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


  1. Hi Sage: This wonderful post with photos reminded me to see what it will run to repair my camera in the shop! Glad the day ended well!!

  2. It sounds like a WONderful day, sage!


  3. pretty cool on seeing the bald eagle....i have actually been on this river...back when i used to live in NC

  4. Ever since I read William Least Heat-Moon's book Riverhorse, it has always been a dream of mine to someday build a boat and spend a couple years cruising the inland waterways of our country. I've enjoyed the ones I have visited via canoe immensely. This would certainly be one that I would love to visit.

  5. I think the problem is you haven't updated the template in blogger. What I've noticed is you blog in now one of the very few that opens in my phone as a full web page. I suspect that's why googles 'Algorithms' a hissyfit and you aren't showing up in any readers.

    Looking at that State, it seems to be relatively empty. There seems to be vast distances between settlements and farms. Lots of timber too. I though the coast was heavily farmed

    1. I'm trying a new template... The eastern part of the Carolinas, at least until you get a good 75 or so miles from the coast, has rather poor sandy soil. It was good for tobacco and blueberries, but not a lot else. Today, much of what had been farmed has been put into "tree farms" to supply pulp wood for the paper mills.

  6. How did I miss this one? Sorry to be late to this post. A lovely day, indeed.