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)


  1. I would enjoy making that trip in a pontoon Wanna take us?

  2. This sounds great; I love this kind of book.

  3. nice...this sounds like a pretty cool book...and having lived in NC and being familiar with at least part of the cape fear, def intriguing...would be a cool trip too

  4. Oh this is for sure your kind of book! Very fascinating, and something that would surely take my mind off our wintry spring!

  5. Lana and I went hiking yesterday and both realized how out of shape we are. We'd really need to get into shape for something like this trip.

  6. This sounds like a peaceful escape type of read. Thanks for the journey this a.m.

  7. Think how much fun you'd have researching such a book. Do it!

  8. Here's an interesting North Carolina item I just found:

  9. Thanks for the tip! This book sounds very interesting. I think I'm going to check it out.