Environment
4:30 pm
Thu May 22, 2014

Journey Down NC's Wild Cape Fear River

Early morning anglers heading downstream from Avent's Ferry on the Cape Fear River, near Corinth, North Carolina.
Credit Donald Lee Pardue / Flickr/Creative Commons

There are 17 major rivers in North Carolina, but Philip Gerard puts the Cape Fear River at number one.

"It is the only one that runs directly into the sea.  It is one of only four contained within the boundaries of the state.  I think of it as one of the great American rivers, like the Hudson in New York for example, it played such a huge role in the early settlement."   

Gerard is a professor of writing at UNC-Wilmington and the author Down The Wild Cape Fear.  A few years ago he decided to canoe the length of the river.   

The Cape Fear runs for 200 miles through the heart of North Carolina.  Twenty-six of the 100 counties in the state are touched by the Cape Fear River basin.  The river starts where the Deep and Haw rivers come together, just above Buckhorn Dam, then comes out at Bald Head Island and flows into the Atlantic Ocean. 

"One of the most fascinating things about the trip was going from a very narrow fast moving whitewater cold river, that rushes along with incredible excitement, out to this gigantic broad estuary where container ships are standing out to sea and tugboats and pilot boats are piling around and you see just the massive power where the river finally ends" says Gerard.  

WUNC's Phoebe Judge speaks with Philip Gerard about his book "Down The Wild Cape Fear."
Gerard notes that, like all rivers, the Cape Fear is vulnerable to polluted runoff from farmers' fields or highway culverts.

"If you are a farmer ... and you have thousands of chickens and mounds of chicken waste piled outside (which you are allowed to do under North Carolina lack of regulation) all of a sudden that turns soupy and liquid and that is in a drainage ditch," which then goes into the storm drain, and into the river. 

Even having a few feet of vegetation between a field and the river matters because that keeps silt from getting into the water. 

The trip

The journey down the river was tricky. The depth of the Cape Fear changes drastically depending on a number of different factors. A boat could easily turn over and the pilot could be pinned. Or a boat could hit a floating tree limb, requiring tremendous skill to get the boat over or under the obstacle. 

Even so, the trip was pure pleasure. Gerard says that during his time on the river, he felt like he was ten years old again.

"It reminded me of going down to what we called the creek when I was a kid and just on a hot day peeling off your shirt and diving in and playing around in the swimming hole."   

You can read more about Philip Gerard's journey down the Cape Fear River in his book Down the Wild Cape Fear.