06/22/14 — Just around the riverbend

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Just around the riverbend

By Matt Caulder
Published in News on June 22, 2014 1:50 AM

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Christie McDonald paddles toward the boat ramp at the Stevens Mill Road access Saturday morning after kayaking the Neuse River for two hours during Cruise the Neuse. McDonald was one of the 135 people who participated in this year's event.

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Georgina Woodlock, 9, looks back at her father, John, for guidance while learning to paddle. Georgina's mother, Vanessa, and brother Sebastian, 14, were in another canoe.

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The first of three groups of people wait in line for kayaks and canoes at the Ferry Bridge Road access before taking to the Neuse River during Goldsboro Parks and Recreation's annual Cruise the Neuse Saturday morning. Canoes and kayaks were borrowed from several groups across central and eastern North Carolina to meet the needs of the event's increased participation.

A row of turtles sun themselves on a downed tree.

A beer bottle bobs against a log.

An otter paddles across the river in search of more clams to snack on as a plastic bottle floats by in the current.

Although the Neuse River has come a long way, there is still much to be done.

More than 100 people, young and old, experienced and novices, took part in the third annual Cruise the Neuse, sponsored by Goldsboro Parks and Recreation Saturday.

The paddle gives people who do not normally experience what the Neuse has to offer a chance to see firsthand the resource that crosses Wayne County on its way to New Bern and the coast.

But it also gives the participants a chance to see the debris floating in the water.

While the state of the Neuse River has improved in the last two decades, officials say the river, and its advocates, are in for a fight, making events like Cruise the Neuse so beneficial.

"If people don't have a connection to the river they aren't going to want to protect it," Matthew Starr said.

Starr is the riverkeeper in charge of advocating for the quality of the upper Neuse River.

For Cindy Stallard, a day paddling on the Neuse beats a lot of other things she could have been doing.

By the end of the paddle, she was ready for a break, but pulling her kayak through the cool waters of the Neuse is a pleasure, she says.

A 15-year paddler, Mrs. Stallard has spent a fair amount of time on the Neuse and knows it well.

She loves the views, the quiet and the cool breeze that blows up the river now and again, but she can't help noticing the trash that collects in certain areas of the river up against trees and in little slews.

"I wanted to pick a bottle up, but Kelly wouldn't let me," she said. "I can't believe how it just collects out here."

Many of the participants were seeing the sight for the first time having never cruised down the river before.

Starr said the river has made great strides in the last 20 years with decreased toxic runoff and better cleanup efforts to remove debris, but the fight is far from over.

"From the time it leaves Falls Lake, it faces different pollution all the way down to the coast," Starr said. "It is largely an urban river flow through Wake County and Johnston County. Storm water has a big impact in the upper portions of the river. For years the Neuse has been polluted by industrial animal feeding operations. It's much better than it was in the 1980s and 1990s. Things are a lot better."

Starr said recent changes in the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources have paved the way for an uphill battle to maintain the improvements seen in the river.

"It's taken a lot of hard-working individuals to make the improvements we have seen happen," Starr said. "People working to reduce the pollution from runoff. We had some really good environmental rules on the books."

Starr said that a new administration at NC DENR has made water quality across the state a more tenuous issue.

"Most certainly things are in decline with the current administration," Starr said. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know we are in an environmental decline."

Starr said that NC DENR was no longer as interested in the quality of the water running through the state's rivers, making his job of protecting the river more difficult.

Volunteers at this year's Cruise the Neuse praised paddlers for bringing trash from the river out with them after finishing the 8.5 mile trip.

Many left the river with a few bottles or Styrofoam cups.

Paige Rouse, with the Goldsboro chapter of Trail and River Rovers of Eastern North Carolina, said the paddle turned into a pseudo-official event for TRREC Neuse with around a dozen of its ranks participating in the event.

"Paige is the grand poobah of TRREC Neuse," Marvin Holcomb said.

The group bicycles, camps, hikes, and, of course, paddles.

"We started off of the group in Greenville and then last August we started expanding here," she said. "It's a wonderful experience being out here. We have some first-timers with us."

While the river is an easier sight today and not as bad as it has been, it is important not to forget where it used to be.

Less than 10 years ago the Neuse River was listed as one of the top 10 most endangered rivers in the country.

For Starr, every day is about staying off that list.

"I am not accepting defeat with these new difficulties," Starr said. "It makes things more difficult, but we will still fight to improve the river."

Whether it means a day of fishing, a way to leave all of life's troubles on shore, or a way to put food of the table, the Neuse River is an integral part of the landscape of Wayne County, he said.