Book review: ‘Down the Wild Cape Fear’

CorrespondentMarch 16, 2013 

  • Nonfiction Down the Wild Cape Fear: A River Journey Through the Heart of North Carolina Philip Gerard

    UNC Press, 304 pages

Author Philip Gerard has lived near the Cape Fear River for more than 20 years – he teaches creative writing at UNC-Wilmington – and has long roamed the coastal waterways as an avid paddler and sailor. In his new book, “Down the Wild Cape Fear,” Gerard goes to the source by taking readers on a 200-mile voyage from the river’s headwaters in the Piedmont all the way back down to the Atlantic.

With each twist and turn of the river, Gerard departs from descriptive passages to write about the history of places he’s floating past. It’s an inspired and effective way to parse local history. Rivers were the freeways of previous centuries, and along their banks are the ruins and relics of our past.

As he makes his way downriver by canoe and powerboat, Gerard travels with various companions – river guides and biologists, campus colleagues and old friends. He stops regularly to talk to the locals, too. Like the river it celebrates, “Down the Wild Cape Fear” flows naturally, details and musings emerging like trees ’round the bend.

In 1914, we learn, Babe Ruth hit his first professional league home run along the banks of the Cape Fear in Fayetteville. That city, by the by, was named after General La Fayette, the Frenchman who became a trusted aide to George Washington and was honored for his contributions to the Colonial Army during the Revolutionary War. And key battles of that war were fought downriver, including the rout of British loyalists in Elizabethtown.

And so on. In later passages, Gerard describes the historical trade of “naval stores” – pitch, rosin and turpentine – in the lower Cape Fear region. Here, he provides a startling level of detail on economics of the trade, the dangerous and exacting processes involved, and the attendant use of slave labor.

There’s a good amount of historical scholarship of this sort throughout the book. Most entertaining are citations on disasters and shipwrecks, featuring the breathless prose of 19th century newspaper reporters. From the Fayetteville Observer, Feb. 17, 1858: “The hull of the boat is torn to fragments, and presents the idea of a huge mastadonic skeleton exhumed, with its big ribs alone remaining to outline its form!” Ah, the good old days!

Gerard keeps careful notes in the descriptive passages, too. On one stretch of the upper river, he travels with a friend who’s also a veteran birdwatcher. They chart the sightings as they drift along – blue jays, starlings, thrashers, cardinals, grackles and Carolina wrens. “Even their names make a kind of music,” Gerard writes.

Gerard’s lovely in-the-moment descriptions of nature would make a nice book unto themselves. The evocative language is a real pleasure, and Gerard even supplies some surprising action scenes. In one account, Gerard and his companion pause to marvel as an osprey snatches a fish from the river up ahead. Suddenly the osprey is attacked by a bald eagle who swoops down to steal the fish in mid-air. You can feel Gerard’s delight at being witness to this little moment of grand natural drama.

At regular intervals, “Down the Wild Cape Fear” discusses issues of ecological stewardship on the river, but the book avoids rhetoric. Gerard digs into public policy issues, but he never gets bogged down. He often simply registers the river’s uglier features – the derelict trestles, the rusting barge hulks, the water discharge valves – and moves on with sadness.

“Down the Wild Cape Fear” unfolds like a pleasant conversation with a knowledgeable friend. Equal parts historical survey, river adventure and nature walk, it’s a fascinating trip down North Carolina’s most storied river.

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