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Mack Williams: Down to the river

Though the title of this week’s column sounds a little like something reminiscent of that great spiritual sung in “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” (2000), it isn’t. In that now famous movie scene, prospective recipients of the Holy Sacrament of Baptism are briefly lowered beneath the water. If any river Baptism had been performed in the recently rain-fueled Dan River (Yadkin River too), the water might have appeared to be “rising to the situation.”

During the last days of September, into the first few days of October, I kept hearing people here in Danville ask: “Have you seen the river?” I had seen the river at flood stage before, but upon hearing multiple repetitions of that excited query, I couldn’t resist walking down to the Dan River Walk Trail’s old railroad bridge to see it again.

On my way down to the river, an old black-and-white photograph from a book (by Brawley) surfaced in my mind. The photo showed an old bridge across the swollen Yadkin River, Trading Ford site in the late 19th or early 20th century.

A nearby feeder stream’s girth had expanded to the point of becoming an adjoining, still and quiet lake, unlike the rapidly flowing mass to which it connected. Seedling trees, once visible in the little stream, seemed to be struggling with their newfound status as “aquatic” plants.

Once on the old trestle bridge, I looked to the right to see if our Danville Science Center River Lab were still visible; but being an extended, sand-bar-separated “pool” of the main body of water, its boundaries were now those of the river itself. There, back in summer, tadpoles could sometimes be seen, but had long “gone to frogs.”

The river’s flood width could have been given the same sort of coverage by the National Enquirer as that given many an unfortunate movie and TV star, saying: “Dan River puts on weight, gets much wider!”

A “river walk” exercise trail for walkers, joggers and bikers runs along the Dan River, and I soon saw that it lay beneath the river’s newly expanded breadth.

Looking upriver, my eyes were met with choppy, “chocolate” water crests, seeming out of place by looking “salt-water-nautical” on this much narrower track of fresh water.

Gazing straight down from the bridge, the water was so muddy that I again thought of chocolate, but the lighter “milk” variety, rather than the more healthy, antioxidant “dark.”

Thinking about chocolate, I suddenly thought of Danville’s Nestlé’s plant. Much had been in the local paper about recent unionizing efforts there, but looking down at the brown water, I thought only of those workers’ product.

As I looked, a log flowed by, seemingly taking only less than a minute to traverse the 300-or-so yards to the next, still-in-use railroad bridge downstream.

If it’s acceptable to use saltwater speed measurement for fresh water, the river’s rate of flow that day was about 8-10 knots.

The news said its depth was around 19 feet, or in 19th-century riverboat terms, just a foot over three “fathoms” (giving it a “twainage” of over one-and-a-half).

The waterway at the distant bridge’s pylons was mostly obstructed by piled-up limbs and logs, except for a couple of clearer spaces. Through them, the water had the appearance of speeding up, in much the same manner as when one sometimes creates a nozzle for a hose by partially obstructing its open end with his thumb, making a “poor-man’s nozzle.”

I was surprised to see a couple of distant ducks gliding gracefully at right angle to the swift water’s direction. I immediately thought of the phrase, “like a fish in water,” closely followed by “like a duck in water.”

The slider turtles were nowhere to be seen, their rocks for sun-basking covered by water. I imagined those turtles holding fast for dear life (with clawed toes) to the racing river’s bottom.

I looked lastly at a mid-river myriad of eddies, with here and there, brief, dark “eyes” in the middle of “maelstroms” only big enough for a turtle’s descent.

On the way back to the car, while humming Pat Boone’s “Moody River” (1961), I reflected again about the adjacent River Walk Trail being covered with water. It was as if the river, having long observed numerous walkers and bike-riders, had decided to get a little extra exercise there itself, in a most “fluid” jog.

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