Parking up by the outhouse we walked down a gated access road, ears and eyes peeled for waterfalls. There were none to find. Water flowed out of the power plant at the base of the dam over a smooth, gravely riverbed. With the exception of some brightly hued bedrock at the base of the dam there was nothing to see here. I took some quick photos of a tributary flowing in from the side over the dead grass and we left. There may have been a huge waterfall here once but today there was just a dam.
We headed over to Marquette and grabbed some subs while I plotted the next stops. The lofty goal was to visit both Carp River and Morgan Creek, both with several waterfalls on their length. We were starting to run low on daylight, though. Hoping to get at least one of the two waterways done today I headed over to the land around Enchantment Lake. My planned route was to follow the power lines over to Morgan Creek, find a swamp, and follow it downstream. When I reached the swamp I started to realize just how futile this plan was.
The undergrowth around the water was thick tag alder and the uncertain ground beneath rolled with scattered rocks and dead logs. I did push my way down to the base of the swamp and found an impressively tall beaver dam before retreating against the growth. Time to try the alternative approach.
We headed south to an unnamed road, a rough little dirt track that follows Morgan Creek to Carp River before taking a ridgeline down to the ski hill area. I had heard bad things about the quality of this road and was planning on avoiding it but now it appeared to be the only access to the waterfalls here. The drive there was weird, changing from thick woods around Enchantment Lake to sandy plains with a tall radio tower and fenced off mining complex sitting out in the open. The conditions were not as bad as I feared. It had been dry for several days now and the large, deep holes that could easily create sucking pits of mud were just more bumps in the road.
There were few rocks on the wide, sandy road, and we easily drove north to Morgan Creek. Taking the right fork we followed the road, which did worsen over the distance but was never impassable. I had no idea how far to drive down this road, only knowing that Morgan Meadows Falls was somewhere along this stretch of creek. It was a pleasant surprise when, after crossing a culvert, a small pull-off showed up with the sounds of a waterfall drifting in from the other side. The falls were within a dozen feet of my car.
I took some quick pictures, venturing downstream a short distance to look at the taller lower chute, before consulting with Katie. Morgan Falls was downstream from here, before the creek runs into Carp River, and I wanted to continue on the road in hopes of finding it.
She was okay with the road's conditions so we continued driving. Morgan Creek flowed close to the road and I hoped we'd be able to hear or see it right from the car. A questionable bridge over Morgan Creek stopped us after less than a mile. Neither one of us wanted to test the load-bearing capacity of the rickety structure. The drive was over. In hopes that we were close to Morgan Falls I got out and walked downstream along the pleasantly wooded creek and found nothing but a sandy creek bed.
Out of the four waterfalls here I wanted to finish up we had found one. We retraced our route back out of this area, frustrated. There was an hour or two left of daylight so I rushed southwards to Palmer along M On the way we were greeted with the huge piles of poor rock surrounding the iron ore pit, something we had both glimpsed from 41 but never been so close to. They towered up above the road, a humbling reminder of one this area's founding industries. I had heard that there was once a mountain here, Summit Mountain, and that this mine had chewed through it and was working down through its roots.
I wondered if Summit Mountain had been taller than these piles. Who knows, it may have been a contender for the state's highpoint at one point. Warner Falls is a pretty little roadside drop just south of Palmer. There is a wide shoulder to park on and, while the drop is visible from the road, a few paths leading down for a closer view. While the waterfall was pretty to look at, a fanning drop over solid rock, I couldn't help but feel the nearby mines overbearing presence. The piles were visible from the creek, the vegetation looked sickly, and the water was too foamy and stunk.
I didn't stay long here. A short jaunt further south brought us to Schweitzer Falls.
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I had only a vague idea of where this drop was, never a good idea for a hike in unfamiliar lands, but it was only a few hundred yards off the road. Parking on a two-track I headed down a narrow ATV trail, looking for a marker or path to lead me down to the falls, and found nothing. The trail led me straight into a loop on Schweitzer Creek, water and swamp on both sides. With a deep sigh I cut to the right, through the thick woods, and followed the creek downstream. After the undergrowth and prickly branches gave me an unwelcome response to my intrusion I was able to find the rocky outcropping, the two-tiered waterfall on the creek.
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They were not made to walk on. A deep pool sits between the drops, forcing me back into the woods to get around, and the lower drop is a sheer rock face with stagnant water and slick rocks at the base. As much as I enjoy remote waterfalls I found myself wishing for some sort of footpath or animal trail, anything besides this cluster of tag alders and briers. The sun was setting by the time I finished pushing and yanking my way through the thick brush around Schweitzer Falls.
Getting back to the car was not easy either. The ground is too lumpy to figure out if I was heading in or out of the river valley and there were no paths from the waterfall. When I finally broke free from the woods I was scratched raw and trailed weeds and branches behind me. Katie looked at me, questioning, and I simply told her that I found the waterfall and we were done here.
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Some places are just not worth a repeat visit. Dim light was still spilling through the trees and I convinced Katie that we could make one more stop. We were already fairly far to the south of Marquette, in an area that I don't frequent much, and Black River Falls was only a few miles away. By the time we reached the parking area it was truly evening, the sun gone from the sky. All three of us got out to walk the easy trail. Getting down to the waterfall was quite difficult.
There are two wooden walks down to a small island below the drop, providing a relatively easy route, yet both were steep and icy from the river's mist. I slowly made my way down to the island, holding onto the railings tightly, and took some quick pictures of the waterfall. The white water barely showed up in the dark. Thankfully, nobody else showed up. Fayetteville, also, never showed up. There were a few more people fishing, from boats and the shore, and for the first time, we saw men living underneath a bridge, with a small fire going.
Farther down, a CSX train passed overhead on a trestle. An old World War II subchaser, which later served as a floating dock, sat half-buried in the mud on the bank. A rusting overhead crane and rotting wooden pilings were signs that barges used to make regular trips up from Wilmington decades ago. A small amphitheater at a riverside park and a marina were the only other clues that a city of , people was nearby.
From the river, the volume was only slightly raised as we paddled through a green canyon, unable to see out. We floated past Fayetteville, and, quietly, it floated past us. A steady wind gusted to 40 miles per hour. The kingfishers flying above us loved it, but the wind wrinkled the water and constantly blew our boats off course.
The wind quickly numbed my feet. My toes turned white. From then on, I wore wool socks, covered in sandwich baggies, underneath my shoes.
After Fayetteville, we passed Interstate 95 and practically nothing else. A house here or camper there. A small creek or waterfall in between. As the evening closed in, we pulled up to a small dock as a couple of teenagers dressed in camouflage T-shirts loaded up a fishing boat. Last December, the river must have come up 40 feet at this spot, he said.
Made for some great fishing in the flooded woods, because fish love exploring new ground, looking for food. Hughie, a big man with a goatee, held his twin girls and told big stories in a cracking, singsongy tone. Once, he and some friends shot off a small cannon on a downstream sandbar, then got a visit from a game warden as they slept in their boats. Occasionally, kayakers pass through here, Hughie told me. But the rocky and rushing river of the early days had turned into an empty highway with no off-ramps. By day four, I zoned out for hours at a time, humming to the rhythm of my strokes.
I stared, hypnotized by the blue cooler between my knees. Fallen trees were no longer unusual, gnarled logs were no longer curious, flapping ducks were no longer startling. Nature was no longer new. It was normal. Before we reached the William O. But as a result of budget cuts and a lack of traffic, the locks barely ever open anymore. Still, we got lucky. He got the friend to carry all of our gear around the lock in the bed of his pickup truck. And later, river magic struck again. The great irony: All we had to eat was freeze-dried food, so we only used the expensive gas stove to boil water.
We stopped at Lock and Dam No. After days of tree-tunnel claustrophobia, with our voices echoing off greenery, the wide-open space was as soothing as white noise. We figured we were going to have to carry everything around this lock, too, until Kemp spotted an Army Corps of Engineers pickup truck. The lockmaster was here, and Kemp started giving the man his best sales pitch.
The lockmaster stopped him. The doors closed. The water lowered. Ten minutes in the lock saved us an hour. After the second dam, the river wound more sharply. The banks were lower. The trees were shorter. There were more loblolly pines and bald cypress. There were fewer eagles and more songbirds. More snakes and fewer turtles. Our sense of distance also had changed. A highway mile is a minute long. But a river mile, on flat water, takes roughly 25 minutes and paddle strokes. On the mile stretch between the lock and our campsite, I kept thinking our destination was right around the corner.
That night, we sat around a campfire on a large white sandbar, cracked beers, and talked about the nature of river time. We talked into the night, as stars twinkled overhead, owls hooted, and fish jumped in the dark river. At that moment, we had all the time in the world. The next morning, I woke up at 6, with rain pitter-pattering my tent. But by now, we were paddling robots. We broke camp at 7, passed the two-car Elwell Ferry by 11, and approached the final lock at Here, we saw streams that the Corps had dammed up to keep the water from cutting a new route around the dam.
Instead, engineers have dropped boulders below the dam to create rock arch rapids, allowing fish to swim upriver to spawn. Past here, the river, and our paddling, would be affected by the tides, so the closer our camp was to Wilmington, the better. We kept going. We were just warmed up.
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We pressed on for five extra miles before pulling up at a landing. As we started to set up our tents and dry out our gear underneath an orange sky, an oversize Ford pickup emerged from the woods. She demanded that he bring us all back to the house to sleep indoors. Soon, we were whizzing through the dark woods in a truck bed. More river magic. The man, Archie McGirt, told me his story. I nodded. Everything felt vivid, as though my brain was learning, once again, to form memories.
The next morning, the purple-and-orange sunrise revealed a strange new landscape: swampy, full of palmetto and native azalea. Every bit of ground was soggy. The cypress trees were marked with dark water lines, evidence that the high tide was rushing downriver toward the ocean. We passed Roan Island, and the aptly named Black River. Soon, seaweed appeared, and fiddler crabs scurried in the mud among the spartina grass.
Chris and Kemp disappeared ahead, and Andrew was gone, too, somewhere behind me, taking pictures. For the first time on the trip, I was alone. On a kayak. Drifting through the swamp on a falling tide. The seclusion was an illusion. I was four miles from the closest town. The map and the signal on my phone showed me that I was on my own, yet close to everyday life.
I was unable to be seen, yet always within reach. The Cape Fear River was only as private as I wanted it to be. At 10 a. As the river turned, the trees that had enveloped us melted away. Suddenly, we were in a brown, open expanse, with sunshine all around. Dead cypress trees, killed by the ever-increasing intrusion of salt water, cut stark figures against the blue sky. This was foreign. The four of us reunited at the under-construction Interstate bridge, as construction workers soldered rebar high above.
Ahead, the church spires and office buildings of Wilmington rose above the grass like a mirage. We ducked underneath a railroad bridge at Navassa as a large sightseeing boat was bearing down on us. Kemp shook his head and smiled. The captain was a friend of his, Kemp said. At , we paddled underneath another highway bridge at the mouth of the Northeast Cape Fear River, and suddenly we were downtown, passing a Coast Guard cutter and the Battleship North Carolina, waterfront parks, buildings, fountains, and cars.
Men and women eating lunch at riverside restaurants watched us take stroke after stroke. Joggers glanced at us. Dogs sniffed in our direction. Lee Skipper Mintz, who had lived at Maco for 65 of her 83 years in , claimed to have seen the light on a number of occasions, the first time when she was only 5 or 6 years old.
Louis T. The day was balmy, encouraging Cleveland to disembark his car to get a breath of fresh air.
While strolling along the tracks, he noticed a brakeman carrying two different color signal lanterns, one green and one white, and asked about them. He also wrote that a U. The following month, a group of reporters from the Wilmington News took a grainy black and white photograph of a distant glowing object along the darkened railroad tracks at Maco, one of only a few extant images of the phenomenon. Many eyewitnesses — regular folks, geologists, electronic engineers, paranormal explorers, and others — posited theories as to the origin of light that ran the gamut from the reflection of car headlights to swamp gas, phosphate fumes, and a real ghost.
People had seen the Maco Light since at least the mids, years before the advent of the automobile, and a drivable road from Wilmington to rural communities in west Brunswick County, including Maco, was not even constructed until Moreover, no scientist could explain the relative containment of the glowing orb or its regular movements only along the railroad tracks.
When the light failed to make its appearance, Holzer blamed the large crowds for keeping it away. Real or not, Joe Baldwin made an impact on American pop culture. In every myth and legend there is an element of truth, and such is the case with the Maco Light. While researching antebellum North Carolina railroads for his Ph. According to a report in the Wilmington Daily Journal the following day:. The most painful circumstance connected with the affair is that Mr. Charles Baldwin, the conductor, got seriously, and it is feared, mortally injured, by being thrown from the train with so much force as to cause concussion of the brain.
Charles Baldwin, a year-old New Yorker who had moved to Wilmington several years earlier, died on January 7, , as a result of his injuries sustained in the crash. He was buried in Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington the following day. Sadly, the location of his grave has been lost. Joe Baldwin or no Joe Baldwin, the Maco Light was seen by thousands of people until the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad pulled up the tracks in , after which time it vanished.
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Along with a small group of friends, I saw the Maco Light twice in the summer of The first time it appeared as a small glowing orb that seemed to sway from side to side along the rail line near Hood Creek, several hundred yards from our position to the west. The second time we visited the site the light moved upon us so quickly, and radiated such a powerful illumination, that we could see its reflection on the hood of our car.
It soon moved back down the tracks, as we stood watching in exhilarated disbelief. Jochum first saw the light in Five years and many viewings later, he took three spectacular photographs of the light using an infrared camera on a tripod loaned to him by scientist friends who worked at Bell Laboratories in Winston Salem. The most intriguing image clearly shows the light and its reflection on the railroad tracks, with the tree line and a telephone pole also visible.
Life largely passes by Maco now.