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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Remembering the essential fabric of the community

Greenfield Lake’s history as a Works Progress Administration Project in the 1930s, and as the inspiration for the Azalea Festival in the 1940s, gives it a feeling of being essential to the fabric of our community.

ABOVE: EcoTour on Greenfield Lake with Cape Fear Riverwatch. Courtesy photo

“That’s an anhinga! Do you see it? Right there!” Kay Lynn Plummer-Hernandez gasped and gestured with her canoe paddle.

ABOVE: EcoTour on Greenfield Lake with Cape Fear Riverwatch. Courtesy photo

ABOVE: EcoTour on Greenfield Lake with Cape Fear Riverwatch. Courtesy photo

“Why don’t you tell us a little about that?” I prompted.

I was out on Greenfield Lake for an EcoTour courtesy of Cape Fear Riverwatch (fees: $10/boat and $30 guide fee; by appointment at www.capefearriverwatch.org). Plummer-Hernandez, the education coordinator, and one of the boathouse interns, Katie—who is soon going to start giving the tour herself—bravely set out with a fat, frumpy, middle-aged adventurer (me) to reveal the secrets of the lake.

Plummer-Hernandez clearly loves her job and can rattle off science lessons the way I can babble about book trivia.

“Well anhingas are super cool,” she said. “People call them snake birds because they have so much oil in their feathers they can swim underwater and hunt for fish. But that oil also makes them sink when they’re in the water. So, all you can see is that long skinny neck sticking up out of the water—they look like snakes.”

When I asked Plummer-Hernandez if she leads tours, too, a wonderful melodic laugh peameated almost every word she uttered. She shook her head: “Not as often as I would like.” After five minutes in a canoe with her I understood the sentiment. By the time she steered us back to the boathouse, I never wanted it to end.

Long before that, we were at the spillway, or the smallish waterfall under the bridge that leads to Third Street.

A few years ago, Jock needed to test his Tsunami Pump in a waterfall-type situation. We spent a good few hours racking our brains for any sort of gravity-moving water feature in our very flat area; and then we drove past Greenfield Lake. Over the next few weeks, he wore out several pairs of shoes by standing in the spillway, tweaking and adjusting until he was prepared to declare “game, set, match.” Apparently, since, the City of Wilmington put up fencing across the top of the spillway just under the bridge.

Plummer-Hernandez gestured to the fencing across the spillway and explained how grass-eating carp inhabits the floor of lake.  “They’re not native,” she clarified. “They’re sterile, but as ‘Jurassic Park’ says, ‘Nature finds a way.’”

The upshot is: Greenfield Lake empties into the Cape Fear River and some of the carp have been found there. Hence the fence to keep the fish in.

“So that’s not for human foolishness?” I asked.

Plummer-Hernandez confirmed at least this piece is not related the humanity’s poor decision-making skills—unlike, say, the odd need people have to feed alligators.

“Do people really feed the alligators?” I thought I must have misheard her.

Yes. They do. Plummer-Hernandez  was empathic on this point. In spite of signs warning of the dangers, it happens.

“Oh, God! That sounds like a very poor choice.”

Plummer-Hernandez agreed, and pointed out that if humans feed alligators, the alligators begin to associate us with food—which is not going to do anything good for man nor gator. Then, she shared about the story of the guy who decided to wrestle a gator late at night. Not surprisingly, alcohol was involved.

By in large, if we leave them alone, they should leave us alone.

Plummer-Hernandez steered us down a lane lined with huge cypresses on each side. It is almost mystical, it is so beautiful. Plummer-Hernandez noted we were in the deepest part of the lake at 12 feet. The rest is 5 or 6 feet deep. “It’s where the old creek bed is, that’s why it is the deepest part,” she explained.

You can really sense the meandering creek that overflowed its banks when it was dammed to make the lake. Suddenly, the trees fell away, as a bright burst of golden light surrounded us. All I could see was lake ahead, awaiting homage: an eternal being sculpted into a cypress tree.   

“They call that ‘The Old Human Tree,’” Plummer-Hernandez observed. “It is the oldest tree standing in the lake, charted for over 100 years.”

In that moment, even though my intellect knew I was in the center of a major urban area, every part of my spirit soared with a primal harmony.

Plummer-Hernandez continued telling about the history of the park: from privately owned mill, to amusement park, to WPA project to today’s “90-acre cypress dome ecosystem … we are in the Greenfield Lake water shed.”

All the storm water in the area drains to Greenfield Lake. “Oil and gas from cars, trash, dog waste, sediment, all of that, is directed into the nearest water bodies, and in this case, it’s this lake,”  she divulged. Yet, it’s not to be confused with the Cape Fear River, which is where we get our drinking water.

“For us, Greenfield Lake is really important because it is a giant wetland that is really excellent at filtering out those pollutants through its root systems before the water goes into the Cape Fear River,” she noted.

As we glided past a few turtles (“Yellow-Bellied Sliders” Plummer-Hernandez identified) sunning themselves on a limb, I remembered the baby turtle who wandered into the playground area in 1983. He came home with me for a few days before he disappeared while playing we played in the sandbox. Contrary to my mother’s insistence, he didn’t seem at all interested in the lettuce we offered him and probably wandered off in search of something more toothsome.

“Have you ever seen the movie ‘Silver Bullet’?” Plummer-Hernandez asked. We were looking at Lion’s Bridge in front of us. I laughed inwardly that Wilmington’s film connections reach even here. “This bridge, Lion’s Bridge, was used in that film!”

“It was a Dino movie,” I noted.

“A what?”

“Dino movie.”

“Dino?”

“Dino De Laurientiis,” I clarified.

“Oh!”

Plummer-Hernandez loves “Silver Bullet” and gave me the play by play of the final scene with Corey Haim getting chased over the long-sloping bridge in his wheelchair. When I was in elementary school it was a favorite spot for bike races: the thrill of the fast downhill on the second half, the water underneath as we flew across the wood planks. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones taken with it; someone in the locations department steered them there.

We were somewhere between Plummer-Hernandez explaining to me that Spanish moss is neither moss nor Spanish, but actually a bromeliad, and Katie and I talking amongst ourselves about reading, when Plummer-Hernandez  squealed. “Look to the right! Little baby alligator—low to the tree right there!”

About 4 feet in front of me was a gator, though it looked like a statue from Jungle Rapids mini-golf. It suddenly darted into the water and swam far away from us as quickly as it could. “We certainly scared him!” Plummer-Hernandez gigged and pointed us back toward the boathouse where Patrick, the boathouse manager and his cute, wiggly puppy, Lottie, awaited us.

I tend to think of Greenfield Lake as a place to walk around and look at pretty flowers. Or a stop for a good concert or Shakespeare on the Green at the amphitheater. Its history as a Works Progress Administration Project in the 1930s, and as the inspiration for the Azalea Festival in the 1940s, gives it a feeling of being essential to the fabric of our community. Probably like many people, I don’t get out and really spend time on the water; nor do I give much thought to it as an early and major filter system for our drinking water. In many ways that’s what Cape Fear Riverwatch is about: speaking up as a voice for our waterways, calling attention to our most valuable local resource that the rest of us take for granted.

Also keeping up with its constant beautification is the local nonprofit Greenfield Lake Collaborative. To kick off Riverfest weekend, they’ll hold their fourth annual garden party at the Dr. Huber Johnson Rotary Garden at 1940 Amphitheater Dr. Tickets are $55 in advance or $60 at the gate and will include a pig pickin’ from Skylight Inn BBQ and Cheshire Pork Heritage Farms, as well as an open bar, with a featured Greenfield Cocktail made with Trey Herring’s Carolina Bourbon. Live music will be played by Sai Collins (see pages 10-11), and folks will mix and mingle and take advantage of the beauty that surrounds them. All proceeds and donations from the event will go toward projects that Greenfield Lake Collaborative has slated for the lake and surrounding gardens (www.greenfieldlake.org).

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