Saturday, April 20, 2013

Looking back on the week

Our town's new water park
The Thornapple out of its banks
It has been a crazy week.  The good news is that the sun has continued to rise; only you couldn’t tell it by empirical evidence as for weeks the sun has been tucked in behind gray clouds.  Last Sunday it snowed a bit, then rain and more rain and even more rain.  And there were the bombings in Boston, tainted letters mailed to Congress and our President, and a fertilizer plant blowing up in Texas.  With all this national news, we have been able to put North Korea and other problems around the world out of our mind, but you can be sure they’re still there.  Finally, yesterday, the rain stopped the clouds once again began spitting snow.  At least this morning, I enjoyed a sunrise. 

Sunrise this morning

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Down the Wild Cape Fear

This is my 995th post--I'm moving closer to a 1000!  I have often written about the Cape Fear Region (see my last post) and recently read this book. My next post will be about a trip up Town Creek (which flows into the Cape Fear).   The hyperlinks are to stories I've written in my blog that is covered (or at least mentioned) in the book.

Philip Gerard, Down the Wild Cape Fear: A River Journey through the Heart of North Carolina (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2013), 276 pages, selected bibliography, maps and some photos.

The Cape Fear is the only river basin wholly contained within North Carolina and the only river in the state that directly empties into the ocean, the others spilling out behind barrier islands.  Philip Gerard, the director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, sets out to explore the length of this river near his adopted home.  Traveling by canoe, kayak, johnboat, powerboat and freighter, he covers the entire length of the river from the confluence of the Deep and Haw Rivers to Baldhead Island on the Atlantic.  As he tells of his journey, he provides insight into the river’s history.  The river has long been an important one.  Native Americans lived along the its banks, French and Spanish sailors explored the river, and the tidal waters became a hangout for pirates all before the first British settlers arrived in the 17th Century.  The river would go on to play a role in both the Revolutionary and Civil War and was a site for shipbuilding during both of the World Wars.   The river has also seen its share of tragedies and atrocities, from drownings to a racial massacre.  The story of North Carolina is entangled with the Cape Fear. 

Gerard is at home on the river and a love for the water comes across in the stories that he tells.  Before setting out on this trip, he had explored much of the upper river in kayaks and the lower part of the river in his sailboat as he sought safe haven for his boat as a hurricane approached.  He laments how towns along the river—Lillington, Fayetteville and Elizabethtown—who once faced the river and depended on the water for transportation and communication, have turned their backs on it.   Only Wilmington has a “river walk,” with upscale shops and restaurants, but this is relatively new, having developed since I moved from the region three decades ago.

The book begins with Philip and three friends on a two night canoe trip from Buckhorn Dam (just below the confluence of the Haw and Deep Rivers) to Fayetteville.  This upper reach of the river, along the fall line, has some rapids and was the site of an attempt prior to railroads to create a canal that allowed shipping from the coast to the Piedmont.   

He returns to the river a few weeks later with another colleague and a 16 foot johnboat and they power down the river, taking a full day to run from Fayetteville to Wilmington.   I was a little disappointed in this section for it was too fast as he covered the ninety miles and through three sets of locks and by one cable ferry in one day.  In my mind, I could hear the motor hum in the recesses of my mind (at least it was a four-cycle motor, so a bit quieter than the older two-cycle outboards).  Gerard breaks off at various points in his journey to share other stories such as the Revolutionary War battles and the history of steamboats and barges that use to run this section of the river.  Gerard noted that barge traffic stopped a few decades ago, which made me feel rather old.  When I was working a territory in Eastern North Carolina in the early 80s, I often would spent time waiting for evening meetings in Elizabethtown at Lock and Dam #2.  Barges of fuel and chemicals were still being hauled to Fayetteville and occasionally those of logs were hauled downriver to Federal Paper in Riegelwood or to Wilmington.  The lock and dams along the river have kept fish, especially shad, from moving upstream.  Gerard tells of efforts to help "lock" the shad up the river and how now at Lock and Dam #1, the dam has been modified to allow the shad to move upstream lay their eggs.

After arriving in Wilmington, Gerard covers some of the river’s history with the city.  He also explores some of the other tributaries to the river, the Black, the Northeast Cape Fear and Holly Shelter Creek, all rivers that I paddled back in the 70s.  From Wilmington down to Baldhead Island, Gerard travels in a larger powerboat.   Gerard finishes his trip on the Cape Fear by starting on the Deep River and kayaking past the confluence of the Haw at Mermaid Point (which is now underwater) and on to Buckhorn Dam.  As he tells of his trip, Gerard not only writes about the history, legends and nature, but also discusses the future challenges facing the river, from the deeper channels that funnels salt water upstream to a proposed super cement plant and mining operation along the banks of the Northeast Cape Fear. 

Down the Wild Cape Fear is a delight to read.  Although there are areas along the river I would have liked to see Gerard explore further, it would have been mostly for own personal interest.  While in Wilmington last week, I had coffee with Gerard and joked that he’d written the book that I wanted to write.  He encouraged me to go ahead, acknowledging there is room for more than one book on the river and how he could have gone on in this book for a thousand pages.  To his credit, Gerard’s writing is crisp.  I recommend this book to anyone interested in rivers, the history of North Carolina, or the environment.  Gerard is also the author of Cape Fear Rising, an insightful novel on the 1898 Wilmington race riot.  

Additional Reading on the Cape Fear watershed (books & blogs)
Malcom Ross, The Cape Fear 
John McPhee, The Founding Fish
Lawrence Earley, Looking for Longleaf

Other river books
Janisse Ray, Drifting into Darien (Altamaha River)
Earl Swift, Journey on the James   (James River)
Alan Kesselheim, Water and Sky: Reflection on a Northern Year   (Athabasca & Kazan Rivers)
Candice Miller, The River of Doubt  (Roosevelt River in the Amazon watershed)
Milton Osborne, The Mekong 
Phil Kaber, The Indiochina Chronicles  (Mekong River)
David Gessner, My Green Manifesto  (Charles River)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Day on the Cape Fear

I left Michigan late on Easter evening and flew down to Myrtle Beach.  After a few days in Pawleys Island, I went up to my parents near Wilmington where I spent two days on the river.  This is my first post from these adventures.  Last night, I flew back to Michigan.  I'm now approaching a 1000 posts...  this is number 994!
Wilmington's Waterfront with Coast Guard Cutter in center

My brother wanted to get out in his boat and since it was pretty windy asked if I’d like to run up the river where the wind wouldn’t be a problem.  Having just finished reading Philip Gerard’s book, Down the Wild Cape Fear (which I will review in a few days), I readily agreed.  Although I’d paddled the upper parts of the river when I lived in North Carolina and have explored large parts of the estuary south of the State Ports, I had never been on the section of the river above right above Wilmington.  This was a good opportunity to explore and see some new country.

We put in my brother’s boat at ramp at Dram Tree Park beside the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.  The Dram Tree was a legendary symbol by the river, a large cypress bearded with Spanish Moss.   Today, the ports are south of the bridge, but in the days of sailing ships, when the port was along Dock Street in town, captains would enjoy a dram of whiskey celebrating the end of the journey as they passed the tree.  Or, as they headed down the river toward the sea, a dram was toasted for good sailing.  But in the 40s, someone cut the tree down.  It’s sad to think that it’s no longer here, but it probably wouldn’t have survived the building of the bridge and if it had, it salt water incursion would have killed it.  The river has been dredged deeper and deeper to handle larger ships, which has allowed salt water to move up the river on rising tide.      

USS North Carolina
We back out into the river and head upstream, passing by the city and the boardwalk along the river with its trendy shops and fancy restaurants.  A sailboat is making its way downriver and Coast Guard Cutter is tied up at the along the banks.  A little further down, at the site of the old Atlantic Coastline warehouses, a research vessel for Cape Fear Technical College is docked.  Just beyond is the city’s convention center.  The waterfront for the city is nice, but we take the left fork, heading up into the Cape Fear River.  The right fork is the Northeast Cape River.  I’ve paddled the headwaters of both, but today, we’re being pushed upriver against both the flow and an outrunning tide.  My brother’s motor is more than sufficient for the task.    

Compared to the east bank, with the city perched on the high banks, much of the west bank of the river is swampy and junky, with scrap yards, dry docks and moored tugs.  This is Eagle Island, a low island that is bound by the Cape Fear on one side and a cut off the main channel, known as the Brunswick Rive on the other.  Possibility the only manicured lawn on Eagle Island is the park around the Battleship North Carolina, which is permanently moored in the mud just south of the confluence of the two rivers.  A river ferry shuttles tourist from downtown to the battleship.   

We move up into the Cape Fear River, motoring under the 421 Bridge and in just a few minutes, we are in another world.  For the next couple of hours, we’ll alternate between worlds as the river passes by industries that depend on it for water and other areas.

 At first, the river is banked by savannah like grasses.  Prior to the Civil War, runaway slaves hid in these grasses and in some areas rice was cultivated.   At Navassa, we pass under a rusty railroad drawbridge.  Just west of here is a large rail yard that serves industries around Wilmington plus the ports.   The drawbridge used to be regularly used, but in the last couple of decades, barge traffic up this part of the river has ceased.  In days past, there was a large fertilizer and creosote plant in this area, but today there is only a small dry dock with what looks to be pleasure vessels being refurbished.  After Navassa, there are the two huge stacks of the Sutton Power Plant, with a gentle roll of brown smoke coming from the top.  Beside the plant is a dwindling pile of coal.  The power plant is currently being rebuilt to burn natural gas and this includes building new stacks that are not nearly as tall. 
Sutton Power Plant (notice the smaller natural gas stacks to right)
A view of the Cape Fear

Confluence of Black and Cape Fear

After Sutton, trees begin to line the banks.  We pass the intakes and outflows for a numbers of industries, including one where my brother works, but even with their stacks of 100 or more feet, we don’t see them from the river.  At the confluence of the Black River, the water swirls as the two rivers flow together.  The Black lives up to its name.  It is dark water, stained by tannin acid produce by cypress.  It was in the headwaters of this river, that I first made a river trip in a canoe forty years ago.  The black flows into the muddy Cape Fear and for a while you can make out the waters from both rivers until they are finally mixed and the brown silt of the Cape Fear overpowers the black waters.   After the confluence, we run along Roam Island, a wild and undeveloped island that is flanked on one bank by the Cape Fear and on the other by the Black and a cut-off from the main channel of the Cape Fear that runs into the Black, making it a true island.  


We continue along the main channel, south of Roam Island.  The south bank of the river is often high, with pines growing in tall sandy bluffs.  The north side is swampy, the trees just budding out.   Cypress, with their exposed knees at water level and Spanish moss beards are most common by the water, but there are also various gums, sycamores and live oaks.  Underneath are dogwoods and other blooming shrubs, palmettos and even some flowers.  If we explored the island, we’d probably find all kinds of carnivorous plants, including the Venus flytrap that only grown in this part of the world.  Along the banks, where logs have fallen into the river, turtles congregate, enjoying the sun.  The river along here probably looks the same as it did when my Scottish ancestors rowed up these waters in the mid-18th Century.

After we pass Roam Island, we stop for lunch and then to turn back home as we both have stuff to do.  If we’d had another couple of hours, we could have run on upriver, past the huge International Paper Mill at Riegelwood and then a little later to the first of three lock and dams that allowed barges to push all the way up the river to Fayetteville.  At the first lock, they’d be shad fishing, as this is the season for the fish to run upriver to spawn.   But we don’t have time today and after eating our sandwiches, we turn around and make our way downriver, this time traveling a little faster with the current, but keeping an eye out for logs and other obstacles floating down the river.   As river widens, we’re treated with a bald eagle flying overhead.   It has been a good day.

A view of the Cape Fear