Friday, 15 May 2020 11:34

COLUMN: Adventures in the Pee Dee River Hills

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The Pee Dee River serves as the border between Richmond an Anson counties, as seen from Bethel Church outside Ellerbe. The Pee Dee River serves as the border between Richmond an Anson counties, as seen from Bethel Church outside Ellerbe. View photo by William R. Toler - peacock photo below by J.A. Bolton

The Pee Dee River starts around Pilot Mountain and runs 232 miles before emptying into the ocean at Georgetown, South Carolina. It starts out by the name of the Yadkin River and turns into the Pee Dee where the Uwharrie River flows into it just below the dam at Tillery. In South Carolina it is known as the Great Pee Dee and along the river’s basin lies the most beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife to be found.

I have lived in Richmond County all my life and I can’t think of a better way to relax than to take a trip through these old river hills. The section of river hills I’m most familiar with are in the last four counties in N.C. that join the river before it enters S.C.

Most old roads that wind through the hills were once just animal trails. As time moved on and folks started using wagons, the trails were widened into rough roads. When cars and trucks came along, these roads were widened again and now most are paved.

Most of the old farmland that once bordered the river grew up in bushes and trees, but a few of the old cotton fields are still tilled by hardy farmers. Some of the old farmland has been put into pastures, but most is just cut-over timberland which has been replanted in pine seedlings. 

In the past, I’ve hunted, fished, or hiked all over them thar hills. The McRae family owned a lot of the river hills in Richmond County back then. As long as you didn’t trash or otherwise abuse the land, you were allowed to use it. Needless to say, back then there were no four-wheelers or dirt bikes.

Back in the day, many pig paths lead to the river banks. You drove your vehicle as far as you could and walked the rest of the way. Some of the paths were so tight that you had to carry your cane fishing poles over your shoulder to keep them from hanging up in a tree or bush. You knew you were close to the riverbank when you encountered patches of bamboo. 

In the river hills, most wildlife has adapted through the many years man has tried to manage it. In the 40s and 50s, large coveys of quail could be found in lespedeza patches that grew around old home sites, but since then they have steadily declined. Seeing a turkey back then was as scarce as seeing a bear: they were few and far between. Other small game, like rabbits, squirrels and raccoons, could be found all over the river hills. In the winter months, flocks of wild ducks and geese could be seen flying over Grassy Island. Deer were also scarce until the late ‘50s and ‘60s. Snakes have always been something to be aware of while in the hills.

Carolina Power and Light once owned land to the high-water mark along the river banks. Their biggest objective was to produce power, thus recreation on the river was set on the back burner. Most of the old farm land was sold to large timber companies who cut just about all the trees off the land, especially the large hardwoods.

 Today a ride through the river hills reveals a lot of cut-over timberland; fire ant hills, metal gates, and posted signs. Yet the beauty of these old hills still touches my heart. For instance, the view from Bethel Baptist Church reveals the most gorgeous sunset I’ve ever seen. Why, with the timber cut, you can see the water tower in Mount Gilead and the many twists and turns the river itself makes on its journey to the ocean.

Duke Energy, which now owns the land and dam that CP&L used to own, has leased some of its land to the N.C. Wildlife Commission. Much of it is now available for public use. Also, to acquire the new permit for the dam, Duke has built nice boating and recreation facilities at several locations on the river.

Although the quail population is very slowly coming back, the rest of the wildlife population around the river hills has been booming. The deer and turkeys have really come back. Now, there are not many times while riding through the river hills that you don’t spot a deer, turkey, wild hog, or even a peacock. Why, you never know what you might see; even the grave of the grand ol’ man of the river hills, Eben Ingram, or even get a sniff of the Cagle’s moonshine.

Now you can see why my love of the river hills has never faltered. With all the history, folklore, and scenic views, it’s a storyteller’s paradise. 

So if you need a place to just relax during these stressful times, jump in your car and take a ride up in the Pee Dee River Hills. It’s a little bit of heaven on earth.

J.A. Bolton is author of “Just Passing Time,” co-author of “Just Passing Time Together” and just released his latest book “Southern Fried: Down Home Stories.” Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.