Philip Gerard is professor of creative writing at UNC Wilmington and the author of the just-published Down the Wild Cape Fear: A River Journey Through the Heart of North Carolina ($30, UNC Press). We asked him about his favorite places on the river.
Below Buckhorn Dam. There are some really wonderful rapids there, and theres a chute thats a leftover from the Cape Fear Navigation Company. We did it in a canoe, but kayaks are the best way. The water is cold and there are lots of rocks. Theres a lively series of rapids one after another until you reach Lanier Falls, just above Raven Rock State Park. The park is a natural takeout point for canoe camping. On this stretch of the Cape Fear you can take lots of paths through the rapids, depending on how high the water level is.
Lillington. Theres a great pullout there and U.S. 421 goes through the town, so theres great access to the river. Lillington is a nice little town a place where you can pause and find some respite on the river; there are rapids above and below this point. Lillington is also where Howards Barbecue is. I love their cue, and Howards has been there a long time. Cape Fear Adventures, a canoe and kayak outfitter, is right next to it.
Wilmington. I like the waterfront right off of Wilmington. Theres quite a bit there the USS North Carolina Battleship is there, as well as the old-fashioned looking Henrietta III steamboat. Its a gorgeous waterfront and kind of an interesting place. If you want, take a small boat or a water taxi across the river.
Lock No. 1. Its 17 miles above Wilmington, between there and Fayetteville, and a little north of Riegelwood. What theyve done is create an artificial rapids so fish can get up there to spawn. Its an amazing and lovely thing to see: You stand on the bluff overlooking the dam and the swirling rapids. Fish downstream can leap up from one pool to the next until they can reach the next section of river farther up. Up until now, fish havent been able to get above the dam. The Army Corps of Engineers is going to open it this spring, and as soon as it does, the fishermen will be there, raring to go.
Southport. The river opens into a broad and lovely estuary at Southport. The sky is swarming with gulls, great blue herons, brown pelicans and white ibis. You can see the big S-turn out to the seabound fairway, straddled by the lights at Oak Island and Bald Head Island. If youre lucky, a big car-carrier or container ship will be passing, monstrously big and close. On a windy day the chop can make for a boisterous ride in a small boat, but you can always ride the ferry across to Fort Fisher and enjoy the sea breeze and the racket of the birds.
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