THE BORDER LIFE


The Source of the Eno River
Riverdave's Journal
Spring 2000
 
This article appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun Newspaper on March 18, 2001.
 
     A year ago, I felt that I was ready to walk the entire length of the Eno River for the first time in a deliberate and mindful manner.  My walking partner and I began at Occoneechi Mountain in Hillsborough and headed down river all the way to the Eno ramp at Falls Lake in six days. Then we returned to Occoneechi Mountain and set out north along the riverbanks on what I considered to be truly new territory for me - the upper Eno in northern Orange County. With many wonderful discoveries to share from this journey, space requires that I focus on just two in this account. The first occurred in the lower section of the Eno near its termination and the second at its source on the upper Eno.

     Six days after we left Occoneechi Mountain heading east, or downstream on the south bank of the river, we came upon an adjacent flooded forest clearing. This was about ten acres of shallow water with scattered standing dead trees. This swamp habitat reminded me of many similar ones I had seen in our area that are usually created by the damming of streams by beavers.

     It was a late winter day and I paused to enjoy the call of the tiny chorus frogs all around me, completely invisible to the eye but very present to my ear. At the sound of a tapping woodpecker, I slowly raised my head and let my eyes follow the course of the rotting tree trunks upward. Suddenly, I realized that I was standing before an amazing sight! In front of me, about fifty feet off the water, was a circle of a dozen large nests near the tops of a ring of dead trees. These were huge nests, each one several feet across, made of a patchwork of many large branches. As I was walking around the muddy edge of the pond to get a better view of this extraordinary sight from a different angle, a great blue heron flew in from the river and landed atop one of the nests. The mystery of the nests was solved! 

     All who are friends with the Eno River are also very familiar with that ubiquitous wader, the great blue heron. We usually encounter it as a solitary fisherman, and as a result, we tend to think of it as a loner, bachelor type bird. But did you ever wonder where the roosting and nesting sites might be for these Eno River waders?  Fishing is a solitary occupation for the most part as it requires quiet, patient and undisturbed stalking. But that belly full of fish is often returned to a nest  of hungry mouths, strategically located in the midst of a most remarkable living arrangement.
  
     In all my waftings and wanderings along the Eno in Orange and Durham counties, I had never come upon a heron rookery. This great circle of a dozen nests strategically placed high over the water had such a communal and almost ritual feel to it. Those seemingly solitary fishers had quite an elaborate community life after all!  Embarrassingly, I felt like I had just barged into a private bedroom completely unannounced. I could only see a couple of birds on the nests that afternoon in February, but I returned to the site later in the spring and found the rookery teeming with the activity of many parent birds and their young. I have since checked local wildlife records and this appears to be the first recorded heron rookery in Durham County in recent times.

     Before the demise of the beaver in the Eastern United States that began with European settlement in the 16th century, evidence of their damming activities was everywhere. Today there are estimates that possibly up to 20 percent of eastern North Carolina was flooded with beaver ponds before the assault on the animal by our European ancestors.  This area was at one time an immense wetland!   In those days it is possible that the great blue heron also ruled these waterways. Rookeries might have been a common sight in our region. Could they be returning again with the resurgence of beaver populations in our area in the past several decades?

    For our Eno River, the heron surely is a charismatic mega fauna. Standing four feet tall with a wingspan of up to seven feet, it never ceases to elicit an "ooh" or an "aah" from the participants in my river trips when we come upon one of these big fliers suddenly taking off above the river and passing over our heads. When frozen in its still pose, it has a startling and prehistoric appearance. When stalking its aquatic prey, it has cautious and highly intelligent-looking eyes.  Stumbling upon their nesting site, I had the feeling of  discovering the primitive encampment of a lost tribe along the Orinoco.

   This winter I stood on the edge of Jordan Lake watching a large gathering of several hundred gulls and cormorants in a feeding frenzy. They were diving into the water, splashing about on the surface and intensely squawking at each other. As I was peering into this mass of avian energy, I was suddenly aware that I was not the only observer of this aquatic spectacle.  Just up shore from me was a great blue heron standing alert, erect and composed on a log at the lake's edge. The heron was also taking in the swirling energy of  gulls and cormorants, but with great serenity. I strained to pick up the heron's thoughts. At first, I wondered if it was watching for fish that the gulls and herons might be chasing in his direction. But it seemed to me that this intelligent bird was probably aghast at the gull and cormorant frenzy and was just amusing himself over their obnoxious and seemingly inefficient behavior.
 
     The heron's familiar call is a deep-throated "gronnnk" as it takes off after staining the rocks and logs white with its copious amounts of digested fish droppings. But the great blue heron is not going off to sulk alone in some secluded forest glen. There is a community of family and friends to literally "hang out" with, high up in that auspicious circle of nests at the top of the trees on the lower Eno. There is food to regurgitate and share with hungry mouths. There's leisure time for catching up on the evening news - like sharing stories about silly wafters sipping from their Capri Sun juice boxes, appearing like slumbering creatures just emerging from their urban hibernations and seeking the novel experience of life in the wild. I guess the more appropriate question could be, "Who really constitutes the lost tribe?"

     After the discovery of the heron rookery, our attention shifted back to Occoneechi Mountain and the unknown territory to the north as we set our sights on discovering its source. I have an intense personal curiosity about discovering the source of things. I have always been fascinated with such matters as birth (our second child was born at home); etymologies (I worked as a linguistic researcher for fifteen years); the origins of the great spiritual movements of the world (I have lived within the medieval walls of the old city of Jerusalem);  and even cosmology and theories on the origins of the universe which I have followed since I was a teen.  As a naturalist on the Eno River, I had become quite curious about its origins and most distant sources. My walking partner Lucile is a psychiatrist and was equally interested in origins and getting to the bottom of complex issues.
  
     In northern Orange County the Eno has two sources, the East Fork and the West Fork, which begin just south of the Person and Caswell County lines. While hiking the East Fork in 1966, Eno pioneers Margaret and Holger Nygard claimed to have followed the river up to the furthest seepage of water at the base of a sloping agricultural field. After studying USGS maps, it became apparent to me that the West Fork is about one mile longer than the East. If our definition of the "source" of a river is the furthest point upstream from its termination, then the West Fork would meet that requirement for the Eno.
  
     After retracing the steps of Margaret on the East Fork, my friend and I headed up the West Fork as well, eventually coming to a trickle of water less than a foot wide. It soon became clear that it was runoff from a half acre pond just above us. We skirted the pond and followed the contour of the land slightly higher for another two hundred yards to what appeared to be the highest ridge in the area. This was, to our reckoning, the furthest west and highest point of the Eno River drainage in that landscape. We were standing at the Eno's most distant source. Our USGS survey map confirmed this as well.  We later learned that the pond and the surrounding property was owned by the Hoyt Wright Family, tobacco farmers on the land for two hundred years.

     Naturally, our hope was to find some magical or romantic spot when searching for the Eno's source. Perhaps it would be a bubbling spring under the shade of a gnarled and twisted old tree with a sage resting beneath its limbs smoking a hand-carved pipe. But on that springy April 5th, to our grand surprise, we found ourselves standing in the midst of a 40-tree apple orchard loaded with showy pink and white blossoms! Bees and other eager insects were humming away and puffy white clouds laced the light blue sky above. I looked down the gentle slope and saw a blackberry thicket lining both sides of what appeared to be an intermittent runoff ravine descending from the base of the apple trees. The ravine sloped on down to the pond that we had just walked around, and of course, some forty miles on to the Eno's final resting place, the Falls of the Neuse Reservoir.

     I once had the good fortune to have traveled with Margaret Nygard high up in the Andes Mountains in Peru along the Urubamba River, one of the Amazon's distant sources. We had spoken there of sources, the source of the Amazon and the source of our sacred river, the Eno. I recall hiking with Margaret up a still smaller tributary of the Urubamba, a creek that descended from lofty snowcapped mountains above. Lined with plush tropical vegetation, the creek tumbled at a swift pace seeking the Urubamba, the Ucayali, and finally the Amazon River, some 1,000 miles downstream.

     At one point, we came upon a clearing in the stream side thicket and I stumbled onto an unforgettable scene. A black bird with white wing tips and a blue head, a bit larger than a dove, was standing on a rock in the middle of the creek. I had only three seconds to give it a scan with my eyes and then it took off. I had not recalled seeing such a bird in my field guide to the Andes, and was left bewildered in the moments after it took flight. No one else had noticed it but me. That evening at our lodging, I scoured my field guide for such a listing and found nothing that could even be considered close in appearance. I was stumped, but elated that I had experienced such a rare and unaccounted for moment on one of the distant sources of the Amazon.
  
     To this day, after describing it to several ornithologists, I have not been able to identify that magical bird in the middle of the creek in the Andes. But that is often the way it is with sources. The closer one gets to a source the further it seems to jump back and recede. Henry Thoreau summed up this principle when he said, "At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable and that the land and sea be infinitely wild."  Maybe it is because of my self-imposed entrapment in a linear view of time that I am so focused on finding distant sources. Possibly a truer discovery would be that the source of the Eno River is at every one of the almost infinite number of tiny rivulets that eventually flow into its main channel.
  
     Or it could be that the source of Margaret's inspiration for protecting the Eno is still very much alive, wafting its energy to each one of us that is still here and concerned. And even when the task is finally done of completing the master plan for the Eno River Parkland, the source of the Eno's inspiration may suddenly decide to take flight and become elusive once again, presenting us with even greater challenges for protecting this awesome hometown river of ours.
  
photo by Riverdave: The source of the Eno River, the Hoyt Wright Pond in northern Orange County.  Each year in late winter Riverdave leads an annual pilgrimage to this pond for members of the Eno RIver Association and the public. Email Riverdave for info about our 2017 pilgrimage.