Passion for the Pigeon

For as long as I have lived in North Carolina, I have harbored
a dream: somewhere in the wooded folds of the Appalachians, a river lies undiscovered. It’s a small river, hissing over beveled ledges, hidden from view by hemlock and rhododendron. The locals know about it, the cane pole fishermen and the farmers. But not the kayakers and canoeists hailing from far-off urban sprawls.

I will discover the river and introduce it to a select group of friends. Together, we will explore the winding channel, ascribe names to the rapids, and revel in sun-dappled pools. My friends will marvel that I could find such a place, and we will promise to keep it a secret.

Fifteen years after I moved to the South, this dream almost came true.

The year before we married, Cathy and I drove to meet her parents at their family farm in Knoxville, Tennessee. A visit to the Murphy farm was a trip back in time. The Murphy ancestors had settled the land around 1800; the farmhouse we slept in was at least a century old. Most days, we would sit outside with Cathy’s parents and her Tennessee relatives talking about the weather and who was taking care of the cows. But my thoughts kept drifting back to the river I’d glimpsed on the ride over.

Between Canton, North Carolina, and Newport, Tennessee, Interstate 40 follows a winding gorge through the heart of the southern Appalachian Mountains. There’s a river at the bottom of that gorge, though most of the time it lies hidden beneath a thick canopy of trees.

As Cathy and I drove west that summer day, I craned my neck to see past the guardrail. Finally, a bridge loomed ahead. I lowered my window and whiffed the sulfurous odor of rotten eggs. The mountains parted to reveal a dark ribbon of water streaked with white.

“Look at those rapids!” I blurted. “Check that sign and tell me the name of the river.”

As we came off the bridge, Cathy peered across the interstate. “Pigeon River,” she said. “That’s an odd name.”

The Pigeon. I seemed to remember reading something about that river in the newspaper, and it wasn’t good. As we passed out of the mountains into the Tennessee foothills, a billboard appeared beside the highway: “Pigeon River Just Ahead, Polluted by Champion International. Lord Help Us, EPA Won’t.”

Back in Durham, I asked Howard DuBose at River Runner’s Emporium about the Pigeon. He came out from behind the counter into the crowded confines of his shop. “Damn right, it’s polluted,” Howard said. “Gets sucked into Champion’s paper mill in Canton and comes out black as tar. Stinks, too. North Carolina refuses to crack down on the mill because they don’t want to lose the jobs, so Tennessee’s trying to get the EPA to step in. But the feds won’t enforce their own damn law.”

I asked how long the river had been polluted.

“Since 1908,” Howard said. “The year they opened the mill.”

I laughed at the irony. 1908 was the year my father had been born. “What about the rapids?” I asked. “Looked like some nice ones.”

“Supposed to be Class III and IVs, but no one wants to go near the water. Besides, C.P.&L. has a hydro plant at the top of the gorge that cuts off the flow when they aren’t making electricity. They refuse to tell the public when it’s going to run. Who wants to drive five hours to find the river dry?”
Howard’s message all but killed my hopes for the Pigeon. Yet each summer when Cathy and I traveled to Knoxville, I found myself stealing glances through the trees.

Then, a break. Under pressure from the State of Tennessee and a citizen’s group called the Dead Pigeon River Council, the Environmental Protection Agency agreed to step in and impose stiffer requirements on the North Carolina mill. The agency ordered Champion to lighten its wastewater discharge to meet a monthly average of fifty color units-roughly the color of ginger ale. And Champion promised to install water recycling equipment to try to reduce the smell. Champion announced a half-billion dollars in plant improvements to be started within the year.

Meanwhile, the power company’s license for the hydroelectric plant on the Pigeon came up for renewal. A new federal law required that recreational interests be considered along with power generation needs as a condition for awarding a license. Rafting outfitters in Tennessee demanded regularly scheduled releases of water, similar to what was practiced on the Nantahala.

That winter, I called a state environmental officer in Tennessee and learned that Champion had already brought some of its new systems on line. The color of the effluent was lightening and the odor was down. “But, no, nobody’s running the river that I know of. Some reputations die hard,” he said.

I began to see my dream taking shape, not the remote pristine river that I’d imagined, but a passable variation. There would be a period of time, maybe a year or two, when the Pigeon was clean enough to run, but not yet recognized as such by the boating public. I could be the one to rediscover the river, or, rather, my friends and I.

That spring, I argued for taking our annual canoe trip to the Pigeon. Keith hesitated on the phone.

“Why would we want to run a polluted river?” he asked.

“I’m telling you, man, it’s getting better. And what’s a little odor for the chance to discover someplace new?”

“Your standards must be a lot different from mine,” he said. “Then again, you grew up paddling the Cuyahoga.”

We ended up that year canoeing the French Broad, northern neighbor to the Pigeon and none too clean in its own right. The following winter, I learned that an outfitter named Jerry Taylor had moved to the riverside town of Hartford, Tennessee, in anticipation of starting a commercial rafting business on the Pigeon. I phoned Jerry and introduced myself. Would he be willing to guide me and a group of friends down the Pigeon in May?

“Sure thing, dude,” Jerry said. “Y’all can stay with me.”

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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