It’s getting near dusk as Kemp Burdette steers his boat into the middle of the Cape Fear River south of the state port in Wilmington.
A stiff wind blows across the water, making the river choppy as Burdette points the bow of the sailboat-turned-cabin-cruiser toward a patch of swampland and canals on the Brunswick County side.
It’s one of his favorite places on the river.
Tall, with a deep tan you can only get from spending time on the water, Burdette folds his long, lanky frame into the stern of the boat. He wears a worn baseball cap with the North Carolina flag on its front, and an orange down jacket to protect against the wind blowing off the water.
“I love it out here,” Burdette says.
Being out on the river is more than recreation for Burdette. It’s his life’s work. As the Cape Fear riverkeeper, his job is to be its voice, and to protect North Carolina’s largest river basin from harm. But as he heads for the marshland this Sunday, all he can talk about is alligators. He hopes to spot one in the marsh. “We probably won’t see it,” Burdette says. “All we’ll hear is the splash.”
The Cape Fear River runs 202 miles from the Piedmont to the coast. It’s the only river in North Carolina that runs directly into the ocean, entering near Cape Fear south of Wilmington. A fifth of North Carolina’s population lives within the Cape Fear River’s watershed. The river basin is shaped like New Jersey and stretches from Southport, past Wilmington and Fayetteville, to the Triad.
Discovered in 1662, and documented by English explorer William Hilton Jr., the river has served as a commerce route since the colonial era. It’s also the chief water source for New Hanover, Pender, and Brunswick counties, and its basin has 33 reservoirs, including Jordan Lake, Cary’s main source of drinking water.
The Cape Fear’s importance as a source for fresh water underlines the importance of keeping it clean. That’s where Burdette and Cape Fear River Watch come in. Founded in 1993 by Bouty Baldridge and Bruce Watkins, the group seeks to protect the Lower Cape Fear River Basin through advocacy and education. Burdette became the executive director and riverkeeper for Cape Fear River Watch in 2010. Part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, Burdette is one of more than 240 local waterkeepers worldwide who protect rivers, lakes, and bays.
For Burdette, the job was a natural progression. “I was born here,” he says. “My mother drank Cape Fear River water when I was in her belly. My kids drink Cape Fear River water. I feel like it’s my river.”
Burdette grew up exploring the waterways and swamps around the river. After graduating from high school in Wilmington, he served in the Navy before returning to attend the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He graduated with degrees in geology and history, and holds a Master of Public Administration degree. He was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study maritime history in Newfoundland, and later worked with Nicaraguan farmers as a Peace Corps volunteer.
“My best friends in Nicaragua were 7- and 8-year-olds because they would tolerate my Spanish,” Burdette says.
But his knowledge of the river is unparalleled.
There’s an easiness to the way he navigates the river. The boat, modified by Burdette’s father, Wilkes, started as a sailboat. It has enough room to sleep three or four comfortably. Burdette likes to use it when he takes his daughters, Olivia and Caroline, exploring the waterways and swamps of the lower Cape Fear River. For a guy like Burdette, being paid to be on the river is a bonus, because he’d be on the river regardless.
“My friends kid me all the time because I’m prone to getting lost out here, stuck up to my waist in mud in some creek,” he says.
Near the marsh, the wide berth of a canal becomes visible. Cut into the marsh grass, it looks like a water-covered road. Burdette recently went to a lecture on the construction of the canals. They were built for the many rice fields that used to dot the banks of the river. Slave work crews waded into the waters and dug out the mud by hand. The work was complicated by insects and alligators, and drowning was a constant danger: Few slaves could swim.
“It was backbreaking work,” Burdette says.
As he pilots the boat down the canal, it becomes hard to see anything but grass and an occasional bird. Perched on a tree sticking out of the grass is a yellow-crowned night heron. The bird tracks the boat as it meanders down the canal. Burdette points it out as we slip by, excitement in his voice.
Then there’s a splash off the port side of the boat: An alligator rolls into the water.
“My mother drank Cape Fear River water when I was in her belly. My kids drink Cape Fear River water.”
Spotting alligators on the river is the fun part of Burdette’s job. He spends a lot of time on land in meetings, researching issues, and following up on pollution tips. Burdette was on 60 Minutes to talk about coal ash, the state’s high-profile environmental problem. The proposed Titan America cement plant outside of Wilmington has also garnered headlines. But factory farms and storm water are the biggest threats to the river, he says.
“I get a little overwhelmed,” Burdette says. “I can put my arms around Titan, but it’s hard to fathom factory farms and the amount of waste. The last few years it’s been kind of tough for environmental protection.”
In May, the North Carolina House of Representatives passed a regulation reform bill that weakened some regulations on storm water runoff and hog farms. Burdette doesn’t understand the political fighting over the environment. “It shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” he says. “We drink water out of the river. No one can say it makes sense to threaten your drinking water.”
The sun is starting to set as Burdette points the boat back to the marina. The trip will be one of Burdette’s last for a few weeks. But he knows the river isn’t going anywhere, and neither is his fight to protect it, something politicians forget to do, he says.
“What you have to fight against, really, is short-term thinking,” Burdette says. “My job is to think long-term. There has to be a balance.”