Tar River

It was hours before dawn and bitter cold. I scraped ice from my windshield. When I launched my kayak into Runyon Creek and paddled into the Pamlico River, I questioned the wisdom of wearing only thin nylon shorts, water sandals, and an old hoodie.

There were stars but only a few. No one else was on the water, not even fishermen hurrying to find their place before first light. I paddled past the dead cypress trees rising from the shoals of Grandpap Island like standing stones. A blue heron took flight, screeching in indignation.

The sun rose on the far side of the Norfolk Southern Railroad bridge, a riot of indigo and violet. At the Highway 17 bridge, the Pamlico inexplicably became the Tar River. The north bank was populated with houses and industry, the south bank with wetlands, ruined wharves, and an old boat abandoned among the bald cypress trees.

The headlong rush into the future has largely left the river behind. The south shore especially, the Chocowinity shore opposite Washington, is littered with broken wharves and abandoned ambitions.

Sunrise, sunset

Unquestionably, the most popular photographic subjects are sunrise and sunset. They’re as common as dirt. Like children with finger paints, everyone seems to love the bright colors. I’m more a curmudgeon.

What excites me most about photography is the impetus to see with new eyes, to see something exceptional in the commonplace. “To see! To see! – that is the craving of the sailor, as of the rest of blind humanity.”

Still, I’m not above a cheap thrill.

It was a sunlit day at the end of December 2019, one foot already stumbling into the next decade. I paddled out of Runyon Creek into the Pamlico River, making for Castle Island. A thin layer of cloud veiled the horizon and the westering sun. The river’s surface was the color of polished pewter.

On the west end of Castle Island there is a solitary Bald Cypress standing offshore. The island is only a stone’s throw from the waterfront of Washington, North Carolina, a river port that has been somnolent for a hundred years. The island was once the site of a sawmill, a lime kiln, a Civil War battery, and a whorehouse. Nothing lives there now but Canada Goose.

It’s a small cypress tree exposed to the river’s current. Likely it will be swept away when the next hurricane bullies its way ashore and the river swells and erodes its bed. Nothing lasts forever. Perhaps that’s why the world is so heartbreakingly beautiful.

I waited on the sunset in the company of gulls and cormorants and terns. We were not disappointed. It wasn’t a bright, finger-painted sunset but it was enough at the end of the year, the end of the decade, when hope for the future seems to cool and fade, a reminder that beauty endures even without us.