Durham: County of Rivers
Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun newspaper on 12/20/95

    As a child growing up in south Durham, Woodburn Creek was a favorite place of retreat for me, my dog Wags and the neighborhood gang. We would build "forts'' on its banks from sticks and leaves, chase a frightened sunfish around its shadowy pools, glide across it when it was frozen in the winter and hide in the connecting culvert as it passed under N.C. 751 to eventually flow through Duke Golf Course. Every child needs a creek to stir his or her creativity and sense of adventure. We as adults need a river to rebaptize and bathe both body and spirit in the most elemental of substance for life on earth.

   Durham is fortunate to have four main river corridors in our midst - the Flat, the Eno, the Little and the New Hope. Our city began this century with a proud reputation as a tobacco industry center. Then a shift in image steered us in the direction of becoming a city of medicine. But the layout of the surrounding regions in our county is one of rivers. Doesn't it seem appropriate that our community would also be known by the prominent natural features of our land that long predated the marketing of a non-indigenous form of tropical tobacco or a modern high-tech health industry?

   Those who laid out our county draped its boundaries across two river basins - the Neuse to the north and the Cape Fear to the south. The border between the two basins roughly follows a section of Main Street in downtown Durham. Three tributaries of the Neuse River - the Flat, Little and Eno rivers, flow from west to east across the northern half of our county and converge in the region of what has now become Falls Lake Reservoir. The southern half of our county is drained by New Hope Creek and its various feeder streams like the one I played in as a child.

   Among the Flat, Little, Eno and New Hope rivers, the Eno has received the most attention because of its longer history of preservation work done by members of the Eno River Association, an organization formed in 1965. But what about Durham's other three river corridors? They each have wonderfully intriguing histories, areas of superb natural beauty and are strategic water resources for our community. Many of us have probably paid little attention to the tunnels of vegetation that arch over these slender waterways as we pass over their bridges on the way to work each morning.

   Are we aware of the wildlife wonders that can meet the eye of local residents if we only would grab a pair of walking shoes or a paddle? Do we know the famous swimming and fishing holes along these nearly one hundred miles of Durham waters? Are we aware of the critical challenges these rivers are facing in our rapidly expanding urban area that may seriously compromise both their natural and utilitarian integrity? As an 8-year-old, little did I know that Woodburn Creek led to Sandy Creek, which connected with New Hope Creek which joined the Haw River which flowed into the Cape Fear River, the mightiest of North Carolina's rivers. How many of us as adults, after witnessing the dramatic fish kills on the lower Neuse River this summer, have finally awakened to the significance of this connection and our own upstream responsibility?

   I place my concerns for our rivers into three broad categories: water quality, wildlife and recreation. Few would dispute the importance of water quality for human consumption since it so directly effects our own physical health. But what of the other two concerns? Isn't it important for all animals, both human and non human, to have protected natural areas to roam? From salamanders to bobcats, the maintenance of healthy river corridors is an immediate issue of physical survival. But as I have led many thousands of local residents on outings through the wilder sections of our county, I am also aware that we humans need open space in order to maintain a vigorous physical and spiritual life. If our only connection with water is to see it pour chlorinated from a faucet , are we not in a profound state of spiritual loss?

   Rivers are a symbol of life, regeneration and refreshment in all the faith systems belonging to humankind. I am inspired by a passage from the American naturalist Henry Thoreau, who, in his essay entitled Huckleberries, wrote of his native Concord River, "I think of no natural feature which is a greater ornament and treasure to this town than the river. It is one of the things which determine whether a man will live here or in another place, and it is one of the first objects which we show to a stranger. In this respect we enjoy a great advantage over those neighboring towns which have no river.''

   Durham is a County of Rivers. I would like to affirm this to those currently representing our area in marketing. It may be that one third of our population is employed in the health industry, but 100 percent of us drink from our county's watersheds. For those who have not recently explored the natural wonders along our four major river corridors,  both recreational and spiritual refreshment is also awaiting your discovery. One local community leader has recently suggested that perhaps Durham has been experiencing some low self-esteem.  Perhaps reconnecting with the richness of our local rivers may be our best source for our healing and revival ...
Photo by Melody Owen-Woolford, summer 2009: Riverdave and Riojosie enjoy the Eno River with grandchildren Owen and Hudson