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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Paddling through miles of history and economic impact

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The economic impact of our waterways spreads farther than people anticipate.

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“It’s our own backyard, Gwenyfar!” My friend Jill spun the kayak back toward me. “Sometimes you’ve got to just get outside—salt air, water, sun! Fuck it. Work will be there tomorrow!”

Stock photo

Stock photo

We were shoulder-deep in the Intracoastal Waterway, and I contemplated making an argument that I was technically working. Kayaking for the first time was one of the adventures I put on my list of 40 things I wanted to do in town in 2015 and report on for encore. Instead, I grinned at Jill and dunked my head underwater to better admire the marsh grass.

“Don’t go tellin’ people about this,” Jill half joked. “Then they will all come out here and ruin it. No, it’s too crowded. Say it is too crowded!” 

“Actually, I would really like to bring Hilda,” I said. “Would that be possible?”

“With a tandem? Sure!”

Jill pretty much speaks in exclamation points. It is one of my favorite things about her. We began discussing the relative points of bringing my dear puppy and why her brother would be into this.

“I have never been in a kayak in my life before today,” I said.

Jill read the update about how I am failing to get out and experience this amazing area, like I promised as part of my New Year’s resolutions. She informed me we were going to kayak. Not only was it a fascinating, eye-opening, arm-bending experience, it also reminded me of the importance of the Intracoastal Waterway to our economic picture. I mean, it’s not every day that you drop anchor and hang out in the middle of a major shipping lane to watch herons and pelicans go about their lives. In fact, the whole point of making my list and trying to experience more was because of moments like this.

I was surprised to learn the Intracoastal stretches across 3,000 miles! Somehow that just seems incredibly vast. It spans Virginia to Texas, and according to USA Today, a series of manmade canals from the 19th century are integral to it. It seems that creating a safe and navigable shipping route for moving goods around the U.S. cheaply and safely became increasingly more important as our country grew. With the outbreak of WWI and the need to move supplies, the Intracoastal Waterway became paramount. 

Two other interesting, no fascinating,  points I learned: the success of the connecting canals (like in the Great Dismal Swamp area and in Florida) were partly responsible for passing the Panama Canal Legislation through Congress. Our Cape Fear River is considered part of the Intracoastal Waterway. It makes sense when you think about it: The Cape Fear River meeting the ocean makes a wonderful port (hence the settlement of our area).

Probably not unlike a lot of people who live here, I tend to think of our beaches and waterways as a tourist draw, sometimes forgetting the water has historically been used for moving commodities. I tend to think in terms of the money that comes into hotel rooms, bars, restaurants, and shops—not to mention the wonderful world of gasoline taxes. Yet, our state port actually brings a tremendous amount of money into the area through jobs, and again, the gas tax.

And there are the cruise ships of lovely senior citizens that glide up and down the Intracoastal and turn into the Cape Fear River to dock in downtown Wilmington. (I wonder if they drink rum when they pass the Dram Tree?) They get off the boat for a day of sightseeing, eating and shopping—to visit restaurants and buy souvenirs with abandon.

But back to the kayak…

Apparently, I am really late to the party. There are at least eight places to rent kayaks between Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, not including classes or guide services. Then there are river tours all up and down the Cape Fear River, allowing folks to rent or join a tour via canoe or kayak.

What we think of today as a kayak developed originally by the Inuit in the Alaskan. Our modern crafts are engineered far beyond what would have been possible in the wilderness 4,000 years ago.

People literally come from all over the country to visit our amazing beaches and enjoy water fun. I was surprised when I first went to work for the Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau years ago that the map of where our visitors come from included a large portion of travelers from Ohio.

“Really?” I asked in surprise. “Why?”

“Well it’s one of the closest beaches you can drive to” was the response.

After almost a decade of talking to tourists on Front Street, my informal straw poll confirms the bureau’s data: People routinely drive here from Ohio just to splash in the water at our beaches.

Me, on the other hand: I almost never make it to the beach. Like a lot of people, I get caught up in my routine, commitments and work. My relatives who live in landlocked areas (like Missouri) are shocked when they ask me about the beach; I usually can’t recall the last time I made it there. Honestly, encore articles (like taking a bus to Carolina Beach) have done more for getting me to the beach than anything else in recent years.

Though, I have to admit: Taking Hilda to the beach for the first time last year was one of the most wonderful days ever. Which is part of why Jock came home the day of my kayak trip to find me trying to hold a tape measure to Hilda.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Do you think you could take Horace outside and distract him?”

I cannot manage both dogs at once, either walking or driving in the car with them—they just are too excited about the experience. So if Hilda is going to go out in the car, Horace has to go in the backyard until I can get Hilda out the door.

“Sure. Why? Where are you two going—and, again, what are you doing with a tape measure?”

“I went kayaking with Jill today for the first time!” Hilda wiggled and got her tail and the tape measure tangled.                              

“How was it?”

“Wonderful, and I want to take Hilda with me, but I need to go buy her a doggie life jacket,” I said. “It will be easier if I take her with me to check the fit.”

I succeeded in getting her and the bending tape separated.

“Such a thing exists?” Jock asked with some doubt.

I explained it did, in fact, exist, and both Great Outdoor Provision Company and Outdoor Equipped sold them. After more discussing (which I might add, did not include moving Horace toward the back door), he finally asked the pointed question: “You’ve been kayaking once and you are so taken with it that you want to go spend $60 on a life jacket for Hilda? For something you might not actually ever do with her?”

What can I say? The economic impact of our waterways spreads farther than people anticipate.

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