e x c u r s i o n s resemble a waterborne version of the Keystone Kops in pursuit of the elegant Paul Ferguson. The small passage between the “poison ivy tree” and an old cypress is only about three feet wide, barely wide enough for a canoe, but spacious enough for my 21-inch-wide kayak. I head toward it, bow rudder, and the kayak turns, but I still find I have to back up and re-angle my boat, which means the poison ivy is now brushing my collar and sleeve. I hack at the bush with my paddle. Once through, I zip ahead to see if I can locate Paul in the swampy cypress maze. The water is so high, many of the huge cypress knees, or pneumatophores, are completely submerged. Small bubbles carve a bright path ahead. I’m disappointed to discover these weren’t made by Paul’s canoe; they are just generated by the current. There’s thrashing behind me followed by a brief discussion of cortisone shots and allergies. One of my two guide pals passes me and then disappears in the swamp as well. After ten minutes or so, we see the stern of his red kayak and then the flash of Paul’s white paddle. Now that we’re all in sight of one another, we can relax and explore. The cypress trees in this swamp are exceptional not because of their height, but because of their age. In 1981, researchers from the University of Arkansas took core samples of some of the older looking trees in the swamp. Some, according to David Stahle, the researcher who first core sampled the trees, are around 2,000 years old. It’s almost impossible to imagine: a tree, alive, for 2,000 years. If you are looking for perspective in your life, a trip to the Three Sisters cypress swamp is a useful human reminder that all is vanity. Some of these trees were growing when Diocletian was Emperor of Rome. How much has fallen and passed away in the centuries since they sprouted? Yet here these cypress stand, silent and thriving in the ever flowing blackwater. This year the cypress trees housed heron nests and a wood stork rookery. Their gnarled branches form a tangled canopy above us. They seem to map the sky. For a time, one tree became famous. She was named Methuselah and marked with a small metal tag, because her core sample dated her at 1,800 years of age. Other trees are older, but because they suffered heart rot, these could not be accurately core sampled. Methuselah’s tag is now gone, and her location known to a handful. It’s just as well. Many of the cypress here are ancient trees — there seems little need to single out any one in particular. When we exit the swamp, we take out for lunch at a private landing on a hill. Paul knows the owner. One of our guide friends wades out to the bench for a photo op. The water is so high he appears to float on a park bench in the middle of the river, cooling his heels. Over lunch on the riverbank I tell Paul that his book is wonderful (which it is) and that it must be satisfying to have created something that has helped and inspired so many people to explore North Carolina’s waterways. He thanks me, but it’s clear he doesn’t like having too much attention focused on him. Instead, he speaks of some of his favorite rivers: the Haw, near his home in Raleigh, and the Edisto River in South Carolina. The book is meticulous in its detail, no doubt informed by his years as an engineer. His career at IBM included a stint as lead engineer of the team that supported the ground computer system for the Saturn The Art & Soul of Wilmington
V rocket, known as Apollo 6. He describes the year leading up to the launch as exciting. But after that first launch, he decided he wanted a new challenge and put in for a transfer. He worked in Raleigh and London and found that paddling became a part of his personal life. “I worked in London for three years and while there I bought a canoe and paddled in England and Scotland. I also took my canoe on some vacations in France and Swedish Lapland.” When he retired at age 50, he set out to write his book because it would be a fresh challenge and get him out on the water with regularity. To assemble the book on Eastern North Carolina, Paul estimates that he drove over 75 thousand miles to various water trails. So far for his upcoming book on South Carolina, he estimates he’s driven 30 thousand miles. “My next book should be on where not to eat while you’re on the road.” The floodwater carries us to our take-out at Newby’s Landing faster than I’d like. On the open stretches, we barely have to paddle at all. When we arrive at our take-out, Paul motions me over to his van. It’s a seven-foot-tall fully outfitted affair. Inside, he’s outfitted it with many creature comforts. Several old wooden wine cases have been cleverly assembled to form both a bureau for camping supplies and to serve as a platform for Paul’s fold-out double bed. It’s a pretty spiffy setup, and I wish I had enough overhead room in my truck camper for something similar. As the rest of us load our kayaks, Paul reaches down, flips the brontosaurus of a canoe up to his chest, and then hoists it over his head. He carries it over to his seven-foot van, straps it down, downs a cold Frappuccino from the cooler in his super-cool camper, and says, “Hey, this was fun. Thanks for inviting me.” Then, all at once, the van’s gone up the driveway in a cloud of gravel dust, and Paul’s off to his next adventure. Want to go to the Three Sisters? Buy a copy of Paul Ferguson’s book, Paddling Eastern North Carolina; www. pocosinpress.com. We paddled section six of the Black River. Several kayak companies offer tours of the area. Especially fun in November and December are the mistletoe gathering trips run by: Kayak Carolina: (910) 707-0361; www.kayakcarolina.com Watersmith Kayaking: (910) 805-2517; watersmithkayaking.com and Manahaim Adventures: (910) 547-8252; mahanaimadventures.com. You can also see parts of the swamp with Wilmington Water Tours, which runs boat trips to the area. Info: (910) 338-3134 or www. wilmingtonwatertours.net. Special thanks to Hurricane Kayaks for providing the kayaks for the paddlers on this excursion. b Author Virginia Holman teaches in the Creative Writing Department at UNC Wilmington. She is also an ACA certified Level 3 Coastal Kayak Instructor and guides part time with Kayak Carolina.
November 2013 •
The Art & Soul of Wilmington