River Adventures

Adrift in streams of memory

By Tom Bryant

I’m sure you know how it is when one outdoor chore leads to another. That happened to me a couple of Saturdays ago when I was trying to catch up on some much-needed yard work. I’d just finished hauling my sixth or seventh cart full of sticks and pine cones to the trash pickup area on the road behind our garage when I noticed my old 17-foot Grumman canoe had wild grapevines growing up over the bow like a natural duck blind. I felt bad for the old canoe, my fault entirely that it had been ignored all these years, perched up on a pair of sawhorses like a monument to the past.

I put yard work on hold and dragged the ancient boat, vines and all, out to where I could get to it and clean it up a little. Bird nests were in the bow and stern area. I figured it was a perfect location for little house wrens, and it was fortunate that the nests had already served their purpose and were empty. The old derelict looked worst for the wear, but aluminum is remarkably resilient, and in no time, I had knocked off the accumulated pine straw and dirt. The repaired broken keel and tear in the port side were still quite evident, but the detraction to the serviceability of the craft was just in looks; on the water, she was as good as ever. Old camouflaged paint was peeling from the sides and under the seats. I used to paint her every fall for duck hunting, and my past efforts were in need of repair. I really should get her sand blasted, I thought. Then she would be almost as good as new.

I dragged the old canoe to the front of the garage and immediately remembered why I had retired the craft many years ago. Weight. She had to scale in at well over 100 pounds. In my day, I could hoist her on top of the truck with little effort, but in my advanced years and learning that it’s much easier to walk around than climb over, I had relegated her to the sawhorses behind the garage and bought a new, much lighter canoe.

I had been using my power washer to clean the sidewalks, so I turned the boat on her side and washed off years of accumulated grime. She looked a lot better, even with the still-clinging camouflaged paint. The repair to the keel and tear in her side were more evident after my cleaning effort, and I thought back to the river outing that caused the mishap.

Ever since I was a youngster boating with my grandfather on the Little Pee Dee River, I’ve always had a paddle in the water. I’ve canoed black-water creeks, lakes and white-water rivers. The damage to the Grumman came from one of those white-water adventures, and a friend and I were lucky to escape with our lives. But it wasn’t that trip I was remembering. I dragged a camp chair from the garage and a libation from my cooler and kicked back and thought about that amazing late summer.

Two friends, John Mills and Andy Alcroft, and I decided to take on Drowning Creek, Lumber River, Little Pee Dee River, and the mighty Big Pee Dee River and paddle to the coast and Georgetown, South Carolina. It was to be an amazing trip, requiring all our outdoor survival skills and a lot of luck in the wild swamps that bordered the rivers.

We would be returning to college in a couple of weeks. I was a rising junior at the University of South Carolina, Andy was a sophomore at Ohio State University, and Johnny was a sophomore at the University of North Carolina. The trip began on a whim, as I remember it. Like most young folks that age, we were bored with summer and wanted one last adventure before heading back to the books. We grew up loving nature and probably spent more time outdoors than in, and Drowning Creek played a big part in most of our nature adventures. Johnny was the unofficial official Pinebluff historian and was up-to-date on all the statistics of the creek and which explorers had attempted to float the rivers to the Atlantic and when.

I can’t remember who had the initial idea for that boating adventure, but I do remember that we determined that we were really going to have to push it because time was short. In a day or two, we had gathered our gear, borrowed a little 12-foot skiff from our good friend Cliff Blue, and were ready to shove off.

The night before our jumping-off river adventure, Pricilla Mills, Johnny’s cute, younger sister, had a sleepover at their house with several other girls. Naturally, we had to get them involved with our last-minute preparations, quite enjoyably for us. The next morning several of the young co-eds accompanied us to the creek and waved as we floated around the first bend in the river. That was the last civilized moment we enjoyed for several swamp-filled days.

Unfortunately, we didn’t finish that river trip, running out of time and energy at about the same place. We pulled out of the river at a country store named Pearl’s and called Cliff to come haul us, our gear and the boat back home. Good memories.

I replaced the ancient, much cleaner canoe on her sawhorses and gave Johnny a call.

“Hey Johnny, this is Tommy. What say you and I take a little canoe ride down Drowning Creek?”

I thought sure he would say, “Are you crazy?” But he replied, “I can’t leave before tomorrow.”

We both laughed and agreed to get together for lunch and explore Camp Mackall in search of the old canoe club cabin.

According to Johnny, Dr. John Warren Achorn and Alexander Holbrook, leading citizens of the new village of Pinebluff, started the Mid-Winter Canoe Club in 1903. Vestiges of the cabin are still there, having been rebuilt and now owned by the Special Forces as a place for rest and relaxation.

Ironically, our good friend Andy Alcroft and his lovely bride, Mary, were enjoying some time at Holden Beach and had made arrangements to visit John before they went home to Ohio. We planned to meet for dinner while they were here.

We gathered at the Sly Fox and had a superb supper. It was a great occasion, sort of like old home week. We remembered Pinebluff when the population was around 400, some streets were still unpaved, and The Village Grocery sold Coca-Cola for a nickel. Mom and Pop Wallace owned the phone company with the switchboard in their living room, and our phone number was 212. Most folks didn’t have keys to their houses, and all a youngster needed to have a grand time was a bicycle and a dog.

That night as I drifted off to sleep, I thought back to the uncompleted river trip down Drowning Creek and wondered if Johnny, Andy and I had it in us to make another try. “I’ll talk it over with Linda in the morning,” I whispered to myself.

“Talk what over?” Linda said sleepily.

“Nothing, Hon,” I wisely replied. “Didn’t mean to wake you.”  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.

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