Enough time has passed perhaps to tell you a little story about an-unplanned, ill-advised training run that nearly resulted in landing me and Jason from Carolina Paddleboard Company in jail for terrorism or even worse, gator rolled and fish food at the bottom of a tannic North Carolina riverbed.
It all started about 5 years ago. Jason and I had worked with the Surfers Healing organization who puts on surf cams for kids with autism and their families. They talked about the Surfers Environmental Alliance’s NYC paddle. Neither of us had ever done a distance like the 26 miles required to circumnavigate Manhattan, but we figured if we trained in the next year, raised the money and drive north, we’d give it a shot. After all, it was a year away.
We trained most days—mostly starting in the spring. Our training was mostly circumnavigating Harbor Island (5 times on one run) and on occasion, around Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. The longest paddle was a 22 miler around Wrightsville Beach and Figure 8 Island.
But the most difficult paddle we took was one in July in the Cape Fear River from Castle Hayne to Wilmington North Carolina.
Jason drove us to a place called Redneck Beach in Castle Hayne, NC. I remember him telling me, “Don’t worry about the gunshots. People come up here shoot their guns all the time. But don’t look them in the eye.”
I was a little apprehensive, but we both thought it would be important to get some river time, to get used to standing for a couple of hours on that kind of water was really important in preparation for the Hudson River, Harlem River and East Rivers. (Although nothing can prepare anyone for Hell’s Gate.)
Buy our estimation we were going to paddle 6 miles that would take us around two hours.
Unfortunately, we got the tides wrong. In fact we didn’t know the tides would have such an effect on the River so far upstream. It started coming in an hour into the paddle. We had no idea.
Second, neither of us looked at the weather report to see the wind. It turned into a headwind. Headwind + incoming current = bad.
Third because we were only going out for a fun, downriver float, we only brought a 1-liter two bottles of Gatorade. I poured mine in a hydration pack. Jason put his in the bungees on his board. No food.
We didn’t have fully charged phones. And finally, we only told one person where we were going, but didn’t really give details, but was waiting for a call to come get us downtown somewhere.
Now that sounds really funny right now: You think about how important it is to check the weather, bring proper nutrition and hydration, and to TELL SOMEONE where you’re going and when you’ll be back so if soothing goes wrong, they know where to look for you. But at that point in the sport, it was still the wild, wild West. We operated under the “How hard could it be?” mixed with the “What’s the worst that could happen? (unanswered)” theories.
For hundreds of years the Cape Fear River has been a major thoroughfare for trade. Paddling down the river, I couldn’t imagine how large boats with timber and other materials could make it down in through and navigate their way to the city and eventually to the Atlantic. I bet they knew the tides.
The Cape Fear River is hauntingly beautiful. The water is black. It’s literally called a black river because the waters drain from acidic soils of hardwood swamps. You can’t see the bottom. And within the first few minutes of paddling, I was surprised to see an alligator gar come out of the water in front of me. It was a bigger one and they look almost prehistoric. It has to break the surface to be seen.
The river is not potable. There are large numbers of livestock farms upstream along with runoffs from fertilizer and pesticides and of course you’re paper mills and other industrial manufacturing plants. Beautiful, but not as healthy as it has been. They’re trying to fix that. That doesn’t mean it’s like the Gowanus Canal. It’s just had better days.
The cypress swamps are amazing with the Spanish moss and occasional Live Oak. They reached over the river and their limbs are littered with occasional strings where fishermen have tied hooks. We saw a few curios John boats pass us while checking their lines. People still didn’t know what to make of SUP. You have to consider that in Raleigh at this time, police, fire, and ambulances had raced to a local lake where they had received a report of a plane crash where the pilot was in the middle of the lake standing on the wing. When the emergency personnel arrived, a paddler was getting out of the water. They asked where the plane was and he said, “What plane?” They looked at his stand up paddle board, and put two and two together. It was a different time back then.
All in all, the first hour was really quite nice but we kept expecting to see the skyline of Wilmington. It never came. About an hour into the paddle we ‘s our first gator. It was just a set of eyes by the shore. No big deal.
About mile later, towards this chemical plant and some electrical lines, we noticed a part of the shore looked at it like it had been worn away, as if someone had pulled a small rowboat up and down the bank, wearing the vegetation away. It wasn’t from a rowboat.
I was on one of the first modern stand up paddle race boards, Chuck Patterson’s carbon fiber Hobie 12’6″. Before I knew it, an alligator swam up along side of me. It was longer than my board. I started slapping the water with my paddle between us, but it just kept the same 8-9 feet away. It rotated 90 degree so it was facing the side of my board at my feet. Jason yelled, “I don’t think that’s working, move away from him. Don’t keep going forward.”
I moved and 90° angle away from the alligator, slowly turning and eventually he let me put some distance between us. I don’t know what time of year mating season is, but I suppose from the bottom of 12 1/2 foot black carbon fiber paddle board looks a lot like a gator. Just like a seal looks like lunch to a great white.
As I reached the opposite riverbank, I looked behind me where a smaller gator was swimming quickly at me. It spun, splashing me and its tail came across the back of my board. I told a friend about this later it’s what’s called being “tail whipped.” It’s a defensive move by the gator to scare you away and to sort of say, “You’re in my territory! Get lost!”
I don’t know how I stayed at my board or how I kept my bowels in control. I started yelling at Jason who thought I was kidding, but I was freaked out and actually couldn’t stop laughing because I was so freaked out. I suppose it was a bizarre response to stress.
We kept paddling and paddling and 3 1/2 hours later, with a headwind and against current, we started getting nervous. It was starting to get dark. We hadn’t seen a dock or light in a while. My phone was almost dead. We were both out of Gatorade. We watched bubble trails from the gators running across the bottom underneath our boards. I remember looking at my phone and seeing the power starting to die and looking at the map in realizing where we started was 18 miles from the city, not 6. We decided to keep going rather than trying to head back in the dark. Lights were ahead somewhere.
We were rewarded, sort of, when we saw a dock with lights. It was getting dark. The dock was a mile ahead. I looked up and saw something swimming at Jason and started yelling, “In front of you! In front of you!” The gator spun made a big splash and Jason stayed on his board. Glowing eyes popped up all around us. Some were turtles. Some weren’t. It was officially dark out now.
We fought the wind and current and reached the dock and the side of the river. A dozen or more pipes ran down the dock, emptying into the river. Each pipe was a different color, each with a different type of liquid coming out of it and into the river. My stomach turned. No wonder there are mutant gators. I ran to the edge of the river jumped off my board and client on shore. I was getting out of that damn river.
Jason and I looked around there was a long fence with huge lights and barbed wire. There was a gate and a telephone pole with a security camera.
I waved to the camera because I want someone to come get us. I wasn’t getting back in that river. There was no way around the fence except to get back int the river. The only way home was through that gate. I was considering climbing over it when a security truck arrived. The guard, armed and confused by the two of us standing there with paddle and boards, looked us up and down hard before he said, “Son, what are you trying to do? Make the evening news?”
What we didn’t realize was that this chemical plant what’s high on the list of targets after the 9/11 attacks. An attack on this planet could injure or kill people for hundred of miles in every direction. The guard proceeded to tell us that he can’t take us into the plant without a number of government background checks.
I told him that he can arrest me and throw me in jail but I wasn’t getting back in that river. After a number of calls and a lot of strange looks, he agreed to take us in the back gate and out the front gate. We are both exhausted. It was dark. We threw the boards in the back of the truck and climbed in. I remember seeing a bottle of SunDrop with a few sips on the truck floor and almost went for it. As he was driving us through the plant, I asked what they made here. He just stared at me. I didn’t ask anymore questions.
We used their phone and Jason’s friend was on her way to come pick us up. They gave us water and we sat on the curb out front all laughed at the experience. I never really told the whole story to my wife or many people for that matter. It wasn’t until I was in a meeting with a local lawyer years later where he proceeded to tell me this exact story about two paddlers who had a run in with a gator on the Cape Fear that I realized it was time.
I haven’t been back in the river.
There are some great events of been in the river, but I’m still little bit shaken by it. At one point Jason took this photo of me and we joked it was the last known photo of me before I disappeared. I even wrote a note to my wife on my phone before it died almost like a last letter to her in case the phone was found.
Now I know this is a very uncommon thing to have happen. I’ve never heard of anything like this happening on the Cape Fear River before or since. And I’ve been told the game wardens make sure that any reports of aggressiveness are dealt with probably not in the best way, but effectively. I also know the gators tend to congregate near the warm outflows from these different manufacturing facilities.
It’s funny joke about it now, but at the time it was very real and we didn’t know what we were getting into. What I can tell you is that when we suggest you check the weather let you tell someone where you’re going, that you plan your route and that you bring food and water, and a charged phone in a drycase, we speak from experience. We speak from the experience of not doing any of those things, and having a very bad interaction with an ornery gator.
I will paddle on the Cape Fear again. It’s beautiful. And there’s some great events going on this next year. This time I’ll be prepared.