Flowing water is as central to life here in Western North Carolina as the mountains themselves. You can’t have ancient mountains like these without the seeps, springs, branches, creeks and rivers that sculpted them.
The word “creek” — a shallow or intermittent tributary to a river — also means “any turn or winding.” The word may derive from the Old Norse “kriki,” meaning “a bend or nook.”
Bends and nooks are the essence of any creek. They are magical places where the water swirls and threads its way over and among a jumble of boulders, disappears under a cutbank, braids its way through a sluice, purls in an eddy, and glints in the winter light.
Mountain pathways almost inevitably wind down to and alongside creeks, where each bend and nook will have its own voice: the unique set of sounds that arise from the confluence of water — running at a given rate — over a particular configuration of logs and stones. We are attracted when moody or meditative to certain creeks where these sounds become voices that speak to us quite clearly.
For 30 some years now, my wife Elizabeth and I have resided beside a small creek that has its headwaters in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just north of Bryson City. From there, it flows southward out of the park, passes through our place, enters the park again for a short stretch, and finally empties into what is the Tuckasegee River part of the year and Lake Fontana the other part. I enjoy recalling from time to time that the waters of “our” creek wind up in the Gulf of Mexico via the Tuckasegee, Little Tennessee, Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi river systems.
We raised our family beside this creek. Our youngest daughter and her partner live up the creek from us in a house they just completed. When our oldest daughter and her brother return home for visits, their children play in the creek, as they did. The creek is a living entity in our lives — a part of the family — the last thing we hear at night and the first thing we hear in the morning.
When I drive home from my office on the town square in Bryson City each evening, I cross the lower bridge over the Tuckasegee. I could take an alternate loop away from the river and get home quicker, but I always turn left along the river. I like watching it flow in the evening light. There are several large islands and rocky shoals. As often as not, I’ll spot a great blue heron quietly fishing one of the riffles. Turning away from the river two miles west of town, I pass over a ridge and wind down to “our” creek, which I cross one more time before reaching our place at the end of the far end of the road.
After settling in, Elizabeth and I often take a walk before supper down the creek along a trail that leads to a little waterfall, where there is a bench. We sit for a while. In recent years, the dry weather reduced the creek to a trickle — a sad shadow of its normal self. In places, it was not more than three feet in width, if that. The sounds it made were feeble. We took very little pleasure in our walks. It was almost as if we were visiting a sick friend.
But the rains that descended upon us in recent months have revived the creek. These days, it has nearly recovered. Indeed, the whole valley has, in essence, come back to life. Earlier this week as we sat there in the pale evening light, a silvery mist hovered over the water, which once gain again glistened as it poured over and around the rocks, murmuring and babbling, talking to us.