Thursday, May 02, 2013

A Day on the Cape Fear and Town Creek (A Photo Essay)

Town Creek

Turning a bend, we notice a large dark log floating near the south bank.  We’re still a ways away when it rolls and disappears, leaving a swirl in the black water.  It was an alligator, but I wasn’t quick enough with the camera to catch him.  I’ve seen gators before on Town Creek, but was surprised to see one so early in the year.  According to the boat’s depth finder, the water temperature is on in the low sixties, which I would have thought to be too cool for alligators, but it must not be as we see a half dozen more before the trip is over.  

An alligator going under
It’s the second Monday in April and my father had arranged for my mother to be in daycare so we head out for some fishing, but the winds are too strong to head offshore.  Instead of running out the inlet, he suggests we explore Town Creek.  I enthusiastically agree.  Growing up in this area, I’d paddled all of Town Creek in canoes and kayaks, some 32 miles of it from the upstream headwaters where one has to continually pull over logs to its wide mouth into the Cape Fear River.   It had been one of my favorite creeks to paddle as a teenager.  Today, we’ll only be able to get maybe a quarter of that distance upstream in my father’s boat, but with a 70 horsepower four-stroke engine, it’ll be a pleasant trip. 

View from the helm

We take off from the wildlife ramp the north end of Carolina Beach and race through Snow’s Cut, a channel of the Intracoastal Waterway that links Myrtle Grove Sound to the Cape Fear River and provides a safe passage for boats (and the very occasional barge) down the eastern seaboard.   Of course, there is seldom snow here.  The channel is named from the Army Corp of Engineer project manager who oversaw the project back in the 30s.  

Coming out of Snow’s Cut, the river is wide.  We cut north and soon find ourselves poking around trying to find deep enough water as we make our way to the main shipping channel.  At first, it’s tricky as shoals extend well out into the river (the dredged channel is on the other side of an island, a mile or more by the way the cross flies.  Soon, we’re back in deep water and are able to run wide open.  When we reach the main shipping channel, we head north toward our destination.  In the far distance, the container cranes at the State Ports loom high.   Over the years, they’ve had to continually deepen the channel as ships have become larger and larger.  Now that the Panama Canal is being enlarged, there is now a proposal to build a new port closer to the inlet so that the newer super cargo ships, which can’t turn around in the narrower port upstream, can unload.  It will also require that the river be dug another 15 feet deeper.  Each time it’s been dug deeper, salt water moves further upsteam on high tides.  On Saturday, when I was with my brother, he was telling me how his company had to build a large holding pond for fresh water that would allow them not to draw from the river when the saline content was too high.  Wilmington was built so far upstream so that sailing ships would have a good source of fresh water.  Today, the city draws it water thirty miles further upstream.  Progress always comes with a price.  

At the north end of Campbell Island, we leave the river and head toward the west bank and the mouth of Town Creek.  We soon find ourselves in shallow water and at places have to tilt the motor up and run slowly.  But when we reach the mouth of the creek, the water depth drops significantly and we’re soon running in 20 feet of water.  We head up the creek for a number of miles and the water is at least 12 feet deep, and most times it’s a lot deeper with many holes dropping off to nearly 30 feet.   

Dying cypress

From the settling of the area until the Civil War, rice was raised from the mouth of the creek inland for a few miles and today, we can still see remains of wooden dams that once backed up the water in the side creeks to flood the lowlands.  Such agriculture was labor intensive and done mostly by slaves.  After the Civil War, rice produce disappeared.  The lower part of Town Creek is mostly grassland and home today to gators and snakes.  Dad cuts the motor as we approach a guy fishing, his boat tied off to an old piling.  We wave as we slowly putt by, and then pick up speed.  Town Creek continually curves back on itself and we make one S turn after another. 

NC 133 Bridge

As we approach the 133 bridge, the old rice fields become fewer and there is more cypress, but they are dying.  Salt water often moves up into this part of the river, killing the cypress.  Dad’s concern about going under the bridge, but when I pull the antennae down, there is a good three feet between the boat’s T-top and the bottom of the bridge and the tide is falling.   We have no plans on being upstream six hours from now at high tide.

Osprey Nest

On the other side of the bridge, the creek becomes narrower, but is still deep and curvy.  A few miles from the bridge, we spot and osprey nest in the top of an old cypress.  As we get closer, an osprey stands up in the nest and spreads her wing in a threatening manner.  We continue to approach and she dives off the nest and cries, her talons extended, as she swoops down toward us.  I move under the T-top just in case, but she keeps her distance and begins to climb, flapping her wings and continuing to cry as she circles her nest and we make our way past.  An hour later, as we head back toward the river, she repeats the show. 

Dock at Brunswick County Park
We stop at the Brunswick County Park.  Two women in kayaks are taking out at the park as we approach.  This park wasn’t here when I was paddling these waters and they seemed shocked when I spoke about paddling far upstream.  I get out of the boat for a bit and walk around, looking at the wild azaleas growing on the bank.   Before heading off, my dad digs down in one of his boxes and pulls out a can of sardines and another of Vienna sausages, along with some crackers.  That, along with some fruit in our cooler, is lunch.

One of the many canals dug for rice production

Coming out, we run a little faster as the tide is still falling and we’ve explored enough.  However, we do catch a glimpse of a number of gators taking advantage of the warmth and sun as they slid off the bank and into the water.  We’d only seen the one when we motored upstream.  As expected, the wind has picked up and is blowing hard from the south.  When we get back into the river channel, the wind is blowing against the tide and the waves are building.  We pound our way downriver, being sprayed with water each time the boat crashes through a wave.  As soon as we make the turn into Snow’s Cut, the water calms and we fly through the cut and back to the marina.  
On the Cape Fear


  1. used to see quite a few gators in florida....had them in the lake out back our house....and of course further south they were plenty...sounds like fun times out on the water...pretty cool seeing the osprey as well...

    1. It is kind of spooky to be in a small boat (kayak or canoe) and know you have a gator in the water below you!

  2. You grew up here? What a lovely place. Cape Fear though reminds me of the movie, is it related to this?

    1. Thanks for visiting my blog, Francesca. No, it's not related to the movie except that the author or screen-writer must have liked the name, kind of like Hemingway did with the "Two-Hearted River" of which he never fished but wrote a wonderful story about.

  3. Lilliput Plantation Cemetery. Any connection to Swift.

    It seems a boat community big time. How the dickins did you end up in Utah and Nevada. And temp wise,the Great Lakes. If where you are living is anything like what my cousins in Chi-kag-O you have winds from Hudson Bay.

    It looks a truly lovely light-filled place.

    1. I don't know of any connection, but the Lilliput Plantation (which was next to Orton Plantation and that one still stands) was settled around the time of Swift. I found this an interesting link on Orton and the other plantations on that side of the river:

    2. As for your other question, I am a bit of a wanderer! One day I will write more about my life's work and when I do, I will share more about the reasons for moving around.

  4. Looks like you had a gorgeous day. We haven't had very many of those at all here this spring. It's been wet and chilly.

    That's sad about the cypress trees.

  5. Hi Sage!

    This is Bhakti, from JAIBHAKTI.
    Do you remember me?
    I was quite active in the blogosphere from 2005--2007, then, my health took a sour turn.

    I've been inspired to share again...I'm ready to write and join in the conversations once more.
    I am SO glad to see that you and Judy (Kenju) are still blogging.

    I want to tell you, first of all, that I send you and your parents many blessings.
    I'm glad to hear you are boating with your father.

    Your photographs are gorgeous, Sage. I would love to draw that tree with the birds nest right in the middle...maybe use it for the center of a mandala?

    Well, this is getting long.
    I hope to see you around the blogosphere.

    Warm Regards,

    PS Do you remember when I made your corn bread recipe? :)

  6. Ha! I was going to ask you about the "Cape Fear" name, too. I was going to tell you to paddle like mad if you saw Mitchum or DeNiro!!

  7. Great post, Sage! What a blessing, being able to go boating with your dad. Your words and photos together make your excursion on Town Creek come alive. I guess if there's anything Michigan has over North Carolina, it's that the Thornapple River has considerably fewer alligators than Town Creek.

  8. You being in the business as it were, have you encountered this St Chad's Gospels. The 3d is very good indeedy

  9. This is my favorite kind of blog post. Great photos with interesting information relating to the them.
    There is so much to see out there...