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15 April 2013
“I hope you don’t mind that I’m competitive,” Heather called back. She plunged her paddle into the water, stroking vigorously. “I just like to win.”
I laughed. I was watching her paddle avidly, trying to time my own strokes with hers. Left, right, left, right – we took long strokes, and out kayak sliced through the water. The river’s current ran beneath our bright red kayak and we fought against it.
The Black River wasn’t a demanding body of water to kayak, but to two inexperienced girls, it was proving to be more than a match. Half of our class seemed to agree; we had split into two groups. Most of the heavier tandem kayaks had lagged behind with two guides, while the experienced or stronger kayakers were up ahead with Virginia.
The glassy surface of the river barely betrayed the current’s relentless direction, and the bright green and dark brown of the surrounding trees reflected in the blackwater below.
Heather and I certainly weren’t winning, but we weren’t losing, either. We pushed on. Our paddles dripped, and the water ran onto our laps. Thank God I’d decided to bring my long Under Armour from home over Christmas break – I’d have been drenched without them.
I shifted my shoulders and tried to shimmy the bulky life vest further down my torso. Left, right, left, right – stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke.
We paddled for hours. Heather and I began lagging behind more and more, until finally we gave up on our two-women competition and lingered to take in the river itself.
“Look at that tree!” Heather said, swinging her arm out to point.
“It’s like an octopus,” I laughed. The bulbous roots of the tree bulged out from the trunk, and twisted into the water. Stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke.
“They’re called knees,” Heather explained when I asked her about the mini-trees that sprouted from the water. “Scientists don’t know what they’re for. They think support. But no one is sure.”
I nodded, before realizing she couldn’t see me. “That’s awesome,” I said. My arms ached. Left, right, left right.
And so we went – battling our way upriver, unsure of the time, how long we’d been going, or how long it would be before we reached our destination. All we knew was the river stretched endlessly before us. The banks were filled with gnarled trees and ferns and pooling water. Creative writing never looked so beautiful.
Our kayak, we noticed, had a tendency to turn left. We kept drifting our way to the left bank of the river, peering into the swamps and wetlands beyond, before realizing our error and paddling left, left, left, left, to send the kayak in the opposite direction, back to the river’s center.
A light lunch punctuated our nearly numb arms and growling stomachs. I settled myself onto the forest floor, devoured my sandwich and Goldfish, gratefully accepted the edamame that Barrie had packed, and brushed an ant off my arm. My classmates sat scattered throughout the trees, munching on their packed meals. It was 11:30.
We set off for the Three Sisters Swamp. The river melted into the forest, and it was like nothing I’d ever seen. It seems odd, that I’ve never seen a swamp. Maybe I had. I’m sure I’ve driven through plenty. But I’ve never been in a swamp like this – cowed by the trees, slinking between knees and ducking under branches. The swamp engulfed us; the cypress trees reached up and raked the blue sky. A heron sailed into its nest and I imagined it was eyeing us with a healthy dose of suspicion.
Then I heard a thud and a curse behind us, and I twisted around in the kayak to look. It was another one of the tandems, solidly wedged between two trees. Barrie and Rhianna backpedaled furiously, apologizing loudly to the kayaks around them. Heather and I grinned at each other. Others had done well in the open water, but we excelled in the delicate steering and teamwork required in the close quarters of the swamp.
Left – coast. Right – coast. Back paddle, sharp turn. push off a nearby knee. Left. Right. Jimmy our way past a sandbar. Left, right, left.
“I think we’re winning,” Heather said. We waved at Trent as we sailed past him, catching up to the guide. The swamp spread before us, and in spite of my aching, pulsing arms, I felt free. --G.P.
15 March 2013
Kayaking The Black River
To say I was nervous about kayaking would be an understatement. Even though I’m twenty-two and have lived on the coast my entire life, I don’t know how to swim. The thought of being in a small boat on a murky river for hours terrified me. Yes, I’d have a life vest; yes, I’d be in a tandem kayak; yes, there were three very experienced and certified kayak guides. I knew all these things, but knowing them in my head, and getting my anxiety under control were two different things entirely.
That was my first goal: be calm. No one had to know how nervous I was. My classmates all said it wouldn’t be a big deal, and I believed them for the most part--or I kept telling myself I believed them. During the forty-minute car ride it was all I could do to carry on conversation with my classmates. We talked about sleazy reality television, about our upcoming projects, but there was not much mention of the impending adventure until I brought it up.
“You guys, I’m kinda nervous,” I said. “I can’t swim. My mom got me all worked up talking about a man and his son kayaking in the Gulf of Mexico. They both died when they fell out of their kayak. It took a week for them to find the son’s body.”
“Oh that’s different. It was just two of them in the ocean. It’ll be fine, if you fall out we’ll all be around to help you,” they reassured me.
What they said did make sense, two men in the open ocean was a totally different experience from an expert-led trip on a flatware river. I could do this.
In January, I’d picked a word to define what I wanted my year to be. I chose "daring", and this trip was one of the most daring things I’d decided to do this year. I had to do this.
I turned my attention to the winding country road, the small Baptist churches, the dilapidated trailers, and the dogs running in their fenced-in yards. I briefly wandered how long it would take the nearest EMT to get here in the event of an emergency but then pushed those thoughts out of my head.
We all pulled into the put-in, and our kayaks, bright yellow and red, were lined up and waiting. We got out of the cars and I pulled on my rain boots, stuffing my multiple layers into them. I was wearing Spandex leggings, running shorts, and track pants--all shades of black and grey on my bottom half. I wore a black Under Armour shirt, a windbreaker, and raincoat up top. The weather was gorgeous and my layers would prove unnecessary later, but they comforted me. I was alert and paid close attention as our guides instructed us on how to use our paddles, and the proper way to sit. I was relieved when Ryan offered to be in the tandem kayak with me. He could easily pluck me out of the water if I fell out.
My nerves really began to bother me when I buckled myself into my life vest and sat down in the kayak. I adjusted my seat, making sure my legs were in the proper place. I breathed a few deep breaths and repeated my mantra: "I can do this."
Most of my nerves melted away as the guides pulled our kayak into the water. I gasped-- a small “oh” escaped my lips as we eased onto the river. The kayak felt stable; the air was cool and crisp. This wasn’t so bad. Ryan and I worked on synchronizing our paddles. Then we took in our surroundings. The cypress trees near the put in were lovely, but nothing compared to what we would encounter later. As we eased down the river and the sounds of society further went away I got lost in the music of nature. The birds were chirping, the trees rustling, and the soft sound of the current was much better than the city noise of Wilmington. The repetitive swooshing of our paddles breaking the water's surface was comforting. Ryan and I quickly got the hang of paddling together.
We made small talk and cheered whenever we switched our paddling without even speaking to each other about it. I soon forgot about my nerves and just relaxed enjoying this escape into nature.
As we moved into the swamp area I was breathless and amazed.
“Look at that tree!”
“Holy cow, it's huge!”
“This is amazing!”
I became so enchanted by the huge ancient trees that I further forgot my cares. I took out my camera for pictures. My heart still leapt in my chest anytime the kayak tilted too much for my liking, but it wasn’t my focus any longer. The trees had my attention. They seemed like fierce giants,and their large knees complicated our kayaking, but truly made it more exciting. Ryan and I navigated our way through the swamp, laughing when we bumped into other kayakers and trees.
Every now and then I was surprised by how much fun I was having. Soon, longer stretches of time went by without me thinking of fear or becoming worried. The moment that made it worth it all was spotting two enormous herons. Herons are one of my favorite birds and we were so enraptured with their beauty as they flew near and around their nest. We stopped and sat in our kayaks to watch the beauties of nature. I snapped pictures and couldn’t help but grinning from ear to ear. I was so at ease and in love with kayaking.
The return trip was wonderful as we did little paddling and just let the current carry us. I told Ryan I had to do this again sometime. We talked about the accesses we both had to kayak put ins and how nice it was to just get away from Wilmington and spend time in nature. I was immensely proud of myself as I stepped onto land again. I had done it. --S.R.
My heart began to thump with adrenaline as I hopped into the tandem kayak. Our kayak cut through the glassy surface of the Black River. Shelby, my co-navigator of the Black River, and I must have had some sort of telepathy. We stayed in perfect harmony the entire trip. Our paddle blades silently sliced the surface tension, and we propelled our way to the forefront of the group in the first few knots of the voyage.
Our adventure mentor and kayaking professor, Virginia Holman, coolly started sliding up on our port side. As we made our way down the river, Virginia informed us of some very interesting information.
“Do you see that fern growing on the trees?” Virginia asked.
“Yes,” both Shelby and I replied.
“Well, it shrivels up and turns grey during hot and dry weather, and the moment it gets water it begins to snap back to what you see now. That is why they call it resurrection fern. Because it quickly resurrects after being dead and dry”.
Her knowledge in every category of life is something I find so interesting. It is a quality I find myself striving for on a daily basis, to be better informed about the world around me and my role in its ever-changing ways.
As we continued down the river, Shelby and I made our way from the front of the pack to the back. We didn't mind, we liked setting our own pace.
The river began to narrow as our adventure continued. The water became shallower. The sun had reached its ape in the sky and lit the water unlike before. The saturated black tones of the water transformed to a rusty red. After a quick lunch break on a suitable shore, our journey resumed.
Our group banked around a corner and we headed straight into the swamp area. We were entering the Three Sisters area of the Black River. Virginia said the surroundings reminded her of “the Ents in the Lord of the Rings.” and I must say I could not have put it better myself. The creaks of bouncing branches in the current and the flapping of the wings of blue herons were the only audible noises. The kayakers steered through the maze of cypress knees.
I found kayaking in the Three Sisters area of the Black River amongst 2000-year-old cypress trees pretty spectacular. The wide expanse of the main river had transformed into a woven network of cypress trees. Their knees jutted out of the water. As we traveled onwards in the swamp, the maze grew tighter and tighter to the point of being impassable. The tandem kayaks were slightly wider than the single person boats. Finally, we tandem riders could not fit through a certain collection of cypress knees and had to surrender to the will of the swamp. I remember feeling slightly defeated. There had to have been some way to continue on into the depths of this cypress catacomb.
Accepting the fact there was nothing to be done, Shelby and I turned back. The current we had been fighting the whole journey propelled us out of the swamp. As Shelby and I rode back to the put-in with ease, thanks to our newly befriended current.
We got to know each other better on our return. I shared stories of figuring out what I wanted out of life and Shelby let me in to her family history. She spoke of how she was affected by having a father who was out of the picture, a drug-addicted mother who popped in and out of her life as she saw fit, and grandparents who made a miracle out of disaster. Shelby truly inspired me, because in comparison, I saw that I have had one of the most fortunate and ideal family situations. Shelby was so driven, motivated, and fueled by her faith despite her troubled youth.
We entered the river on one boat, two separate, unknowing entities. We left that day as synchronized paddlers, connected through experience and conversation to a level beyond acquaintance. --R.S.
We’d probably been on the river for three or four hours when we hit the swamp. Most of the Black River had been mild and calm, and, like its name, very black. In shallower parts the water was the color of sweet tea. The Black River almost looked completely dead in places, most of the trees were gray. One tree we passed had a large burl, and it looked like a giant face, almost tribal looking.
It was hot, and you could tell the river was drying up in some parts. When we stopped for lunch there were several dry spots we had to make sure to avoid, so we we wouldn't have to portage.
We’d been paddling upstream for a couple hours, working against the current. We found a small bank, pulled the kayaks up, and had lunch before heading into the Three Sisters swamp.
It was easy to tell when we'd reached the swamp. The trees were closer to one another, and grayer than those behind us.
“Some of these trees are up to 2,000 years old,” Virginia said as we maneuvered in between the large cypress knees. There were large herons everywhere, crying out, finding their way back to the nest to protect the younger ones.
The cypress swamp looked something out of a folklore fantasy story. The knees sprouted straight up from the blackwater into the air. The trees themselves were much taller, their branches a canopy. The trees and their roots started to get closer together. I heard a couple of girls in the back say they were getting claustrophobic from the lack of room to move the kayaks around. As I ducked under a few branches I started seeing the trees moving in closer, too. I looked ahead toward the front of the group and saw the first two kayaks were stuck. I turned toward the back and saw the few kayaks in the back having trouble too. Everyone seemed stuck, like the black river morphed into tar and we were just baking into it.
“Can’t get much further up here! Have to turn around!” Someone said in the front.
“Thank God,” the girls with the tandem kayak said, unable to move in between two trees.
Getting out was difficult. The group didn’t get much further than twenty or thirty feet before having a full on kayak traffic jam in the middle of the swamp. I knew these kinds of jams easily lead to people flipping, due to the current turning someone sideways and overboard. I tried to stay away from any jams but the space in the swamp was still single file, and everyone had to padd through the same small area. Finally, we arrived at the river, and returned to the main current. From there on out, it was smooth sailing. We had paddled so long, we let the current take us back most of the way. We passed where we had gone to eat lunch and eventually the giant tree with the ominous face in it. By the time we were back on land next to the highway, it had been almost six hours since we first launched.
Everyone cheered when we made the final turn and saw the bridge where we first got into the river. I tried to make a mental GPS of our journey, but the amount of river seemed too much to scale in my head.
I was glad there was still land like this: land anyone could come out and enjoy for free, a place where we could breathe fresh air and explore ancient swamps,a place where we could feel a sense of danger in the elements.