The gentleman in the meticulously trimmed salt-and-pepper beard and Tilley Duck Hat paddling the $3,000 fiberglass kayak sounded surprised when I replied that, no, I hadn’t seen any osprey or bald eagles. Hadn’t seen or wouldn’t recognize? he seemed to imply.
“I did see a boatload of great blue herons,” I offered. He seemed unimpressed and continued paddling to the upper reaches of Bush Creek. Understandable, I guess. I’d actually seen more than a boatload of the gawky birds — 13 — over three hours on the water. While great blue herons are remarkably common, I’m still in awe every time I watch one rise pterodactyl-like from water’s edge, give an annoyed honk and laboriously fly on ahead, only to be re-disturbed re-annoyed in another 15 minutes.
Granted, an osprey or bald eagle would have been great, and not all that uncommon on Jordan Lake, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment south of the Triangle. The lake’s shallow waters and abundant pines make it an attractive habitat for the bald eagle, especially in the more remote fingers of the lake fed by tributaries such as Bush Creek. Such a sighting would have been icing on a cake that had already more than sated my adventure appetite for the day.
Throughout the preceding workweek, I had been dreaming of a paddle adventure. Those dreams generally led me east, well east of I-95 and closer to the coast, where an abundance of small creeks, lazy rivers, swamps and sheltered estuaries offer some of the best flatwater escapes around. As the end of the week grew near, those dreams turned to desolation as I realized work wouldn’t allow for a daylong escape. I could steal a few hours on Saturday, maybe, but certainly not enough for a full-throttle adventure.
A melancholy set in that got me to thinking about my last true adventure. As I dismissed candidate after candidate for not being “adventurous” enough, I found myself trying to define just what, exactly, constitutes adventure. It has to be somewhere new, but, as writer Douglas Coupland contends, is adventure without risk Disneyland? Maybe, I reckoned, as long as that risk isn’t of life, limb or moderate-to-extreme discomfort. Does adventure have to involved the unknown? The unknown, yes; it’s an adventure the first time, an outing the next. But an adventure could include the familiar: paddling a swamp new to me could be an adventure even if the swamp was full of familiar cypress and tupelo, and certainly alligators. Probably the toughest qualifier: whether a true adventure had to occur in some exotic, far-off local. A half-day’s drive, minimum.
I should mentioned that I was having this internal conversation in the front yard while raking leaves. I should mention, too, that a mild but frustrating breeze was undoing most of my work. I paused to watch a gust move a phalanx of white oak leaves back to the front. In doing so, I happened to glance out to the cul de sac. And there lay the answer to my question: There, at the end of the cul de sac not 30 feet away was where my last true adventure had begun. We had just moved into the house and lost a tennis ball to the storm drain during a game of whiffle-tennis-ball. We followed the storm drain a short distance to a small creek, followed the creek into a tangled 50-yard-wide wilderness separating two neighborhoods, followed the creek farther to where it deposited into the headwaters of Walnut Creek, itself anchoring a football-field-wide wilderness between our neighborhood and I-40. Our three kids and I spent four hours exploring this wild oasis, walking downed tree trunks over creeks, building dams, stalking squirrels and finding “artifacts” (a pair of laptop computers).
Now that was an adventure, I thought to myself. And it had begun out of my own front yard.
I put up my rake, went inside and got out a navigational map for Jordan Lake (GMCO’s Pro Series Map of Jordan Lake). I looked at put-ins within a half-hour drive (I still had work to do, but I figured I could spare a half day: an hour total in the car, three in the boat. I decided on the Farrington Point Wildlife Resources Commission boat ramp off Farrington Road, popular with motorboats, but also offering quick access to an intimate drainage called Bush Creek. Within half an hour, the Old Town Loon 100 was strapped to the top of Civic and we were heading west on U.S. 64.
What intrigued me about Bush Creek was that the map suggested clear paddling north for about a mile and a half. There, the creek took a hard left and headed west, and while the passage remained wide — judging from the map — it was filled with symbols indicative of “marsh or swamp.” According to the map, Bush Creek’s main channel hugged the south bank; I tried that option first but quickly encountered an impenetrable wall of reeds. I retreated, paddled the north bank and made a little more progress upstream before being stymied by a grove of willows. I was almost able to squeeze through two trunks but a submerged log six inches from the surface nixed that option. I could have gotten out and pulled the boat over the log, but periodic soundings showed the water a good three feet deep. I contemplated the whole risk thing and decided this fell into the “moderate-to-extreme discomfort“ category. Maybe another, warmer, day.
I beached the boat and explored a floodplain forest on foot for about a half hour. I ate lunch (PBJ) and began the slow paddle back, a paddle peppered with long passages of no paddling as I soaked up the surprisingly warm, for 60 degrees, sun, the listless high cirrus clouds in a brilliant blue sky, and the lake in general as it powered down for the winter. I got out the map and took note of Jordan Lake’s various creek-fed fingers, fingers such as Bush Creek that offered the prospect for future adventures, adventures that could be squeezed in to a half-day window, that offered a reasonable degree of risk, and that married the familiar with the unknown. All spread out over nearly 48,000 acres.
It’ll be a while, I thought, before I have to worry again about where my next adventure is coming from.