Lake Waccamaw: A Big Lake and a Small Town
Story and Photo by Lois Carol Wheatley
Airplanes flying between Charlotte and Wilmington were the first to take notice of a cluster of oval-shaped formations, some of them lakes and others filled with vegetation, all seemingly oriented in the same northwest-to-southeast direction in a random, helter-skelter pattern. Clearly they had to be the result of some kind of incursion from outer space, and people speculated it must have been a prehistoric meteor shower.
The Waccamaw-Sioux tribe even had a legend describing the event, which they believe was sent by angry gods who rained down their punishment on a self-absorbed population. They came up with that story all on their own, without the benefit of the detailed aerial studies that were done in the 1930s.
Now the meteorite theory is falling from favor as a possible explanation for the so-called Carolina Bays, which include Jones Lake, White Lake, Baytree Lake, Singletary Lake and Salters Lake in the southeastern portion of North Carolina. Lake Waccamaw is the largest of the group, a whopping 9,000-acre body of pure beauty and serenity.
Think of a really big kiddie pool, fairly shallow and with a pure sandy bottom. Like a fabled place in a child's picture book, the lake is fed by First Little, Second Little, Third Little and Big creeks, flowing into what amounts to a vast mirror reflecting purple-and-orange sunsets, picturesque cottages and boat docks lining its 15-mile shore, and a very small and extremely friendly town on its north shore.
Little wonder that people assume it has some sort of other-worldly origins. It's about 40 miles west of Wilmington on Highway 74 and a world away in terms of its rural setting and slower pace.
Other creation theories
Chris Helms is park superintendent at Lake Waccamaw State Park, and he's the resident myth-buster. He has mostly disabused lake residents of their dearly-held meteorite theory, along with quite a lot of other local legends that don't quite - well, hold water.
"Most signs point to no, it probably was not a meteorite," he said. "It is the common thing if you ask a person on the street. They have always heard that, and the real problem with that is these lakes are only about ten feet deep. You would think a meteorite would cause a much deeper scar."
Another problem with the theory is the total absence of meteorite remnants, and then there's also an issue with core samples. "The one thing we do know is that Lake Waccamaw is a younger bay than Jones and Singletary lakes in Bladen County. Core samples can check pollen grains and things like that, and those lakes are 80,000 to 100,000 years old. This one [Lake Waccamaw] was found to be 10,000 years old. So again, if it was a meteorite they should all be the same age."
He said "plenty" of other theories have moved in to nudge aside the meteorites. According to the peat fire theory, spontaneous combustion opened up and hollowed out these areas. The limestone sink theory embraces the concept that limestone deposits have a certain tendency to develop shallow sink holes. Neither of these go very far toward explaining the uniform orientation and shape of the Bladen Lakes Group.
Then there's the well wallow theory, that large fish spawning in a small pond might have cycled around in an oval pattern and formed the bowl into that particular shape. "You see fish beds where the males and females go in circles when they lay eggs and fertilize the eggs, but this is a 9,000-acre lake so that would have to be a tremendous fish."
Hold that thought. An idea was floated that the ocean once covered this area, and it was pretty much scoffed at until a whale skull was excavated from Waccamaw's limestone bottom in 2008. That relic will be on display in nearby Whiteville, at the newly renovated Museum of Forestry. The locals have also found shark's teeth from the great white shark, without ever actually encountering a shark.
"So we know there was aquatic life here. We know the ocean once covered this area, and the oriented lake theory has the most credence. Chile has these kinds of lakes, and in Alaska and in Siberia lakes are oriented in the same direction. The water that once covered the plane receded in the last Ice Age and left water pockets all around."
The Carolina Bays have high sand ridges on their southeastern rims, so Helms had to dig up another theory to explain that. "A really strong hurricane-force wind from the north and the east would have sculpted these areas and would have caused eddies and currents to shape them in an oval."
He conducts a number of nature programs at the state park and has gone over all the intricacies of these different theories on many occasions. Kids of all ages prefer the meteorites. "They're all theories. There are whole bibliographies of different theories and some of them play to each other -- it was partly this but also that."
Scout troops, church groups and school groups listen to the evidence and deeply ponder the possibilities. "We tell the school kids that maybe they'll be the ones who figure it out."
Adding to the confusion
"Carolina Bays" is a bit of a misnomer at best. "Carolina Bays are not found just in the Carolinas," Helms said. "They're found as far north as Maryland and as far south as Florida." North and South Carolina have the vast majority, but overall, about 500,000 different bays have been identified according to common characteristics.
Not all are actual lakes. "If you look on a topo map there are bays that are swampy but are fully vegetated, so they're not holding water anymore - Bushy Lake up on the Cumberland County line, Antioch Bay toward Robeson County, and Cottonhead Bay. Some have been ditched and drained for farming, but from an aerial perspective they all look like an egg or a race track."
The "bays" portion is equally problematic. "The name 'bay' suggests they are attached to a body of water," like Onslow Bay at the south end of the Outer Banks. "But the 'bay' comes from the vegetation that's here. We have red bays, sweet bays and loblolly bay trees in these thickets."
All are related to the bay leaf, a culinary spice used in cooking sauces, soups and stews. "Red bay is very similar to that. You can crush it and it's real aromatic. This type of vegetation is found in the wetter, damper pocosin areas."