No rules. No lifeguard. No swimsuit. You'll want to keep the noise down since you don't know who's around and whether they'll want to run you off. Something primal surfaces into your psyche and your heart shifts gears when a big pit viper water moccasin swims by. You're alert and full of sauce, gratified to be reminded of the richness of direct sensual experience. Go ahead, dive in.
The secret, unsanctioned swim is a chance to revel in wildness, but it's getting harder to come by in litigious America—especially in the crowded East, which, if the oil holds out, is destined to become one giant interconnected strip mall.
Recently, I had an interesting exchange with Dave Cook, the superintendent of Eno River State Park. It started while discussing the secluded Eno Quarry. When I suggested that signage implied that swimming in the 4-acre lake was permitted, he instantly bristled: "Tell me where it says that. It says 'Swimming is not recommended.'"
"So swimming is prohibited?"
"I didn't say that. I said swimming is not recommended."
"So it's allowed then."
"It's not recommended."
With bullheadedness fit for an attorney general, Cook steadfastly refused to clearly answer my question: Does the park officially allow swimming at this increasing popular site? Though Cook wouldn't acknowledge it, the de facto answer is yes, swimming is allowed, as state law would require the posting of a sign if officials were intending to make and enforce a rule banning bathing.
Cook doesn't want to publicize the fact that swimming is being tolerated, and being a certified divemaster and former lifeguard, I understand why he would want to keep this place under wraps: It's extremely dangerous for unaccomplished swimmers. And even those who are confident in their ability must use caution around this treacherous chasm. The water in the old gravel pit is uniformly deep (reportedly 60 feet), and there's no place to wade. Cook says the quarry is bowl-shaped, with steep walls that drop straight off into an abyss. Also perilous are underwater hazards such as tree trunks, rock outcroppings and man-made debris, all potentially fatal if dove upon or entangled in.
I hesitate to draw further attention to the place for another reason. When I go into the woods, it's often for solitude and communion with the wild, and encounters with people operating cell phones and portable stereos are exceptionally onerous.
Before the park acquired the property from the Coile estate and opened it to the general public, it was possible to hop the fence, take a refreshing skinny-dip and then lie on the quarry's bank to enjoy a good book, say Walden, for example. No more. Now word has spread far and wide, and even on weekdays, the quarry commonly sees a steady stream of unruly adventurers, a sizable percentage of which, I suspect, lack proficient swimming ability.
I also find the monitoring presence of the park service dispiriting—it tends to shatter the illusion that you're visiting a wild place. And since these moral police seem intent on making sure that no "private part" ever sees summer sunlight, those who prefer to swim without encumbering apparel are likely to find themselves entangled in some legal hassle. (For a rundown on how I beat a public nudity rap, see "Uniform citation.")
The reason the quarry was once a more idyllic place probably has to do with the reputation of one self-described "quarry protector," Ron Schores. I encountered Schores only once, but the encounter is memorable since it happened at the end of his rifle.
On the telephone from Texas, where he now lives, Schores seemed surprised that I was able to track him down. He acknowledged carrying a firearm when patrolling the quarry, but denied ever firing it to scare trespassers. Still, he allowed himself some wiggle room by admitting to partaking in "target practice." (I distinctly recall the manner in which he caught my attention: a rifle blast that ricocheted in the trees above my head.)
In 1993, a drowning occurred, and, according to Schores, the estate's widow "wanted a man around" to discourage trespassing. Having the ability to synthesize a persona that more than one person has described as something out of Deliverance, Schores adequately fulfilled his charge. His tenure lasted until 1998. In 2002, the land became part of the Eno River State Park.
- Photo illustration by Rex Miller & Maria Bilinski Shain
- Diving into the quarry
In mid-May, I decided to dive to the bottom of Eno Quarry. Cook had assured me that there was nothing of interest below the quarry's algae-green surface. Still, I wanted to see for myself. I'm not telling where, but there's another quarry, this one crystalline-clear, that has a crane and old dumptruck that are sometimes visible from the surface. I was also spurred on by teenage memories of discovering a safe from a local robbery in yet another secret swimming quarry.
When I contacted Scott Powell, the proprietor of Down Under Surf and Scuba in Raleigh, he quickly agreed to help. Powell seemed excited about the prospect of exploring a place that isn't regularly visited by recreational divers.
While donning our wetsuits and scuba gear at water's edge, we were approached by a park ranger speaking familiar "swimming is not recommended" language. After radioing in the situation, he returned to again try to dissuade us from entering the water. Finally, he departed when it became apparent that we understood the park's unspoken position: We don't like what you're doing but we're not going to stop you.
Powell and I descended near the quarry's center. At 55 feet, we hit the muddy bottom and found the temperature to be a frigid 48 degrees. No sunlight penetrated to this depth, and the water was so murky that it was impossible to see our flashlights at arm's length.
If there's anything at the bottom of Eno Quarry, it would likely take an incredible stroke of dumb luck to land on top of it. Scuba diving may or may not be officially permitted, but considering the abuse my back suffered carrying the 40-pound tank on my shoulder during the nearly 2-mile round trip from the car, I wouldn't recommend it.