Hiking to Eno River Rock Quarry, a Swimming Hole with a History

by Mark Miles

When I think of quarries, I generally think of big holes in the ground with levels upon levels of excavation that are devoid of life and inhospitable to anyone with an ounce of sense. What I don’t think of is a swimming hole in the middle of a state park that, despite two deaths in the past ten years, has nonetheless become one of the most popular summer hangouts in the area. Now that I’ve visited the Eno River Rock Quarry in Durham, North Carolina, I’ve begun to think of quarries in terms which highlight the simultaneous beauty and lethality surrounding so many of our culture’s byproducts.

When I arrived a few weeks ago at the parking lot for the Cabelands access at Eno River State Park–which leads to the quarry–I got my first clue that this was going to be a memorable experience. Unlike most other parking lots at state parks in my area of central North Carolina, this one was full to bursting. There was literally nowhere to park at all; a sign at the entrance even proclaimed the fact. Turning my car around in frustration and muttering a few choice words, I was ready to leave in a huff. However the park ranger on duty noticed my reaction and called out to me. I had my windows open and responded, half-expecting to be told to move out of the way. Instead he told me there was room to park now since a few cars had just left. Pleasantly surprised at my turn of luck, I found a spot and started my hike on Laurel Bluffs Trail.

Through the first mile of trails leading to the quarry, there wasn’t much scenery apart from a forest of oak and pine. A black snake crossed my path, but I didn’t have my camera ready and wasn’t able to get a shot before he disappeared to my right. Otherwise there was little wildlife apart from the other groups of hikers, mostly composed of students from Duke University and neighboring colleges, who had decided to make a day of it.

After twenty minutes of solid hiking, I was beginning to think the quarry was little more than a rumor and a myth. Then I saw the first sign: a creek bisected the trail and had to be forded before I could reach the other side. Crossing the creek, I crested a small hill and got my first glimpse of the quarry itself.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

Of course I’d seen pictures of the swimming hole on Instagram, since some of my followers live in the Durham area and go hiking nearby. The quarry was nonetheless much different than I expected, looking for all the world like nothing more than a peaceful lake in the middle of a state park, the handiwork of nature and wilderness. Yet I was aware that it had been a working rock quarry at one time, and from the signs around the site I could see that it was much deeper than a traditional lake, with no shoreline to speak of but instead an immediate sixty-foot dropoff from the surrounding land to the lake bottom. Still, all looked pleasant and peaceful on the surface.

After passing the quarry, I knew I wanted to explore further north and west along Laurel Bluffs Trail. I’d never hiked this section of Eno River State Park, so the allure of unexplored terrain was too much to resist. Continuing on the same trail past the northeast corner of the quarry, I noticed several piles of very large and imposing rock, which were part of the legacy of the old quarry from what I could tell. These rock piles were adjacent to the Eno River and bordered the floodplain, where the trail now led.

On the opposite edge of the floodplain, the land crested in front of me. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the rows upon rows of pine trees that spread out in front of me were a definite change in scenery. Their appearance was uncanny primarily because of their grid-like layout, as if someone had planted all of these trees at once and laid them out just so as to be ideally spaced for a future harvest. On that basis I would guess the area is a pine plantation, which will probably be chopped down in whole or in part at some point in the not too distant future.

After passing the ostensible pine plantation–which was the first section of Laurel Bluff itself–I reached a grove of laurels which encroached the trail on all sides, leaving barely enough room for two people to walk side by side. Presumably these were the laurels that had lent their name to the trail. To my surprise they reached a height of seven feet or so, thereby obscuring my sight and lending the impression that I was passing through some kind of vegetative labyrinth.

At last the laurels began to clear, and the forest regained her spaciousness, revealing a small gorge where a creek crossed the path of the trail. The bridge which crossed the creek at this point was very charming and provided the perfect opportunity to take a brief rest, which was much-needed at this point.

Continuing past the bridge and another small creek, I reached the last portion of Laurel Bluff. There wasn’t much to see in this section of woods, but the gurgling of the Eno to the north was a calming and familiar presence that kept my feet moving.

At last I came out of the forest and was greeted by shoulder-high blackberry bushes and mixed vegetation, accompanied by the dull roar of traffic not far in the distance. The brightness of my surroundings was a mild shock after the pleasantly diffuse light of the forest, but it matched the tenor of the sonic onslaught. Before long the trail passed under an overpass and led to the the Pleasant Green Access, where the trail ended.

Turning around, I retraced my steps over the mile and a half that had originally led me away from the quarry, all the while passing people in bathing suits with flotation devices who were making their exodus. At last I rounded a corner and saw the quarry again, now with the light of late afternoon bathing it in a golden glow. It seemed as if nothing bad could ever happen in such a place.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

And yet–as I was to find out in my research for this article–there have been two deaths in the past ten years at the quarry. One took place in 2008 and the other in 2015. In the first instance, Ian Creath, an eighteen-year-old from a nearby university, drowned after attempting to retrieve a raft which had floated forty or fifty yards from shore. In the second instance, Lamont Burt, Jr., a seventeen-year-old who was planning to attend college in the fall of that year, drowned after jumping from the unofficial diving hotspot on the north shore of the quarry.

Of course, the reason for these drownings goes back to the origin of the quarry. Between 1960 and 1964, Interstate 85 was being constructed not far away. Because there was a need for gravel due to the ongoing construction, a site was chosen where a sixty-foot pit with precipitous dropoffs could be sunk into the ground to gain access to all that gravel. When construction of I-85 ended in 1964, there was presumably no clear idea of how to make the site safe again, so state officials decided on the course of action which created the Eno River Rock Quarry: they flooded the sixty-foot pit with water from the adjacent Eno River and let nature take over from there.

In the end, however, it’s not nature that’s to blame for the drownings which have happened here. It’s the culture of industrialism, which views nature as nothing more than a resource to be plundered and looted at will and which fueled the construction of I-85 so many years ago. Unfortunately that culture is still alive and well today, chomping at the bit for any and every opportunity to turn nature into a graveyard and the world into a concrete slaughterhouse. And that’s all the more reason for each of us to fight like hell to preserve every bit of the natural world that we can. If we don’t, it may not be long before there’s nothing left of our world but a graveyard for our own, and every other, species.

References:

Eno Rock Quarry,” Local Wiki, accessed June 22nd, 2017.

Sweat, Candace, “Despite dangers, swimmers flock to Eno River Rock Quarry,” WRAL, accessed June 22nd, 2017.

Vuncannon, Douglas, “What lies beneath,” Indy Week, accessed June 22nd, 2017.

The Music of a River that Flows through the Soul

by Mark Miles

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably realized I love both rivers and music. This goes back to my childhood, as do most things that are deeply felt and persistently cherished through life. My dad was the one who introduced me to my love for rivers, which was the logical result of our fishing trips on the weekend and during summer vacation. My mom was the one who introduced me to my love for music, which she cultivated by encouraging me to sing in my church choir and listen to classical music whenever possible. Because my parents divorced when I was seven years old, the two passions to which they exposed me were stunted and never fully developed. So it was left to me to remedy the situation, which I only began to do a few years ago, in my early thirties, when I rediscovered my love of classical music through composing and my love of rivers through hiking.

Since that time, I’ve been enamored with the idea of composing music that embodies the spirit of the river. I’m not the first person to have this idea though. Many classical composers have had the same idea, though they’ve adopted different approaches to fulfill it. I won’t be tackling the entire history of classical music regarding rivers in this article, but I will nonetheless be covering four of my favorite works which embody rivers with beauty and majesty, composed by four men of different nationalities and disparate backgrounds who found common ground in their love for the rivers they knew best.

Richard Wagner is one of the most famous operatic composers of all time, renowned especially for his Ring Cycle, a tetralogy of music-dramas about power, corruption, virtue, destruction, and redemption. It follows the story of the Ring of the Nibelungs, a powerful artifact, crafted from gold stolen from the Rhine River, that confers world domination on anyone who possesses it. In the process it gives the synopsis of a heavily mythologized German history and paints an unforgettable tone-picture of the land surrounding the Rhine River. The Ring Cycle is easily the most ambitious and successful work of Wagner’s career, taking fifteen hours over four days to be performed in total and being the product of extravagant funding by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who nearly bankrupted his country in the process. In short the Ring Cycle is a mammoth in every sense.

My first serious introduction to the Ring Cycle was through a “Best of Wagner” disc which I bought when I was ten years old. I had a passing familiarity with “The Ride of the Valkyries” from numerous movies and televisions series, but otherwise the Ring Cycle was a foreign country to me. Nevertheless this snippet, “Dawn and Siegfred’s Rhine Journey,” absolutely enraptured me. In it, the hero Siegfried bids farewell to his beloved Brünnhilde and sets sail down the Rhine River to make a name for himself in the wider world, thereby forgetting his beloved and assuring his own destruction. It’s intoxicating stuff, and though I didn’t know the story behind it when I heard it for the first time, I nonetheless knew in that moment that I loved classical music.

“The Moldau” is easily one of the most iconic works of classical music dealing with the tone-painting of a river. It comes from a larger body of work, My Fatherland, by the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, and it paints a sonic picture of the Moldau River over its course from the Black Mountain in the Bohemian Forest to its confluence with the Elbe River in Melnik, Czech Republic. The music is thoroughly evocative, conjuring the play of water, land, wildlife, and humanity through its length. From this work I learned that pride in one’s country can enrich the sense of devotion to the land when effectively applied.

Franz Schubert was renowned in his own time for his composition of chamber works that frequently found their way into pubs and drinking halls. This was no different with his song “The Trout,” which he later incorporated into a string quintet by the same name. The work sparkles with the freshness of a clear mountain stream — which may have inspired the setting for the piece — even two centuries after its inception, and it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see in your mind’s eye both the trout and the river of which the trout is a part. The mellifluous vivacity at the heart of this piece confirms that — while many tone-paintings regarding rivers can be melancholy — there’s also plenty of room for sunshine.

“The Swan of Tuonela,” on the other hand, is the song of melancholy incarnate. Telling the story of a mythical swan who patrols the Tuonela River surrounding the Finnish Isle of the Dead, it evokes the longing, sadness, and tenderness of a being who’s seen it all, being witness to every soul that passes from the Land of the Living to the Isle of the Dead. Though the piece is ostensibly about a swan, the river is palpable in the supple string textures that provide the background to the voice of the swan. The composer Jean Sibelius is more widely known for his work, “Finlandia,” which was used as a rallying cry for Finnish independence from the Russian Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century, but “The Swan of Tuonela” is the gem in the crown that cements the surpassing excellence of Sibelius’s musical legacy.

At the end of the day, however, all of this music is just music unless we, as listeners and creators, take the next step by allowing the music to move us to get to know the rivers where we live. In my case, the river that I’ve been drawn to get to know is the Eno River, which flows through the town of Hillsborough, North Carolina, very near where I live. The Eno has a spirit and a voice too, just like the Moldau, the Rhine, and the Tuonela, and in my composition I aspire to one day be able to capture it and share it with you.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

If you love the land where you live, I urge you as well to find some way to honor the river (or lake or watershed) that flows through your town and gives life to you and many others, whether through photography, painting, sculpture, composition, writing, or some other creative outlet. While it may not seem to be much, it will deepen your own appreciation for the true essentials in life and will give others a model of how to establish a relationship with the river that flows through their own backyard. After all, every river gives us so much; it’s time for us to give back.

References:

Der Ring Des Nibelungen,” Wikipedia, accessed June 2nd, 2017.

Farrington, Iain, “Richard Wagner: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” accessed June 2nd, 2017.

Ferrebee, Wayne, “The Swan of Tuonela,” Ferrebeekeeper, accessed June 3rd, 2017.

Götterdämmerung,” Wikipedia, accessed June 2nd, 2017.

Vltava,” Wikipedia, accessed June 3rd, 2017.

Triumvirate of Violet

Temperatures have finally started cooling in central North Carolina recently, but there’s been such an inundation of rain that the plants and trees haven’t fully accepted the calendrical arrival of autumn. As such, there are many flowering plants in the area that are still flowering, despite the fact that their flowering time has ostensibly passed. I’m guessing they’re as confused by this climatic havoc as I am. Regardless, their blossoms are still attractive, and they give me an opportunity to share more of nature’s beauty, about which I can’t complain.

The fluffiest of the three flowers in this post is the first. Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) isn’t really blue; it’s actually violet. However, it does have some blue undertones, and its blossoms are immediately recognizable by virtue of their color and texture. I stumbled on this specimen by an old abandoned house not far from where I live on a recent evening walk. The house is abandoned by humans, but it certainly hasn’t been abandoned by nature, which has reclaimed much of the yard. As a result, this blue mistflower has had more than ample opportunity to thrive, for which I’m grateful.

This plant eluded me for the longest time. I actually have it in my backyard, an unsolicited visitor but one which continues to delight me with its azure blossoms and violet undertones. (I know it’s a stretch to include a blue flower under the title of this post, but if someone can label an unmistakably violet flower as blue–cf. blue mistflower–I think I’m allowed a similar indulgence.) I was finally able to identify it after much searching as the Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis), though I personally prefer the name of mouse-ears, which is an alternate title for the plant and much more descriptive of the dainty upward-reaching petals. Though it’s considered a noxious weed in many areas, it does have beneficial attributes. In Japan it’s historically been used to make a striking blue dye used to illustrate traditional manuscripts. In addition it has the ability to bioaccumulate heavy metals to such an extent that it’s considered to be a viable candidate for helping in the cleanup of heavily polluted mining sites.

The last of these flowers is also the most easily recognizable for most people. I found this specimen of hibiscus (Hibiscus syriacus) along the side of the road where it’d been largely overlooked and chopped down nearly to the ground. Nevertheless, this one blossom managed to spring forth in the last reaches of summer with the fading sunlight of my evening walk accenting its delicate hues of violet and magenta. I wanted to take the flower home with me, but I left it where it was in the knowledge that I could find other hibiscus blossoms in some of my favorite herbal teas, to which hibiscus imparts its distinctive color in addition to contributing Vitamin C, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. In nature, then, we find that beauty and health are two petals on the same flower.

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Further Eno River Explorations

For a while, I’ve been wanting to visit some new hiking spots. I’m already in the habit of visiting a few parks along the Eno River, so it only made sense to continue to branch out in that direction. I’ve also recently been reading about rivers in medieval England, and it’s interesting to note that they were considered some of the best assets to the traveler in unfamiliar territory because 1) they provide a constant source of fresh water, 2) they lead to the ocean when followed far enough, and 3) they frequently adjoin the sites of towns and cities. For these reasons and many others, medieval people honored and valued rivers in a way that’s largely been forgotten. Nevertheless rivers are indispensable and deserve to be honored for their contributions. For my part, visiting the Eno on a regular basis is one way in which I do that.

One of the best views of the Eno that I managed to capture was this shot near Fews Ford, facing south near a small cataract. There were people wading in the river in the distance, as you can see if you look closely. They were clearly enjoying themselves, and even though I didn’t join them due to my lack of swimming trunks, I was happy to see such simple communion between people and the river.

This is the small cataract near Fews Ford that I mentioned. It’s not very large, but it adds greatly to the ambiance of the area. It also helps to oxygenate the water, keeping it from becoming stagnant and inhospitable.

Near the southern entrance to Eno River State Park is this picturesque flight of stairs leading from the riverbank to an adjoining trail. It wasn’t the steadiest structure that I’ve ever crossed, but it was full of character and retained a sense of the contour of the land that would’ve been absent if it’d simply been a concrete eyesore.

This bench which I found near the southern extent of the park was undoubtedly one of the most artistic I’ve ever seen. From behind it looked to be nothing more than a reconnoitered log which had been hoisted on stilts. From the front it looked as if it could’ve been a piece of modern art, loosely mimicking the contours of a woman resting on her side or possibly suggesting the shape of a beached fish with his mouth open to the right. In either case, it beat any metal-and-plastic bench I’ve ever seen.

Between the artistic bench and Fews Ford, there’s a suspension bridge running over the Eno from east to west. I didn’t have enough time to go exploring in that direction when I was there since it was already near dusk, but I did see a small family crossing it with children in tow. I have no doubt the kids in this group will remember that bridge for many years to come, and I was happy to see such excitement over an experience in nature which children of a slightly older age would probably have been too disaffected to appreciate.

This was one of my last shots at Eno River State Park. The hour was rapidly approaching sunset, and I didn’t have much time before I had to leave. The light was failing, but there was just enough to illuminate this bucolic stretch of water south of Fews Ford. I took the moment to kneel in order to get a better angle on the river, and in the process I found myself saying a mental thank you to the river for an experience that I never would’ve had without it.

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Echoes of History

In July I made my monthly visit to the Eno Riverwalk. I paid special attention to the remains of the Saponi Nation’s traditional dwelling, sitting in a field where the structure was displayed some years ago to demonstrate aspects of Saponi culture. (The Saponi are an indigenous nation who once lived in this region but have been largely dispossessed and displaced.) I wasn’t able to see the dwelling when it was on site, but I do admire the log-posts that still stand. They’re silent reminders that there was once a time when the land was regarded not merely as a resource to be exploited but as the sacred and indispensable source of all life.

Heading west, I passed under the Exchange Bridge, which in its own way stands as a monument to the greed of colonizers who dispossessed the original inhabitants of this land, such as the Saponi. Acting primarily as a commercial thoroughfare which facilitates the pollution and degradation of the land, the bridge is a stark reminder of how much things have changed since the time when Hillsborough was founded. For the record I love the town of Hillsborough, but the history of this town and of this culture is covered in the blood and pain of native people, who are largely invisible to the casual observer.

Beyond the Exchange Bridge is one of my favorite views of the Eno. It’s easy to forget about all the history that resides in a place like this when looking at a scene so peaceful and beautiful. I wonder sometimes how much the river has changed over the course of history and how much more it will change in the future. I want the river to be healthy and whole for as long as water runs in this world, but there are so many forces in our culture that threaten the health of rivers and humans alike. I don’t know if the river will be healthy in the future. However I do know that if we want to preserve human health in the future, we have to preserve the health of our rivers and watersheds today.

Another result of the colonization of this land is the proliferation of opportunistic species such as the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), which have become overabundant in the absence of keystone species such as the mountain lion and black bear, which were once far more prevalent in this region. I love these deer, but the damage they can do to vegetation and forests is a reminder that the history of colonization is around us at all times, even when we can’t see the people who originally lived in this land centuries ago.