A pair of canoes, dwarfed by enormous bald cypress trees dripping Spanish moss, glide through a 3,000 acre swamp, sharing the space with beavers, otters, water lilies and cottonmouths. The cover shot of Durham writer John Manuel’s new book, The Natural Traveler Along North Carolina’s Coast, bids and entices the reader to enter a less traveled world than the one most often seen from the interstates. The book is filled with names, descriptions, addresses, maps and phone numbers of 100s of our state’s natural wonders.
Manuel laughs ruefully at the irony of his role as a “nature writer,” “A friend recently sent me this great article by Stephen Lyons called ‘Enough Nature Writing,’” he says. “Lyons says, ‘Let’s pay nature writers not to write any books for at least 10 years. Would it hurt anyone to have a moratorium on the word ‘sacred?’”
Raised in Ohio, in a house overlooking the Chagrin River Valley, Manuel clearly loves the outdoors. After college, he worked for Ralph Nader, received a Masters in Environmental Planning from UNC-Chapel Hill, and spent eight years running energy conservation and solar energy programs for the state. He has always enjoyed exploring and discovering the state’s hidden natural treasures.
Like most visitors to the state he first fell in love with N.C.’s beaches from early visits with friends and family to Sunset Beach, Topsail Island and Emerald Isle. Manuel started writing about his travels for national magazines, but always with a wary eye on the changes natural North Carolina was encountering.
Even with such a wonderful book documenting his (and our) world, Manuel cautions, “I think there’s room for more nature writing, but I try to limit my own presence and stick to the place or issue at hand. And I’m definitely going to stay away from the word ‘sacred.’”
The Independent: What are your favorite stories to write?
John Manuel: My favorite pieces are nature stories that involve an element of controversy. In that respect, I’m more an environmental writer than a nature writer. I love in-depth pieces where the science and politics are complex. That way both the reader and I learn something through the research and writing.
You’ve had a lot of adventures in your travels. What are your scariest moments?
The scariest moment came when I was researching a story on the red wolves being released into the Alligator River National Refuge. Of course all the wolves didn’t stay on the refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services asked me if I’d like to come along to try and capture the wolves. (A land owner who ran a hunt club had complained that the wolves were killing “his” deer.)
We drove to a field where the wolves had been seen from the air. The suspicion was that they had a den nearby and were feeding the pups. We followed a set of tracks and came upon a tunnel going through a tangle of briars. I volunteered to crawl into the tunnel while the wildlife agents manned their catch nets on the opposite side. A couple of yards in the tunnel sloped upward and right in front was a deer leg with blood dripping from one end. I yelled at my partners to get ready, then held my camera in front of my face in case the wolves attacked. My heart was pounding as I crawled over the lip of the den and stared in. Nothing! They must have just fled.
You’ve published a book of non-fiction, written many articles for local and national magazines, including Audubon, and Canoe and Kayak. Your own photographs illustrate much of your work. What are you working on now?
I love photography almost as much as writing. The best ones have appeared in Wildlife in North Carolina. I also love music and am currently in a band called House on the Hill. I’ve written a few of my own songs and am really getting into that.
Right now, I’m working on a memoir with the working title of The Canoeists. Each chapter takes place on a different river and involves a progressively deeper exploration of human emotion. My friend Nasdijj has held my feet to the fire. Like many a canoe trip, this has taken me places I never imagined. Whether or not this is ever published, it has been the most amazing journey of my life.
Did your family come along on your travels researching Natural Traveler? Any other faithful companions on your trials and tours?
My favorite trip was a family trip to the Outer Banks. We took a boat out to the Core Banks, then rode the “Mule Train,” an old pick-up truck with a wagon hitched to the back, out to Cape Lookout. That arrow-shaped spit of sand where the curving coastlines converge and the waves collide is spectacular. My son had kayaked out there the year before. He was so excited to tell us about the things he’d seen–a loggerhead turtle nest, phosphorescence in the waves–that it really made the place come to life.
David Thurber, a long-time friend, has traveled with me on many a coastal expedition. As circulation manager for North Carolina Sportsman magazine, he learns about areas that I’d never heard about, and he can come out and play in the middle of the week. David loves wildlife as much as I do and is unafraid to drive down a lonely refuge road at night or paddle up a bushy creek in hopes of seeing a bear or a water moccasin.
My wife and I have taken some week-long canoe trips with an outfitter down various rivers in the West, the Rio Grande in Texas, the Grande Ronde in Oregon and the Klamath River in northern California. I don’t know if any of those expeditions will make it into my next book, but they have been a wonderful way both to see a new part of the country and get back in touch with my wife after those hectic years of raising kids.
Your publisher, Winston-Salem’s John F. Blair, went all out on your index, over 1,000 mentions, a real asset to the curious traveler. Ok, give it up, nature guy. Name your real top five North Carolina destinations.
Merchants Millpond State Park; giant cypress trees, lots of wildlife, easily accessible by canoe. Just the way you imagine a swamp should be.
Roanoke River Paddle Trail; a vast network of creeks through a magnificent hardwood forest. Construction of camping platforms along the way will make this the Appalachian Trail of canoeing.
Cape Lookout; getting there by boat and pick-up truck is half the fun. Sand roads curve through rolling grasslands with a lighthouse perpetually on the horizon. Best shelling in the state.
Bear Island; one of the last and best undeveloped islands on the coast. Dramatic ocean views, towering dunes, wide and gentle beaches. Paddling there by kayak through the soundside marsh is great exercise.
Wilmington; beautiful downtown with wonderful museums, restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and pubs. Largest and nicest historical district in the state, only two hours from the Triangle.
You’ve hiked, canoed, fished and swam all over the state. What advice would you give the park rangers and politicians who will decide the future of natural North Carolina?
Please preserve the natural buffers along our streams and rivers by whatever means possible. Riverine forests are beautiful, provide habitat for a tremendous variety of wildlife, and help maintain water quality. They are easily definable and can be protected through a variety of means, conservation easement, outright purchase, or laws. A good example is the Neuse River Basin where laws now prohibit development and logging within a certain distance of the river and its tributaries.
Last question, John. Why don’t you ask and answer it yourself?
Why do you publicize these natural areas when doing so will only attract more people and degrade the wilderness experience?
This is a question I and most nature writers struggle with all the time. The simple answer is that I love to tell people about the places I’ve visited in the same way that others talk about wonderful restaurants they’ve discovered or movies they’ve seen. Ideally, my promotion of these places allows other people to share in the joy I’ve found, and builds a constituency that will speak out in defense of these places should they be threatened by development or pollution.
To be honest, I don’t tell people about some of my most favorite places, or I couch their location in vague or general terms. I don’t tell about my favorite spot in Pocosin Lakes Refuge to watch bears. And I sure as heck am not going to tell them where I hooked and lost that nine-pound bass!
Contributing Writer John Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Selected texts from The Natural Traveler Along North Carolina’s Coasts
by John Manuel
Merchants Millpond State Park
“Upon seeing the enormous bald cypress trees rising from the tarrin-stained waters, visitors to Merchants Millpond State Park often exclaim, ‘This looks like a real Southern swamp!” Indeed, this 3,252-acre park, roughly a thousand acres or which comprise the millpond, is a visual delight and one of the most popular natural areas of the sound country.
The millpond and swamp are best explored by canoes, available for rent at the park. Two canoe campgrounds–one a family campground with seven sites and the other a group campground with three sites–have been established along the shores of the millpond. Sites at the family campground are available on a first-come, first-served basis, while the group campground is available by reservation. There are nine miles of hiking trails around the swamp. One trail leads to five backpack campsites. A walk-in group camping area and a campsite exclusively for use by fishermen with small boats are also available. Both of these sites contain pit toilets and small wash houses with pay showers.
The best months to visit the millpond are April and May, when reptiles and amphibians are most visible, and October and November, when the red maples and cypresses are in full color. The millpond can be oppressively hot and buggy in summer.
Directions: From Gatesville in central Gates County, drive east on U.S. 158 to Easons Crossroads. Turn right on Millpond Road (S.R. 1403) and follow the signs to the park.
Activities: Canoeing, hiking, fishing, camping.
Facilities: Interim nature center, restrooms, boat ramp, picnic area
Dates: The park hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. November through February; 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. during March and October; 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. during April, May, and September; and 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. from June through August.
Fees: There is no fee to enter the park. Fees are charged for renting canoes and camping.
Closest Town: Gatesville is six miles away.
For more information: Merchants Millpond State Park, 71 U.S. 158 East, Gatesville, N.C. 27938-9440 (252) 357-1191; www.ncsparks.net