Hiking to Fish Dam Island at Eno River State Park

Sometimes it’s the little things in life that escape our notice, and sometimes it’s the big things.

When it’s the little things, it’s easy to make excuses. “How was I supposed to know?” is a common refrain, especially when dealing with things so intricate as to be inscrutable — like the tax code or the instructions for putting together Ikea furniture.

But when it’s the big things, it’s harder to make excuses. “How was I supposed to know?” doesn’t seem to hold water when you’re talking about something big enough to be considered a land mass in its own right.

Yet, despite its seeming absurdity, there are times when big things do escape our notice. For instance, when things are so big that they surround us, overwhelm us, or exceed the limits of our senses, we are necessarily beholden to them. Like becoming accustomed to the smell of cow droppings on a dairy farm or the sound of car horns in a metropolitan area, we don’t notice what we’re dealing with because it’s everywhere.

At that point, what we’re dealing with is so big as to be invisible.

Recently I was reminded of this on a hike along the easternmost stretch of Laurel Bluffs Trail at Eno River State Park. I’ve hiked portions of this trail several times in the past (to Bobbitt Hole and Eno River Rock Quarry especially), so it’s no stranger to me. But because the trail encompasses 7.8 miles of terrain that’s extremely hilly and steep in places, with few access points or identifiable landmarks, I haven’t invested the same effort in it as other trails. As a result, I’ve never actually made it to the easternmost extent, where it crosses under Guess Road in Durham, North Carolina.

Map of Laurel Bluffs Trail

So on January 21st, 2020, I decided to work on that, choosing as my destination either Gebel Rock or Fish Dam Island, depending on the time and availability of sunlight. Arriving at the Pump Station access point around 3:00 in the afternoon, I parked my car on the shoulder of the road — which is the only place to park — got out, and started hiking.

After a quarter of a mile, I passed the ruins of the old Durham Pump Station and reached a fork in the trail, with one branch extending upstream to my left and another extending downstream to my right. Since my destination lay to my right, my direction was a given.

Following the course of Laurel Bluffs Trail, I hugged the bank of the Eno River and progressed up one of many ridges, looking for any and every photographic opportunity I could find. After passing through a seemingly misplaced bamboo grove, I came to a bend in the river where the view was simply gorgeous.

Pulling out my phone, I centered my frame between a sycamore tree (the edge of which you can see in the upper right corner) and a river birch and took a photo.

Eno River stretching east

Moving on, I quickly started descending the ridge. As I was going downhill, it occurred to me that I might want to turn around to see if how the sun’s alignment would match the trail behind me. When I did this, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my instincts were correct: the sun was almost perfectly aligned with the trajectory of Laurel Bluffs Trail, creating a compelling photographic composition.

Taking out my phone, I centered my frame, ensured proper depth of field, and took a photo.

Sunlight through branches

Putting my phone back in my pocket, I turned back around and continued down the ridge until I reached a stretch of marshland with a preponderance of pine and sweetgum trees. Veering slightly off-trail, I hugged the bank of the Eno until I came upon another clearing, where the view of the river stretched serenely in front of me.

As I stood quietly and marveled, I pulled out my phone and took another photo.

Eno River by sycamores

After paying my respects, I returned to Laurel Bluffs Trail and continued making my way toward my tentative destination of Gebel Rock, which I was beginning to realize might be a bit ambitious given that the time was about 3:30 in the afternoon and my progress was quite slow due to frequent photographic pit-stops.

Soon I reached one of the few landmarks in this area of Eno River State Park, a utility pole that warns of the presence of buried cable. Remembering from my one prior visit that there was something else of interest ahead of me, I pulled out my phone and took a short video as I hiked the trail.

After passing the garish drainage pipes at the end of my video, I put my phone back in my pocket and headed on.

Rounding another bend in the trail, I continued hiking through a forest of pine, sweetgum, beech, and sycamore until it seemed like there would be no end to it. Then, after four-tenths of a mile, I came to another bend in the Eno, at the exact point on the map above where there was supposed to be something called Fish Dam Island.

Looking out from the canopy of the forest, this is what I saw.

Eno River at a bend

While it did appear to be a penninsula of sorts, it most certainly did not appear to be an island.

Pulling out my map, I was utterly perplexed. As I scutinized it closely, I tried to make sense of where this island was supposed to be. But no matter how many times I looked down at my map, then up at the river, then down at my map again, there was simply no deciphering the location of the so-called Fish Dam Island — which, by this time, I was ready to rename Damn Fish Island.

So, as people often do when confronted with an apparent quandary, I just shrugged my shoulders and moved on, rounding yet another bend in the trail.

Laurel Bluffs Trail

After all, it was only just 4:00, and I figured I had enough time to make it out to my real destination of Gebel Rock if I kept a good pace.

In short time, I came to a stretch of marshland that extended ahead of me for about a half-mile. As I went along, I looked to my right and noticed houses sitting on top of a ridge; apparently I was on the backside of a residential district directly adjacent to the Eno River. Pulling out my map, I checked my position and confirmed that I was in the right place, despite the apparent incongruity.

Finally, I reached the bend in the river directly before Gebel Rock. With mounting excitement, I descended the river bank next to a small stream and looked ahead. I could only make out a hint of what I assumed to be Gebel Rock in the distance, but it was nonetheless an amazing view, which I quickly photographed.

Eno River by Gebel Rock

Returning to the trail, I noticed that I was steeply ascending a hill of some sort, with mountain laurel and sycamore on all sides. As the trail reached its summit, I noticed a granite outcropping in front of me that seemed to be as solid an indicator as any that I had indeed reached Gebel Rock.

Still, I had to check, so I descended the hill on the opposite side and took this short video.

After reaching a dead end on the bank of the river, where I wasn’t able to safely continue, I turned around and headed back the way I came, retracing my steps to the apparent summit of Gebel Rock for a second time.

Despite reaching my destination, I wasn’t quite done yet. After all, I still hadn’t found Fish Dam Island. So, as I was retracing my steps back to this enigmatic land mass, I decided to look again. When I reached the spot where it was supposed to be, I pulled out my map, headed off the trail and down the river bank, and looked back and forth between the two for some sign of what I was missing.

Then something occurred to me. Stuffing my map in my back pocket, I followed the river bank further south, past the trail, to a point where the river seemed to widen in front of me. And when I did, it suddenly hit me.

What I had earlier thought was merely a peninsula was actually a sizable island — which, judging by its position, had to be the so-called Fish Dam Island.

Fish Dam Island

Staring in awe at the thing in front of me — which was so big on its opposite side that I wasn’t even able to discern its bounds — I realized that there are in fact some things in life which are so big as to be invisible.

And that’s why, in order to see them, we first have to change to our point of view.

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