Tales from the Tail End - Great Coharie Creek Beaver Battle
- When Ralph suggests that we do a river clearing on one of his favorite creeks, a prudent man will pause to think and a wise man will run like hell. The rest of us were dumb enough to say "Sure, I'll go."
We met at Star Telephone on US 421, 10 or 11 of us, I'm not sure we came out with the same number we went in with, we may have lost one or two but we may also have picked up one or two to balance the numbers out. Paddling in one of Ralph's swamps is a form of accounting. In accounting, the basic equation is Liabilities equal Assets; if you can't get the positives and negatives to balance out, you make up the difference with a fudge factor called Goodwill (no lie). If we came out of the swamp with one less person, it would have been written off to Goodwill. Assets are Assets; if we came out of the swamp with the same number that went in, Ralph's accounting is satisfied. Only the wives and families care if a different paddler came out than the one who went in.
Ralph loaded most of the boats and gear into THE TRUCK WITH NO SPRINGS, a lumbering dinosaur Detroit dump truck from the early 60's that would be completely normal with a dead cow or two stacked up in the back, and we headed up 421. We turned right at a dirt road leading into a farm and Ralph hit a washout in the driveway so hard that it knocked a wire loose and THE TRUCK WITH NO SPRINGS died like a bull elephant shot with a 50 calibre round, it literally dropped dead in it's tracks. Ralph worked his magic and got it going again, and we finished our shuttle by driving down beside some turkey houses to the edge of the woods and trekking down an overgrown, horse-manure littered wagon road to the edge of green, festering muck hole that Ralph said was a path to the Creek (see pictures). Only Ralph knew the secret route and it turns out that most of this trip needed Ralph as a guide to prevent all of us from becoming permanently lost.
I don't know where we were. I was told we were only a few miles from US 421, but clearly those were crow miles because by my reckoning we traveled 40 or 50 miles at least. This section of the Great Harry Creek is Command Central for the NC Beaver Association, boot camp for dam building, Mecca for all the beavers of America. The swamp was wide and shallow, all the big trees had been cut and there was a bounty of young green trees to be gnawed and then used to build dams, thousands of dams, dams that were only a stick high to several feet, but dams all the same.
Every square foot of this creek had a snag, a root, a stick, a limb, a tree, a stump, a knot, a truncheon, a beaver spear or a previously sawed log and they did their best to ensnare us, trap us, hold us hostage, suck us down into the slime and muck.
Robert and Cebron got out front early and we couldn't travel very far before we would find them clawing at a beaver dam with their prune wrinkled fingers and torn nails, trying to get some water through the dam and down the river. Dam after dam after dam after dam, hundreds of dams, little dams, medium dams, big dams, dams every way we looked, I think there may have been dams on top of dams. We took turns. We used chainsaws and crowbars and sticks and mainly sweat. When one group opened a hole some of us would shoot through to tackle the next dam while the last group continued to wrest a hole wide and deep enough to get the john boats through. We clawed, we sawed, we pushed and shoved, we forced trees apart, we fought for every inch of the river. And the further downstream we went, the worse it got. Rather than widening and strengthening, the flow disappeared entirely, we didn't find any water flowing over the beaver dams, the water turned brown and rusty and scummy or green, filled with vine-like water weeds that sucked at our paddles.
Lunch was held in an open area of water as we sat in our boats, surrounded by swamp thick with weeds, the water brown and stagnant. This led us to a discussion with Cebron, with his many years of restaurant experience, about the finer points of ambiance in the dining area. As Cebron said, it can't get any better than this when it comes to a unique dining experience.
As the day wore on with no end in sight and hope leaking away like a slow hemorrhage we gave up on river clearing and concentrated on survival, At some point, a beaver jumped in the boat with me, held a pointed stick to my throat and growled, "Get me out of this swamp or you die!" We noted that there were no mosquitoes at all, which is usually the sign of a very healthy swamp ( an oxymoron). Cebron and I also noted that despite being the best example of beaver swamp in North Carolina and water snake Nirvarna, we hadn't seen any snakes, so we began to wonder what kind of things lived in the water below us or in the weeds around us that would either drive off or eat all of the snakes. As the map makers would say, Here Be Monsters.
We finally reached the section that Ralph and company had cleared the week before, only to discover that the beavers had been working hard all week and had repaired the dams that were broached by previous efforts. You see, Ralph and friends only worked for an afternoon. For the beavers, this is their only job and they worked all week, around the clock. There was almost no water below the dams, we were dragging bottom until almost the 421 bridge.
At 6:30, we were overjoyed to find the bridge and the 2 foot bank we had to scale to get out. Bone weary, beaten, bruised, some of us bleeding, grown men crying (at least one, me), wild-eyed and half-crazed, we dragged ourselves and our boats and each other up the gravel path to the parking lot and salvation, hearing Ralph pontificating about what a great trip it had been and how much fun we had.
Ralph ain't right. We thought it best to humor him and agreed with him, all the while exchanging secret glances and knowing nods while shaking our heads, never again. It's also clear that Ralph has spent a lot of time in some rough places, I think he needs more friends. And it is abundantly clear that Ralph's idea of a fun piece of water is more aggressive than mine, but it takes a lot of people to make the world go round, and I like Ralph none the less. The core group of FSCW river rats I know that usually do most of the cleaning, Cebron, Ralph, Joe, Robert, Frankie and a few others, are a unique and fun bunch of characters, and I deeply appreciate my time spent with them, even when I'm in pain.
I won't say that I will never run this section again. The beavers own this swamp, there are too many of them and too few of us, and if you don't have a guide with Ralph's knowledge getting forever lost is too real of a possibility. If it rains enough to flood out the US 421 bridges, somebody call me, I might consider doing it then, but only if I have Ralph as a guide, radios and a helicopter standing by.