Damselflies circle above the river, bits of glittering color supported on transparent wings. They mate in midair, flying together like strung jewels. They come to rest briefly on fallen logs, branches, or even the shoulders of the humans paddling up the Eno River in rubber kayaks.
I’m on this expedition with about a dozen pre-teen girls, who are on a field trip with their summer science camp. Some of them shriek at bugs and spiders and splash along madly. But others drift gently, and happily show off their brand-new knowledge of the things that creep and fly and slither and swim along the slow, cool river.
The damselfly is a smaller cousin of the dragonfly. You can spot the difference when it comes to rest: Dragonflies land with their wings straight out, while damselflies fold theirs up in the air. Damselflies seem to rule this June day at West Point on the Eno park. A mating pair land on my knee, one purple, one gold. I begin to keep track of their colors: green, indigo, ruby red; a few are a delicate, powdery blue. They treat us as just more river flotsam–a compliment, I think, as they go about the damselfly business of eating insect larvae and making more damselflies.
Our guide for this wafting trip, as he likes to call it, is “River Dave” Owen, a naturalist from Durham. Owen has been taking groups of adults and children on this trip for 12 years. He guides both day and night floats, working out of a barn down by the old mill furnished with a desk, a hammock, and a stack of damp inflatable kayaks. I ask him if he ever gets tired of taking the same placid river trip over and over. “Never,” he says emphatically. Wafting is not just a job for Owen, it’s almost a religion. He borrowed the term itself from his hero, Henry David Thoreau, who used the term himself in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. It has become Owen’s favorite word, describing, he says, “a light, buoyant, meditative type experience.”
“If you don’t have white water,” Owen says, “then to most people it’s a disappointing river.” His mission, as he sees it, is to expose people to the joys of the slow river, and to the gentle observation of what floats in air or water. He leads our group up a small side stream, into a cool, dim lagoon. Look at the leaves in the water, he says–what color are they? They’re yellow, shed by the river birch that begins to turn in the early summer, dropping its bright color to float away on the river. The birch leaves show up in the patches of sunlight that filter through the trees.
It had been so long since I’d been down by a river, I’d forgotten about river light, the way trees cast shadows on the water, and the water casts back a light on the trees. I watch this as Owen hushes the girls to listen a minute to the woods. We hear one bird calling, pausing, calling again. It’s the red-eyed vireo, Owen says, the most numerous bird in North American forests.
You rarely see a vireo, a little olive-drab bird with a red-rimmed eye. They keep to shady branches and hunt insects, not venturing out to bird feeders or treetops. My Audubon pocket guide describes their call as “tee-yew, chew-wee; cheerio, ter-wip, tee-yew.” Maybe if you speak bird-watcherese that rings a bell, but in fact, if you’ve ever been in the woods on a hot summer afternoon, you’ve probably heard the vireo. Unlike most birds that take a break from the heat, the vireo sings all day, sometimes continuing to sing as it gulps down insects.
Our group takes a long time to wend its way out of the lagoon. The way is full of fallen trees you must limbo under and rocks hidden under the water that beach the kayaks. There are some close encounters with dripping moss. One science-camper announces, “There’s dirt all over my butt and it’s in my hair, too.” Someone gets a little hysterical over a snake on shore. Another girl sees a corn snake, and identifies it proudly.
Back on the sunlit main river, the elderberries are in bloom. These bushy shrubs crowd the riverbank with showy clusters of white blooms. The flowers drop off onto the water, tiny white stars. When the berries ripen, they are a bonanza for the birds, feeding up to 43 species. Owen is fond of them, too. He makes elderberry jam, and has plans to make wine.
Willow grass grows in clumps in shallow places. It, too, is in bloom. If you paddle right up to the grass where it waves about a foot above the water, you can peer in and see the blooms on the tops of stalks. They’re white, shot with purple streaks, and shaped something like a tiny, delicate iris.
A bit further up the river is a sandbank clogged with willow grass. We beached our kayaks there and waded up a slippery, rock-paved channel. There the Eno opens up into a deep pool, with a small waterfall at the top end. Some good citizen has hung a rope swing over one side. Hummingbirds buzz in the mimosa tree, with its outrageous pink pom-poms sticking out like a Dr. Seuss tree.
Turtles paddle around the swimming hole, their heads just above the water. You can go right up to them, but then they dive away at the last minute. They have Dr. Seussian names, too: cooters and sliders. One of the camp counselors catches a young cooter. Smaller than the palm of my hand, it struggles fiercely with its little feet, which seem to be mostly web and claw. Its belly and the stripes on its head are a slick, shiny yellow.
Fish aren’t as evident, but there’s plenty in the Eno, some 62 species, as well as freshwater mussels and clams. Even though the Eno runs right through Durham, it’s a fairly clean, healthy river. It was in far worse shape 200 years ago, when farmland ran right to the river edge, choking the water with erosion runoff.
What’s so special about the Eno? “Not a thing,” Dave Owen says. “It’s an ordinary Piedmont river, no prettier than any other. It’s just that certain people had the drive to protect it and made a lot of noise.” That noise has created easements along much of the river’s path, creating a park system pieced together a little at a time, often bought by funds raised by the annual Festival for the Eno. Any other river in your backyard is as beautiful and vital, it just may lack the vocal constituency that has worked to protect the Eno.
So what’s a river guide doing year after year on a quiet stretch of “ordinary” river? “I like white water and exciting river trips, too,” Owen says. “I’ve taken groups to the Amazon, but I still think your best inspiration will come from the rivers in your hometown. I think the forest knows you better there.”