Haw River 1975
I pause, standing in the door of the gas station at the edge of Pittsboro, a Coke in one hand and a pack of peanuts in the other. Ripping open the peanuts with my teeth, I shake a few from the bag into my mouth, chasing it with a swig from the bottle as I look out into a gray and dreary February day.
A sheriff deputy pulls up in his cruiser. I watch as he jumps out of his car, fitting his wide brim hat covered with a plastic rain protection on his head. He heads toward our cars, where my Uncle Larry checks the rope tie-downs on his canoe.
Stepping out, the screen door slams shut behind me. Dodging mud puddles in the pavement, I head over toward our vehicles to see that the deputy wants.
“Y’all boys ain’t going to run that river today, are you?” he asks.
We plan on it,” Larry answers.
“That ain’t a good idea. We’ve gotten a lot of rain and that river’s angry.”
“We’ll check the gauge before we put in,” Larry assures him.
“Well, if y’all boys go down that river, I ain’t gonna go lookin’ for you.”
“We’re not asking you to,” Larry responds.
The deputy looks at the canoes on the two cars, then looks back at the two of us. Patting his pistol on his hip, he continues, “I ought to save y’all boys lives and shoot some holes in those canoes.”
I envision him drawing his gun like a deputy from Dodge City, and firing from his hip, ruining my prize possession. Larry wastes no time, responding immediately, “Please sir, don’t do that.”
It’d been raining for days and is still drizzling. My dad and brother leave the store and join Larry and I as the deputy leaves. We discuss his concerns. None of us have paddled this river, but Larry has friends who have been down it. He says that as long as the river is at less than 6 inches on the gauge at the bridge, we should be okay. We drive over, parking along the edge of the highway and walk down under the bridge. The river is muddy and shrouded with fog. The waves of the water rushing pass the bridge abutment to which the gauge is attached are above the three foot mark. We decide to not to run the Haw.
Running the Haw
Two years later, my brother, uncle and I would run the Haw River and would do it many more times, but always in a kayak. It was an exciting in a closed boat when the water was three feet on the gauge. At the first big rapid, Gabriel’s Bend, the river flowed hard into a rock wall and made a ninety degree turn to the left. In high water, one would have to punch through an eight foot standing wave as soon as the left turn was executed, an obstacle that would have swamped and swallowed an open canoe.
What we did that day…
On this day, in 1975, at a time there were few river guides, we looked at a map and decided to run a section of the Rocky River which paralleled the Haw about a dozen miles to the south. We had no idea as to what we’d face, but the river didn’t look nearly as angry as the Haw. We made quick time out of the six or eight mile run. It was evident we could not have made the run at a lower level as there were many rock gardens where the river, even at this height, was only six inches deep.
Toward the end of the run, in sight of the 15-501 bridge, we had to cut across a rapid in order to stay in the main channel. I was in the bow and my dad, who’d never paddled fast water, was in the stern. Suddenly the boat stopped, and water poured in. I looked back at Dad and he was standing in the middle of the river, in knee deep water, holding the boat. He tried to crawl back in, but as he did, I was flipped out. We were both floating through the rapid. I turned around so I was facing down river and pulled my legs up, holding tight to my paddle. It was quite chilly, but at the bottom of the rapid, we were able to beach and dump the water from the boat.
Dad and I paddled the last couple hundred yards in humbled disgrace.
Down Along the Haw
Anne Melyn Cassebaum, Down Along the Haw: The History of a North Carolina River (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011), 229 pages including maps, photos, notes and index.
When I learned there was a book on the Haw River, it went on my to-be-read list. Cassebaum is a professor emerita at Elon University (which I still thought was a college), where she taught environmental and American literature along with writing. In this book, she explores the Haw River from many different viewpoints.
The history of the river
The Haw is an old river that cuts through the rock of a wide fall line. Native Americans fished in the river. Early colonists set up mills along the river and its tributaries. The river plays a role in the ending of the Revolution. Because it was at flood stage during the closing days of the Civil War, it formed a natural boundary between Union and Confederate lines. In the years after the Civil war, the river became home for a large number of textile mills. During this time, the river would take on the hue of the fabric being dyed. It was a polluted mess. After the Clean Water Act of1972, the river slowly cleaned itself. In the 70s, kayakers and canoers began to flock to its waters (see my above piece on my experience on the Haw). Then, in the 80s, with the closing of the B. Everett Jordan dam, named for a US Senator from North Carolina who owned a textile mill along the Haw, the lower part of the Hall was submerged into Jordan Lake.
Other topics explored
In this book, Cassabaum explores the full length of the river, from its headwaters to the confluence with the Deep River to form the Cape Fear. She covers both human and natural history, along with inserting her own stories of paddling and exploring the river. We meet authors who connections to the river’s headwaters including Catholic priest and environmentalist, Thomas Berry, and slave poet, George Moses Horton. Tales of paranormal experiences and haunted islands are shared. We learn of how the river has been “cleaned up” but how threats continue as lawns and agricultural lands pump more and more nutrients into the waters of the Haw. Having last paddled the Haw in the early 1980s, before the floodgates of the B. Everett Jordan dam were closed, I was glad to know that one of my favorite rapids (Gabriel’s Bend) was still available for paddling. Sadly, the Pipeline has long been flooded by the waters of Jordan Lake.
I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about my home state and a river I once knew. For anyone interested in rivers or North Carolina history, check this book out.