THE BORDER LIFE

 
NEUSE RIVER ODYSSEY
Riverdave's Journal
Spring 1997

River Dave follows the Eno River to its final destination in the Pamlico Sound ...
 
This essay is an adaptation of an article that was published in the Durham Herald-Sun Newspaper on 11/02/97

          After many years of enjoying the Eno River, it was time to let her Piedmont waters waft me as far as possible without restraint.  In February 1997, I headed downstream from West Point on the Eno Park in Durham on a voyage in my Sevylor inflatable kayak that would take me 240 miles to where the waters of the Eno flow into the Pamlico Sound and mingle with salty ocean waters, where all life began and to where everything will eventually return. I made my voyage in several sections lasting seventeen days from late February through early April, both to make use of high water levels for more efficient paddling and to participate in the budding of spring.  

          I was on an expedition of appreciation in search of the beautiful and to make certain connections between my hometown of Durham and points “down east,'' between which much of my own personal history had transpired. I also undertook this voyage to celebrate the appearance of the comet Hale-Bopp, whose nocturnal spectacle inspired me to make the odyssey at this particular time in history. I hoped to revel in the comet’s wonder as I pulled into my evening camps along the river.  
 
          The format for my adventure came from two sources of inspiration. The first was Henry David Thoreau's voyage down his hometown river as described in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The second was Don Starkel's adventure from his home in Winnipeg, Canada, up the Red River and down the Mississippi to the Amazon. This spectacular eleven thousand mile paddling expedition is detailed in his book, Paddle to the Amazon.
 
Departure from West Point on the Eno 
 

          The Eno is the major source for the upper Neuse River and its reservoir, Falls Lake.  I was challenged with the idea of paddling the twenty miles of flat water on this reservoir in my inflatable kayak, a boat without a keel that is not really designed for extended lake trips. On a cool but sunny February morning, I pulled my office door shut at West Point on the Eno Park where I work as the resident field naturalist, loaded my gear into my boat, and slipped quietly downstream eastward on the lower seven miles of the Eno River. 

          The water was placid as I entered Falls Lake. I was immediately confronted with the largest beaver lodge I had ever seen. Engineered on a narrow, birch-lined island, I estimated this remarkable lodge to have a width of sixteen feet at its base with a height of more than eight feet. Carefully placed, crisscrossed sticks revealed the art of its master woodworkers. I was reminded that I would certainly not be alone on this voyage. 

          As the lake widened, I came upon a very interesting phenomenon. In every direction that I turned, I observed a water surface covered with wafting gull feathers. I suspected it to be some kind of late winter molting, which I later confirmed to be true. There were many ring-billed and herring gulls both in the air and on the surface of the water, and in their juvenile years, do have winter molts. But there was something both very beautiful  and surreal about this delicate spread of downy feathers gently floating in the sunshine. 

          I was carefully watching for a loon on the lake, a northern winter visitor to our Carolina coastal waters, who occasionally shows up inland. To my delight, twenty miles of paddling on the lake did turn up one lone loon.   Chasing loons in a boat is quite an art. The loon is a diving fisher and will submerge quickly when approached too closely. I chased this one with my camera for half an hour, weaving back and forth across a cove. But I was unable to get closer than seventy-five feet, which was too far away for the lens in my camera. Eventually, the loon tired of my game and took off into the air, aiming toward a more secluded cove. 
 
Floating past Raleigh 

 
          As I paddled across Falls Lake, the water turned from muddy brown to deep blue as silt dropped out from the Eno. The lake became deeper as the nearby terrain dropped and I approached the dam east of Raleigh. 
The immense concrete structure soon loomed in front of me and dwarfed my tiny inflatable kayak. I pulled over to the shore on the west side, lifted my boat out of the water, and walked over the dam and down a path to begin the Neuse River. Its new point of origin, where it gushed out beneath the dam, reminded me of how the Jordan River flows out of a rock wall at Banias to begin its southerly Palestinian pilgrimage. Below the dam, the river drops rapidly for several hundred yards through the falls of the Neuse. Several swirling rapids sent me barreling through this narrow channel and soon I maintained a natural pace of about three mph for most of the remainder of my odyssey.

          Between Raleigh and Smithfield are fifty miles of gentle paddling with an occasional ledge of rocks dropping the water a couple of feet at a time. This section is broken up by one remaining old structure, the Milburnie Dam, about fifteen miles below the falls of the Neuse. In a small cove just above the Milburnie Dam, I found my first bald cypress of the trip, a tree species that would increase in frequency and size as I continued my expedition downstream. While gazing up into its frilly branches, I noticed a small patch of Spanish moss over my head. Perhaps a great blue heron flying up from the lower Neuse had inadvertently carried this tuft tangled in its legs and dropped it when it landed. Will this small strand of errant Spanish moss survive and grow this far away from its heartland down east?

          The Milburnie Dam presents a formidable barrier to the migration of the American shad, a species of fish that in previous generations regularly migrated upstream in the spring from the North Carolina coast. Another dam further downstream in Goldsboro also impedes this migration, but is scheduled for demolition in the near future. Hopefully, this will bring many more spawning fish up to Raleigh, and the upper Neuse will once again be known for its great spring shad runs. After a brief portage around the Milburnie Dam, I continued downstream once again.

Heart of Smithfield and wild area to the south

          The Neuse River passes right through the heart of downtown Smithfield. The town has designed a nice city park along the banks of the river with several historic buildings. East of Smithfield, the river enters a wild area without bridges or adjacent roads for 32 miles. Because the banks unfold into a large flood plain, very little development exists. The most interesting pieces of architecture are the occasional small huts on stilts fashioned by fishermen, hunters or hermit river lovers. I paused to admire each one's individuality and tried to imagine who the owner or builder might be that found the Neuse to be his personal retreat.

          It was a sunny, 60-degree day when I entered this section east of Smithfield. Muskrats often swam before my boat and crisscrossed the river.  It was now early spring and two species of tropical migrant birds had just arrived from distant southern parts. I listened carefully as a yellow-throated warbler and a parula warbler sang a duet, or so it seemed to me. I have always found these two warblers to be the two most prominent warblers in the river canopy. The yellow-throated warbler would begin its musical "zeet zeet zeet,'' and immediately after a syllable or two, as if not to be outdone by his rival species, a nearby parula warbler would chime in with its lustrous ``zeeeeeeeup!'' Against the backdrop of the bright yellow Carolina Jessamine vine that was now coming into bloom along the river, these two, yellow-fronted birds were an extraordinary invitation to the unfolding season of spring.

Entering the upper Coastal Plain

          In this very remote section of Johnston County, I came upon a floating platform tied to the bank that I pirated to set my tent upon for the evening. I presumed that the owner of the platform would not mind its occupation by a captain of the Eno River Navy. I erected my tent right on the platform and settled in for a full night's concert of raucous callings from a host of barred owls. There was also the ever present lapping of water on the wooden platform, and if I strained, I could faintly hear the rumble of trucks on U.S. 70, paralleling the river to the north. I must have been near a farm, for once I heard the moo of a midnight cow. A friendly beaver would pop the surface with his tail on occasion.

          I awoke on the first day of spring to the sound of mallards quacking near my platform. The river was choked in fog, but a bright spring sun dispersed it quickly.  A fisherman drifted by in a boat. I asked him about his catches on the Neuse. He replied that he was fishing for catfish, but bemoaned the fact that since the flood following Hurricane Fran, no big ones could be found in the Neuse. His theory was that the large catfish  had been stranded in adjacent forests and fields as the waters receded from the flood.

          In southern Johnston County, the Neuse leaves the Piedmont and enters the upper coastal plain and begins to take on a decidedly swampy look. Huge and ancient bald cypress trees become more frequent. Usually this giant sentinel is stationed every several hundred yards along the river. Spanish moss draped many of the trees, and as I passed into Wayne County, the riverine canopy became awash with this flowing  mossy garment, more so than in any other section of the river I was to later paddle.

          In early spring, the upper coastal plain's most obvious riverine wildlife are the presence of wood ducks. I often observed their squeaky calls and flurry of mating activities when I turned a bend in the river. The male and female are a lovely pair, the proudly colored drake and the darker hen with her masked white spectacles. The wood duck is a skittish bird, not trusting the presence of humans. After all, we did hunt them almost to extinction earlier in the twentieth century. The moment I came upon them from around a bend, they would explode out of the river with their alarm cries creating quite a commotion.

          In western Wayne County, I passed under the entry bridge to a large CP&L power plant. I began watching every curve carefully so I wouldn't be tossed into any unusual currents as I approached the Quaker Neck Dam. Soon there was a warning sign, but the water level was high enough to safely carry me over this low head dam and I noticed only a few big swirls on the surface.  Just downstream, I was faced with a sudden choice as the river divided. Before I could steer my boat to the east, I was in a cut in the river that was designed to eliminate travel in a 4-mile loop through what is now Waynesborough State Park. The cut is only about 20-years-old, and is quite revealing as to how the river forest is formed. These pioneer trees consisted of ninety percent young river birch and 10 percent sycamore. Hardwoods like elm, maple, ashe and cypress will make their surge in the decades to come.

The Goldsboro locals

          At the end of the cut, I paddled back upstream a short way to arrive at a boat ramp on the edge of Goldsboro. Adjacent to the ramp is a bar and tackle shop, recently built by a Mr. Jack Bennett, with a remarkably nice deck overlooking the river. I had a drink with the local Goldsboro fishermen while they eagerly listened to me speak of my river adventure.  Each man had his own estimate of how many more miles it was downstream to my final destination in Oriental and when I might arrive. Linda, the barmaid, passed a hat for money to play the juke box. As I  dropped a dollar into the hat, I pondered how different my life might have been if  fate had dealt me a different hand and I had grown up in Wayne County as one of the local river boys...

          Soon I was approaching the Cliffs of the Neuse State Park with its sandstone overlook rising ninety feet above the river. My nineteen year old daughter Saliima had joined me in a second boat for this particular stretch of paddling. I climbed out of my boat and ascended the bluff for a view of the river from atop of the cliffs. This is really the only vantage point on the entire Neuse where one can contemplate the river from such a height.  The state park was still closed because of Hurricane Fran damage, so I enjoyed my meditations in solitude and watched my child in her boat explore the river below. I pondered, for a moment, about what the really important things are that we have to share with our children.

New birds for my list

          Below the town of Seven Springs, a water bird suddenly surfaced ten feet in front of my boat and then disappeared back under. I grabbed my Peterson field guide and identified it as a horned grebe, a bird I had never seen in North Carolina before. I chased it with my camera for several minutes and managed to get reasonably close for a good view. But the Neuse was high and swollen, and this river bird soon disappeared among the trees on the edge of the flooded forest.

          From a distance I noticed a green bottle that was stranded above the water line in the extended branches of a tree which had fallen into the river. I like collecting old bottles, but as I approached, I realized that this bottle had a distinguished resident. A green tree frog perched on top allowed me to pick up his bottle without being disturbed. I paddled the rescued frog to the shore, not wishing it to become a morsel for a hungry river bass.

          White-tailed deer were fairly common along much of the Neuse. Upon seeing my boat they snorted and bounded off through the forest as a herd. On one occasion, the last of the scampering deer suddenly halted, turned and stopped to gaze at me. I gazed back, feeling privileged for the personal acknowledgment.

          In its final four miles into Kinston, the Neuse meanders repeatedly in a rich display of old growth riverine forest. It was flooded in all directions, and on a couple of occasions, I wasn't sure I could find the main channel. The rise of the river also meant that its velocity had slowed down from spreading out so far, making navigation quite a challenge. Here I found the red-shouldered hawk to be the master of the swamp forest.

          The Neuse River flows through another attractive river front park in Kinston with a camping area and a nature center. Downstream from Kinston, huge laurel and willow oaks dominate the river banks. On one lonely stretch in eastern Lenoir County, I unexpectedly came upon a pair of anhingas soaring high in the air above me. This was a bird that I was familiar with in Florida and further points south in the tropics. But this was my first experience with this sleek black bird in North Carolina.

Wondrous light east of Kinston

          Later in the day, I passed the mouth of Contentnea Creek. Along with the Eno, it is one of the Neuse's two largest tributaries. The creek is named after an old Tuscarora Indian village that once spread along its banks to the north. At that confluence was a towering cluster of bald cypress trees under which I peacefully lounged in my boat.  Native Americans always found a confluence of rivers to be a sacred spiritual place.

          I pulled into an abandoned fish camp just after the confluence and set up my tent facing west so I could watch Comet Hale-Bopp after sunset, an event I considered an excellent omen for my trip. I considered myself brilliant to have carried out this trip, while all my friends were back home, burdened with the cares of urban life.

          But as darkness set in, I noticed a bright point of light near the mouth of a creek lined with tupelo trees that emptied into the Neuse about one hundred yards away. The light hovered about six feet above the water, but I could not perceive its source. I walked over to the bank and hollered at the light, tossed sticks and rocks but still it did not move or change. I began to have an uneasy feeling about this mysterious river light.  I recalled that various fringe groups had claimed that with the coming of Hale-Bopp, some of us might even be snatched away to another planet!  Alone in the face of this “UFO,”  my fears began to run out of control. I even thought of paddling on downstream after dark.  But in this remote area with high water and no moon,  that was not really an option.

          I decided to go ahead and set up my tent, try to settle down and just zip up the flap zipper really tight!  If I woke up on another planet, well it was my fault for thinking that I could make this trip alone, while all my friends were safe back home and tucked in with family. I tossed and turned through the night with that light remaining near me but at some point I finally fell asleep.

          In the morning the light was nowhere to be seen. I paddled over to the area where I had observed it during the night, hoping to find perhaps a lantern hung in a tree. But there was nothing but miles of flooded cypress and tupelo forest for as far as I could see. I paddled up the creek a ways, looking for a farm or a road with a street light, but there were none. This wild creek flowed in from a totally undeveloped area. After recounting this “UFO” story a number of times, my favorite interpretation came from a friend who suggested that the light was probably a guardian angel for my trip -- just a friendly river spirit.

Night on Marsh Island


          As one travels further down the Neuse, the osprey becomes a familiar friend. These birds would often scream at me if I found them poised to eat a captured fish.  One of the most bizarre sights in nature is to look a hundred feet up into the air and see the wriggling form of a large fish suspended horizontally beneath an osprey. I pondered what that fish must be thinking with its spectacular view of the river. A fish flopping on land looks hopelessly “out of water.'' But a fish flying high through the air strikes me as one of the strangest of paradoxes.  I also learned the piping calls of the osprey quite well on this trip and called back frequently, saluting them on a friendly basis.

          As I approached the town of New Bern, there was a narrow spot in the river where shad fishermen were drifting with 100-foot-long nets. I pulled alongside several of them to inquire of their techniques and their luck that day. Soon afterwards, the flow of the Neuse ceased as its waters finally dropped and widened into the lower coastal plain above New Bern. It was like paddling on Falls Lake again, except that now I would have to deal with coastal tides - a new lesson to learn for an inland Piedmont paddler.

          I spent the night on Marsh Island in the middle of the Neuse just upstream from New Bern. There were two large cypress trees that were covered with hundred of cormorants and I was often awakened during the night by several restless, resident Canada geese.  A splendid sunset and sunrise on this island were the highlights of my entire expedition. The next morning I paddled into Union Point Park in New Bern. A night in the King's Arms Bed and Breakfast helped me prepare for the last leg of my expedition.

Battling the winds and tides

          My goal was the town of Oriental, where the Neuse widens to four miles as the river becomes the Pamlico Sound. But that meant that ahead of me were about twenty-five miles of paddling into the wind in my keel less boat, and having to time my forward progress with an outgoing tide. The morning started off calm, but by midday I was in trouble. The wind began to blow seriously out of the northeast and tossed up waves more than two feet on the river. It was coastal white water as far as the eye could see!  By mid afternoon I became exhausted and had to beach my kayak, which, in itself was a challenge as the waves broke on the bank. I had to carefully survey the shore for a sandy beach that I could run up on and hurriedly hop out, dragging the boat ashore before capsizing. Bleached stumps of downed Atlantic white cedars often protruded from the water next to the shore, an obstacle that would do serious damage to my inflatable boat.                                        

          In the evening the winds calmed down and I tried my hand at night paddling, navigating by the stars as I had learned from a class at the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill. I kept a distance of about a quarter of a mile from shore enjoying easier forward progress, the cool night air and exalting at the occasional appearance of a shooting star.

          From New Bern to Minnesott Beach I paddled amidst another migration. Monarch butterflies danced from south to north across the bow of my boat at a rate of at least one every fifteen minutes. They were on the tail end of their journey from Mexico to the eastern United States and were battling the north wind as well. I felt as if I had real sympathy from these migrating beauties and they inspired me to press on in the face of the brisk coastal winds. I finally camped in the lee of a narrow sandy bank just shy of Minnesott Beach.

          I woke up to the unearthly calls of chuck-wills-widows coming from behind me in the forest. I launched again, but it was a real shock to round the spit of land at Minnesott Beach and head northeast in the face of winds even stiffer than those of the day before. I could feel the more open energy of the Pamlico Sound ahead. After struggling until my hands were cramping and blistering from clutching my paddle, I turned into Dawson Creek at the community of Janeiro and prematurely surrendered to the winds for the day, just five miles short of Oriental.

An Oriental approach

          I carefully planned my final approach to Oriental when winds would be more manageable. Halfway through this final stretch I stopped and paused on a lovely, white sand beach with dead cypress trees looming out from the shore. The saline water of the Pamlico sound was encroaching on the trees and killing them, leaving still another kind of monumental beauty. The scattered knees of the cypress trees poked out of the sand producing a bizarre and exotic landscape. I felt like I was on a distant tropical island many miles from civilization. I snacked on a ripe banana covering it with gobs of cashew butter ...

          I rounded my last spit of land and the old section of Oriental came into view with its canopy of live oaks, pecan and white mulberry trees. A town sustained by artesian wells, its quiet history of naval stores, timbering, ice packing and fish processing played gently on my mind. As I paddled across the entrance to its harbor, I replayed memories of my departure from West Point Park in Durham. The Eno River's gift of protected waters finally retired here, along with the ashes of Saint Margaret who had worked so tirelessly to protect them.

          Both commercial fishing trawlers and recreational sail boats fanned out from Oriental's harbor to the east. The Neuse River merged into a horizon without land or trees. I wafted peacefully into the protecting lee of Oriental's harbor.  I passed two seafood processing plants with their Mexican workers lounging on the pilings - it could easily have been the port of Veracruz!. Savoring the last few moments of my river odyssey, I finally let my boat bump the cement retaining wall at the end of the wharfs.  I had wafted the Neuse and found her beautiful. My guardian river spirit had sustained me and I had transformed my hometown of Durham into a port ...
 
Photo by Riverdave: Camping along the Neuse River in Johnston County ...