It feels good to complete something that’s been on my to-do list for years. A few days ago, I retrieved a tattered old notebook from storage and finally got around to transcribing it. My father kept the journal during a 1934 canoe trip down the Pee Dee River in North and South Carolina, when he was 32 years old.
I’m not sure that any of us can fully appreciate the significance of rivers to the people of early America. It’s something that has been lost for the most part. But I think this 1934 diary hints at what one river might have meant to the people who lived near its banks and travelled on its waters.
I have a deep affinity for the Pee Dee, or the Yadkin, as it is known upstream from its junction with the Uwharrie River. A couple of years ago I returned to a real treasure, the Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge and paused by the banks of the great river. If, at that moment, a stray canoe had come drifting along I would have been tempted to climb in and paddle to the coast. What a trip!
A note regarding the journal of the canoe voyage - some of the pages were missing, and two other pages that had been written by way of summary after the trip were added. For the sake of the narrative, I’ve combined the two accounts, with the text from the summary enclosed in brackets.
My father’s account of the trip begins:
[On June the twenty-fourth 1934, a friend and I started on a camping trip we had been planning since early spring. Our plans were to start out just below Hydro Dam located twelve miles from Albemarle, NC and follow the Pee Dee River down to the coast a distance of some two hundred and fifty miles ending in Georgetown, SC.
Our supplies consisted of one 10 x 12 tarp and two metal cans in which to carry and keep dry our extra shirt and pair of duck trousers and a couple suits of underwear, razors, 1 thermos jug, and two camp kits and a pretty good food supply. We started out early one morning, loaded our stuff on our canoe which is a 16 foot Old Town type and shoved off.
We had not been started long until we soon found we were in a for a hard time or at least part of the trip for the river was very low on account of the water being cut off at the dam. So there was nothing to do but put on our bathing suits, get out and pull the boat through shallow places and over the rocks. We has this to contend with until nearly three thirty in the afternoon at which time we began entering Blewett Falls lake made by another power dam, where we had to make portage. On reaching the dam we learned that they were getting ready to cut off more water here and that we had to get around and get started as quickly as possible. This meant about 45 minutes hard work and more hard paddling. We finally made camp about five miles below this place. And were we tired!]
Thursday noon or 1 o’clock - Just finished eating dinner and shoving off again. We are now within about 8 or 10 miles of Blewett Falls. Have made pretty good time considering crossing nine fish dams and being unable to shoot but three of them. Boy what a thrill have had no trouble at all. We have seen some wonderful scenery already. Thursday night - More dams, waterfalls and what not. We are now below Blewett Falls and what a job. No more portages for me. Had to keep moving for fear they would cut off the water. So we stopped about four miles below the dam. Saw plenty of big fish, but didn’t take time to fish any and now to roost for the night.
[The next day was almost as bad having gone through what is known as Buchanan Shoals - two or three miles of the roughest water we never knew to expect. To avoid a smash- up, "Trouble" the friend who was working the stern would say, "Tell me where and I’ll put it there", so it was my job to look for an opening through the rocks.
We’d had real good luck until our last day of rough water which ended near Cheraw, SC something like a hundred miles from our starting point. We heard these rapids long before we saw we had something big. I picked out what looked to be a swift deep current. But my guess this time proved to be wrong, for instead of the current going straight with the course of the river it took a sudden turn to the left pushing us broadside against two large rocks. But with a little quick thinking and action saved us from a really bad smashup. "Trouble" stuck his foot over the gunnels just in time to break the force of the impact. And I just as quickly as possible stuck my paddle down and helped to hold it while "Trouble" climbed out on the rock, righted the boat, got us straight with the current and in again. This happened about 4:30 in the afternoon, so we decided we had had enough for one day. As we drifted by a pier, we asked two fishermen about a camping place. They gave us the information and wanted to know how we came through without having a spill and said we were through with rough water for the balance of the trip, for from here on the river was much deeper and not near so wide which was quite a relief to both of us.]
Friday night - At last we are at Cheraw and have we had a day – tired, and how – had worst falls today last one was most dangerous of all. But we finally made it, went up town, got here at five. Wrote two cards, bought some stuff and now Troy has gone up town. Made canoe repairs.
47 miles below Cheraw. Well here it is Sunday. We had a pretty good day yesterday. Everything was fine in the morning, made swell time. Got to Society Hill about eleven thirty, ate dinner and shoved off at twelve. A bad storm caught us about 2:30, lasted for about 45 minutes. We started to pull in to shore but a tree fell in the river so we decided to stay in the middle and take it after the storm cleared up. We came in contact with our first cottonmouth moccasin swimming across the river. Boy, I wish it was duck season. We have seen numbers and numbers of droves of little ducks just a few weeks old.
About three or three 30 we came to a little house setting about 65 feet above the water on the river bank, right on the outside bend of the river affording a wonderful view each way. Got out, went up and talked to the lady who had lived in Albemarle when she was about 13. A Mrs. Clay. After we left there and paddled for some time.
Another storm caught us even worse than the other. But we just kept moving. Finally it cleared up again. We then began to look for a place to spend the night but by the time we put foot on shore the mosquitoes would all but eat us up. The only place they don’t bother you is in the middle of the river so we decided to drift all night. Troy was going to take first turn at steering. But about 9:00 o’clock he ran into a sand dune or shoal which forms an island, which makes a swell campsite because mosquitoes will not bother you on an island. It thundered, lightened, and rained from before midnight until after 4:00 this morning. We sure did have some time keeping our stuff dry. It is still cloudy this morning. Will tell you more about it later in the day.
Sunday night - Left our temporary camp this morning, stopped at a ferry about a mile below and talked to an old negro who told us we were 47 miles below Cheraw and we were 40 miles from Pee Dee. This was about 10:30 and we stayed with it till about 4:00 o’clock. Troy went up to the place and I watched things. When he got back we decided to look for a camping place farther down. Talked to a boy at the highway bridge who told us we were 100 or 120 miles from Georgetown but we could find a camping place about 8 miles farther down, which we never found, so we drifted until about 10:30 last night, found a sand bar, got out rolled up in our blankets and spent the night. Boy, is the moonlight pretty down on this river!
Monday - Got up early this morning, shoved off without breakfast, decided to paddle until we got hungry. Came upon a landing, some fellows told us we were about 12 or 15 miles from another bridge where we could get some good water so we decided to eat breakfast at it, but the fellows must have been wrong for we were 2 ½ hours getting there. But the water was fine, so we ate breakfast and left at eleven (we don’t know where the next stop is). Paddled all afternoon without seeing anyone. Canoed through a big swamp.
You don’t have to go to Africa to see alligators slide off into the water. Troy almost gave out this evening so I told him to lay down across our stuff in the canoe and I’d paddle. I kept hearing things slide in the water, got to looking, and it was alligators and how! I had to rouse Troy to see them. They won’t bother you if you let them alone, which we are doing.
Right at night we overtook two white men and a negro in a dugout whose names were Carter and Cooper. Made camp somewhere above Little Pee Dee about 6:30. First real camp we have had for two days. When we first pulled up we thought we were not going to be bothered by mosquitoes. But did we catch it from 8 until after midnight! You should see the fish playing, not little fish, but big fish. We are taking a much deserved rest.
Wednesday morning – We shove off from our last camping place about 9:30, paddled until about eleven before we saw anyone then we came across two more fellows in another dugout. One of the men’s named M. P. Martin. They were very nice, showed us where the Swamp Fox and his men had their hideout between the two Pee Dees.
We left them, came 8 or 10 miles to the Yohanna Bridge, ate our dinner, left there and came on down the Pee Dee instead of going out Bull Creek as we had been advised, and am I glad of it. We came about 10 miles, stopped at a hunting lodge, saw a negro with an ox cart who we asked about a place to say. He said if we would go about five miles we would find a Mr. LaBrue and his wife who might give us a place to stay. Said he was a mighty nice fellow, but we have found them to be even more than that. They are swell. Live in a beautiful home that fronts on the river known as the Exchange plantation.
After spending a most enjoyable night we shove off at eleven with the tide. On our way we stopped at the old Don Sparkman Place known as Darlington, got in to Georgetown about 4:00, had a tough time crossing the river but finally made it. Came up town, sent a telegram, met the fire chief and a lot of other swell guys and found a swell place to stay.
And so concludes the journal. A clipping from the Albemarle newspaper reported that the paddlers had wired the news that they arrived in Georgetown…two days ahead of schedule.
Several years earlier, Dr. Douglas L. Rights had floated the Yadkin-Pee Dee all the way from North Wilkesboro to Georgetown. His account, a much more detailed, and quite engaging, story is available online: http://www.everydaycounselor.com/yadkin/yadkin1.htm (and following)
Rights' account also appears in the out-of-print book, YADKIN PASSAGE AND A VOYAGE DOWN THE YADKIN-GREAT PEEDEE RIVER, by Floyd Rogers, in which modern (1980s) adventurers retraced the same trip.
Dr. Rights later authored a classic historical work, The American Indian in North Carolina. To end this story, here's the conclusion from Right’s account of his voyage down the Yadkin-Pee Dee:
There is only a closing word.
What does this voyage signify? Aside from the pleasure and adventure there comes a striking remuneration. The river is a symbol of the well-spent life.
With its origin among the clouds, its source in the heart of the earth, it bespeaks the mystery of our advent. A brooklet crystal clear, with jocund leap and silvery chatter, pictures childhood, pure, innocent and gay. A strong current through the foothills, assuming the native hues of the soil through which it runs, it becomes in the middle stage of its career a vast power for service, sending out its strength of electrical energy to countless factories and homes; this is but an exemplification of the well-spent life that gives the strength of mature years to the benefit of our kind.
At last, richer, deeper, fuller, it moves calmly onward borne by the very accumulation of the past, not as some rivers that dissipate their reserves over dry and arid plains and finally trickle out amid the sands. Thus, too, the well-spent life, gathering the accumulation of the past, enters serene and brave into the lowlands of old age, and moves steady and unafraid to mingle at last in the great ocean we call eternity.