09/07/09 — Riverkeeper takes message downstream

View Archive

Riverkeeper takes message downstream

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on September 7, 2009 1:46 PM

Full Size


John Pugh travels down the Neuse River in his kayak.

The Neuse River is near the top of the list of unhealthy American rivers, but that's not stopping one man from kayaking the waterway from Raleigh all the way to New Bern.

In fact, that's why he's doing it.

John Pugh and the Raleigh and New Bern-based Neuse Riverkeepers Foundation are hoping his trip will encourage people to learn about the importance of water quality and preserving North Carolina's rivers.

But even Pugh, who paddled the length of the Cape Fear River not long ago, was taken by surprise once he dipped his paddle into the Neuse near Raleigh.

"I love this river, I didn't expect it at all," he said, standing on a concrete boat launch near U.S. Highway 117, just feet from the Neuse's sediment brown water.

Although spending days on a river with few comforts, little human contact and bad cell phone reception might not be most people's idea of the perfect vacation, Pugh has done exactly that several times in his life. He and his wife paddled the entire length of the Mississippi River in 2005, and although it took two and a half months, it didn't diminish his enthusiasm.

Pugh's love of long, human-powered journeys began in 2000, when he was undergoing several major life changes.

"I was 30 years old. I was fresh off a divorce. I owned a business. Basically just sold everything and decided to start fresh, take a regrouping of life, take stock," he said.

That fresh start began with a six-month hike down the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. The trip had a significant effect on Pugh, and he promised himself he would do "something big" every five years, just to keep life interesting.

Being on a woodland trail or a river for weeks at a time gives live a kind of simplicity, he said.

"You kind of get used to it. Once you start getting into a groove of either a lot of hiking or paddling or whatever, you kind of get into a routine. It's actually a lot simpler. You don't have all the, you get up to work and get dressed and press your clothes, go to lunch, come back home. As long as you keep the bills paid, all that jazz, basically you wake up and ... our general day was, we'd just start paddling," he said.

Pugh started down the Neuse on Aug. 27 and planned to arrive in New Bern Sunday. He traveled about 25 miles a day and stopped recently in Goldsboro to spend the night.

One part of the trip that was completely new, even to this experienced paddler, was the amount of technology he carried with him in the form of his iPhone. Although there were periods of bad reception, especially out in the "Let 'Lones," a 23-mile stretch of the river between Raleigh and Goldsboro, Pugh used the smartphone to take pictures of his progress and post updates and podcasts to his blog, located at http://www.sourcetosea.net. Pugh also has Facebook and Twitter accounts set up, and plans to publish his adventures in a book by the same name ("Source to Sea") later this year.

The blog and book are part of what Pugh is doing to encourage North Carolinians to appreciate the state's waterways. Pugh became more involved with river conservation following a chance meeting with the president of the Mississippi Audubon Society, which led to an association with the national Audubon Society. He later became involved with the Neuse Riverkeepers when he and his wife started their doctoral programs in Parks and Recreation at North Carolina State University, where today Pugh works in the Distance Education office.

The Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation, established nearly 30 years ago, has for the past 16 years worked to support and train individuals working to keep the Neuse River healthy.

Volunteers are an integral part of the Riverkeepers' work, said Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Alissa Bierma.

"We have to have help finding problems, because we don't have eyes and ears everywhere. By having volunteers and people who care about the river be out there and be aware, and call us when they see problems, they can help us be more effective. Everyone in the watershed relies on the Neuse River so everyone in the watershed should take responsibility for the Neuse River," she said.

Ms. Bierma frequently tests water samples from the upper sections of the river and works as a watchdog to make sure people are in compliance with regulations. The severity of some of the illegal polluting activity she says she has discovered is surprising.

"It makes you wonder how frequently people are only in compliance when they know someone's watching, so I'm going to watch, and they all better know," she said.

When Pugh paddled the Cape Fear River, he often paused to take water samples for testing purposes, and although he did not do continuous testing on this trip, he knows quite a lot about the Neuse River ecosystem and the problems it is facing.

"It's one of the worst. It's in better shape than it's been in a while, but that's not saying a whole lot," Pugh said. "A lot of it is, there's so much development in this basin. We've got the Raleigh area, just all the way down, really. You have a lot of development, you have a lot of non-point source pollution."

But the biggest source of pollution in the Neuse River is also tied directly into the state and local economy, he said.

"The biggest thing is the hog lagoons, the factory farming, the big chicken farms. We produce more hog fecal matter per day than do the populations of 10 states. So it's just managing all that, dealing with that, where it all ends up. Some of it is treated well, some of it is not treated so well."

Although the Neuse River water is safe for kayaking, it's not always safe for the fish that live in it. Just a few weeks ago, an estimated 3.5 million fish died in a massive late summer fish kill in Craven County, due to a problem with water oxygen levels, according to the N.C. Division of Water Quality.

Paddling a river gives Pugh an up close and personal view of how healthy or unhealthy it might be. With his experience in traversing rivers, he knows what to look for.

"There's a fair amount of bird activity, so that's good. And you're seeing ... there's a lot of sediment. The Neuse basically should be, it's going to be a brown river anyway, but it should be more like tea versus chocolate milk," he said.

The best way for individuals to help preserve rivers is twofold: to conserve water and be mindful of what they're dumping in storm drains that eventually empty into a river. The second part of river conservation is to voice their concerns to legislators, Pugh said.

And it doesn't hurt to just get out and enjoy the river, either.

"I think the biggest outcome is to get people more aware that there's this really cool river that runs right across the state, right 15 miles from where you live - and get on it," he said. "I think from a recreation standpoint, I always want to get people on rivers, because then people get to start to understand it. They start to care about it, they start to get to some of the issues involved with it."