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Gators and snakes, sharks and beavers

By: Jefferson Weaver

Jefferson-WeaverI was talking with the young son of a friend the other day, and he mentioned how excited he was that he’d soon be able to go swimming.
“Dad started filling the pool up,” he said. “I’m gonna go swimming every day when school is out!”

I asked why he needed a pool, when he lived a short distance from a river, not to mention a lovely spot on one of the deep, cool, dark canals.
He stared at me as if I had grown a pair of antlers and gills.

“Mom says that water’s nasty,” he replied, with the logic of most small children. “There’s snakes and things in there. They go to the bathroom in that water. If we can’t go to the beach, I’m gonna be in my pool.”

Not wanting to take away from his mom’s authority, I didn’t mention the fact there are significantly more creatures in the ocean, and they, too, occasionally answer nature’s call. Since even his mom is not of the generation traumatized by the movie Jaws—a realization that made me feel inordinately old—I didn’t mention such things as sharks. After all, the likelihood of being bitten by a shark is somewhat akin to being struck by lightning, and the last thing he needed was something else to frighten him in a world that so enthusiastically scares itself silly.

Personally, I find a shady canal or a quiet pond with just a touch of sand to be much more enjoyable than swimming in the ocean or in a fiberglass tank of chemicals with a little water for flavor. I’ve paddled and snorted and crawled through any number of swamps and unsanitary waterways in my life, and have yet to be bitten by an alligator. I did get nipped on the cheek once by a bream whose bed I was paddling through, but that was my own fault for trespassing. And to my knowledge, while I have had some distressing cases of giardia, they occurred mainly during trapping season, when I was up close and personal with the furry carriers – rarely did I get sick from intentionally swimming in a beaver pond.

There are few filters as effective as five miles of Carolina bay swamp, as a friend of mine has been known to say. God designed the peat soil for a purpose; the problem a lot of folks have is that they are too used to bright, clear water, and the idea of intentionally diving into a canal or pond the color of Grandma’s strongest sweet tea is anathema. As much as I love the ocean, and appreciate the hospitality of friends with a pool, I’ll take a swimming hole in the woods any day of the week.

For one thing, the water is almost always cooler, and cooling off is one of the primary reasons for a summer’s day swimming. One has to fight crowds at the beach or one of the lakes, not to mention dealing with the chemicals of a pool. There are rarely crowds at the swimming holes I frequent, and if there are more than one or two, one can always move upstream a little to another locale.

Growing up on the fall line of the Cape Fear, we had a couple of favored swimming spots; they were especially attractive since in a case or two, access was only gained by flagrantly violating, or at least sliding along the edge of, trespassing laws. Amidst horror stories of people drowning by the score in each of the places, with stories of legions of cottonmouth moccasins awaiting the opportunity to hunt down and bite the unwary – not to mention garfish capable of removing hands and arms – there was nothing else doing but that we boys had to go swimming. Someone would somehow find out the gate was open to a semi-private dirt road beside the river, and we would pell-mell our bikes down the big hill, around the back of the building where we were hidden, then down the dirt road for another mile until we reached the headwaters of the creek. We could stash our bikes in a blackberry bramble, then make our way to where the creek met the river and created a small pool. The more adventurous would swim across the Cape Fear there, whilst others were content to puff and addle through the pool, or even lay in the small flow we pretentiously called a waterfall.

It was there that myself and handful of buddies, on an overly warm Eastern morning, decided to go for an inaugural swim. The water was far colder than anticipated—and on top of that, occupied by a rather territorial beaver. We shared the paradise for a little while before retreating. Ironically, the same Wildlife officer who threatened us with the most vile of punishments if we revealed the existence of the beaver—much less harmed it—well, that same officer told me, 30-plus years later, that one of the worst things he ever did was not let us kill and skin that critter.

A similar spot became something of a hangout a few years later, as cars and trucks replaced bicycles, and girls began to become more interesting.
The fairer sex wasn’t as interested in swimming in the sweet brown water or sitting on the rocks of the river, but the “Blue Hole,” as it was known, was sandy enough, open enough, and accessible enough to surprise parental visits that it was deemed girl-worthy by a few of our erstwhile Juliets. It was there that the bluegill contested my right to swim along the bottom close to shore. For one period of time, we actually managed to achieve the goal set by young friend of the other week—for more than a month, we did indeed go swimming almost every day.

Oddly enough, even though I never lived more than a hundred miles away, I was out of high school before I ever saw the ocean. Even though I attended UNC-Wilmington, I never truly made the connection with the beach of so any of my contemporaries. Now, don’t get me wrong—I still love the majesty of the ocean, rolling along in the waves that never change, regardless of what man does to the shoreline. I enjoy visiting with friends around a pool as young’uns splash and holler and ignore pleas from harried mothers not to run, not to swim until a half-hour after eating, and any of the other pool rules seemingly set aside strictly to be violated.

But I can’t bail out of the truck in a pair of cutoff surplus military pants and hit the water before the door closes when I am at a friend’s pool. People would likely call the cops if I walked out on a crowded beach in overalls stained and battered from an afternoon at the horse pasture. And the wildlife that make life interesting have long since been scared into the next county at most public freshwater beaches I know of.

My preferred spot is on a favorite canal; it is well-suited for spur-of-the-moment swims after work, or a lazy, yellow-fly infested afternoon. Those few who know of its existence work together to keep the area clean, so there’s rarely an errant bag of trash floating downstream. Gates have prevented beer-can throwers from making it that far off the paved road.
We’ll likely end up visiting the edge of the Atlantic once or twice this summer, like many of you. We’ll likely go see some friends visiting one lake or the other. Might even make a pool party or two, where the most dangerous wildlife is a five-year-old cannonballing off the patio into the cement pond.

But for my money – snakes, alligators, beavers and all, there’s no place to swim like a deep spot in a brown-water canal, down a sandy road through the woods (maybe even past a No Trespassing sign), where if you squint you might even be able to see the tracks left by a quartet of bicycles out for the adventure of a summer’s day.

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