Raftin' The Dan
By KEN HUGHES
The hot, sticky Dog Days of summer; too little to do for entertainment in Eden; two guys with time on their hands, and a new six-man inflatable raft combined for a weekend of fun on the Dan River in August of 1973. I was working for a company in Greensboro, and one of the guys in shipping mentioned his new, tough, inflatable six-man raft, and asked about a decent river to float one weekend. I had plied the Dan many times in my airboat from above the Duke Power Dam below highway 14 Bridge, all the way up to the Bent Farm below Shiloh downstream of Settle Bridge, and up the Smith during high water all the way to the dam that diverts the Spray canal.
However, I had never been below the Duke Power Dam, and wondered about how the river looked east of Eden. I suggested a weekend float trip from Eden to Danville and the old dam near Schoolfield where US 29 crosses the Dan to US 158. “Good one,” was the reply, so plans were made. When the big day came, two coolers were loaded with food and drink and topped off with ice, and backpacks were loaded with the assorted gear and duds we felt we would need for two days. The raft was laid out and inflated, cigarettes and something to smoke were acquired, and my dad and his truck delivered our paraphernalia and the two of us to the old boat landing just below the confluence of the Dan and Smith Rivers. The boat landing held many memories for me from when I was a child. I remember boat racing on that section of the Dan, and a shelter for snacks and beverages, and fun weekends watching races. Perhaps more fondly I remembered some “parking” there when I was old enough to drive and could convince a girl in the 60s to do so, which was rare enough in those idyllic days long gone.
Because of the Duke Power Dam, the Dan is a slow mover from just below the junction of the Smith, and the water is usually turbid to some degree. We pushed off from the boat ramp and paddled out into the slowly moving river, but them stored the paddles. Who wants to work on a fine North Carolina mid-August Saturday morning anyhow? On the way to the Duke Power Dam, I described how the dam was a roll-top design with maybe a six-foot or more roll and a backwards curl of water on the other side below the dam. The discussion was whether or not we were brave enough to shoot the curl rather than portage the boat and its contents around the dam. Discretion overruled valor, and cold feet won the day. We rationalized our cold feet by agreeing we didn’t want the bacon soaked or the eggs scrambled before they hit the pan Sunday morning. We were going in style after all.
There was a clear place just above the dam and across the river from the power plant, and we were careful to not get caught in the current and taken across the curl anyway. Nosing the raft onto the sand bank, we clambered out and dragged the raft up behind us. It took us the better part of an hour to portage everything to the dam’s downstream side and reload the raft. Now we really felt like we were on the way.
The Dan is a little faster between Duke Power and the US 770 Bridge out of the Draper section and towards Danville. I had crossed that bridge many times, but had never before seen it from the river. We passed several homes up on the bank going down to Draper, and it was clear that we were still in a built-up area. However, the river was nice and things were very quiet. There was a surprising amount of wildlife to be seen along the Dan in 1973, and since we were not making any noise they were not spooked by our approach. Turtles would sit and watch us slowly approach, only roll off of the log or rock at the last moment when we almost touched them with the raft.
Departing the Eden city limits at the Draper Bridge marked a definite change in character of the river, its banks and the surrounding countryside. The amazing thing was the quiet and serene nature of the river and the bordering bottomland. There was the occasional tractor to be dimly heard out working in the bottoms, and an irrigation pump or two, but there was very little else to disturb quiet reflections of how the Dam must have been one, two, perhaps three hundred years before we made the trip. Surely it was crystal clear most of the time. According to the reports of William Byrd, who surveyed the Virginia-North Carolina line for King George, the character and clarity of both the Dan and Smith Rivers was a good part of the reason he referred to the area as “The land of Eden.” He also wrote that fish could be seen virtually anywhere that sunlight penetrated through the bordering trees to touch the river’s surface and illuminate its depths. We both agreed that it would have been great to have seen the river before farming, construction and towns silted it up, and most of the wildlife either killed or chased away by “civilization.”
There was an occasional tall cliff, and the constant presence of trees overhanging the banks to reflect their color and beauty in the smooth river surface. Watching Kingfishers swoop down and stab the occasional fish that its polarized vision allowed it to see just below the surface was a pleasant surprise. Game fish breaking the river surface to go after a bug or fly reminded us that the Dan River hosted far more species than lazy Catfish.
We had music on cassette tapes and a player, but the peace and quiet was for too nice to shatter with rock and roll, even the “Love Rock” of the period. However, we did play James Taylor’s soft and easy “Carolina in my Mind” several times as it suited the mood of our float trip. We “ran” a few little rapids on Saturday, but that was as close to white water as can be found on the Dan at that point. The only time the Dan becomes wild and really fast and dangerous is when the occasional heavy period of rain, or a hurricane strong enough to make it that far inland chased it out of its banks. I did ride the Dan during high water in my airboat, but it was always to the extreme disapproval of my mom.
The river rolled on towards Danville, albeit stately and slowly, and we talked of Credence Clearwater and “Rolling on a river,” and Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, and wondered how it must have been in those years long ago to float the mighty Mississippi. Well, the Dan was as close as either of us was ever likely to come, so we just kicked back, smoked a bit, chatted and enjoyed the trip.
Approaching evening found us at the Berry Hill Bridge, and a very nice set of rapids through which we were relatively “tearing” along in the midst of perhaps a 6 to 8-inch tall section of “white water.” We spotted a nice wide sand bank that looked perfect for the purpose of pitching our tent, and it was almost too late and we had to paddle like crazy to get to the bank, but we made it. We landed and secured the raft and set up camp, then flipped the raft over on to all of the equipment.
I had driven across the old iron bridge several times when I was just roaming the countryside near where my dad had grown up. I also knew there was a small country convenience store up the road a bit from the bridge, and we discussed making the walk and calling home. Those were days before cell phones, and when one could leave things like a raft covering some camping gear, walk away for a while and still find it in place on returning. We got back just before dark and pitched our tent.
Morning came with birds singing all along the river. The noises of nature were all we heard that bright Sunday morning before folks started out for churches. Other than the songs of nature, which were welcomed by ears that overnight had grown accustomed to only the night sounds of a river and one of its sandbars, the quietness was incredible. No cars, no jets, no man-made noises of any type impinging down to the river bottom made it possible for us to imagine we really were a couple of centuries back in time and it was wonderful.
As we were quietly preparing breakfast, a car stopped on the bridge, and some folks got out to see what the big yellow thing was down on the sand bar. They saw us, waved and said for us to have a nice float and drove away leaving us to the continued enjoyment of a period out of time temporarily pilfered from the past for our present enjoyment. It was then when we noticed that we had been conversing in tones that in town would be a whisper. I am sure our soft tone of voice was due to our reverence and respect for our quiet surroundings, and I started to understand why some modern-day people move into the wilderness.
We broke camp and loaded the raft to set off down the mighty Dan. However, we were extremely careful that the only trace of our ever having been present on that Dan River sand bar was footprints that the next rain or high water would rapidly erase. Pushing out into the small set of rapids, we resumed our float towards Danville.
A major change we both noticed, and on which we commented was the clarity of the water from that point onwards. There was very little turbidity, and the water was exceptionally clear and clean. Other than the occasional bit of modern civilization’s flotsam and jetsam in the form of the occasional bit of plastic and Styrofoam, nothing intruded on our enjoyment of the river and nature. There was one disconcerting vision we would much rather have not had to endure. Somewhere along the Dan a junk car lot extended right to the river’s southern bank. Fortunately, there were no cars spilling down the bank and into the river. Had that been so, we both agreed that we would have stopped the raft and given the owners some hell about it. We might have bitten off more than we could have chewed.
We knew we were getting close to the Schoolfield Dam when the river really slowed down. According to our watches, we were way behind schedule so we had to start paddling for the first time since leaving the boat landing. We were passed a couple of times by guys in small fishing boats, one of which the owner stopped and asked if we wanted a tow. We both agreed that it would spoil the original intent of the trip, and we said thanks, but no thanks, we would press on with human power only. We arrived in good measure, sunburn and all but it was worth every bit of the temporary pain. I called my dad as prearranged and asked him to please come down to pick us up in Danville. I never did that trip again, and I must wonder how the nature of the Dan has changed in the quickly approaching thirty years since that hot August weekend that witnessed a modern day Huck and Tom “Raftin’ the Dan.”
Ken Hughes, Morehead High Class of '62, is presently 58, married to Diane Shively also of Eden, and has two children, Kevin 34, daughter Kristy 30 and five grandchildren. After almost 7 years in the Army Security Agency in electronic counter-intelligence work in Korea, Europe, The Middle East and southern Asia, Ken was a computer service technician, owned a sports car shop, worked in physical oceanography on the SOSUS network for detecting submarines, has been a plant engineer for a large printing company, owned a research and development company, and moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1993 to open Delta Marine International, Inc, and has been self-employed for almost 3/4 of his professional life. He works closely with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, with both of whom he has a working partnership to develop a ballast water purification system for large ships and cargo vessels.
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