Down the River, To the Sea

Where science meets the spirit

Story and Photographs by John Wolfe

The unseen tug of our distant moon pulls the waters of the Cape Fear River to their highest crest, but only for a moment. Soon, the moon’s synchronous dance will irresistibly bid the river to return seaward, back to the source of all water. I intend to join on this journey. There is some other force, unknowable, that pulls my spirit to wild places; it whispers to me, get out there — go beyond what you know. We all hear this call, but too often it goes unanswered. Too often we sink deeper into the stillness of calcified circumstance. Yet to be idle, as Gibran wrote, is to become a stranger to the seasons.

So onward I go, following an ancestral human urge to explore which refuses to be silenced. In the low morning sunlight of late winter, I cast off the lines of the sturdy little ketch I have christened Maia, after the brightest star in the Pleiades.

Under the roaring span of the Memorial Bridge we sail, passing patient tugboats, broad-shouldered and burgundy, waiting for their work. Along the port’s bleached concrete wharves, tall blue dinosaur cranes stack boxes high on towering steel ships. Here in the harbor these giants may sleep, but I’ve seen them awaken on vast voyages across the deep — skyscrapers moving at school-zone speed limits. Wise sailors know to avoid them. Yet out there, even these gargantuans become tiny against the yawning void.

Past the power lines the river widens, her tea-brown waters interrupted only by low islands of tangled trees and honey-blond sand. Under Maia’s white wings I spy Campbell Island, then Keg Island, the vanguard of an inshore archipelago that has been here since Capt. William Hilton sailed upriver to trade with the Cape Fear tribe in 1662. I wonder what the captain would think, were he transported aboard today. Would he recognize my modern river, with its navigational buoys and dredged-out depths, its brackish water and big ship traffic? Would the serious man crack a knowing smile at the sun warming his arms and the river sparkling brightly below, as we catch the east wind to carry us on our course? Some things, after all, never change.

But some do. Capt. Hilton never saw Snow’s Cut, whose line of red channel markers I leave to port. Neither did Gen. Braxton Bragg, whose troops camped here as Fort Fisher fell, long before the Army Corps blasted an Intracoastal Waterway through rock and sand in the 1930s. Beyond the cut, beneath the Carolina Beach Bridge, lie memories for me — long summer days of surf and sun on Masonboro Island, nights full of fire and friendship.

But today I stay in Midnight Channel, taking the path I’ve traveled less. I leave plenty of room between me and Sunny Point, the largest munitions depot on the East Coast, until I raise the low white pyramid of the Fort Fisher aquarium to port; beyond that, the low hills of the fort itself, mountains of history beneath its earthen embankments.

The wind and tide conspire to flush me seaward at 8 1/2 knots, whisking me by the little town of Southport. Old shrimp boats, their nets hanging like Spanish moss from their outriggers, are tied to weatherworn docks in a harbor lined with seafood bistros. Here, the waterway leaves us, heading west toward South Carolina, yet the river remains, making one final curve toward the Atlantic. Just off its final bend lies the secret entrance to my anchorage for the evening: an avenue of deep water my chart calls the Thoroughfare, arcing through the sandbar-strewn marshes north of Bald Head Island.

To reach it, I must leave the safe channel behind and blindly nose along, following my depth sounder and my gut to get over the shallow bar at the creek’s mouth. The ebbing flux is all the same shade of blue-green, betraying no secrets. A brief bump — a burst of reverse — and again I am winding in deeper and deeper, following crab pots laid along the edge of a scruffy islet. I breathe a sigh of relief when my sounder again shows double digits below my keel. With a clattering rumble of chain I let go my anchor. I have arrived.

What a place. Alone in an estuary, with only whispering cordgrass and diving black cormorants for company. Alone, but not lonely. Thoreau, who knew something of solitude, never found a companion so companionable as that; he was no more lonely than the loon in the pond who laughs so loud, or than Walden Pond itself. After all, he wrote, no exertion of the legs — or setting of sails — can bring two minds much nearer to one another.

Even out here I still am surrounded, distantly, by society. The low mansions of Bald Head and the winking eye of the Oak Island lighthouse remind me of nearby neighbors as they bookend the inlet to the sea that I love — that place of mystery and magic, where science meets the spirit. Seven years back I first saw this inlet from the other side, looking back at land with leagues of blue water before me, nervous and excited, aiming for islands to the south. Out there was isolation — hundreds of miles from anyone besides the crew you sailed with. But we made it through, and after our bout with the elements, after 10 days of soaking spray and towering waves, what true delight it was to return again to the embrace of land and the wonders that it holds. The smell of the earth, fresh fruit, elbow to elbow with humanity again, encountering new faces, stories, dreams.

The sun begins to sink; the sky subtle shades of yellow and pink. Through the inlet now sails a ship filled with fellows I may never meet, but whose craft and memories I share — wide water, struggle, a thankful return. I sit on my foredeck, drinking tea, watching them pass. Even the biggest machines of humanity retain the elegance of the people who move them.

I take bearings on the lighthouse to place myself, then head below for hot soup, music, and a Hornblower novel as a cheery fire dances in my diesel heater. My meal finished, I poke my head out of the companionway and watch the moon rise slowly from the marsh, her rays dazzling the wind-rippled surface of the creek. Slowly she traces her path along the ecliptic, pulling the tide with her. There again, ever present, that quiet call to adventure. In the evening solitude I hear it with even more distinctness. Tomorrow is another day.

Dawn breaks early with our moon in the western sky, the lighthouse a slow echo beneath it. A fine white fog hangs over water swirling with cormorants. My social sabbatical has ended; soon I will pick up my friend Saxon in Southport to help sail my little ship back home. But in the morning mist, the tide flowing beneath me like the breath of the world, I pause to say thanks for the grace of nature surrounding me. I am an atom, afloat in an ocean of wonder, adrift in a seascape of beauty. How miraculous, that we are here at all to witness these precious moments. Our minds reflect the natural world, just as this river reflects the light of the moon.

John Wolfe studied creative nonfiction at UNCW. He can be found online at

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