Tortoise Reserve Work Party & Paddling Weekend
The Tortoise Reserve
Every spring Dave Lee hosts a Work Weekend of volunteer labor at the
Tortoise Reserve on the banks of the South River NC, an opportunity to
sweat, be bitten by fire ants, and drink cheap beer. And paddle some
beautiful blackwater rivers in the Cape Fear basin.
I arrived at the gate to the Tortoise Reserve early Thursday
afternoon. The locked gate to the Tortoise Reserve. Next time I'll
remember to bring those bolt cutters Dave declared we would not need.
Just as I had decided to find a hardware store and buy a hacksaw Dave
arrived and we proceeded into the Reserve to disgorge tools, parts,
materials and assorted equipment. I had stuffed most of my home shop
into the van, to the point that lumber, ladders, and toolboxes
occupied the back, the floor and all areas but the driver's seat.
Having established my home away from home workshop beneath the pole
barn roof Dave and I set upon a few simple tasks; re-erecting the
entrance sign, which has been repeatedly stolen by frat boys due to
its alliterative allure and colloquial double meaning, built a couple
of sets of heavy duty sawhorses (I was pleased to see these in
constant demand as the work weekend progressed), replaced a tortoise
pen gate and installed a multi-can crusher (with unexpected results –
the kids loved crushing cans and would snatch empties before they even
hit the ground, which completely eliminated the largest aspect of
policing the area). Not only that but Dave was deviously delighted
with the idea of drilling a hole in the front crush plate so that half
filled cans would forcibly eject their contents onto the operator's
chest, creating an impromptu wet tee shirt contest.
Having successful accomplished those tasks we toured the Reserve,
creating a prioritized list of jobs-to-be-done and set about producing
a satisfactory quantity of empty beer cans for the kids to crush.
By Friday morning a contingent of free labor had arrived and the
Reserve resembled a bustling ant colony, although these worker ants
all seemed to be hammering or sawing with one hand and drinking cheap
beer with the other. Much was accomplished, especially in the realm of
providing the kids can crusher materials and a paddling trip was
scoped out through the old forest section of the Black River with the
help of Ferguson's "Paddling Eastern North Carolina" guidebook.
Black River (Beattys Bridge Rd to Hunts Bluff Rd access)
OC2 – Mike Lowe/Roman _____, Alex Siess/Leo ____
OC1 – Mike McCrea
K1 – Dave Maneval
Setting shuttle the river at both ends appeared wide, flat and slow,
promising a long day of paddling. While it was a longish day with
little current the river changed character dramatically at the halfway
As the river began to narrow we came upon a couple in a tandem canoe
beached at the apex of a bifurcation. They had been to the left, and
the river petered out. They had been to the right, and the river grew
too shallow to paddle and diffused into many tiny channels too small
to permit passage of a boat. They had watched a party of paddlers in
rec kayaks go right and were waiting to see if they returned equally
We pressed on to the right, following the current when discernable,
and soon came upon the rec kayakers, scattered throughout the swamp
with their boats wedged between cypress trees. Clueless, stuck and
making no discernable progress.
This area, known as the Three Sisters or the Narrows, contains the
oldest trees in North America, core sampled to 1700 years old, and
some may be as old as 2000 years. Surprisingly not as large as some
along Maryland or Delaware cypress swamp runs (the massive specimens
along the upper Pocomoke or James Branch come to mind) – these were
the dwarfs and disfigured trees that loggers left standing a hundred
We continued to pick our way through the bewilderingly thick swamp,
trying to follow the current while looking ahead for a clear path
(sometimes the meat of the current would head into an impenetrably
dense area of trees and it would be necessary to diverge from the flow
and pick a more open route off to one side, all the while keeping one
eye on the main flow in order to not lose it entirely during the
detour into the forest primeval).
Somewhere in the midst of this challenge Maneval disappeared, and
given his penchant for selecting the route less traveled the
possibility of again concluding a days paddle surrounded by the hubbub
of Search & Rescue loomed large.
Just as the trickiest part of this swampage began to thin I heard the
unmistakable sound of a canoe flipping over, followed by laughter from
Alex and Leo. Interesting this, because I had been asked to create a
certificate commemorating Alex's unexpected swim on the South River
during last year's trip. Interesting because, in writing the
inscription for her certificate the phrase "capsized yet again"
appeared. Interesting because I had a feeling, I had faith; I just
knew I could count on Alex to fulfill that prophesy. Thanks Alex.
As the baffling swamp route began to become more obvious we were
treated to a visual oddity – a field of large cypress knees unlike any
I've ever seen before. While the cypress trees were thinly scattered
the knees were large and densely clustered in a bizarrely alien
Just as suddenly as the river had petered out it reappeared, fifty
feet wide and flowing slowly. Taking a bankside shore break at the
river's reemergence Maneval soon reappeared as well. Finding that his
road less traveled meandered through the swamp to no end and no
obvious outlet, he had backtracked and followed what current there was
to reemerge behind us.
Pondering Duckhead trivia we realized that new companions Leo & Roman
counted as Duckhead paddlers # 498 and 499. The milestone of Duckhead
paddler number 500 would occur on the next outing that included a new
Back to the Tortoise Reserve, feeling a bit guilty about having
absconded with some of the hardest working and most skilled serfs for
the better part of the day, we accomplished a few more tasks and
gathered together for the dedication of the Barbara Bonner Turtle
Conservation & Education Center. Leslie and Dave spoke in memory of
Barbara, and Dave got something in his eye and was hard pressed to
Back to work - ain't the beer cold - and as darkness fell we retired
to the library to conclude the bidding on the silent auction, in the
end raising over $800 for the Asian Turtle Consortium (that darned
Arthur outbid me for the Tortoise Reserve work weekend hard hat).
Another peek at the Ferguson Guide and we had a run selected for the
Black River (NC 41 to Wildcat Rd)
OC1 – Mike McCrea
K1 – Dave Maneval
Having decided on an early morning run on another section of the
Black, the plan was for Maneval and I to kick Mike Lowe when we awoke
to ascertain if he was sufficiently sober to join us. We took "Go away
you bastards" as a no.
This section of the Black would be a fine choice for a short novice
run, with naught to impede our progress but a single limbo log, and we
were back at the Tortoise Reserve by mid-morning to cross our
remaining tasks off the list and admire the quantity and quality of
work others had accomplished.
Amy had scrubbed, swept and scoured many of the outbuildings,
including the main cabin and bunkhouse. Charlotte and Arthur had bow
sawed their way through immense quantities of fallen tree branches.
Leo had hauled and stacked cords of firewood. Mike had tackled several
painting and trim jobs on the library walls. A contingent of volunteer
laborers had constructed a new tortoise pen (without Dave's help this
became the first level and symmetrical structure at the Reserve).
Leslie and Alex had established new plantings in many of the inside
and outside pens. And more, much more. One of the joys of the Tortoise
Reserve Work Weekends, besides good company and bad beer, is the
startling realization come Sunday afternoon of exactly how much has
Over the course of the weekend Maneval and I managed to accomplish the
Install door trim in the tortoise greenhouse, clean & install plastic
on greenhouse ceiling, reattach the insulation, re-install a damaged
shelving unit, secure the removable boardwalk planks, re-erect a
toppled headstone in graveyard and straighten some other leaning
stones, install a dryer vent, rout & install signs on bunkhouse,
repair a lock set on tool shed, (not to mention drink large quantities
of beer, which may be why I can't remember our other tasks, and why
many of those above were completed by Maneval while I supervised and
drank his beer before it got warm).
South River (at Tortoise Reserve frontage)
OC2 – Mike McCrea/Dave Lee, Alex Seiss/Leo ____/Biscuit Lee
As the various volunteers eased their aching bodies in their vehicles
and departed Alex managed to convince Dave to partake in a short
paddling trip, making him my 500th paddling companion since I started
keeping track in 1997. This for me was truly one of the highlights of
the weekend, not only hitting to 500 mark, but to have Dave Lee as
number five hundred. Hard to believe that I've known Dave since 1971,
have traveled and worked with him throughout the mid-Atlantic and
desert southwest, and had yet to wet a boat with him. When the
Christmas awards ceremony rolls around there is sure to be a special
prize for number 500.
Not only has Dave been enshrined as the 500th Duckhead paddler, but he
will likely remain forever at the bottom of the Duckhead mileage list,
since the heavily strainered nature of the South River prevented us
from paddling more than a few hundred yards. With a scant 0.3 total
miles Dave has replaced C. Serp's 0.8 miles, which had occupied last
place in the mileage count since November of '97.
Having reached this milestone it seems like an opportune time to look
at the Duckhead statistics – 373 adult paddlers, 101 kids, 27 dogs and
201 Duckhead paddling trips since 1997.
Whadda ya know, we reached another milestone at the Tortoise Reserve
work weekend; the early morning float down the Black with Maneval was
the 200th Duckhead paddling trip. Serendipity, if I had known in
advance and had my pick of companions for the 200th trip it would have
been Maneval. Mark that one down as another award.
And, unbeknownst to us, we passed another Duckhead milestone on last
months Trap Pond strainer-fest, our 100th Duckhead paddling kid.
Another award in waiting.
Packing tools and gear I racked one less boat than I came down with.
Ed Evangelidi's old Shenandoah having been nicely rebuilt - thanks
especially to Topher for the gunwales and deck plates, Maneval for the
seats and to various donors for other parts and pieces – I was able to
leave a loaner canoe at the Tortoise Reserve, along with some spare
paddles and PFDs. And I have a second Shenandoah waiting in the wings
to rebuilt as soon as I find another set of gunwales, so eventually
the Tortoise Reserve will have a fleet of loaner canoes and gear
Next work weekend at the Tortoise Reserve I'll need to build a canoe
rack for growing loaner boat fleet. Build a lumber rack in the pole
barn. Build a couple more sets of sawhorses and a 4' x 8' tabletop for
the sawhorses. OK Dave, you can start making my work list for next