacred spot,'' I said to myself, as I mused over that Native American notion, drifting pass the mouth of the Black River. I counted myself among the most lucky residents of my state to have had that wild crocodilian  encounter. I wouldn't have traded it for the biggest lottery prize any state legislature might approve.

The lower coastal marshes

          Emerging from the bottom land swamp forest about seven miles north of Wilmington, I entered coastal marsh lands. The going was snail-like, as a southerly wind blew in my face. I learned, by experience, that on a warm, clear day the wind usually would blow from the south, making paddling difficult. But on a cloudy or rainy day, the wind would often come from the north, at my back, making paddling easier. Life often is a series of tradeoffs like that.

          On the horizon, I could see the spires of Wilmington's churches as I meandered along the edge of Eagle Island. I soon passing the confluence with the Northeast Cape Fear, a river with an even more primitive feel to it.  Oh for a thousand lives to explore all the planet's wild places!  I was dwarfed as I wafted by the pretentious USS North Carolina battleship and docked in front of the Water Street Cafe where a Dixieland band was playing.

          My parents, Harry and Phyllis Owen, had driven down from Durham to share a meal on the waterfront with me that evening.
     "I'll have the seafood chowder,'' Dad proclaimed after quickly perusing the menu.
     "Me too,'' my mother replied. Growing up in Florida, they have an uncanny gift of sniffing out the best seafood deal around.
     "Make that three bowls of chowder,'' I told the waitress.

          Indeed, the soup pleased our piscivorous appetites as we relaxed together on the patio dining area watching the sun set across the Cape Fear. The city of Wilmington has done much to honor its river, and its Cape Fear waterfront is always a magical place in the evening.

          I left Wilmington on my final leg of the Cape Fear to the Atlantic, passing by its busy port which extended for several miles down river from the city. I was jostled by the wake of the Najran, a Saudi Arabian freighter, heading back out the river to a distant corner of the world that I had once sojourned in a past life. I waved "salaams" to some of the crew who peered down in disbelief at the likes of my tiny "dhow'' reeling in their huge wake.

          There are lots of islands in the lower Cape Fear, and I stopped occasionally to explore their hummocks with maritime forests of live oak, yaupon holly and palmetto and cabbage palm. I passed a power line tower that cradled an osprey's nest. The mother bird whistled at me as I drew closer, then left her nest and circled my boat, warning me not to come too close to her chicks. I reassured her, with a whistle back, of my entirely friendly intentions.

          I had planned my day's float so that I would ride out the tide seaward. I found myself moving with a 1/2 mile per hour outbound tide, a north wind at my back adding another one mph to my speed, and a paddling effort increasing it still another one mph - a grand total of 21/2 mph forward progress. I arrived at the Carolina Beach State Park campground in southern New Hanover County by evening and set up my tent just inside the forest edge.

          As I paddled into the state park marina, I heard the familiar call of the painted bunting, and quickly spotted a brilliantly colored male atop a black cherry tree on a sand dune. This gaudily decked out bird with a red front, blue head, red eye and green back, sports a most sensational tropical outfit as it wings its way from Central America each spring to breed along the southern coast of North Carolina.

          When exploring the area around the marina, I found three male buntings, each guarding territory about 100 yards apart. The remainder of the day, I maneuvered to get close enough to catch this beauty on film. But my efforts came at the price of filling my sandal-shod feet with prickly pear spines and blackberry thorns as I stumbled across the sand chasing these birds. I eventually was comforted by the evening sky, as the sun dipped below the day's thick cloud cover and displayed a magnificent sunset over the river. Although enraptured by the moment, swarms of sand gnats around my head once more kept my bliss into a more neutral perspective.

          Paddling still further south to Fort Fisher by noon the following day, I climbed the hill behind the ferry and could barely make out the lighthouse and marina of Bald Head Island in the hazy distance almost seven miles away. It was a calm day and my wafting past the estuarine islands to the east was pleasantly broken with flocks of high flying ibis in close formation and oyster catchers flying low over sandbars. I stayed in the middle of the river, which at that point was over a mile wide, to avoid being bait for the hungry sand gnats.

          The river soon opened wide to greet the sea as it once greeted its first European explorer, Giovanni da Verazzano, in 1524. I pulled into the Bald Head Marina just as the ocean currents were beginning to affect my paddling. I rented a bicycle and pedaled the length of the island and then walked the final half-mile to the cape that stretches out seaward to form the Frying Pan Shoals. It was low tide and sandbars were exposed far out into the crystal sea and were covered with hundreds upon hundreds of pelicans, terns and gulls.

          It was a fitting end to my two hundred and forty mile Cape Fear River odyssey. I erected a memorial on the sand with driftwood and shells to the special people in my life, and dashing out to plunge into the surf, I let the cape's wind and the sea waft away all my fears ...

photo by Riverdave: break from paddling on the lower Cape Fear River ...