Columnist Frank Newell is on temporary leave. Until he returns, we will reprint submissions from our archives. The following is reprinted from June 2011.
Times were different in the days of my boyhood, which was the late 1940s through the 1950s and half of the 1960s. Warren County was largely rural back then, with vast stretches of undeveloped, untouched wild habitat.
There were three areas in the county that, to me, were the most desolate, had the largest and most diversified populations of wildlife and, therefore, were the most wonderful of all. They were the lands of the Roanoke River, Fishing Creek and the community of Inez, in that order. And also the wild places of Arcola, with its population of Native Americans, I considered to be combined with Inez to make a vast expanse of wilderness. Back then, as now, I had many friends among the Haliwa-Saponi Indians. I greatly admired them, not only for their hunting, trapping and other earthly skills and knowledge, but also for their devotion to one another. One of the tribal elders once said to me, “Mr. Newell, my people are so close to each other that if a snake bites one of us, we all swell up.”
Many species of wild animals could be found in the Fishing Creek and Inez/Arcola areas, but the Roanoke River lands held the greatest numbers. For instance, the wild turkeys of Fishing Creek and Inez/Arcola were mostly loners and not seen very often, but on the Roanoke they could be found in small flocks. And there were the bobcats, rarely seen in other areas, but rather plentiful on the Roanoke. In late February and until the full moon of March, as the mating season neared, the bobcats began to call out in the night, back and fourth across the river. Driven by uncontrolled hormonal urges, the she-cats wailed in the darkness. The sound stoked the breeding urge of the males much like throwing a log on a campfire. Sometimes two or more he-cats would arrive at the wailing female at the same time, and the river land would vibrate with growls and snarling that would echo in the night as they fought among themselves. Months later, if a male bobcat happened upon a half-grown male in his territory, even one of his own sons, he would kill it.
There were six species of snakes in or near the Roanoke River, three of them being venomous and three non-venomous. There were right many more species, but these six were the most significant. The non-venomous ones were the black rat snake, the banded water snake and the northern water snake. Even though the latter two are non-venomous, they will bite. Many of the old folks considered all snakes poisonous and referred to all of them as “moccasins.”
The three dangerous species of snakes, which are to this day still found in or near Lake Gaston, are the copperhead, the cottonmouth and the timber rattlesnake. The old folks called the copperhead a “highland moccasin” and the cottonmouth a “water moccasin.” In my years rambling the wild places of this area, only two times have I encountered a rattlesnake. One was in Northampton County in a far out area between the Roanoke and Meherrin rivers. The other was right on the Vance and Warren county line. If you are not a snake expert, it would probably be a good idea to be like the old folks and consider all snakes to be “moccasins.”
As a young boy, I watched with a certain amount of sadness the building of Kerr Dam across the Roanoke River and the time immediately afterward. When the river wasn’t there anymore I could still fish in its waters, but instead of the riverbanks, I had to fish from a bridge or other unnatural places. I once hung a huge carp in relatively shallow and still water in the backyard of an abandoned farmhouse.
But the real heartbreaker came when it was announced that another dam would straddle the Roanoke at Gaston. This one would wipe out all of my cherished hunting and fishing spots. When the waters of Lake Gaston consumed the river and its low grounds, untold numbers of wild creatures were driven out. However, those wild animals were replaced by wonderful humans, and, just as I cherished the wild creatures, I have come to cherish the deep friendships of Lake Gaston residents who are gracing our homeland with their homes and their presence. Just as some of the wildness that flowed down the old Roanoke also ran in my blood, it was inevitable that I would grow close to those people that have come to Lake Gaston. They have truly made my homeland a better place, and I am truly thankful for them.
There is one more type of animal that I must mention, a secretive, mysterious and elusive creative that no one can explain. In my boyhood, I would occasionally hear the older men talk about seeing a big cat creature. They always referred to it as a “panther.” But ever since Lake Gaston was created, the sightings have increased a hundred fold, much too many to be ignored. One difference is that now the sightings are of two types of huge cat creatures, similar in many ways, but of two colors, tan and black. I personally have seen a tan one, and someone else has seen one of each color. I have received hundreds of reports from citizens who have encountered these big cats, some being really close. These sightings were from prominent people, for instance, a county commissioner and a high-ranking wildlife enforcement officer. They have also come from loggers, hunters and motorists who almost hit them in the road. There is no doubt in my mind that they are out there. I, like so many others, know what I saw.