River History: A Quick Look

•December 6, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Students in my first-year writing seminar at Wake Forest University have been studying the history of the Yadkin River Valley. We began with a guest lecture by Eric Jones, an archeologist at Wake, who told us about Native American life along the river dating back more than 10,000 years. Students then dove into their own research projects, using county histories, old newspapers, Congressional Records, diaries and other sources to piece together a rich and often colorful history of the river valley. We also pulled old photographs from Digital Forsyth, an archive managed by the Forsyth County Library. We’ve assembled our findings on a timeline. Here’s the link: http://www.xtimeline.com/timeline/Yadkin-River-History

I hope you find the journey as interesting as we have.

Phoebe Zerwick




Sacred Rivers

•October 28, 2011 • 2 Comments

Christine, Michelle and I are heading off on a new river journey inspired by some of the stories we found along the Yadkin. We want to tell the story of how people from different religious and cultural backgrounds connect with American rivers through ritual. We’ve told the story here of the churches that use the Yadkin and its tributaries for baptisms. And as we travel further afield we will bring you more stories about the convergence of faith, community and some of America’s greatest rivers. We spent a weekend in August in Buffalo, N.Y. with the Hindu community there, celebrating the annual rededication to the religious study along the banks of the Niagara River. Last month we celebrated Tashlich, a ritual tossing away of sins, along the banks of the Hudson River with the diverse Jewish community of New York’s upper west side. And we are also interested in looking back to our nation’s past by telling the stories of Native Americans and their connections to our rivers.

We began close to home, in Stokes County beside Double Creek, a tributary of the Dan River, with Joy Truluck and Matt Scheidt for the blessing ceremony of their infant boy, William.  Joy and I go way back. Her daughter and my son were in preschool together in the late 1990s. We both divorced and remarried and she has a 13-month-old son. Christine took family portraits of them earlier this year and when it was time to bless William they asked Christine if she would take photographs again. We all liked the idea of the story behind a family that was creating its own river ritual.

A couple of days ago On Being, Krista Tippett’s show on American Public Media, posted William’s blessing story on its blog. I hope you enjoy the first installment in our project on sacred rivers.

Joy and Matt were both raised with ritual, Matt in the Catholic church and Joy in the Episcopal church. But they decided they wanted to create their own tradition – drawing on the faith of their youth and the connections they’ve made in their adult lives. There was much for them to celebrate this year. Matt is a geologist and works with heavy equipment. Two years ago, he suffered a traumatic brain injury when a drill bit fell on his head.  Five days later, Joy learned she was pregnant with their child. At first, it wasn’t clear whether Matt would survive and then whether he would recover. So the ritual they designed was more than a celebration of their son. It was a celebration of his father’s survival and of the community of family and friends who supported them these last two years.

Joy and Matt told us much of this as guests were beginning to arrive Sunday afternoon May 29 at a retreat in the Saura Mountains owned by a friend of theirs. Some of us are drawn together by a common faith, by work, by school or by neighborhood. The community that gathered around Matt and Joy were drawn together originally through the practice of Tai Chi, one of the martial arts. They met at the Golden Flower studio in Winston-Salem. Their Tai Chi master San Gee Tam and his wife and Annukka Holland own 200 acres of land in Stokes County and have opened their place up as a retreat they call Heavenly Way. Late May is hot in North Carolina. We left the lodge around 2:30 and headed across a field with the Saura Mountain range ahead of us and down a steep hill until we reached an old farm pond.

“As you know, William’s arrival to this world took place during a tremendous time for our family,” Joy began, reading from the script she and Matt had composed. “The support of our community was a blessing of a thousand folds. Throughout my pregnancy, Matt’s acute and sub acute phases of healing, and into William’s first year of life, you all have been here for us. Thank you.”

Joy and Matt chose a river blessing because they believe in the restoring quality of nature and water – and of play. For Joy, rivers take her back to her childhood. And for Matt, they connect him with the natural world. From the field, we headed into the cool of the woods, singing the old spiritual that many of us knew not from church but from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou.

“As we went down in the river to pray

Studying about the good ol’ way

And who shall wear the starry crown?

Good Lord, show me the way!”


When we reached the creek, Matt, Joy, Joy’s daughter Lili, Matt’s brother Bill and Joy’s sister Miriah clambered down the bank to the water. Someone handed William to his parents. Bill and Miriah, the godparents, promised to guide and protect William, and Lili, his big sister, promised to help her mother and stepfather raise her baby brother.

Trees hung over the creek from both sides of the bank, the water ran over flat river rocks and Joy’s ideas about rivers and play came true. William sat splashing in the shallow creek and soon everyone else was in the water, splashing and skipping stones. And so a river ritual was made.

Phoebe Zerwick, October 2011

Long Silence

•June 8, 2011 • 2 Comments

We have been silent here for some months, so here are some updates. The Yadkin River Story exhibit traveled to the Sawtooth Center in downtown Winston-Salem in January. And then in April, the North Carolina Humanities Council published excerpts from the project in the spring issue of North Carolina Conversations. Here’s the link: http://www.nchumanities.org/publications/north-carolina-conversations.

A few weeks after the magazine was published I received a lovely email from a man who had grown up by the Yadkin in the 1960s and 70s. He said he’d be honored if I shared his recollections with you. Enjoy.

Ms. Zerwick,

I read with great interest your Yadkin River story in NC Conversations because I grew up believing that that river was my river.  My Dad worked at the North Carolina Finishing Company which was on the Rowan County side of river where US 29 and I-85 cross it, just north of Salisbury.  My brother and I grew up in Yadkin, the mill village there.  This was in the late 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s.  I was probably 30+ when one day it dawned on me that perhaps my classmates and friends made fun of me living in a mill village, but I tell you what, I cannot recall a single one of them turning down an invitation to come to my house to play or spend the night.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was rich…as a young boy, I had a bike, a dog, and the Yadkin River!  I don’t recall when we were able to go down there by ourselves.  My brother is about 2 years older than me, so I would tag along with him and some of the older guys in the neighborhood. I guess everybody was looking out for everybody else, so I don’t recall it being any big thing.

Our kingdom was the woods along the river bank!  We had landmarks, such as the PL (this was where the rainwater from probably the whole village drained into the river and, over time, had carved a pool that then emptied into the Yadkin…somehow the “Little Pool” became the “PL”) and the Devil’s Highchair, which was a rock formation with a rock wall on one side, then perhaps a 2’ opening where there was another rock sticking up.  The well worn path went between the two. Big Rock, which was just that, a big rock on the water’s edge, then, upstream maybe 400’, Little Rock…same sort of thing but, you guessed it, smaller than Big Rock!

The hours we spent on that river.  Swimming in the water, no matter what it looked like; fishing for any/every thing;  camping; hunting; trapping; just sitting there watching it go by; it didn’t matter as long as we were on the river! The memories are great…using a Little Cleo (lure), I caught a 4 pound, 12 ounce white bass on my 13th, I believe it was, birthday.   We would go several days/nights, it seems, camping out and “bottom fishing,” with one of the most often muttered phrases being “I must be in a fruit jar,” meaning we’d gone a while without a bite.  One time, my brother was on the water all day long without a shirt on and I swear his blisters had blisters.  My Dad had always claimed to be “the slingshot champion” of the county where he grew up in SW Georgia and we became firm believers one day when we were down there and he used my slingshot to cut a snake that happened to be swimming up river right near Little Rock in two.  I was on the bank one day when there was quite a racket in the water, headed my way.  It turned out to be a rabbit swimming across the river.   My high school girl friend and I were in a boat anchored in the middle of the river…she was sunbathing, I was doing my best to stay out of the sun, when the game warden rode up and tried his best to figure out what we were doing that was illegal…he didn’t seem to believe we weren’t fishing, drinking, or something!  Once, when the water was real low on one of the sandbars, my brother got out of his jon boat and started walking around and some elderly women fishing on the other bank started shouting, “It’s Jesus, it’s Jesus!”  How I do go on, how I could go on.

Until recently relocating to Pamlico County (I saw this publication as Pamlico CC’s PIO, Ben Casey, wrote the article following yours on the Neuse River), I worked in SC for a bit more than 5 years and every time I crossed the Pee Dee River, I took great delight in 1) knowing the real name of that river and 2) knowing it was “my” river.  Just a couple of weeks ago, on a trip to Charlotte, my family and I were headed south on I-85 and I glanced over at where the plant my Dad worked 48 years was, where one of the houses we lived used to be, and down at the Yadkin and had quite a nostalgic moment as the memories flashed through my mind.  What a difference that river made in my life as it did, does, and will continue to do in the lives of so, so many people.

Thank you for capturing how special it is.

Cleve H. Cox
Arapahoe, NC


Phoebe Zerwick, June 2011

Historical Currents

•October 5, 2010 • 2 Comments

Students in my first-year writing seminar at Wake Forest University spent the past two weeks researching some aspect of regional history that’s been shaped by the Yadkin River. Some traced the history of Native Americans back more than 12,000 years. Others picked up the story with Daniel Boone and other frontier people, who were drawn to the Yadkin Valley by abundant game and water.  The Yadkin played a role in the Revolution and later in the Civil War. It fueled the industrialization of this part of North Carolina by providing power for aluminum smelters and textile mills. And when storms came and the water rose, the river destroyed the very communities it nourished. The students have researched those stories too. Join us below for an historical journey along the Yadkin. Phoebe

The other day, while I was searching through the shelves of the seventh floor of the ZSR library, I found a thesis documenting the dental records of an archeological dig back in the 70s. After flipping through the 300-plus-page thesis, I was amazed at how much time and effort the author put into trying to piece together the river’s history. He spent years digging in the river beds at the Donnaha and Parker sites, documenting every bone and artifact that he found. These artifacts ranged from the Paleo-Indian Era that began in 10,000 BC all the way to the Woodland Era that ended in 1,700 AD. Through this close attention to detail and his complete infatuation with the project, he was able to dig along the Yadkin River and provide us with the history of the river and the people who depended on it for survival.  Payton Leech

Students and professors from Wake Forest University have extensively excavated sites near the Yadkin River that are known to have been occupied by Native Americans thousands of years ago. Over the years, students have been able to identify the sex and approximate age of the remains of individuals they have found. They have also found a plethora of ancient artifacts, prehistoric architecture, and many burials. Professors and students were even able to unearth a shelter near the Little Yadkin River. Materials that were analyzed suggest Native Americans occupied these sites between 1000 and 1500 A.D. Many items that were found have been curated at Wake Forest University where they will remain in the Museum of Anthropology.  Jazmune Thatch

When I chose the book The Road to Salem for my research paper on the settling of Salem, I never thought it would become such a personal experience. How can the story of one woman’s life be so real and relevant almost 300 years later? Anna Cathrina lived in an era so different that it’s like an entirely different world. Yet…I identified with her. I cheered for her. I laughed at the anecdotes she shared and mourned when sorrow swept into her life. Her world and her life became real to me. She really existed and her life contained every part of the human experience: joy, hope, sorrow, trials, heartache, happiness, and new life. The reality of her life made the life of Salem real too.  Ashelyn Myers

It’s an enthralling experience to visit a historical place when you have some sort of idea about it beforehand. After studying the historic town of Salem, I felt as if I was my own private tour guide when walking down the main street. I constantly surprised myself when I saw the fourth house and Salem College where I thought they would be was exactly where it was described in the texts. I had a sort of instinct of where everything should be based on my readings and it was fascinating to see where everything was in relation to perceived images. However, what I wasn’t prepared for when walking through the cobblestone streets was the peacefulness and beauty of such a small area which has clearly maintained its old-world charm. Brandon Rus

In the Yadkin River Valley, it seems that many things bear the name of one man in particular, and that is Daniel Boone. Through my research into the time Boone spent in the Piedmont and the Yadkin River Basin, I have tried to explain why he became so important to the people of this area, and what he did to deserve such praise. By and large, I have found that it was no one particular action that made Boone the subject of lore, but it was what Daniel Boone has come to represent, and what he represented for the inhabitants of this area for centuries. He represents the wild spirit of adventure and discovery, the love of conquering then unknown terrain. The history of what made Boone great is a spirit that people of the Yadkin River Valley have long identified themselves with, making Boone a more personal hero, and drawing people to his lore long after he had ventured west.  Chris Caliguire

The Yadkin College was founded in 1856 as part of a movement in North Carolina during which the Christian Church started many religious colleges. It was a classical school and became quite popular, and was one of the first co-educational schools in North Carolina. One of the main reasons the school ended up closing down was because the tobacco industry in Winston Salem drew people away from the school. Timothy Upper

It is April 13th, 1865, at the dusk of the Civil War. As part of his famous raid through the South, Union General George Stoneman has just seized the city of Salisbury. He now moves to take a key railway bridge located over the Yadkin River close to the town. He approaches the bridge to find it guarded by 1,200 Confederates that claim they can, “hold the works against 10,000 Yankees.” After five and a half hours of fighting, Stoneman finds himself retreating, giving the Rebels their last victory in the state, and their last major victory in the Civil War. Larkin Allison

In a world where people wrap leftover food with frail aluminum foil, rarely do they consider the metal’s passage to relevance.  With a value in the 1800s surpassing that of gold, commercial aluminum came to life thanks to a young scientist who would later create a global empire in Alcoa Inc.  Its worldwide reputation hit close to home in the early 1900s when Alcoa bought tracts of land along the Yadkin River.  Today, Alcoa’s Yadkin Project nears its 100 year anniversary.  Besides providing hydroelectric power for years, its dominating presence continues to fuel mixed emotions from the community. Bridger Mahlum

“Southern white trash.”  “Lintheads.”  These are only some of the names and stereotypes associated with the mill hands who worked in the Cooleemee Mill along the Yadkin River during the 1900s.  It is true that when most people are first presented with the idea of mill towns, they immediately think of the poor working conditions, minimum wage, child labor, and lower class people; however, this is only one interpretation.  Jim Rumley, a resident of the town of Cooleemee, stated that “the mills were the flowers sprouted up after the rain.” After the devastations of the Civil War, the mill towns helped restore the southern economy and also brought a sense of community to the people.  For them, the mill wasn’t just a job; it was a way of life.  Katie Esler

Many people overlook the ultimate powers a hurricane possesses.  A hurricane brings excessive amounts of rain and turbulent winds, but more importantly it brings devastation to lives of the people that survive the storm.  During the month of July in 1916, a hurricane swept through the Yadkin River valley.  This flood destroyed not only many people’s homes, but the places they worked and their livelihood.  The Yadkin River area experienced the wrath of the hurricane first hand, along with the entire Southeast region and nation.  Jasmine Linville

NASCAR’s earliest roots can be traced back to stock car races during Prohibition. These stock car races were started by men who were used to driving fast cars. During Prohibition, it was necessary for bootleggers to have fast cars for transporting their moonshine and escaping the police. Soon the cars, nicknamed “moonshine runners,” were manipulated for better handling around the winding turns of the Appalachian Mountains. The Wilkes County area was known for producing large amounts of moonshine from the 1920s to the 1950s. The young men from that area delivered moonshine to cities all over the country. One of the most famous of these men was Junior Johnson, a NASCAR driver who learned his notorious driving skills from being chased by the police. Katie Cooke

The 1940 flood of the Yadkin River was the effect of a category one hurricane that hit the region of North Carolina very hard.  Citizens who live along the river rely on it very heavily.  They use the water to irrigate their crops if they are farmers; also there are many fishermen who use the plentiful fish population for food.  Whatever the case may be, the river provides many things to many diverse people.  Everything the river gives can be taken away just as quickly.  In one night, a whole year’s tobacco crop can be lost to the churning flood waters of the Yadkin River. Matt Marsh

The Kerr-Scott Reservoir in Wilkesboro was built in response to the floods of 1899, 1916, and 1940, as a way to reduce flood damage.  I was surprised to find that the citizens of Wilkesboro waited until the flood of 1940 to prevent the recurrence of these floods.  As a result of the massive destruction caused by flooding on the Yadkin River, I thought citizens would have been more prompt in taking actions to protect their city.  Molly Rozeboom

I was shocked and appalled when I learned about the collapse of the Siloam Bridge in 1975, in part due to the negligence of the government. The bridge was nearly forty years old when its steel support was hit late one night by a car driving through dense fog, and it collapsed into the Yadkin River below. Due to weather conditions, cars continued to pass over; the drivers and passengers had no idea that the bridge was destroyed. One man who died in the accident, Hugh Atkinson, was involved in numerous efforts to improve or rebuild the bridge; he went to Raleigh and brought petitions in an effort to make the bridge safer. But when the bridge was inspected only a few months prior to its collapse, it was deemed safe enough for use after minor repairs. Locals recognized the dangers of the bridge, yet the State Department of Transportation declared that there was not enough funding to replace the bridge. When it was replaced after the collapse, it was too little too late. Siloam resident Howard Miller said, in a 1975 edition of the Winston-Salem Journal, that the bridge had “just borne too many burdens. No little car could knock it down if it was sound. That would be a lot like a snowbird flying into the front of my house.” Cameron Johnson

How important is a river? To the Whittington Family, the Ararat River made their farm possible. Without the Ararat the Whittington Farm’s survival would have been unlikely; the river watered the field and revived their lives. It was also  a sacred place, filled with memories for the Whittington family. The Ararat was the farm’s breath that allowed the farm to thrive for many decades. Karen Sawyer

Student impressions of a river

•September 21, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I mentioned earlier that I teach two sections of a first-year writing seminar at Wake Forest University, with the Yadkin River as the organizing theme. The class has read about the river and will be studying its history and the environmental issues shaping its future.  All that is good, but I wanted them to see the river for themselves. Earlier in the month, the first group went to the Yadkin Islands section of Pilot Mountain State Park in East Bend. This past Sunday, the second group explored the Surry County side off the park off Hauser Road. One student went to Donnaha Park. The students come from as far away as Montana and California and as close as King. You will find their impressions of the river below.

We have also been studying a book-length poem about the River Dart by the British poet Alice Oswald. She spent two years interviewing people who lived and worked by the river. Her poem, Dart, uses those living voices and the imagined voices of legendary and historic figures as the river’s “mutterings.” We don’t have the time in a first-year writing seminar to travel the length of the Yadkin. But two people who you’ve met before in this space – Marion Venable and Montie Hamby — have spoken with my class about their lives lived by the river.  We are not poets in this class, but I believe that we all have a poetic voice if given the chance to speak it. So I asked my students to write a poem inspired by one of the speakers, taking care to use the speaker’s voice as their own. Here are samples of those works.


Pilot Mountain State Park, Yadkin County

Who knew that one thirty-minute drive could change your whole perception of an area?  I left Wake Forest campus expecting to see a small, unsubstantial river, but to my surprise I was completely wrong.  The Yadkin River could have been an image taken straight out of Arizona or Colorado, almost seemingly out of place in North Carolina.  Pilot Mountain loomed as an afterthought; its presence cast a shadow over all who visited the river.  It was amazing to me just how unnatural the whole area looked with its wide shoreline and rushing water.  People with all sorts of different backgrounds were there, soaking in the river’s aura. The Yadkin River is a special place for its Western-like qualities and unmatched beauty.  The river’s rocky water looked ominous but inviting at the same time, almost beckoning for me to crack its glassy surface.  I was even surprised at how overgrown and “unknown” the path seemed, with fallen logs and pricker bushes lining the sides. Hearing stories from people is one thing, but going and actually experiencing is something completely different. Matt Marsh

How different expectations are from reality.  When I discovered that my class was going to the Yadkin River for a field trip, I immediately conjured an image of what it would look like based on accounts told to me by other people.  I imagined that it would be a very fast flowing river and murky with not many signs of life.  I thought it would be run-down, with fallen limbs and decaying lumber all around due to the seasonal floods.  I knew that people held the river very close to their hearts, but that was because they had grown up along the river.  I did not think people would love it because of the danger it posed.  However all of my previous thoughts about the river changed when I drove out into the clearing.

We drove up a gravel road that let out into a parking lot right along the river, and almost immediately I was in shock not only because of the beauty, but also because of how many people were there, doing so many different activities. There was a father and a son hauling in the days catch from their canoe, a family swimming in the river, and another family just having a picnic enjoying their surroundings.  I bet if I went back a couple hours later there would be a completely different group of people doing completely different activities and still enjoying the river just as much.

The sun glistened off the water, causing it to sparkle despite the muddiness of the water.  There were islands in the river that you could swim to, trees lining the side, and the soothing sound of the river running endlessly.  Now I understood what people were talking about when they said the river held a special place in their hearts.  It was a place where one could go and forget all of their troubles, relax, or just have fun.  It was incredible how bonded I felt with the river even though I was only there for a couple hours.  I can only imagine what it would feel like if I lived there for a lifetime. Bryan Willis

I recently visited the Yadkin River for the first time and after having read so much about the river and hearing firsthand accounts from people who have been around the river all their lives, I definitely had my expectations. The river is just what you make of it. If you are open to the whole experience and maybe willing to go in the water or hop on a raft, I think it would all be extremely beautiful and tranquil. My visit was short and sweet, and while I took in all that I could, it would have been a much different experience if I had gone for a longer period of time and maybe read a book or went canoeing.

The river is definitely a favorite spot for many, especially families. We encountered a father and son fishing with their very large canoe. We also saw a few other couples who were doing nothing other than hanging out by the river while their children ran around and played in the forest and the water. This told me that many families feel safe and comfortable at the river, and not as if they are allowing their children to run through just some “muddy water.” The river is definitely an important place and I would like to gain more visiting again. Rosie Faccone

Pilot Mountain State Park, Surry County

Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting the Yadkin for the first time. It reminded me of my own river, the James, back in Virginia. As I walked along the bank with my class, I was able to enjoy the quiet solitude of nature that had been withheld from me since I started attending Wake. I could once again breathe in the aroma of decaying leaf litter and moist soil and listen to the soft of hum of insects, muffled by the dense foliage.

My favorite experience of the trip was wading out to some large rocks in the middle of the river and having some time of quiet meditation to myself. I lay on the rocks, enjoying the afternoon heat and listening to the trickle of water moving around me. For about fifteen minutes I was able to forget about the stress and rush of the outside world and instead focus on the peaceful flow that is the river. Larkin Allison

I arrived at the river through a small passage in the woods just as many had before me. It was a sunny day, hot but not too hot. Since the river was cool, my classmates and I decided to jump in and explore the river and if nothing else just to cool off. Being in the river and feeling the rocks, mud, and sand on the soles of my feet gave me a better feel for the river. I felt more connected than if I had just been regarding it from the bank. We totally submerged and swam the width of the river finding many interesting things. In a moment of excitement, we thought we had struck gold only to realize it was just some shiny mineral.

I saw many people horseback riding across the river and through the many paths in the woods along the Yadkin. The wildlife was all around us, in the river, in the air, on the trees. This evoked a sense of the times before man had all of our technology, a time more dependent on nature.

Eventually it was time for us to leave so I had to say goodbye to the Yadkin, for now, which for some reason was not easy. I came to the river simply expected what one usually expects out of a river and left with a sense of contentment, feeling more connected to nature. I know I will be returning to the Yadkin. Tim Bishop

Despite seeing the Yadkin River on a detailed map, I was still unaware of how remote the river really was. We probably only drove for 20 minutes before we were surrounded by nothing but trees and open fields, and then another 15 minutes and we found ourselves on a dusty, dirt road that took us through three shallow streams to where we would eventually park and make our short trek down to the river. Maybe it’s because I’m from a state where you are never far removed from people, but it was shocking to me how quickly we could out run all traces of society; we didn’t even have cell coverage out there. Back home, you can never escape your cell phone, and even if you spend a day in the wilderness, you are usually in someone’s backyard, unknowingly of course.

This was not the case at the Yadkin. We easily saw more horses than cars, and we were in no one’s backyard. I think more than anything else, our journey down to the river gave me a sense of how different this place is than the one I’ve grown up in. I knew that in America you could find yourself removed from civilization, but I never thought it could happen so close to the Atlantic Ocean. It is comforting for me to know that even while going to school within the Winston-Salem city limits, I could still get away from it all. Chris Caliguire

We had heard about the Yadkin River for a month, from two newspaper accounts, the Yadkin River Story Website and from Marion Venable. I felt as though I knew the river fairly well already. Although the stories were told by people with different racial and social backgrounds, from different counties along the river, they stories had one main theme: love of the river. Before going to the river this past Sunday, I believed that everyone “loved” the Yadkin. However, I wasn’t sure how it was possible for all of these people to share this place and to love it equally. “They can’t all possibly love this river that much,” I thought to myself. “It’s just a river.”

After passing through the chaotic mess of tangled branches and clumped leaves, I saw the river. I took one look and I understood. It felt as though I had just discovered it for myself, minus the nineteen other classmates accompanying me on the trip. I loved the river immediately. Its vastness provided a sense of serenity, the complete opposite of the jumbled nature on the bank. The Yadkin River felt like my own little secret, as though I had it all to myself. It moved at a constant and reassuring rate. The clear water brushed over rocks and swirled past floating debris. The trees and stones on the riverbanks seemed untouched by man. I could feel the history. I could sense the community, even though there was no one to be seen for miles. There is something about the Yadkin River that is captivating. I could not put my finger on it that day, but I knew that everyone else on the trip was felt the same. Everyone was in love with the river. Katie Cooke

Upon arriving at the river for the first time, I was surprised at the beauty of the surroundings and the clearness of the river itself. The unscathed trails leading to the banks of the river and the gently flowing rapids were not what I expected from reading periodicals and short stories that revolved around serious environmental issues that the river constantly faces. While exploring the trails along the bank, I observed the recreational community that the river provides both for locals and those who had traveled to spend a leisurely Sunday with nature. As I sat perched on the remains of a stone wall, I saw a woman walked with her dogs, several men with horses, and a father and son fishing all passionately engaged in activities provided by the Yadkin. Ryan Harter

The Yadkin River flows through North Carolina, bringing with it particles of the life and land from its journeys. On our journey to the river that day I had one goal, to become a new piece of river, to wade in the mixing pot, and leave a part of me to drift down the shores. Marc Heathcock

We had been learning about the Yadkin River for three weeks prior to visiting last weekend. For those three weeks, I had imagined a river much like the river where I live. The Tennessee River is industrialized, polluted, and surrounded by constant activity. It had been my home for the past 18 years, giving me a place to explore and hang out with friends. When we pulled onto the dirt and gravel path that led to the Yadkin River, my preconceptions were immediately erased. We drove for a good 10 minutes on a path that sank down through three small streams and wound its way into land that seemed to have never been touched by man. As soon as we got to the river, I was astounded by its beauty. There were no houses, no buildings, and very little pollution. Instead, I saw people riding horses and a family hiking through the woods. It was truly a place of beauty where people can go to relax and hang out with friends and family. Payton Leech

September 19, 2010 was promised to be an interesting day filled with unexpected experiences.  On this day I, a Wake Forest freshman from Florence, South Carolina, was scheduled to go on a trip with my Writing Seminar class to the Yadkin River.  I was not quite sure how I felt about this trip scheduled to take place in the middle of my Sunday afternoon from 1 pm until about 5 pm.

I was pleasantly surprised when I got to see the Yadkin for the first time.  In contrast to preconceived visions of the river from readings done in class, the Yadkin was clear, swift, and relatively clean compared to the murky, still water I had envisioned.  The river was also wider than I had anticipated, flowing rapidly over rocks.  It swished and rushed, gurgled and bubbled.  I found it quite relaxing to simply sit and listen its sound.  Swish, rush, gurgle, bubble… Lindsay Miranda

My expectations of the river were vastly different than what I saw. Listening to stories from Marion Venable, I imagined a deep, dangerous, murky river. When I arrived, I was shocked at its width, depth and transparency. The river seemed shallow and it didn’t seem as dirty as I imagined. We were easily able to see through the river to its bottom. Additionally, I was surprised at the number of people riding horses inside and along the river, something I have never witnessed. Raj Patel

Before our class expedition to the Yadkin, we knew next to nothing about one another and had never done anything as a class before.  I was anxious to see how the day would play out and how our class would cooperate with each other when thrown into a place as different to all of us as we were to each other.

To my surprise, our class not only cooperated at the river, we bonded. Those of us who crossed the Yadkin through the unknown underwater terrain of rocks and mud connected, not only with the river but with each other.

Whether we were excited to get away from campus or disgusted at the thought of walking on unknown thick black filmy substances which covered our feet, we all experienced a common event that has made our class a tighter group. Brandon Rus

Having grown up in Ramseur, NC, I know what it feels like to live in the middle of nowhere.  The Deep River was near and dear to me. It always brought good memories and certainly made my childhood. When I was young, I would swim, fish, and even canoe or kayak. The river deeply affected me and shaped how I am today. When I visited the Yadkin, I felt the same way. As soon as I was within sight of the river, I could feel that same type of feeling. I knew that this river could “make or break you” and that people’s lives depended on and revolved around the river. This was not the case so much in my town, but I got that feeling by the Yadkin. From people riding horses to others hiking the trails, the river was just a part of their daily routine. It is their life. Tyler Smith

My first glimpse of the Yadkin was amazing; my first thought was that this river is beautiful.  The sun was reflecting off of the water; the water was shimmering.  As I walked upstream, I saw people riding horses in the river.  I had never seen such a wonderful sight.  There were people sitting on rocks with their dog, just enjoying the feel of the sun and sound of the river.

The sounds were lovely.  The rush of the water was relaxing.  All I could imagine was just wading over to a rock and lying on it for hours at a time, perhaps with a book at hand.  My perfect Sunday afternoon would be spent on that rock in the middle of the river reading a book. Amber Waake

At the beginning of the trip, no one anticipated actually entering the water.  However a group of students and I waded across, with water rising up to our chests and rocks cutting the bottoms of our feet.  When we got to the other side, no one was interested in making a trek back too soon.  Our jean shorts and t-shirts were soaked and half us of had nearly fallen face first into the river on the way over.  Instead, we explored what was around us and eventually rested on a rock in the center of the river, letting our feet dangle in the water and the sun bake our faces. I had not known many of my peers before; they were solely my classmates between 1:00 and 1:50 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  However, that soon changed.   What started off as a conversation about the green color of rocks at the bottom of the river, soon turned into an abundance of laughter and stories about the times we have had so far at Wake. That is what the Yadkin does; it brings people together.  Friends horseback down the river in packs.  Families picnic on the camping grounds.  Young boys and their fathers explore the creaks.   A class can come together. Katie Esler

Tranquility. That was what I found along the Yadkin River, the stretch that ambles through Pilot Mountain State Park. Contented solitude is a rare commodity in college. It seems one either is alone, or does not want to be, or is never alone and longs for it. Then, there’s the controlled chaos of college life to deal with.

Yet, when I was there, all that seemed to fade away. I took off and went hiking by myself for a bit, and it was so gratifying, satisfying. My spirit was soothed, my heart was at ease, and my mind was more relaxed than it had been in weeks. At the same time, I was thrilled by the endless possibilities of adventures that could unfold in such a place, under the sun, on the banks of that beautiful river. It was as if I had been transported to another time, another place, when life was not easier, merely…simpler. All we needed was right there-good friends, great weather, and the river itself. Who could ask for more? Ashelyn Myers

I remember being impressed with the size of the river.  When I was told that it was the primary water source of Winston-Salem, it did not resonate with me that we were talking about a truly enormous river.  As we walked on the trails, I began to better understand what Montie Hamby was talking about when he described the timeless sensation that the river makes him feel.  For him, all the stresses in his life simply melted away when he was on the river.  He had no errands to run, no places to be. He simply enjoyed the moment.  As I gazed out across to the other bank of the river and took a deep breath, I felt as though I was at peace with the world.  I had no other place to be but on the bank of the Yadkin.  It was a truly transcendent and blissful sensation.  But then as we continued down the trail I saw an empty Dorito’s bag lying on the ground.  I must admit that I felt disappointed.  It was as though this piece of trash was corrupting the pure beauty of nature.  I realized then how the river needed to be preserved and protected so that people like me could come and enjoy all it has to offer. Louie Rawden

On Sunday, I visited the Yadkin River in Pilot Mountain State Park for the first time.  As we drove into the forest with our cars fighting through puddles and rocks to get there, I couldn’t help but notice the beauty of the area.  The setting was so calm, so tranquil; it was great to get away from the hectic college life.  A few of the students, including myself, waded into the water and sat on a rock situated in the middle of the river.  We enjoyed each other’s company as we watched the birds soaring above and listened to the soothing sounds of the river.  Never once did we discuss the homework that was waiting for us back at campus.  In my opinion, this was an important experience for all of us because it reminded us to slow down. Molly Rozeboom

When I arrived at Pilot Mountain State Park, I breathed in the aroma of the great outdoors, immediately feeling any tension cease from my body. Relaxation consumed me and I was on my way with the others, hiking down to the river we’d been anticipating to see for quite some time. Although I have driven over many rivers while vacationing, this was my first trip to a river and I was not certain of what to expect.

I was completely astonished at how beautiful the scene was before me as we finally reached the riverbank. The river was much broader than I expected. I was also surprised by its shallowness; some of my classmates even walked to the other side! I chose to continue hiking alongside the river with several others. We came across the uncompleted Bean Shoals Canal wall. A few of us climbed to the top to sit and admire the view around us. For a few minutes, everyone sat in silence, awestruck. We saw families playing in the water, canoeists, and horseback riders all utilizing the river that is sometimes taken for granted. Overall, my time at the Yadkin River was very enjoyable. I have planned a trip with several friends to go back this weekend. Jazmune Thatch

Donnaha Park

I went to view the Yadkin River on September 6th, and decided to go to Donnaha Park, where highway 67 crosses the river. From Wake Forest, I took Reynolda Road, past restaurants, car dealerships, and gas stations, until I eventually came to the bridge that crosses the Yadkin. I pulled off the road into the park and it seemed I was taken back in time.

I walked from my car to the river. Two or three families were eating lunch at some picnic tables near the edge of the river. As I continued towards the river, I could see that there were many people swimming and playing in the water. I even saw one family eating in the middle of the river on what I would call a sandbar (even though it was made of rocks). It reminded me of a simpler time when people did not rely on electronics and electricity for fun. People were just spending a nice day outside having quality time with their families. It was really very beautiful. Timothy Upper

Poems inspired by Montie Hamby, a lifelong river advocate

Moved from a city kid to country kid,

which was a different approach.

Had “running water,” a hand pump that was in the house.

Straddled the line between country and city living.

There were no roads and streets,

Just the river.

These are the bases for Montie.

He ran rampant through his family’s properties;

Fished, hunted, and just sprinted around

Used the philosophy “everything on earth is for man to use”

Until he reached adulthood.

Then he saw the river as a place to think,

to relax and be energized.

This is when he became a river devotee.

He pushed for legislature to keep that fresh water clean

He built canoe ramps for people to enjoy the river’s passage

He respected the river.

And his story made you want to too.

Jasmine Linville

Our farm in Wilkes is the only place I’ve known

The Yadkin River is my only home

There’s nowhere I would rather be

Nothing rivals the view along my river

I love to see that Great Blue Heron

That raccoon scurrying by the shore

I could never ask for more

I went deep-sea fishing with my dad

That ocean wasn’t quite for me

The Yadkin looks so beautiful compared to that large sea

I could float on this river every day

I will never cease to be amazed

I can only hope it is loved by all

I would never trade this for a mall

The way this land has been treated

I know this argument might get heated

This Clean Water Act is a start

But we have a long way after that

Maybe take people down the river

And let them float and row a little

They will see the beauty of this river

Alex Reese

Traveling down the river

Sights to see, stories to tell

More than a body of water…

but a time machine

It is where the soul…

Is free

Where the heart beats…

As one with the current.

Not as vast as an ocean,

But the peace that comes…

Is beyond all measure

No matter how long one lives

The river has no bounds

To the magnitude of its glory,

The thrill of its majesty!

The river lets hearts sing…

above all creation

Can you hear it,

Are you listening?

The river forms my limbs

It feels my body with its power

I am one with the river

If the river dies, I die too

It revives my soul

It drives my passion

More than mere water

But a body, a soul

A life

A life worth saving

A life worth appreciating

The river has a story to tell

Are you willing to listen?

Karen Sawyer

“This is one place where I really feel at peace.” –Montie Hamby


Many years pass from whence we first arrived

to the river I knew since I was a child.

And though we’ve seen it in its many stages,

the water cannot extinguish our enduring fire.

Blue as the sky and bright as midday,

The stream implores us to call her by name.

For whom the river calls has the chance to join

A family of river-keepers, all of us the same.

And those who refuse the call to keep

The river safe, our lives deplete.

For their actions affect us all, but I know

The fire in our hearts continues to leap.

Ashes and soot, dust and grime,

The river pours out her soul to mine.

And my soul pours out itself to her,

A symbiotic bond entwined in time.

Many years pass from whence we first arrived,

Yet the river remains with us, even after we die.

Austin Schonbrun

Poems inspired by Marion Venable, lifelong resident of Siloam

Ode to a River, through the eyes of Marion Venable

On land enriched by the spirit of Danny Boone,

The Yadkin ran close by, quaint, inspiring, beckoning.

“The river can make or break you,” Marion said,

For that crop farmers lived day by day.

Only the water could guide the people, show them the way.

Selfish folks turn river into trash bin,

Oh how they provide for waters that give so much.

Kids fish for six-pack rings, or dive for Coke bottles.

“You have to be a watchdog out there,” Marion would warn.

Work together, stop the runoff, don’t leave this river torn.

Think twice when leasing land to industry unknown.

Do your part to keep the Yadkin flowing strong,

For that a storm is coming, not one you’d expect.

“I will love and protect it for the rest of my life,” she said.

Use the river wisely, and always look ahead.

Bridger Malcolm

Live Broadcast with Charlotte NPR

•September 21, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Christine and I drove to Charlotte this morning with Dean Naujoks, the Yadkin Riverkeeper, for an interview with the Charlotte NPR affiliate about our documentary project and Dean’s advocacy work. Thank you Mike Collins for leading such a free wheeling conversation about photography, journalism and political action — all in one hour. If you missed the live broadcast you can listen to the archived version on-line at: http://www.wfae.org/wfae/18_92_0.cfm.


Opening Day

•September 19, 2010 • 1 Comment

What a thrill to see so many people yesterday at the opening of the Yadkin River Story at the Yadkin Cultural Arts Center. I tried to talk to as many people as I could. Some found their neighbors among the portraits, or their aunts and uncles. Others were certain they recognized a river scene or the way the sun is reflected at sunset. Yadkinville held its annual Harvest Festival yesterday, so I expected crowds. But I didn’t expect people to pay so much attention to the images and the words that went with them. Thank you.


Hanging photos

•September 16, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Christine and I spent the afternoon at the Yadkin Cultural and Arts Center in downtown Yadkinville hanging the photos Christine has taken over the past year or more. The show includes a dozen portraits of people whose lives are informed in one way or another by the river. You’ve met many of them here in earlier posts. There’s also a group of images taken at Donnaha Park, mostly of families who come to the river to escape the summer heat. These are joyous images. The one I love the most shows a man with his arms raised to the sky with drops of water falling around him. We also hung a group of photos of baptism scenes, taken at the Fisher River, images filled with spirit and wonder.

Christine printed her landscapes on large foam panels, each about three feet wide.  You can see these images on our website at: http://yadkinriverstory.org/. But the large prints take you to the water in ways smaller ones can’t, and there you are, at dawn, at sunset, on a snowy day and high above, looking down from a helicopter through the fog that rises over the water when the nights get cool.

Our project focuses on people and communities bound together by the river. But we have also come to see the river as a character with many personalities. That was unexpected. But as you listen to the stories people told us and study the images Christine made, I think you will come to understand, as we have, that the Yadkin is at once wild and tranquil, angry and caressing.

My students at Wake Forest University and I have been studying a poem about the River Dart, in England, by a British poet named Alice Oswald. She spent three years on a journey much like the one Christine and I took, interviewing people who lived and worked along the Dart. Their voices make up her poem. In the introduction Oswald writes: “All voices should be read as the river’s mutterings.”  So we are not the only ones to think of a river speaking – or muttering — in many voices.

Christine and I hope you can make it to the exhibit opening Saturday, from 9 am until 4 pm. If you can’t make it Saturday, the show will be up through the end of October.


An eagle sighting?

•September 13, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I spent Sunday afternoon at the Yadkin Islands portion of Pilot Mountain State Park in East Bend with a group of students from Wake Forest University. I teach a first-year writing seminar there with the river as the organizing theme. We have read newspaper accounts of river journeys. And they’ve met some of the people you’ve met here in earlier posts. But I wanted them to see the river for themselves.
We took the trail that heads south from the boat access. My students talked about their rafting and hiking adventures out west. One had spent seven weeks in Utah. Another had hiked the Grand Tetons. And they all had a class IV rafting adventure in their past. I wondered how our own wild river would compare.
The trail follows the river through the woods for at most half a mile, and ends at a point where an unnamed creek empties into the wide water. Ahead lie the Shoals. Just as we came to the point, I heard a rush in the woods and a large bird flew in close for a moment, close enough for me to hear its wings beat, before it headed out over the water.  I saw its white chest and dark tail. I know a pair of bald eagles nests nearby. And I heard it call, kleek-kik-ik-ik. I swear it sounded like the birdcall I found on line:  http://identify.whatbird.com/obj/25/overview/Bald_Eagle.aspx. It had to be one of the eagles others have seen nearby, but I can’t be sure. And my students came up a moment too late to see anything but a large bird in the distance and a river that was larger and wilder than they had expected.

Coming full circle

•September 12, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Nearly 30 years ago, the Winston-Salem Journal sent Floyd Rogers, one of its best writers ever, on a journey down the Yadkin River. He traveled with local environmentalists in an effort to raise awareness about the threats facing the river and wrote a series of articles about the people he met along the way. The series was republished as a book called the Yadkin Passage. Five years later, when I started at the Journal in the Davidson County bureau, I borrowed Floyd’s book from the Davidson County library.  I wanted to learn some local history and also get a feel for the possibilities for in-depth storytelling that lay ahead for me. Floyd was still at the paper, and I learned much from him about the writer’s craft.  Every once in awhile, someone at the Journal would say it was time to repeat Floyd’s journey. But other, more urgent stories, always stood in the way. And so Floyd’s journey was never repeated. When I left the Journal in 2008, Christine and I decided to work on a documentary project together. We had reported long stories together before when we were both at the Journal, and wanted to see what we could do with her photography and my interviews. She wanted to focus on her community in and around East Bend. I thought of the Yadkin journey we’d never gotten around to taking again at the Journal. With today’s coverage in the Journal of our Yadkin River Story I feel as though we have come full circle: http://www2.journalnow.com/content/2010/sep/12/drinking-water-recreation-agriculture/news/.

Many thanks to the Journal for taking an interest in our project and for devoting precious space to Christine’s photos. And many thanks to you, our readers, for following our work.