|Sage, on the Black River, Summer of 1975|
This is another of post about my early canoe adventures. Unfortunately, I don’t have many photos from this era of my life. As for the title of this post, it comes from a book by Patrick McManus that I came across many years after this event. When I first saw the book, I thought he’d stolen my story!
Walking out of the store with a bottle of Coke in one hand, I ripped open a bag of peanuts with my teeth and shook a few in my mouth. Looking up, I saw a Chatham County sheriff’s car over by our vehicles. My stomach knotted as I walked over to where Larry, my uncle was waiting. The deputy, wearing a protective rain cover on his billed hat, walked up from the other direction.
“Ya’ll boys ain’t going to run that river today, are you?” he asked my uncle in a slow drawl.
We plan on it,” Larry answered.
“That ain’t a good idea,” he continued. “We’ve gotten a lot of rain and that river is angry.”
“We’re going to check out the gauge before we put in,” Larry assured the man.
“Well, if ya’ll boys go down that river, I ain’t gonna go lookin’ for you,” the deputy said.
“We’re not asking you to,” Larry responded.
The deputy looked at the canoes on the two cars, then padded his pistol and said, “I ought to save ya’ll boys lives and shoot some holes in those canoes.”
“Please sir, don’t do that,” my uncle responded.
It was in the spring of 1975 and my brother, my Dad and I had met up with Larry at a country store and gas station outside of Pittsboro, North Carolina with the thought of running the Haw River. None of us had ever been on the river, but Larry had talked to some who had and we had a plan to run it if the water wasn’t too high. We drove over to the US 15-501 bridge and parked beside the road and walked down the slippery back to check the gauge. The river was running at 3 feet above normal. Larry’s sources had told him not to try to run it in an open canoe if the river was more than six inches. A few years later, I would run the river when the gauge was at 3 feet, but then I was in a kayak and had sharpened my paddling skills a bit. It was an incredible run with an eight foot standing wave below Gabriel’s Bend swallowing us whole and then spitting us out. We could have never run that river successfully in open canoes. That deputy was right; he’d probably been looking for us as that river would have eaten our boats and struggling in the middle of boiling water. But on that day a few years later, I was in a kayak and the river was a blast.
Although he was my uncle, Larry always seemed to be more of an older brother to me and he was much closer to my age than to my dad’s age. When he graduated from high school in 1969, he joined the Navy and spent four years as a corpsman and somehow managed to stay out of Vietnam even though for half his enlistment he was assigned to the Marine Corps. When Larry got out of the Navy, I was in high school. He started attending a Community College and would later transfer to Appalachian State. Unbeknownst to each other, we both purchased a canoe within weeks of each other and through our college years we often paddled together. The failed Haw River expedition was just the first of many.
Knowing we couldn’t safely run the Haw, we decided to try the Rocky River, which parallels the Haw. The Rocky River eventually merges with the Deep River which later merges into the Haw form the Cape Fear River. I’m not sure how we decided on the Rocky River. Maybe the deputy suggested it, but I remember we looked at maps at the Haw River Bridge and decided to check it out. From the bridges, the Rocky looked promising, so we dropped the boats and shuttled the cars and began the run. If the water had been much lower, we’d be walking much of the river. There were lots of ripples and rock gardens and some short and exciting drops. Larry and my brother were in his canoe; my father was in the back of mine. It was the first time we’d paddled and, as far as I knew, my dad had never paddled a canoe on a river.
At one of the last pieces of fast water before we got to the 15-501 bridge, we were swept up into the trees. I thought things were going ok as I got low in the boat and tried to steer us back into the flow, when I realized my dad was out of the boat and holding onto the canoe with one hand and to a tree with another. I never figured out how he got out of the boat without me knowing it, but I tried to stabilize the boat as he crawled back in. But as he let go of the tree and jumped into the boat, it rolled and we were both in the freezing water being swept downriver. Larry was yelling for us to hold onto our paddles and he and my brother were collecting stuff from our boat that was floating downriver. At the bottom of the fast water, with everything collected and the water dumped from the boat, we got back in and fifteen minutes later arrived at the bridge. We’d talked about going further down the river, but with my Dad and I both being wet, we decided that might not be the thing to do. As for my canoe, it had a ding on the keel that continued to remind me of the Rock River. After this canoe was stolen, I would often look at the keels similar looking canoes tied on top of vehicles, hoping to find my old canoe.
Over the next few years, Larry and I would often paddle together. Sometimes my brother would join us (my father never did join us on these trips even though he did on occasion paddle with me). We did several trips along the Black River, including an overnighter where I was in the bow as we floated down the river while fishing upstream. In a quiet but serious voice, my uncle instructed me not to move. I wasn’t sure what was up, but the out of the corner of my eye, I realized we were about to bump up to a log. Curled up on the log and looking at me, at eye level, with his tongue darting in and out, was a fat Cottonmouth. Had we bumped the log, the snake would have been in the boat. Larry safely maneuvered us around the log. On another trip, we explored the Uwharrie River (where we were surprised to find a dam that required a difficult portage). And then there was long day my brother and I joined Larry for a long paddle on the South Fork of the New River. It rained so hard that day that we had to regularly stop and dump the water out of our canoes and the only respite we found were under bridge abutments. Like trolls, we ate lunch under one such bridge.
In the spring of ’76, Larry called me and asked if I would be interested in a kayak. He’d just purchased one and a friend of his had another one to sale. I brought the boat and we then began another chapter of our lives.