Riverdave Owen

September 22, 2020


     Today on the 101st birthday of my father Harry Ashton Owen (1919 - 2011), I am reminded of all the many ways he interacted with me as my environmental educator and nature guide. Sometimes I mistakenly get caught up thinking that I am the great explorer, cultivating my own love for the natural world and carving my own path into the woods. But I must acknowledge the many excellent mentors I have had in the various fields of natural history.  The mentor that stands foremost, head and shoulders above all others was my father.  He planted the seeds in the fertile soil of my young life that other mentors later found sprouting and then nourished. Without this initial focused direction from my father, I doubt I would have ever found my later mentors. 


     So in honoring his life today, I will simply list the many ways he encouraged me to relate directly with the natural world. At first I pondered whether to offer this account in the form of a polished essay but I soon realized that such a task would require lots of time and effort. In confronting this information as a long list, perhaps the reader will feel in a profound way the extent of my father's influence. And for those of you who are parents, I hope this will be an inspiration for you to work deeper with your own children and grandchildren in this most crucial aspect of life's education. 


 Photo: August 7, 1983 - Dad and I exploring together Tell esSultan overlooking the Arab city of Jericho when I lived in the Middle East.    


     My father built his first home in a neighborhood bounded by Duke Forest.  This allowed me close access to hundreds of acres of Piedmont Carolina forest and creeks where I could escape and explore at any time. Following his example, when I finally built my own first home, I did so on a piece of land that backed up to the Eno River parklands so my grandchildren would have a place to roam and explore ...


     My father collected what were known as the Golden Nature Guide series of field guides for children. At least twenty volumes of these pocket sized books were readily available on a shelf in our home in his study and were placed in a special travel bag and taken on all local and long distance travel outings.  He carefully taught me how to use them them to identify rocks, trees, birds, fish, insects, fossils, clouds, stars and planets!  I really don't think the modern internet has improved on this valuable resource for children.


     My father loved bodies of water.  He served in the Navy during World War II. As a naturalist he was first and foremost a fisherman.  He fished only with light tackle and his favorite venue was surf fishing, standing knee deep with the surf breaking around his body. He always owned a small boat with an outboard engine in which he would take me coastal inlet and sound fishing and also on freshwater lakes.  He was born in Hawthorn Florida, a town on the edge of Lake Lochloosa just east of Gainesville. My earliest memory of fishing with him was when we returned to his hometown for visits with my great Aunt Maude's family who maintained their home by the lake.  One of my last memories of fishing with dad was on the upper Amazon River in Peru on an ecotour that I was leading. His favorite line from Henry David Thoreau was "Time is but a stream I go a-fishing in." He was not a river man as I turned out to be.  But perhaps that's because in his day rivers were channels for waste runoff and not an attractive place to explore.  I became an adult in an era when rivers received a lot of attention and have been cleaned up, restored and become the focal point of many an environmental movement. 


     Harry’s parents spent the warm season in a home built in 1895 at the base of White Oak Mountain in Polk County NC where we visited several times a year.  In those days the area behind the house all the way to the top of the 3000 foot high peak was old growth forest.  I was given free rein to roam with my sister on our own and I had my first experiences of wilderness navigation in that pristine montane environment.


     My father taught me to identify and collect rocks and frequently took me rock collecting locally on Sunday afternoons in nearby Piedmont counties and on special trips to mines just off the Blue Ridge parkway in western North Carolina.  We took our cue from a 1956 publication by state geologist Jasper Stuckey entitled "Mineral Localities of North Carolina." Published by the NC Department of Conservation and Development, it included detailed maps for locating mineral deposits in every county.  Rock collecting and geology became my favorite outdoor venue as a child.


     He taught me a profound appreciation for birds through bird feeders in our backyard and through the use of binoculars and photography. His favorite bird was the hermit thrush with its haunting ethereal song.  In 1990 he introduced me to what has now become my favorite local bird, the tropical migrant rain crow or yellow-billed cuckoo. He claimed it was a faithful forecaster of rain in the scrub forests around his hometown in northern Florida.


        He cultivated in me an appreciation of native wild flowers when we traveled though the mountains of western North Carolina.  As a child I was sometimes even annoyed as the family waited impatiently in the car while my father stooped, focusing his camera over wild flowers along remote mountain roads. 


     Walking and hiking were always favorite practices of his and while I was a youngster dad taught me how to find and navigate trails off the beaten path.


      My father took took the family on three long distance summer camping expeditions - one to the maritime provinces of Eastern Canada, another to Colorado and Wyoming and a third to the west coast from southern California up through the Pacific Northwest to Vancouver Island, British Columbia.  The focus was always about exploring natural wonders - coastal regions, forests and mountains while visiting national parks.  Of all these experiences camping in Yellowstone Park made the biggest impression on me as a child. Upon returning home I immediately began digging holes in our backyard hoping to discover a hot spring bubbling up!


     He preferred a roadside picnic over restaurants when traveling, unless there was a possibility of a good seafood restaurant.  He was skilled at locating inexpensive roadside stands to buy fresh vegetables and fruit and then finding the right place down the road with a picnic table to prepare our own meals.       

     Later in his life my father bought property on the island of Abaco in the Bahamas and I enjoyed visits there for ten years during the winters of 1997 to 2007.  The first two years I was there with him and my mother Phyllis and then the last eight years with my own wife and children.

Photo: November 25,1993 - Dad shows his morning catch of a peacock bass and piranha caught along the Amazon River in Peru on my ecotour. 


     My father taught me the magic of seasonal migration.  Almost every Christmas season we would travel to his hometown of Palatka, Florida to visit his and my mother's parents and relatives.  On such occasions I became very enchanted with the contrasting richness of experience to be found by migrating south into subtropical environs in the midst of a Carolina winter season.   


     Regular family visits to the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill and the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh were always exciting to me as a child, expanding my awareness of the wider universe. Once while seated together under the planetarium's dome waiting for a program to commence, my dad suggested we both try to calculate the volume in square feet of the domed area over our heads. I recall feeling very accomplished as we compared our close results, noting that as a child even I at times could keep up with this professor of electrical engineering!


     My father took the family for an annual week at the beach, mostly along the NC coast but occasionally in South Carolina and Florida as well.  The Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick Canada was our most exotic coastal camping experience.  And there was always a North Carolina beach getaway that his university department staff planned each year for the weekend after Labor Day when rental rates went down and the beach crowd thinned out.  In these settings he taught me how to fish as well as how to locate and gather scallops and clams.


     Dad took his family camping several times a year.  His favorite spots were along the Blue Ridge Parkway, but many other natural areas around the country became camping destinations for us as well.  Learning how to set up a tent and start a fire were necessary parts of this exposure for me although my mother did most of the cooking.


     My father taught me how to navigate with maps, road signs, natural features of the land and by sun direction.  This turned out to be an important skill for me later in life as a naturalist when orienting myself outdoors of necessity required a strong sixth sense of direction.


     He insisted that I join both cub scout and boy scout troops and dad would often serve on the scout advisory board.  I was resistant to this kind of social activity at first, as I preferred to participate with my friends on sports teams such as baseball, football and basketball or just simply enjoy unstructured time in the woods with my sister or a friend.  But I had no choice in the matter. I eventually surrendered my reluctance and became an eagle scout and participated in a number of expanding nature experiences including the Philmont wilderness backpacking program in New Mexico.  


     My father often helped me with school science projects and encouraged me to take advanced science and math courses.  Often big item Christmas or birthday gifts included microscopes, telescopes, radio kits to build and chemistry sets.  Because of this I was known by my neighborhood friends as a geek.  Star and eclipse gazing were particularly important to my father using the telescopes we built.  


     My father made sure I took swimming lessons as a child from the swim coach at Duke University for three consecutive summers.  He impressed on me that he wanted to take me boating and that I had to know how to swim well in order to be safe over deep water.


     After fishing, photography was my father’s second love.  He focused on wild flowers, birds and mountain landscapes as we traveled about the country as a family.  Later he would put together slide shows for various family and social occasions and was a master public presenter.


     And finally in 1976 my father introduced me to the Eno River by taking me and my family to the Bicentennial Celebration at West Point on the Eno Park in Durham. In 1990 when I began my own Wafting the Eno River program as a contractor for Durham Parks and Recreation, he loaned me the money to purchase my first fleet of inflatable kayaks.  The last hike I remember taking with him was on Occoneechee Mountain in Hillsborough NC in 2001. For that occasion he wore an Eno t-shirt bearing the 2001 festival logo of the yellow-billed cuckoo, the logo I chose for the Eno River Association that year. Note what he's wearing in the photo to the left taken on that last hike with my father as nature guide ...