Black River Cruise Part 1

Cape Fear Riverboats runs a four-hour nature sightseeing tour aboard the Captain J.N. Maffitt—which they swear is a dead ringer for the African Queen—narrated by Andy Wood, Audubon North Carolina's director of education. It launches approximately twice a month from the Battleship USS North Carolina and cruises the northeast branch of the Cape Fear River through Horseshoe Bend and on up into the dark tannin-stained waters of the Black River.

Along this route egrets are typically seen standing perfectly still in the marsh grass along the river banks, looking like those small white marble statues available for purchase at your local garden center. "We've got several egrets in this area, the snowy and the great egret, especially now with migration underway," Wood said. This particular tour was in early September, with steamy summer temperatures still lingering throughout the region.

"When you see them together you can see the great egret is larger than the snowy egret, but if you don't see them together it's a little confusing to tell them apart. Check the color of the bill. If the bill is yellow that's a great, and if the bill is black it's a snowy. Also the snowy have lemon-yellow feet and great egrets' feet are black. So the snowy has yellow feet and a black bill, and the great has a yellow bill and black feet."

It's like they're out to confuse us, and who can blame them? Evidence of man's destruction of bird habitat is everywhere within the first few miles of this trip.

"Just 200 years ago this side of the river would be rimmed by massive cypress trees, black gum, tulip poplar, water gum, sweet gum, all kinds of swamp-dwelling trees. Then as Southeastern North Carolina was recognized as an area favorable for growing rice, all this swamp was cleared in order to cultivate rice. It's hard to envision but all of this was ancient cypress, and some trees were over 1,000 years old and had trunks in excess of six feet in diameter."

To wreak this kind of havoc on the forest primeval, teams of oxen worked with legions of slaves wielding hand axes, shovels, grappling ropes and wooden rigs. As the land was cleared the river itself underwent a bit of a makeover. "Today we're traveling through 25 feet of water, but 200 years ago this river was six to 12 feet deep. The bottom was lined with centuries and millennia worth of dead trees, all of which prevented big ships from getting to Wilmington."

Around the next bend in the river the dual smoke stacks of Progress Energy loom into view, a coal-fired plant with a tangle of conveyor belts and chutes running in every direction and little plumes of coal dust underscoring the big billows of smoke constantly pumped into the atmosphere. There is not an egret in sight.

"The grass that you see is a mix of wild rice and another native grass called cut grass, not the true sawgrass of the Everglades," Wood continued. "The edges of those grass blades are serrated and if you go walking through there without long sleeves on your arms and legs you'll end up with what looks like lots of little paper cuts from the edges of those grasses. It's a very difficult place to work in, and you'd definitely need to wear goggles to protect your eyes. I can't imagine being a bear or a deer walking through there."

Dead cypress trees line the water's edge, yet another byproduct of the abandoned rice fields. About 100 years ago the rice industry succumbed to its own success, in an ironic twist of shortsightedness and pure greed.

"As rice production increased they needed to get larger ships into Wilmington and in order to do that they needed to deepen the river. So they lobbied Congress for the Corps of Engineers to remove the dead trees from the bottom of the river and allow larger vessels to come up."

This particular maneuver also allowed salt water to filter upriver and invade the rice plantations. "Salt is poisonous to rice and that killed the rice. Many of the cypress trees are dead and that's a result of additional salt that crept up the Cape Fear."

Due to the river's notoriety for flooding, not a lot of manmade structures stand completely intact on the river's banks. The Navassa Railroad Bridge is a relic of the last century, and an old fertilizer processing plant has been long since abandoned. Even a much newer-looking boat-building facility has been shuttered, waiting for the recession to pass.

"There are still plenty of logs on the bottom of the river providing habitat for catfish and other bottom-dwelling fish," Wood said. "We're passing over schools of small fish, billions of fish in the water all around us, mostly menhaden. We also have lots of birds that like to eat fish, and this time of year they are migrating from points north, including New England, south to Mexico and Central America. A lot stop off here on the Cape Fear River before taking flight."

He estimated probably 35 different kinds of fish were swimming around the boat, everything from tiny little jelly fish to steel fish to great big gar that grow to over three feet long. "They're cigar-shaped like a torpedo, and along with small bass, gar are ancient animals that have been around since dinosaurs. And we have the bowfin that's also an ancient fish."

As if on cue a big splash in the water was followed by a swirl on the surface. "That may have been a gar that we disturbed as we went by. Gar after they eat will come up to the surface to bask in the sun to warm their body and aid their digestion. They sometimes fall asleep and we'll come along and wake them up."

Bright lemon-yellow sulfur butterflies flitting all around the boat were preparing for a shorter flight in the opposite direction. "They're mostly all flying north, migrating short distances. Unlike other butterflies that are flying south and will cover thousands of miles, sulfurs are only going dozens of miles and what they're doing is looking for suitable plants to lay eggs."

An osprey flew overhead with a fish in its talons, and then another followed in hot pursuit. Wood had to work out some sort of theory about that scenario. "You don't often see two together. It may be that's an offspring still following and begging for food. The parents are actually trying to get rid of their offspring right now and these osprey are going to leave our area within the next few weeks and migrate down to the Gulf of Mexico, or some of them jump off the coast and fly straight over the Atlantic Ocean all the way to Cuba."

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