The Muscle of the Cape Fear River

  • By Philip Gerard
  • Photography by Ken Taylor

The Cape Fear River runs inland like the main artery of history from the sea to the mountains. It’s one of only four rivers contained entirely within the borders of the state and the only one that empties directly into the ocean. It flows for some 200 miles, cutting right through the heart of the state, containing in its drainage basin 116 towns and cities in 26 of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

The Cape Fear River in North Carolina

We arrive at Buckhorn Dam on the upper Cape Fear River just before 10:30 a.m. on a gorgeous May morning. There are four of us: David Webster, a wildlife biologist and my colleague at the university where I teach; Ethan Williamson, an experienced white-water river guide who is also head of Friends School of Wilmington; his wife, Amy, our expedition photographer and birder; and me, a silver-haired writer with two strong paddling arms, one good knee, and a yen for adventure. We have help from two graduate students, who will ferry our vehicles home and return a few days from now to fetch us at the take-out below Fayetteville, some 65 miles downriver from where we’ll start. This is just the first leg of a river run that will take us 200 miles to the sea.

The air is cool but quickly warming, the sky clear of any threat of storm.

We splash the boats just below the confluence of the Deep and Haw rivers, just downstream of Mermaid Point.

Off to the right looms the dam, anchored by a square, concrete tower on the near bank, stretching across the river in a hard, straight line, the water rushing over it in a beautiful, glimmering fall that seems almost frozen.

Buckhorn Dam presents a somewhat dangerous optical illusion of being rather diminutive with a short fall beyond it. In fact, it stands 14 feet high from the original riverbed and contains 1,200 linear feet of concrete founded solidly on a base that is 12 feet wide. Because we see it at relatively low water, it looks tame, but time and again it has proved to be a killer.

The Chatham County Record reported on one such instance on April 25, 1907, when five men lost control of their boat near the Buckhorn Dam. They were in a gasoline boat, carrying lumber across the river. They somehow lost control of the boat and began drifting with the current toward the dam. The five of them plunged over.

“Only one of them, Joe Andrews, escaped a watery grave,” the newspaper reported. “He was able to swim ashore, but the other four were drowned, and their bodies were swept down the river and may not be found for many days, if ever.”

And drowning isn’t the only danger posed by the hydroelectric dam — or the river. In September 1907, a hellacious storm dropped more than two inches of rain in a few hours. Lightning arced from a poplar tree into the powerhouse near the dam and killed seven men instantly. The strike stunned another 25 workers, seven of them seriously injured. A horse was said to be uninjured but “frantic” and had to be brought under control. The accidental death toll at Buckhorn was estimated at 20 men, including the four washed over the dam, not to mention all those injured or burned by lightning.

The Record tallies the grim toll and adds a snarky postscript: “About fifty feet of the dam was washed away next day after the men were killed by lightning, which will delay for some time longer the completion of this important (and we may add unlucky) enterprise.”
Those same roaring falls over the dam are in our ears as we wrestle the two canoes off the roofs of the vehicles, carry them to the flat beach downstream of the dam, and load them. We take our time stowing the gear, tying all the bags and sealed buckets to the thwarts in the event of capsize.

At last, David and I are ready to shove off in his old aluminum Grumman canoe — moss green, built like a dreadnought. I’ll be the bow man and he, with his considerably greater experience, will steer from the stern. Our canoe is heavily laden, but it’s big enough to still ride well.

We carefully board our canoes and push off into the mild current below the dam. The water is low, just a foot and a half or so deep. I’m a little nervous, not having been in a canoe on a river with real current for a few years.

Just below the dam, we encounter a wide boulder field — Brazier Falls — tricky in low water, what are called Class I rapids, the mildest kind, easily navigated by an alert beginner. In high water, it would be challenging, a real trap. We follow Amy and Ethan, who’s been running rapids since he was a kid. Amy is also an expert paddler with many miles of wild rivers on her résumé.

Ethan is tall and broad, easygoing, deceptively strong and agile. He has that knack for making physically difficult things look easy — the hallmark of a real pro. He knows how to handle a boat and how to read a river.

For running rapids, Ethan’s modus operandi is to stand up in the back of his canoe about a hundred yards upstream of any “horizon line” that indicates fast water ahead. When you’re on the river, the water always appears to be above and in front of you, so when it ends in a flat horizon, it’s an indication that beyond that horizon, the river falls.

And the crucial question is always, how much, how fast? Is it a gentle fall through an easily threaded rock garden, a dramatic drop requiring focus and skill, or a true falls to be avoided altogether?

Ethan studies the river downstream, looking for surface ripples or humps indicating submerged rocks, circular eddies that are the telltales of back-flowing currents, foaming shallows over a sandbar, and so on, and picks out a route. Then David and I do our best to follow him. We do not stand up in our canoe. We are not morons. We understand that what seems easy when Ethan does it is in fact a minor feat of acrobatic balance. And, were we to try it, a great way to transform ourselves in an instant from paddlers to swimmers.

David and I are in a “sticky” boat, a canoe that grips a rock face with great friction and doesn’t let go easily. By contrast, Ethan and Amy’s canoe, an old, green Mohawk with duct-tape seats (the original fabric wore out ages ago), is plastic and slides off a rock. It’s also far more flexible, so it has some bend and bounce to spring it off rocks. They skim over many rocks that grab us hard and won’t let go.

The good thing about our Grumman, which David calls The Green Monster, is that it’s tough and pretty stable so that whenever we do have to get out of it, getting back in is a matter of flopping aboard and grabbing on. It’s not tippy or tender, and there’s no danger that the rocks can do anything more than scrape off some paint or add a ding to the battered hull. It’s at least half a century old, a true classic.

Below the dam, we veer off from the rock garden, following Ethan, into a side channel that turns out to be a very fast, very long canal, a vestige of the days when settlers attempted to navigate the upper river in flatboats. It’s a fast run with the current tugging us along. We dodge rocks, slide around a long, left-hand bend, and I get my first dousing of the trip, a slap in the face with cold water.


It’s a sporty ride through the second rapids at Battles Falls, and at one point, we actually spin 360 degrees. We drop to the bottom, and just yards from the still waters of the bottom eddy, we stick hard on an underwater rock. For the first of many times, we hop out of the canoe, shove it forward into deeper water, then slip back in. We become very adept at this. In time, whenever we stick hard on a rock, we don’t even have to speak; we just free the boat and continue on our way.

We let the current take us.

This becomes a theme of the trip.

Even when we pick a course through the white water, invariably the current does something unexpected, slews us around, grabs our bow, and sucks us toward a rock or, if we’re lucky, a sluice. If the former, we bump around it or push off the rock, snake our way back toward the main current. If the latter, we feel that little thrill in the stomach as we drop fast and rocket forward in a chirpy spray of cold water.

Sometimes the current stalls us in an eddy, and all our paddling gets us nowhere until we cooperate with what the river is trying to do, dipping a blade like a rudder into the current to steer us along. Sometimes the river takes us down a chute backward, and we simply ride along, hunkered forward, paddles shipped across the gunwales, until the river spits us out downstream, pointing again in the right direction.

Some of our hang-ups are just because of inexperience. But mostly, the river is just being what it is: an elemental force propelled by gravity, a tremendous mass that moves downhill inexorably, pushing past rocks, carving out the far bank of a bend because the nature of physical law dictates that the water on the outside has to go a longer distance than that on the inside, so it must move faster to keep up with the river. And sometimes the river narrows, and the water speeds up again because, as described by the continuity equation: If you decrease the radius of the conduit, the fluid moving through it must speed up according to a predictable formula.

Running a river is a great lesson in fluid dynamics without any numbers or arcane symbols. You’re right there inside the equation, feeling it whirl and dip you. There’s nothing abstract about it: The water is moving in complex ways, and with power.

For example, at the foot of Buckhorn Dam, the water flow over the dam produces what paddlers call a recirculating current or “hydraulic.” Ethan explains all this to me in an ongoing series of lessons, sometimes while drifting along beside us, other times while we rest on the bank. The water pours over the dam and into the pool at the foot of the dam with such force that it actually hits the bottom and curls back toward the dam in a permanent wave. You can position your boat at the foot of the dam, facing upstream, and remain stationary almost indefinitely with only a minor stroke or two, surfing the current.

But if you get caught inside the “boil line” of the hydraulic, you will tumble over and over, unable to break free of the powerful cycle. This trap can occur in the water at the foot of any sluice or ledge, but it’s most dangerous at the foot of a long, even dam (like Buckhorn) because the only way to break the cycle is to move parallel to the ledge or dam until you move out of the pull of the hydraulic. But if the dam is unbroken across the whole river, there’s no room to break free of the hydraulic.

In that case, the journey takes you — and may not give you back.

Another ever-present danger on the Cape Fear is foot entrapment: your foot gets snagged between underwater rocks, the current rushes you downstream with your head underwater, and you drown because, with the tremendous force of the water tugging you tighter into the rocks’ grip, you cannot break free of the rocks.

The worst danger of all, perhaps, is getting caught in a “strainer” — usually a tree that has fallen across the current. And on the Cape Fear, with all the hurricanes that barreled upstream in the past 15 years, there are plenty. Water passes through the tangle of submerged branches, but those branches trap a swimmer. And a swimmer is what any paddler will inevitably become if he hits a strainer because, with the bow stalled against the obstacle, the canoe or kayak broaches broadside and the current tips out the paddler.


It’s nearly 6 p.m. on our second day on the river. The light is fading, and we’re all fatigued after many hours of paddling, tired in our muscles and eyes. Only now do I realize just how hard we pushed ourselves today, how leaden and sore my arms feel, how wooden-stiff my legs.

We’ve been paddling for more than nine hours, so fatigue is probably a factor in what happens next.

Ethan and Amy shove off and make an effortless run down the chute, fast and thrilling, as David and I watch.

Now it’s our turn.

We should unload the Grumman, as we did at Lanier Falls above Raven Rock State Park, run the chute with the boat empty, then paddle back through the eddy to the backside of the rock and reload our gear. But we’ve been running smaller chutes well all day, losing our shyness of white water, and it’s getting late. We’re tired and probably a little too relaxed. We board the Green Monster and follow the exact track that Ethan’s canoe took, but at the bottom of the sluice, we strike an underwater rock that seems to rise up from nowhere.

The canoe slews sideways and broaches. Next thing we know, we’re both in the water, the canoe is upside down, and we’re being shoved along in a fast, powerful current, holding on to the canoe as best we can.

The water is deep, the current fast. It rushes in my ears, drowning out all other sound.

The river has us.

I feel the force of the river grabbing at me, shoving me hard into a rock. A sharp, stinging pain burns my hip and thigh, but I’m not cut, only bruised. For a few dizzy moments, we shoot downriver out of control, and of course as I’m being swept away, I’m cursing loudly, as embarrassed as I am scared.

But David is calm as ever, even laughing, bobbing along downstream, big straw sombrero still cocked on his head. We let the current carry us downstream a hundred yards or so — what choice? — and then the current widens and slackens. Ethan and Amy come paddling back toward us to help us wrestle our canoe upright and toward a rocky landing site. We pile our gear on the rock. All that’s missing is the Chap Stick out of my pocket. Even our white, plastic trash bag floats off only a little ways before Amy snags it and hauls it into their boat.

It takes three of us to tip out some water from the Monster, and we bail out the rest. After a while, the boat is dry again, and we begin reloading our gear.

Soaking wet, we climb aboard the Green Monster and resume our journey into the gloom ahead.


About three miles downstream, with the light failing, we pull up onto a cobble bar, which Ethan suggests might be our last chance for a reasonably comfortable campsite. “We don’t want to have to strap ourselves to trees,” he says, only half joking. I can hear a note of worry in his tone.

Fine by me. My legs are cramped and stiff, and my belly is grumbling. It will be nice to step onto dry land, relax, and just let the day go down. I’m pretty sure there’s a bottle of good malbec left among our supplies.

A cobble bar is different from a sandbar in one important way. While both are low and relatively flat, a sandbar is soft to sleep on, ideal really, and a cobble bar is a bed of rocks. The place is quite picturesque otherwise, shaded by the first river cypress we have seen all day, a towering tree with a broad, overhanging canopy fairly in the middle of the site. Since Ethan and Amy brought along sleeping pads, the stones present no drawback for them. They simply move some of the largest to the side, set up their tent, and floor it with the pads.

Ethan scouts a sandy bench just above the cobble bar. David and I step over and pace it, measuring off the footprint our tent requires. Using our canoe paddles and being careful to avoid contact with our hands, we uproot the poison ivy at the edge of the clearing. Then we remove a few sharp rocks and, again using canoe paddles, level the sand by raking it toward the river.

In this fashion, after 20 minutes or so of labor, we create a reasonably level, soft space, pitch the tent, and haul the rest of our gear up to the site. Our tent, which was stowed only in its Cordura nylon zipper bag, turns out to be unexpectedly dry except for a couple of damp spots, which David mops up with a T-shirt conveniently provided by Amy.

Now comes the moment of truth. The canoe turned upside down. The sleeping bags were immersed for minutes in cold, moving water. If they are wet, it will mean a miserable and probably sleepless night, not the restful and much-needed repose we’ve been looking forward to all day.

I unpack my bag first: It is bone-dry. David’s is dry, too. This is as close to a miracle as we could wish for on the river.

I gather firewood — there’s plenty around, busted tree branches, driftwood of all kinds — and lay out a fire ring near the water. On his backpacker camp stove Ethan cooks a jumbo pot of pasta, and we each wolf down our plates.

We are bone-tired, wet, mosquito-bitten, sore, and we’re having the time of our lives. The wine flows freely into absurd plastic cups and bottles.

Before Ethan has time to build a fire, a cool drizzle begins, a slow, fitful precursor to the raging storm that will descend upon us soon and last all night. We gather under the lone river cypress, and for a long time, it keeps us dry as a huge umbrella, while we stand or sit on plastic drums drinking wine. Ethan builds a fire closer to the tree. There’s no danger of it spreading, not with an increasingly steady rainfall and the river so close (and rising) and a site made of rock and sand for many yards in any direction.

And then the second miracle of the day occurs, this one woman-made. Amy fishes around inside one of the plastic buckets and comes up with a treat she has brought along especially for me, in gratitude for being included in the expedition: a bottle of Glenlivet single malt scotch.

As the fire flares bright and hisses and the rain turns into a steady, drenching downpour, we stand in the gathering darkness sipping single malt scotch and talking, sharing stories of the day. I savor the burn of scotch on my tongue, the warmth it brings to the belly, the calm that floats into the head. “I’m glad we capsized,” I say, “especially since we were really in no danger, not really.” Capsizing and being carried along by the rushing current allowed me to feel the power of the river in a visceral way, as a personal yet oddly detached force, the way nature can feel.

David proved to be cool and unflappable. I admit I had a moment of panic when, clinging to the overturned boat, being rushed along by the current, I tried to touch bottom and couldn’t, then quickly lifted my legs up to the surface and rode to the eddy that way. “David, you were great. The whole time I was cussing, you were laughing.”

David says, “Well, it was sort of fun.”

Amy says, “It’s not an adventure if everything goes smoothly, all according to plan. What fun is that?”

Everybody voices agreement. And of course she has a point — maybe even the point of the whole trip.

The difficult moments, the groundings and even capsizes, the out-of-control panic of being swept along by the current, the rainy night watching the water rise as we feel the rain pattering on our shoulders like drumming fingers and sip our precious cups of scotch, all serve as punctuation marks for the trip, transforming it from a trip into an adventure.

All in all, it has been a great day, a memorable day, and this is the right way for it to end: four intrepid comrades standing around in the rain making toasts.

We begin to see spectacular arcs of lightning across the river, white-orange and blue, and count down until the thunder reverberates. It’s getting closer — six miles, three, two, walking its way toward us like artillery fire sighting in. Then, in a gust of sudden wind and a burst of splattering, heavy raindrops, it breaks full on us. Standing under a lone tree is not the best place to be, so reluctantly we scuttle off to our tents.

It’s a restless night, with the constant fury of the storm outside invading my dreams. The tent sways in the gusting wind, as if the world is breathing us in and exhaling us, and at some point, the tent begins leaking from the uphill side. In the morning, we will discover that a runnel has formed on the bank above us and sluices down till it hits the tent, then diverts, leaving a pool of water backed up on the rear of the tent and scoring deep ruts on either side. But we remain relatively dry.

In the heart of the night, both David and Ethan stir at various times to check the level of the river and make sure the boats are still there, tethered to the tree.

But about that hour, I am blissfully asleep, rocking in the cradle of the river.

Philip Gerard is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina: Hatteras Light and Cape Fear Rising. He is chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His latest book, The Patron Saint of Dreams, was recently published by Hub City Press. He is also the author of Our State’s Civil War series.

(Story adapted from Gerard’s upcoming book, River Run: Adventuring Through History, Nature, and Politics Down the Cape Fear to the Sea, forthcoming from University of North Carolina Press in Spring 2013.)

This entry was posted in Coast, Outdoors, Piedmont, September 2012 and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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