In Down the Wild Cape Fear: A River Journey through the Heart of North Carolina, novelist and nonfiction writer Philip Gerard invites readers onto the fabled waters of the Cape Fear River and guides them on the 200-mile voyage from the confluence of the Deep and Haw Rivers at Mermaid Point all the way to the Cape of Fear on Bald Head Island. Accompanying the author by canoe and powerboat are a cadre of people passionate about the river, among them a river guide, a photographer, a biologist, a river keeper, and a boat captain. Historical voices also lend their wisdom to our understanding of this river, which has been a main artery of commerce, culture, settlement, and war for the entire region since it was first discovered by Verrazzano in 1524.
In the following interview, Gerard discusses his love and knowledge of the Cape Fear river and how it inspired the journey that lead to this book.
Q: You’ve lived on the Cape Fear River for over twenty years. When did you decide to write a book about it and what made you finally begin?
A: For the first time in a long while I found myself between book projects, and it occurred to me that one of the best subjects in the world was almost literally in my own backyard. The river was all over the news: talk of a Superport, opposition to the Titan Cement plant, factory farms, etc. And it was once again becoming the focus of recreation and tourism at the same time. It was a great excuse to get back on the river and follow its story to the sea.
Q: What is your favorite mode of transportation on the Cape Fear?
A: The kayak is the most fun, but a canoe with a great companion (like David Webster, a wildlife biologist) is a close second. Either one puts you right next to the water—you can drag your hand in it, feel it moving under you, feel like you’re really a part of the flow of the river.
Q: You’ve published both fiction and nonfiction. Did you ever consider the idea of telling a similar story to Down the Wild Cape Fear in a fictional form?
A: Usually in fiction I am trying to imagine my way into the consciousness of a character who is not myself—either a totally fabricated personality or, as in Cape Fear Rising, historical personages. In this case I wanted to understand the complexity of the river as a single living system. I reserve the right to return to it as a dramatic stage of action for a future novel!
A: For me, every story is a journey, so the format was natural: follow the river and pause at each interesting bend to reveal its story—its natural and human history, the way it has shaped our life and politics. “Someone goes on a journey” is one of the oldest storylines in our culture for a reason: the journey promises adventure and discovery, takes us into the unknown and reveals its secrets. I also knew I would need to detour into tributaries and historical moments, so the journey downriver seemed the simplest and clearest way to keep the story straight for a reader.
Q: On your journey, you were accompanied by a river guide, a photographer, a biologist, a river keeper, and a boat captain. How did you select your fellow travelers?
A: I am lucky to have very skillful friends who were eager to pitch in. A journey is only as rewarding as the companions who travel with you, and I invited them along because each in his or her own way is smart, congenial, curious, funny, game, and resourceful. They helped me see and understand the river in all its various facets. You always want to spend your time with people who can enlarge your experience and teach you what you don’t know, rather than just confirm your biases. Each is also trained and experienced in how to handle boats safely, and that was important. The Cape Fear may not be the Amazon, but it’s still a wilderness that changes every hour. You want to journey with people you can count on to handle any situation that comes along—like a capsize or a driving rainstorm and a rising river.
Q: What was the most unexpected thing that happened to you on your journey?
A: I think I was most surprised by the sense of silent isolation on so many parts of the river. It runs so close to several huge metropolitan centers, yet riding its current you can feel as removed as if you have entered another century. Second most surprising was just how boisterous the upper stretch is—all those rapids! In that stretch between Buckhorn dam and Fayetteville, it is a very different river from the broad working current down between Wilmington and Southport.
Q: Aside from this journey down the river, how have you conducted your research for this book?
A: I paddled many of the tributary creeks and explored the rice canals on the Brunswick County side, then visited the river from shore to explore historic sites such as Fort Fisher and the wonderful construction of the rock-arch rapids at Lock No. 1, along with dozens of other sites. And I sought out people who know the river and interviewed them. Lastly, I spent many happy hours crawling through various archives looking at documents about the human and natural history of the river. And of course I read every book and article I could find relating to it.
Q: How did the Cape Fear get its name?
A: This question engenders a discussion in the book. The early cartographers called it “promontorium tremendum,” which loosely translates as “Terrible Cape,” or later, “Cape Fear.” Some early boosters tried to call it “Cape Fair,” but too many mariners (grounded on the Frying Pan shoals) disagreed with that term and it never stuck.
Q: It’s easy for readers to see your passion for the Cape Fear. When did you first fall in love with the river?
A: I remember standing beside the river at the foot of Market Street one balmy night in February 1989 when I was interviewing for the position at UNC Wilmington and feeling the majesty of the big dark current racing down to the bridge and experiencing a certain excitement about it. Later I had the chance to explore the river with a video documentary crew for UNC-TV and I was hooked. It just sort of keeps drawing me back to it.
Q: Your novel Cape Fear Rising, published in 1994, was about one city on the river and its battle with racism. While this book is vastly different from Down the Wild Cape Fear, can you explain how your view of the river has changed in the nineteen years since you wrote that book?
A: Well, I know much more about it, and I have explored it much more extensively. When I was researching Cape Fear Rising, I walked the ground where it all happened—including the tunnels that run under Market Street, Oakdale Cemetery, and finally Smith’s Creek, which runs into the Northeast Cape Fear—on a cold, rainy November night, as it happened, just like the cold, rainy night in November 1898 when African American citizens fled for their lives into the marshes around the creek and hid out all night. I got a glimpse, a feel, for how wild and remote the river country was back in the day. But it took paddling it and its tributaries to get a sense of just how large, powerful, and complex it is.
Q: Aside from the name, how has the river itself changed in the past four centuries?
A: Most obviously, it’s been channeled and dammed from Mermaid Point on down. With the deepening of the channel between Southport and Wilmington, saltwater intrusion has changed the landscape—killing off many of the magisterial cypress trees still found on the Black River. And of course we have dumped an awful lot of bad stuff into it—though we’re getting more enlightened about that. I just wish we could bring back all the species we have hunted to extinction (like the Carolina Parakeet) or driven to near-extinction through loss of habitat in the water and on land. But it’s a stubborn river, and whatever we try to do to it, it seems to resist. It seems to want to remain exactly what it always was: a wild place that exists on its own terms.
Q: What is one tip you would give a future adventurer wanting to take on the Cape Fear?
A: Plan on spending more time than you think you need—there’s a lot of river, and the experience of being on it is balm for the spirit. But be prepared—if you go in a canoe or kayak, expect to get wet sooner or later. Actually, that’s the most fun part of all.