Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Merchants Mill Pond

In mid-February several years ago, my son, a good friend named Dan, and I headed from Oriental through Bayboro where we continued north on Bayview Road past the prison. We cut through flat empty land lined with dark ditches and vast plains of farmland until we reached the shores of South River (the one north of Oriental, not south). Past Aurora and the western boundary of the phosphate mine, we crossed Durham Creek, the first significant blackwater of the trip. The creek reflected the sky in black between the hunched trunks of cypress. A pickup beside the road suggested a lone fisherman paddling quietly through the inscrutable and trackless wet forest. The cypress clustered in mute grays accented with frayed ribbons of Spanish moss, an army of wraiths among the branches.

              In Jamesville, we rolled along broken pavement looking for Stewart Street. Stewart dropped steeply off the embankment toward the river below. A languid current framed the far shoreline of cypress swamp. Wind sighed through parasitic moss the color of winter. A squat green shack rested unevenly on the lower mud flat beside the river with all the form and strength of plywood weathered and warped long and hard. Cypress Grill, a legendary survivor of the herring shacks that once lined the river. Happily, the shutters were propped above the windows and the restaurant open as it is only from sometime in January to sometime in April, each date marking the beginning and end of the herring run. We opened the screen door – squeaking on its old hinges – and stepped tentatively into the unlit dining room.



              Faces lifted from plates of fried fish and peered at three strangers. We slipped into the nearest booth, not noticing the empty dining room beyond a half wall dividing the restaurant down the middle. The only light leaked through a few dim windows and the kitchen. Except for the people eating, the place might have been closed for business.

              Yes, they had herring. Our waitress smiled.

              “No, no roe today,” said she with an apologetic frown.

              She did not offer an option of “sunny side up” or “cremated”, no doubt assuming that the herring virgins who just sat in her booth would prefer the fully fried, deeply crisp version.

              Herring is an ordinary and common fish that once provided North Carolina fishermen millions of pounds of fish flesh each year. Not only is it bony, the bones are tiny and impossible to avoid so the cook scores the flesh deeply permitting the hot oil to crisp the bones to an edible crunch. But bones are still bones with sharp ends that pierce gums and lips. I presume the old ones began eating this bony alewife because of its prolificacy, not its oily, fishy flavor. Sadly, the herring no longer choke the Roanoke River on their annual run. In fact, the herring we ate came from South Carolina. Pollution and overfishing have devastated the local herring fishery like so many others. There are no effective recovery plans or strategies. The state just surrendered to the failure of a once rich species.

              Papering the walls were old photos of fish caught during ancient herring runs on the river, old notices to patrons with the hours of operation erased, shelves of sweet and unsweet tea, damp towels for wiping the plastic tablecloths, stacks of flatware and plastic dinnerware. The room felt like a country diner with straight back benches in the booths. The menu had been typed on a typewriter. Oddly, the first item listed was not the signature fried herring. It was shrimp followed by oysters. The herring only appeared a little past halfway down the page where you had to choose one, two or three herring. That the herring would be fried was not mentioned but understood.

              Each of us ordered two. I did not know whether two was enough or too much, but it was more than one and less than three so a happy compromise if I was lucky. I should have ordered some rock (striped bass) stew. Apparently, the rock still comes from the river. Except for the fact the slice of boiled egg seemed to have been applied as a garnish, a visual afterthought, the fish stew looked authentic down to the styrofoam bowl. However, the stew was expensive, even if worth the fare, and cost more than two herring so I stuck with the herring, the object of our desire on this particular trip.

              The hushpuppies were rounder than usual and lighter in color but crisp and tasty even without butter. The slaw was edible if unremarkable and a little sweet for my taste. Dan and Cameron ordered French fries. The fries were superior to the potato cake I chose. Because potato cakes are not a usual staple of fried food eateries in eastern North Carolina, I imagined I had discovered a local specialty. Nope, just a rectangle of the frozen hash browns like those served in cheap diners everywhere.

              Will I yearn for herring every year during the run now that I have tasted the fried flesh of the prickly fish? Doubtful. I am glad that I ate at Cypress Grill and look forward to ordering some oysters and shrimp there one day in the future. And I appreciate the indulgence of my travel companions, Cameron and Dan, sampling the herring at an authentic herring shack. [Postscript: As it happens, Cypress Grill burned to the ground a year later, so I will never have another chance to relive the herring days of yore.]

              I have never cottoned to the term “bucket list”, but some of this trip had that flavor. Leaving Jamesville, we tracked west a bit, then north and back again east across more flat farmland with pale distant tree lines and the scattered poverty of rusting and dilapidated mobile homes. Faded toys and junked vehicles sprouted in the yards alongside overgrown creeper vines and fallen tree limbs from past storms. Several of the tributary roads were named for the local swamps where the roads ended.

We reached the terminus of one road and faced the dirt track leading to a shack and drop gate. A flat barge with painted steel fencing along the sides waited above a metal ramp at water’s edge. The deep black tannic waters of the Cashie River flowed motionless past the Sans Souci cable ferry: maximum load of two cars, six passengers and one pilot. The pilot cranked the diesel that stood beside the small pilothouse and a wheel to the left of the bow began to spin the cable through while the engine rumbled and rattled the steel deck, drawing us across the smooth river to the low swamp shore beyond. There was no time for a cup of tea or a long conversation. The crossing took a few minutes, barely long enough to scan the surrounding riverbanks.



              The pilot dropped the ramp before we reached the shore, laying the ramp so low to the water that I wondered if he intended to scoop up the river or sink the ferry. He eased the ramp onto the concrete and raised the drop gate so we could drive off the tiny ferry onto a gravel roadway that could not have been a full foot above the river. Past and future flooding was obvious.

              We emerged onto Highway 17, a broad four lane that crossed Salmon Creek and led east toward Edenton, Elizabeth City and the Outer Banks. The bridge over the Chowan River lifted us high enough to see how far Albemarle Sound stretches to the east, the broad waters of the sound disappearing into a distant humid mist.

              Somewhere along Virginia Road (Highway 32 runs north to Virginia), we passed through Valhalla. At least, that is what our map indicated. We never noticed it despite watching for it. Is it like Camelot or Brigadoon, an imaginary place that is not always visible? Maybe it was near Hobbsville, a name I noted on the highway, but then passed through two days later farther east.

              Leaving the highway, we wound through second growth forest and scattered homesteads along Mill Pond Road to the park where the Visitor Center was nicer than we expected. Firewood sold for five dollars per seven sticks on the honor system. Hiking sticks and bluebird boxes sold for ten dollars each. Other money-spending options included candy bars, soft drinks, t-shirts, charcoal and coffee mugs. The small museum section displayed bear, otter, beaver, turkey, and bobcat as well as a variety of turtles and snakes. In the pond itself, gar, bowfin, frogs and gators live below the canopy of gnarled cypress, swimming in the dark tannic water, unseen.

              Named for a company that owned the mill in its early history, Merchants Mill is plain, practical and enduring. The name has outlasted any of its owners. Bennett Creek drifts through Lassiter Swamp to form a pond where Norfleet, in early nineteenth century, erected a dam to stop its flow and power a wheel to saw lumber and grind grain.

              We set up our tents several hundred yards away from and above the pond, then collected our firewood from the firewood shelter at the entrance roundabout. The shelter was fully vented with low portals and high openings to dry the damp hardwoods gathered from deadfall near the swamp. Relaxing while the sun set, we waited until dark to light the campfire. Dinner was quite late.

              Mid-morning, we hiked a trail back to the Visitor Center through beech woods, holly and loblolly pine. The trail was flat until we reached a picnic area where the worn path began short dips and rises across small creeks feeding into the pond. At the canoe launch below the Visitor Center, we stood on the floating dock to view the swamp, a couple of fishermen casting quietly from a johnboat and clusters of turtles sunning on exposed cypress roots. Following the trail along the shore to the dam, we edged past mud flats, tripping over the roots of large cypress. As we approached the dam, we saw that the wooden walkway beside the bridge had been twisted out of place, wrenched from its anchoring posts by recent hurricane flooding. The road substrate had been scoured at either end of the bridge. A fish ladder for spawning herring lay dry on top of the dam. Below the dam, Bennett Creek ran downstream, shallow and tan over a sandy bottom. Although designated as a canoe trail leading five miles to a creekside campground, the water looked too thin to float a canoe. We envisioned a paddle that was more of a wet trudge through creek and mud than restful float. The swamp stretched out of sight into the distance.

              It was past noon. Neither Cameron nor I had brought water with us. The easy hike back to camp was painful. Backs and knees ached with forgotten effort.

              We fired up the small grill and cooked some sausages and brats. Baked beans and potato chips disappeared quickly. Then I napped.

              Late afternoon, we returned to the Visitor Center and rented one canoe and one kayak. While we waited our turn at the counter, I listened to a ranger answering questions.

              Visitor: Are there snakes?

              Ranger: Not so much this time of year. Why? Are you scared of snakes?

              Visitor: Not really. But I don’t like them.

              Ranger: Well, if you paddle the pond in the summer, you will probably develop a fear of snakes. When it’s warm, they’re everywhere, swimming and dangling from the trees. Then he smiled.

              I wondered whether he was being forthright or just stoking the myth the way rafting guides scare their crews with tales of bottomless hydraulics and deadly strainers. I knew I would not be one to visit in the summer to find out. (Dan and his wife, Luann, returned when it was warm and saw more than their share of snakes.)

Cameron and I pulled a green canoe from the rack and hauled it to the small launching beach. Dan slid a kayak across the sand. I sat in the stern as Cameron pushed the canoe into the water. He stepped in and the canoe yawed wildly. We tried to calm it, but the gunwales were electric and swung nervously side to side. Unable to stabilize the motion, it felt like we had never been in a canoe before. We eased back to shore. I sat on the bottom as did Cameron. While not the strongest paddling position, it kept the center of gravity low and the canoe steady. On reflection, all we could guess was that the absence of gear, which we usually carried, left us without ballast and vulnerable to the high center of gravity. 



              The pond looks haunted like a fairyland gone wild, the deep darkness of witches and lost children and things that go bump in the night. Pathways among the cypress and tupelo trunks open and close, reveal and conceal. Channel markers appear then vanish. The young woman behind the Visitor Center counter counseled, “If you go past Yellow number 8, you are navigating on your own.” Beyond here, there be dragons. Edge of the world. Through the looking glass. Paddling the pond is time travel of sorts. You are lost to time when wandering among the endless channels leading through a maze of landless islands where trunks and limbs have entangled and turtles go “plop” in the dark. The sky hovers overhead among the confusion of branches and limbs, the sunlight filtered and subdued, casting more shadow than light.

              The canoe stumbled against a submerged what?! Log, stump, fallen tree trunk, alligator or something else? A paddler’s tendency is to overreact to surprises, to balance with a spasm of compensating, an uncontrolled jerk of the body rocking the gunwales to the surface, tipping the canoe toward capsize. Too tired to worry perhaps, we took our bumps calmly. We stayed dry.

              We passed a couple in two kayaks with three dogs. One, a German shepherd was drenched. They asked if we had seen the Orange camp site or Orange buoy number seven. “The ranger said we should turn at number seven to go to the camp site, but we cannot find the buoy.” We had not seen it either. The shepherd was restless to jump back into the water, his owner mildly desperate to keep him in the boat, so there were tense words and some fur grabbing as the owner urged the dog to settle in the rocking kayak. A few strokes and they vanished; we could neither see nor hear them. A few more strokes and we found the Orange buoy number seven they had sought. We thought to yell and call them back, but there was no evidence they had ever been anywhere near us. Toward the shore, a series of buoys formed a pathway to the camp site. It should have been easy for them to locate, but we could appreciate how disorienting the swamp can be.

              Shortly, a canoe fully loaded with gear and two hefty guys stroked up and passed us, the bow of their canoe high and proudly pointing skyward due to excess ballast aft. Like a cartoon. They seemed familiar and comfortable with the pond and where they were heading, the last camp site on the water. We tracked behind for several minutes, then lost them entirely around one soft bend in the channel. We could almost see the eighth Yellow buoy beyond which we would be required to navigate on our own. Too far to go that late in the day. The light dimmed swiftly as sunset approached. We were required to be off the water by sunset, so we reversed course and began the confusing return along the same course we followed in, but saw it very differently in reverse, as if we had found an entirely new channel, an unexplored section of the pond. “Why can’t we see the next buoy? It was clearly visible coming in.” The dark woods hardened and obscured our view. What was puzzling when we paddled into the swamp became threatening as we felt our way back out.

              Back at the Visitor Center, a ranger paced as he waited for an overdue couple who had rented a canoe. He described them and asked if we had passed anyone like that. We had not, so he knew he would be waiting until near nightfall when he would have to take a kayak and search the swamp for them himself. He said it was not unusual for people to get lost, whether by getting turned around and confused in the maze of cypress knees, clustered trunks, fallen timber or finding that darkness came quicker in the swamp than they had expected while they focused on the changing perspective as they paddled and not on where they were or had been. Alice may have disappeared through the looking glass.


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