What could you learn from a trip down the Cape Fear River?
Starting, say, at a few miles below Jordan Lake where Haw River joins Deep River to form the Cape Fear, canoeing downstream and passing by Raven Rock State Park before reaching the bridge at Lillington, getting through three sets of dams and locks, all the way to Fayetteville.
Then, with the rapids behind you, switching to a powerboat to follow the river as it passes by Elizabethtown, on the way to Wilmington and into the ocean beyond Bald Head Island.
What would you learn on such a trip? Perhaps not much, certainly not much from people unless you made your way away from the water. This river can be a lonely place. Sometimes, the only contact with the outside world is passing under one of the few bridges that cross the river.
But if you travel with Philip Gerard on the Cape Fear, you will learn a lot about history, nature, environmental protection and degradation, public policy, human nature, and man’s search to find a proper place in the world he did not create.
And with Gerard you can experience the drama, the challenges, the joys and the setbacks that are the seasonings of any journey through unfamiliar parts.
Gerard’s new book, “Down the Wild Cape Fear: A River Journey through the Heart of North Carolina,” gives its readers an opportunity to take such a trip, a reading journey that no one who loves North Carolina should pass by.
A journey on the Cape Fear properly begins at Mermaid Point where the Haw and Deep rivers come together. Once the “subject of fanciful folklore,” it is now, Gerard writes, “an overgrown peninsula” that is ‘hidden under a tangle of underbrush and poison ivy” with a view of “the ugly concrete edifice” of a power plant “issuing a steady roaring hum.”
Things could have been quite different if, in 1788, delegates to the state constitutional convention had accepted a serious recommendation to locate the state capitol on this site instead of choosing a location in Wake County. Or, if in 1792, the committee charged with recommending a place for the University of North Carolina had not turned down a substantial sum of money that was offered to locate the university at Mermaid Point.
The point was selected at the location of the inland terminus of a navigation route inland from the ocean in 1797. A town, named Lyons, then Haywoodsborough, then Haywood, grew up and then disappeared when the last efforts to develop a practical water transportation link collapsed with the coming of the railroad and the Civil War.
Gerard writes, “No battles were fought over Haywood” and “the little town at the head of the river simply faded away.”
Gerard intersperses such history lessons with descriptions of the river itself, telling us that if we were on it near Mermaid Point, we would “glimpse the treasure spun out of water and gravity, lush thicket and birds, shad and turtles, otters and mink.”
I will share more of his observations in a future column or two.
What I like even more than the stories of history and the love of nature that Gerard preaches is the spirit of adventure that he found on the river.
At one point, after a challenging day, he convincingly describes how closely related misery and happiness can be. “We are bone-tired, wet, mosquito-bitten, sore, and having the time of our lives.”
“The difficult moments, the groundings and even capsizes, the out-of-control panic of being swept along by the current,” Girard says, serve as “punctuation marks for the trip, transforming it from a trip into an adventure.”
As one of his colleagues said, “It’s not an adventure if everything goes smoothly, all according to plan. What fun is that?”
— D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” with airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.