Once again it’s time for the Rocky Shoals Spider Lilies (hymenocallis coronaria) to make their appearance along the rivers of the Southeast. This past weekend marked the peak bloom for the lilies and all week I was seeing photos taken at Landsford Canal State Park posted to social media. A paddling friend also posted a link to a tour run by the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation. Laura was away on a Furman trip, so I decided it would be a great opportunity to head back to the Catawba River for this event.
Last year was my first time visiting Landsford Canal and seeing the spider lilies. On that trip I had done a solo run, dropping my boat off at the put-in then hiking back along the trail along the old canal works. This time I thought it would be nice to go with a group and perhaps learn the proper way through the shoals.
Bubba Bailey is a Facebook friend from Lancaster and an active member of the Catawba Riverkeepers. We had never met in person, but had kept track of each other through our mutual paddling interests. When Bubba posted the link to the Catawba Riverkeepers’ tour, I signed up right away. Bubba would be volunteering at the event, and this would finally give us a chance to meet.
This would also be the weekend of Lilyfest, celebrating the peak of the bloom season at the park, and they were expecting crowds. In addition to the Catawba Riverkeepers there would be the casual visitors who keep track of the bloom season. Some days I like to paddle off on a remote river and get away from everyone. This would not be one of those days. But that’s not a bad thing – sometimes a party can be fun.
Since I was expecting a crowd and I knew that parking would be at a premium I set off early for the two-hour drive over to the park. As I descended into the Catawba River Valley a thick fog blanketed the fields. There were clouds and the forecast called for a slight chance of rain, but otherwise the weather was great. I pulled into the park and had no problem getting a premium parking space. Apart from a few other early birds, I had the place to myself.
Another paddler, Mark from Charlotte, arrived a few minutes after I did. He was also looking for the Catawba group. We chatted for a bit while waiting for someone official to show up. His paddling background was similar to mine, and he had brought a Dagger Axis like Houston’s boat.
Other groups began to arrive. There were a couple of commercial groups with fleets of boats that would also be leading tours through the shoals. We couldn’t find anyone from our group, though. We decided to go ahead and haul our boats down to the river.
For this trip I brought my trusty Perception Torrent whitewater sit-on-top. I found it easy to maneuver through the shoals last year, and thought it would do nicely again this time for the relatively short trip. This boat doesn’t have much storage, so I brought along a large dry bag with backpack straps that I got last Christmas. I figured that way I could haul my gear back to the car if I needed to make the trek back along the trail. I thought I was all set. Then I found that I’d left my kayak seat at home. I’d be paddling this boat bareback.
For those that know how much stuff I tend to haul on my kayak, this was minimalist paddling for me. I still had room for a couple of cameras plus a mount for my GoPro. Without the seat I had to figure out some way to attached the dry bags, but I managed.
The crowds began to gather and soon folks from the Catawba Riverkeepers arrived. I checked in and gave them a donation, then waited for the event to get underway. A very mixed group of ages, abilities and boats began to gather. I took the opportunity to chat with them. There was Debe, who was just getting back on the water after the death of her husband. Warren from Riverkeepers was very helpful, and said he would be sure to give us a ride back to the cars after our trip. There were also several family groups. Boats ranged from Walmart specials to better tour boats. There were lots of sit-on-tops, mostly from the rental fleets of the commercial groups. Mark decided he would head on out and explore, and other groups started to launch, as well.
Bubba arrived and I finally got to introduce myself. I recognized him from his online photos, and also recognized his boat. He had fashioned a unique camera mount from parts of an old tripod. I looked interesting, and I wondered if I might replicate it on one of my boats.
A little after 10:00 CRF director Hillary Syrewicze and tour leader Sam Perkins called everyone together. Sam gave a quick overview of the park and a bit about the flowers. Hillary took one group with her that would just be doing a hike along the trail. Sam kept the paddlers for some additional instructions and safety tips. He also introduced the other volunteers, including Bubba, who would be assisting along the way.
Thus instructed, we initiated launch procedures. According to Sam the river was flowing at 4000 CFS, which is pretty high. Usually it’s at 2900 CFS. At least we wouldn’t have as many rocks exposed, but it would be a quick trip.
It took me a awhile to get the hang of this boat. I hadn’t paddled it since this time last year and it performs VERY differently than my other boats. First there’s the fact that it spins freely. It’s highly maneuverable in the rapids, but doesn’t track at all on flat water. As a sit-on-top my center of mass is higher, and that tended to throw off my balance a bit. Plus, this boat isn’t as quick as my other ones. I’m used to putting a paddle down and getting a burst of speed. Not so here. Subsequently, I wound up in an a potentially embarrassing position on a rock in the first little ripple. I didn’t turn over and was able to recover, but it shook my confidence a bit.
We gathered with Sam in the river for another quick bit of information then headed downstream. After my first incident I had no more problems. My old whitewater skills were coming back to me. The group negotiated the first set of shoals, some with more success than others.
The spider lilies start about a half mile from the put-in. We paddled through more of the small rapids, admiring the blooms along the way.
About halfway through the lilies Sam had us all raft up at a small rocky spot. He gave us some information about the flowers and a bit about the history of the area. We took a break, taking the opportunity to get close to the lilies without having to worry about currents and rapids. I could see the observation deck just off the trail down below us. I think we had the better view.
After our break we continued on down stream, pretty much own our own at this point. With the water levels so high there were multiple routes through the flowers. I tended to pick my route by seeing where folks were having trouble, and avoiding those spaces. Sounds cruel, but I was trying not to hit anyone.
Here are a couple of video clips from that section.
We approached a series of islands and the end of this particular stretch of lilies. At this point you have to move to river right for the take-out, or you’ll have to take out down at Fishing Creek Reservoir miles downstream. The rapids continued, and actually picked up a bit through the narrow channel.
I have a couple of video clips from this as well.
Before I knew it we were at the take-out. This is a short trip, and it went quickly. We helped each other haul boats out and up to the lower parking lot.
I was prepared to leave my boat and hike back up the trail to the car, but I got two different offers for rides. Bubba made an offer, but Warren had offered even before we got underway and he had room not just for me but for my boat as well. I took him up on it. Debe and Mark joined me with Warren.
When we got back to the main park there was total chaos. There was absolutely no parking, but more vehicles were arriving constantly. We pulled in and unloaded our boats and helped each other get loaded up on our own vehicles.
Hillary and several others from CRF were hanging out next to my car, checking folks back in as they arrived. I talked with them for a bit, then made plans to depart. I would have liked to have gone back down and hiked part of the old canal works, but it was just too crazy. I saw these ruins last year, but I’ll have to come back for that part sometime if I want to see it again. As I drove out more cars arrived loaded with boats, and I’m sure someone would be delighted to get my spot.
Even though it was too crowded to stick around and explore the canal, I wasn’t done for the day. About a mile from the state park is an old cemetery. I had spotted a stone wall and sign on the way in, and knew I had to check it out. It turned out to be quite the discovery for a taphophile like me.
The only information I can find is that this is known as The Old Stone Cemetery. SCIWAY mentions a Mount Zion Church, but I can find no other information on the church. There is a Mount Zion Church not far away, but there is no indication that this church is associated with the cemetery.
Another source said that this land had been donated for a church that was never built. To me that seems a bit unlikely, but the mystery remains. The cemetery is not listed in GNIS data, as far as I can tell, so there is no “official” name associated with it other than “Old Stone Cemetery.”
The cemetery was terribly overgrown. The first stones I saw were obelisks festooned with Confederate battle flags, indicating a Confederate vet was buried there. These were the newest stones in the cemetery.
Upon further exploration I found some truly exquisite old stones. These were hand carved, and still had the score lines to keep the letters straight.
One Colonel Robert Patton must have been a Revolutionary War veteran. His headstone features a stylized patriotic eagle. According to Daniel Patterson’s book “The True Image: Gravestone Art and the Culture of Scotch Irish Settlers in the Pennsylvania and Carolina Backcountry” eagles were popular symbols right after the war. These have a very different look and feel than the spread eagle national symbols to which we’re accustomed, probably owing to the difficulty of carving.
The most unusual was that of William Simpson, who died in 1777. It features a striking bas relief carving and some rather mournful prose.
According to Find a Grave this is the transcription of the headstone, which includes part of an Isaac Watts hymn.
Departed this Life in the Twenty
Sixth Yeare of his age June the 6
That built our
And every Month
and every Day
back to Dust
The Simpson stone is listed in Patterson’s “The True Image” book as the work of an unknown artist who has carved other stones at the old Waxhaw Presbyterian Church across the river in Lancaster County. The stones feature broad relief carvings for some of the text, such as the 1777 date on this stone. The artist also tends to use the natural shape of the stone, rather than carving a slab with tympanum and other headstone devices. Almost buried at the lower left of the stone is another unusual feature – a bas relief dove with head held erect.
The cemetery was much larger than I had thought. There were lots of these older stones. I didn’t see any signature stones, but it was clear that one carver had done several of these based on the styles of lettering.
Later I looked at photos others had taken and the cemetery wasn’t as overgrown. I’d like to come back in fall or winter and see if things are more visible.
So, spider lilies, whitewater, crowds, and an old cemetery. What’s not to like? It was a good day on this water. The total paddle route was 2.41 miles, which puts me at 110 for the year.