A Walk to the Mill Pond

Me at the rock wall at the Mill Pond, circa 1976

Me at the rock wall at the Mill Pond, circa 1976

A couple of nights ago, I dreamt of the Mill Pond on Duncan Creek off Fleming Mill Road.  I can close my eyes and smell the water, silty and fishy and fresh.  Nothing quite smells like creek water in the Piedmont.

It was some 20 minutes’ walk from the house, just off the frontage road along the interstate highway.  Down the hill we sledded on when it snowed or iced and maybe a quarter mile beyond was a dirt road on the left snaking back into the hardwoods.

The mouth of the dirt road was piled with garbage—an illegal dump consisting of old television sets, bed springs and bottles, dismembered baby dolls and beer cans aplenty.  It was where old sofas and ruined carpets and broken kitchen appliances came to die.

It also reeked of death.  There was usually a decomposing dog carcass or two, sometimes on the bare ground, sometimes wrapped in a sheet or ripped plastic bags.  It is where I became familiar with the process of decomposition as I tried to hold my breath until I passed.

Once past the putrid smell of garbage, the road was picturesque.  It wound through a gorgeous and open oak-hickory forest punctuated by holly trees, dogwoods and the occasional beech.  Where it dead-ended you could hear the roar of water rushing over the shoals, which were a short walk through the trees.

As you came upon the shoals, a fairly level slab of rock stretched ahead and to the left, where it met with the creek. Closer and to the right, though, sat twin boulders, half-overlapping with a waterfall rushing between them.  During the spring when the suckers ran they jumped like salmon in Alaska trying to get past this little waterfall.  Water from here sluiced to the right some ten to twenty yards into a shaded and shallow fishing hole.

If you followed the linear level slab to the creek, you could fully appreciate the shoals.  To the left the creek was still and deep, but at this pinch-point, it met the rocky shoals and roared to the right across a fairly steep drop-off into the deep green swimming hole/fishing hole, a combination waterfall and water slide.  The poor man’s water park.

Across the creek from where the still deep water met the shoals was a rock wall, and all around the creek were earthen berms that must have sluiced water down to the mill when it was operational.  Since no wooden structures remained, I can only imagine that the grist mill itself must have sat below the swimming hole somewhere near the right bank. When we first went there, the millstone sat atop a rock wall over a deep drop off.  Sadly, on a later visit, the millstone was cracked in the bottom of the pit, a victim of vandalism.

This place was pure magic and contained an abundance of micro-habitats up and down the creek, likely forming the collective Holmesfeel for conservation of all things nature.

Upstream the water was narrow, deep and still and there was an oxbow or two alongside the main channel.  It was floodplain habitat.  In winter with a good pair of rubber boots, you could wade and find the gelatinous egg masses of salamanders and frogs.  And on rabbit hunts, you might shoot a cottontail and a swamp rabbit if you were lucky.  An occasional woodcock would flush spinning like a whirligig.

On the left bank uphill from the shoals and swimming hole, there was a tiny almost- xeric habitat where sun broke through the canopy to crumbly rock, prickly pear and lichens in one spot, and club moss under shade not too far away.

Further downstream the woods were wide and open to a bend in the creek where a hill piled with boulders on the right bank gave the feel that you were in the mountains.  You could sit up on the hill there with your BB gun overlooking the creek and pretend you were waiting in ambush for some old-time movie bad guys to come along.

Within eyesight on the same bank, the terrain flattened into a cane thicket. You could almost get lost in it bushwhacking your way through the cane and green brier, and most adults would caution you to avoid going in because you might get “that bird disease.”

Back in those days, there was little concept of private woodlands and posted land.  Unoccupied woods and fields were open to anyone to ramble, fish and hunt.  The Mill Pond was a lot like other sets of shoals in the country—a popular place to hang out and picnic or even camp.  Teenagers went to places like this to do their beer drinking and necking.  And families with small children often made such locations a Sunday afternoon outing.

As people are wont to do, someone bought it and built a house on it.  You cannot go there now, and I am certain I would not want to.  It is still the same in my memory.

I grew up wild here—swimming, fishing, hunting.  Seeing, touching, smelling.  Put a watermelon in the falls and let it get cooled by the water before cracking it open on the rocks.

Time spent at the Mill Pond, I am sure, is time that will not be deducted from my life.

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