Student impressions of a river

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


~ by yadkinriverstory on September 21, 2010.

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