Brandon isn’t a river guy. He doesn’t care much for lakes and creeks, either. Instead, he prefers the crystal clear waters of a swimming pool. Me? I’m a river rat. I spent most of my youth on North Carolina’s meandering blackwater rivers that flow through wooded swamps and corridors littered with ancient cypress trees.
When I was little, mama took me to see the fireworks on Wilmington’s riverfront every year. We’d find a dock to sit on and dangle our toes into the water. In high school, daddy took me fishing on the Black River on lazy autumn afternoons. And when it was warm enough, my friends and I climbed the train trestles in Castle Hayne to jump off into the Cape Fear.
I always thought these experiences were universal, but I was wrong. Blackwater rivers aren’t commonplace. There are two primary places where blackwater rivers are prevalent: South America and the American South.
Of course, there are some sprinkled here and there in other locations. There’s a handful up North and a few in Australia and Africa. But here in Eastern North Carolina, they are everywhere.
It’s not just rivers, either. We have blackwater creeks too. And though I’m not sure there is such a thing as a “blackwater lake,” Lake Waccamaw and Jones Lake seem to meet the criteria. So do the Boiling Spring Lakes, where Ebie and I were baptized as teenagers.
Have you ever seen a blackwater river before? Jumping in one is like hopping into a batch of strongly brewed black tea. Needless to say, it’ll ruin a white bathing suit with a quickness.
This happens because blackwater rivers flow through wetlands and swamps. Tannins produced by decaying vegetation leech into the slow-moving water giving it a transparent dark brown hue.
Tannins are a class of astringents found inside woody flowering plants that help protect their species. They offer plants some protection against bacteria and fungi. Those same properties appear to be extended to the blackwater rivers the tannins are found in.
Colonists discovered those properties for themselves by filling their casks from blackwater rivers. The water was a safer alternative thanks to the chemical makeup that helps keep it free of microbes.
So if you’re a river rat like me, don’t worry. The water is not only inviting, but it’s safe too. Just make sure you keep an eye out. Snakes and gators love blackwater rivers just as much as you and I do. 😉