Black River Refuge

by Scott Lucas:

We have few options for escape from Covid. The phrase “Isolate in Place” seems benign initially, but it’s not. For some of us it quickly morphs into Solitary Confinement or for many, including me, CWB – Confinement With Beloved, a long-term lockdown with those closest to us. Close can get too close. We require a short escape, and our fellow beloved shut-ins bid us a fond, and genuine, farewell.

My Burner Brothers – Wayne, Robert, and Mitch – all rose to the suggestion. When Mitch asked each of us, “What do you think of going to…” we all interrupted his question with, “I’m in.” The destination was immaterial.

Black River is isolation of a different stripe. It’s time travel. The river is in southeastern NC, 100 miles from Chapel Hill, 200 miles from Boone, and 10,000 years in the past, a black water serpentine jewel running through a sparse county. This ancient waterway is a bit of a secret to the world beyond its swampy banks. Many locals wouldn’t mind keeping it that way.

The river is little known for a few good reasons: 1) Poor marketing plan, 2) It’s located in a flatland swamp a long way from anywhere, 3) It’s hard to find a spot to slide boats in and out of the water, and 4) There are precious few places to spend the night.

The Black River snakes through three counties before joining the Cape Fear River Basin 30 miles northwest of Wilmington and the Atlantic Ocean. The Three Sisters area of the river offers the most scenic paddling. The state highway drive from Chapel Hill is a three-county, two-hour panorama of flatland forests and crops, farmhouses and trailers, asphalt, and concrete. Southeastern North Carolina in July is long on lush flora and short on people.

We camped in the Hunts Bluff Campsite in Kelly, NC. It’s a flat, low grass and sandy soil field with a long dirt strip parking lot fronting the river. The parking lot holds 15 oversized RVs hooked up to electrical breaker boxes. The tent camping area is a three football field expanse of scrub grass, bordered east and west with thin stands of tall pines. No one there but us. We set up our little tents on the treeless field, a couple of florescent nylon pimples on the Serengeti.

D’Angelo runs the place. He’s not around. We owe him $30 for the night. He’ll turn up.

In the morning we launch under Beatty’s Road Bridge. Mitch and Robert park their cars off a dirt road, rather than tempt fate leaving the car’s roadside with their ‘Bernie Beats Trump” bumper stickers. We slid the kayaks down the embankment, donned life jackets, and packed away the snacks and water and beer in the holds. We launch, released from solid ground attachments or concerns for a handful of hours.

The blackness of the water is the first thing I notice. All cypress swamps are black to differing degrees; the water is tinted by tannic acid which leaches from the bark of the cypress.

The river is 50 feet wide at the launch, but even here under the glare of the morning sun, the water appears opaque. As we travel downstream the river narrows, the trees left and right lean in, branches reaching to the waters center, limbs touch the water’s surface. The sun is blocked; the water blackens in the shade; the ancient, twisted, and gnarled cypress trees on the river bank drift inward, from banks to center stream. As the river winds through the low water flats, the trees crowd the water and extend further left and right, as far as the eye can see. The water stills and the river becomes a swamp.

I have always been a glutton for new sensations, and here’s one. I’ve dropped back 10,000 years, I’m in the middle of ancient water and forest, no sound, I’m alone. Dragonflies and unnamed luminescent flying insects approach, hover, drop to skim the water next to my paddle and dart away. They begin to light on my shorts, one, two, then half a dozen. They light on my legs and stay stock still. I turn left or right into the close stands of cypress – massive, worn and weather-beaten trunks, some trunks split wide enough above the water to paddle through. Wolf spiders bigger than my hand grip the bark inches from my face. I stick my hand in the water, it disappears.

About halfway through our eight-mile paddle we pass Three Sisters Swamp, an area on both sides of the water owned by The Nature Conservancy. Here are the oldest known trees in our country – outside of California – and the oldest known wetland tree species in the world. David Stahl, a researcher from the University of Arkansas dated the oldest tree at 2624 years. Stahl counted more than 2600 rings…that alone was a chore.

That cypress sapling was pushing through swamp grass, wiggling toward the sunlit surface before Christ, Muhammad, or Buddha made hay. Before Neolithic first American wanderers took to the swamps for safety or food or both. Thirty generations before you and me. It not only feels that old, it is that old.

The stretch through Three Sisters is the best patch; ancient and otherworldly. We paddle another couple hours, signs of sparse civilization crop up – a few new homes 200 yards up the embankment, docks and flood-hit boat buildings and hideaways sagging, leaning and half-collapsed into the drink. Tires, chain link fences, and the front end of a Ford Fiesta poking through the black water like a drowning blue whale.

The reappearance of Man is enough to tempt me to turn around and paddle back upstream. Almost. We find our landing adjacent the campsite, and slither out to land, reluctantly abandoning our time traveling.

We’ll be back.

Sources: N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

The Black River is a tributary of the Cape Fear River, approximately 50 mi (80 km) long, in southeastern North Carolina in the United States. It is formed in southern Sampson County, approximately 15 mi. (24 km) south of Clinton, by confluence of two creeks: Great Coharie Creek and Six Runs Creek.

The stand of bald cypress is on property owned by the Nature Conservancy in an area known as Three Sisters Swamp. The cypress there are the oldest known living trees in the U.S. outside of California, and the oldest known wetland tree species in the world, according to the study. May 10, 2019

Black River at Hunts Bluff
Kelly, North Carolina
Managed by Cape Fear River Watch

Hunts Bluff Wild Life Boat Ramp is maintained by North Carolina’s Wildlife Resource Commission. It is located in Kelly, North Carolina on Hunts Bluff Rd off of Longview Rd. The ramp is located next to Hunts Bluff Campground. Small motorboats and kayaks/canoes are ideal. Parking available at ramp.