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Down the Wild Cape Fear

Down the Wild Cape Fear: A River Journey through the Heart of North Carolina

Philip Gerard
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    Down the Wild Cape Fear
    Book Description:

    InDown the Wild Cape Fear, novelist and nonfiction writer Philip Gerard invites readers onto the fabled waters of the Cape Fear River and guides them on the 200-mile voyage from the confluence of the Deep and Haw Rivers at Mermaid Point all the way to the Cape of Fear on Bald Head Island. Accompanying the author by canoe and powerboat are a cadre of people passionate about the river, among them a river guide, a photographer, a biologist, a river keeper, and a boat captain. Historical voices also lend their wisdom to our understanding of this river, which has been a main artery of commerce, culture, settlement, and war for the entire region since it was first discovered by Verrazzano in 1524.Gerard explores the myriad environmental and political issues being played out along the waters of the Cape Fear. These include commerce and environmental stewardship, wilderness and development, suburban sprawl and the decline and renaissance of inner cities, and private rights versus the public good.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0813-6
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, American Studies, Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[xi])
  3. [Map]
    (pp. xii-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    I have lived beside the Cape Fear River for more than twenty years. I have run its length, 200-odd miles of foaming rapids, placid eddies, tannin-dark water hiding snakes and snapping turtles, in canoe, kayak, sailboat, runabout, fishing boat, and ship—and I’ve run parts if it many times.

    On a soft autumn evening, with the clear October light casting the Wilmington waterfront in a luminous clarity, I’ve cruised aboard the Henrietta III, a replica of an old-time steamboat, the breeze riffling the North Carolina state flag at the jackstaff. The occasion was a cocktail reception and a concert by...

  5. Part 1. The Upper Reaches

    • Chapter 1
      (pp. 7-23)

      Nearly 200 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, at the confluence where the Deep and Haw Rivers come together in the North Carolina Piedmont—literally, the foot of the mountains—lies a small wedge of beach called Mermaid Point. For more than a hundred years now it’s been submerged by a hydroelectric dam just downstream, but the sandy bottom is still there.

      In the 1700s, when only a handful of white settlers made their home in the vast Cape Fear basin, travelers reported hearing beautiful, ghostly singing emanating from this beach. A legend grew up that this was the place...

    • Chapter 2
      (pp. 24-36)

      We let the current take us.

      This becomes a theme of the trip.

      John Steinbeck, who roamed America in a camper truck called Rocinante searching for the soul of his own troubled nation to write Travels with Charley, put it nicely: “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

      So it is with our little expedition. 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...

    • Chapter 3
      (pp. 37-44)

      We also stop for a long time—an hour and a half perhaps—to play at Lanier Falls, just above Raven Rock. We pull in above the falls and run the chute over and over and surf the hydraulic in Ethan’s unloaded canoe. Lanier is formed by a ledge that crosses the whole channel, with white-water chutes on either side. Ethan is an expert, and I run the left-hand chute with him, then body-surf it with only the life vest on, feet up to avoid getting them trapped in underwater crevices between or under rocks.

      Then I spend a good...

  6. Part 2. The Middle Reaches

    • Chapter 4
      (pp. 47-67)

      We get a later-than-planned start from Raven Rock — 8:40 or so. We’re slugabeds. The kayak campers are just getting roused out of their tents when we shove off from the muddy bank into a lovely morning. Proceeding downriver, we tend to stay in the shade of the trees on the east bank in the morning and then, after lunch, shift to the shade of the west bank, unless we’re in fast water and need to thread the rocks. We’re careful not to run too close under overhanging branches, for fear of snakes dropping out of the trees into our boats....

    • Chapter 5
      (pp. 68-82)

      I wake the way you awaken in nature, for no apparent reason, without the blast of an alarm or even the morning voices on the radio. Despite the storm and fatigue, or maybe because of both, my sleep was deep. My body feels sore in that wonderful way that means your muscles have relaxed after long labor and the rest has kneaded itself like a deep tissue massage into your limbs and muscles, leaving you aching and exhilarated.

      I peer out into the gray light to hear Ethan already up and moving around. We need an early start to make...

  7. Part 3. The Lower Reaches

    • Chapter 6
      (pp. 85-107)

      David Webster and I launch our johnboat at the Wildlife ramp at Old Route 87, just to make sure we will have a continuous trip and cover all of the river. I don’t know why this is so important to me, but there is a kind of implicit integrity in covering every yard of the downstream flow.

      We have arranged to borrow the sixteen-foot johnboat Sea Whip from the UNC Wilmington Center for Marine Science Research. We were to have a center-console bateau with a steering wheel, much more comfortable for the long haul; but at the last minute it...

    • Chapter 7
      (pp. 108-135)

      About eighteen miles above Wilmington, on a tributary of the Black (and therefore of the Cape Fear), a replica wooden bridge across Widow Elizabeth Moore’s Creek commemorates an important battle of the American Revolution, fought at daybreak on February 27, 1776. It was not a battle that ever found its way into the history books I studied in grammar school, not like Concord or Lexington, Saratoga or Yorktown. Yet, for a couple of reasons, it was important far out of pro portion to the number of troops who fought there. First, early in the war, it was one of the...

    • Chapter 8
      (pp. 136-146)

      Near the southern end of the Wilmington waterfront, just below the shops and restaurants of Chandler’s Wharf, visible atop a long, sloping hill, David and I in our little Sea Whip pass a stately white riverfront mansion.

      The great house was built on the site of the first colonial customshouse, back around 1825, by Edward B. Dudley, the first popularly elected governor of North Carolina. Dudley was a prime mover in establishing the city as a railroad hub. He invested the princely sum of $25,000 — more than half a million dollars in today’s currency — in the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad,...

    • Chapter 9
      (pp. 147-158)

      So David and I pass slowly along the riverfront of Wilmington, cruising through its history and toward its future in our feisty little Sea Whip. We are caught in its current, in more ways than one, and also in its past, the flooding tide shoving against the downriver flow, stalling it, till it turns at last.

      It would be nice to pull up at Chandler’s Wharf and have a cold beer at Elijah’s restaurant to celebrate our homecoming. Ordinarily, we could do that, then take the boat out at the Castle Street ramp, also called Dram Tree Park. The park...

  8. Part 4. The Estuary

    • Chapter 10
      (pp. 161-179)

      I’ve taken the journey downriver in stages, and the later stages include layovers, chances to explore the landscape and history surrounding the river and to reflect on what it’s all adding up to. For me, the river presents a kind of palimpsest: All the events of history are overlaid onto the present. The colorful ship’s captains and explorers and engineers and Indians and planters, the bold escaping slaves and hardscrabble farmers, the shad fishermen and steamboat pilots, the desperate victims of the coup of 1898, and the actors on James Sprunt’s riverside lawn—all are still alive on the river,...

    • Chapter 11
      (pp. 180-196)

      I want to visit one of the plantations from the river, navigating the watery avenues that served as thoroughfares of trade back in their heyday. So on an overcast day in early July, with thunder rattling fitfully to the north but no rain in the offing, we put out from Wilmington Marine Center just south of the port and chug across the windy river, splashed by swells, toward Mallory Creek on the west bank, the gateway to the old Clarendon Plantation.

      We’re embarked on one of the side excursions I promised myself while running the whole river to the sea,...

    • Chapter 12
      (pp. 197-212)

      Now Kemp tells me that there’s a new twist to this old pollution source. “Poultry CAFOs are making a push into North Carolina because they’ve been basically regulated out of other states.”

      Up on the Chesapeake Bay, for example, regulators have cracked down on mass livestock operations, so they’re moving down into North Carolina, where they are not regulated.

      Not regulated? At all? I ask him if I’m hearing him right.

      Kemp explains: “The poultry farms are what they call ‘deemed permitted,’ so if you build a poultry farm, it is considered to be permitted without any permitting process at...

    • Chapter 13
      (pp. 213-222)

      Now the rice canals, Island Creek, and the Titan controversy are all behind us, as Frank Chapman and I speed downriver from Snow’s Cut toward the sea, resuming the journey in his fast Carolina Skiff. The day turns out not to be as rough as we anticipated—the wind stays steady from the west at thir teen to fifteen knots, the seas mainly flat or just a little bumpy. We’ll endure some pounding on the way back upriver, but in general it’s a dream day to be tooling around the open waters of the estuary.

      We fly downriver past spoil...

    • Chapter 14
      (pp. 223-240)

      Frank slows the big powerboat as we approach Southport.

      Onshore, a line of stately homes faces the estuary. Just offshore, the UNCW R/V Sturgeon is anchored, three scientists busy sampling the water column. The estuary is a rich environment for science, an ecotone containing multiple species of fish, birds, and wildlife in all stages of their life cycles.

      And once again, we’re cruising through history. Off to starboard lies the mouth of Bonnet’s Creek, named for Stede Bonnet, the “Gentleman Pirate,” scion of a wealthy Barbados family who reportedly carried his voluminous library to sea with him. Here he and...

    • Chapter 15
      (pp. 241-250)

      The route to the actual Cape of Fear on Bald Head Island is circuitous and expensive.

      The cape, of course, is a shifty piece of real estate. In this part of the world, sand migrates south and west, as a rule, according to currents and tides, but storms tend to plough through these low islands, moving thousands of tons of sand in hours. The relentless undertow of large wave trains sucks sand off beaches and furrows it into shoals off shore. And dredging the long fairway into the ship channel undoubtedly contributes something—nobody can agree on exactly what—to...

  9. Part 5. Finishing at the Starting Point

    • Chapter 16
      (pp. 253-268)

      I don’t know exactly why it has seemed so important to travel the whole river, start to finish. Maybe it has to do with wholeness, with completion. And so I have made it almost all the way—from Buckhorn Dam to the Cape of Fear—and all the water that carried me has spilled into the sea. In that sense, we made the journey together, and the river I traveled with is gone, replenished each day by a new river, a continuum of rivers, existing both in one single intense moment and across the millennia.

      We live in a world...

  10. Selected Sources
    (pp. 269-274)
  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 275-276)