Appears the interim director of Uptown Greenville has good knowledge of its operations. So let's look elsewhere, form a...

Google visits Devil's Gut

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Roanoke Outdoor Adventure owner and operator Herbert Coltrain, top, puts on a face mask as he prepares to take out Justin Boner, bottom, with The Conservation Firm as they film for Google Trekker along Devil's Gut along the lower end of the Roanoke River in Williamston, N.C. on Monday, Oct. 19, 2015. (Aileen Devlin/The Daily Reflector)


Beth Velliquette

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Editor’s Note: Check out the March 2016 follow-up story about Google going live with Devil’s Gut.

JAMESVILLE -  Deep in the woods, where the water is dark and even some of the local folk are reluctant to go, the Devil’s Gut of the Roanoke River will soon be accessible to people everywhere - on the Internet.

Early Monday, Justin R. Boner from The Conservation Fund strapped on a 40-pound backpack rig that carried a high tech camera on loan from Google Trekker and prepared to cruise the gut and parts of the river to photograph special camping sites.

Boner and several companions set out from the Astoria Wildlife Landing on the chilly morning to explore miles of the waterway, a swampy loop off of the ancient river. The result of their six-hour trip will be a 360 degree view of the water, the sky, the trees, and the raised camping platforms along the gut and other sites along the Roanoke River Paddle Trail. 

From a couch or desk, using Google Trekker, web surfers can cling to the side of El Capitan in Yosemite with some of the world’s elite climbers, go on a safari in Africa and see elephants up close, explore the deck of the USS Constitution in Boston, hike down into the Grand Canyon and visit Grandfather Mountain. 

The product is similar to the popular street level view of Google maps that gives viewers a chance to virtually visit roads, streets and highways in the United States and around the world, but with Google Trekker people can go off the roads.

Boner and Jazmin Varela, who also works for the Virginia-based The Conservation Fund, attempt to find ways to conserve natural areas in a financially sustainable way for their communities. They met Carol Shields, executive director of Roanoke River Partners, and volunteers Chip Peele and Heber Coltrain, who brought their boats for the mission.

At the Astoria landing west of Jamesville, Boner and Varela coaxed the bright green camera with 15 lenses to work. Each camera takes a photo every two seconds. Coltrain pointed out that cabins, a hotel and a restaurant once stood on the banks near the landing. It was the site of the lumber mill back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the mill workers lived in the cabins, he said.

Just then a bald eagle circled by and disappeared over the trees.

As the group prepared to get in their boats, a couple of men paddled up to the dock. One was standing on an inflatable paddle board, and the other was seated in a canoe. They’d driven from Georgia a few days earlier and spent a couple of nights on the camping platforms in the gut.

Boner boarded a small green and white boat piloted by Coltrain, a Martin County native who is a guide and outfitter for Roanoke Outdoor Adventures, and the rest of the people jumped in an aluminium boat piloted by Peele, a volunteer who likes to hunt, fish and explore the creeks and tributaries along the Roanoke.

The Conservation Fund, with offices in Chapel Hill, partnered with Roanoke River Partners, which built and maintains the camping platforms and created the paddle trail, to apply to use the camera to shoot Devil’s Gut and the Roanoke. They hope people who see and experience the gut and the river on the Internet will want to come to the area to experience it in person.

That’s what the people who formed Roanoke River Partners had in mind even before the Internet or Google were everywhere, Shields said. “The purpose behind the leaders that came together to form this group was to bring new economic opportunities into rural communities as the region was changing, farmers and manufacturing were leaving,” she said.

“The idea of capitalizing on the natural resources to draw some new revenues into the community was the idea that they had; then building camping platforms on the Roanoke River that allowed people from city life to come get back to nature, to have a kind of unique, kind of exotic experience.

That will help the local economy because visitors will buy gas, visit restaurants and maybe buy some equipment, food or souvenirs during their visits, Shields said. Tourism that focuses on the natural resources in an area will help some of the smaller rural towns sustain themselves, she said.

The Devil’s Gut is known for its wooden camping platforms, where visitors can paddle in and sleep on platforms above the water, and its old growth forest and teeming wildlife.

“They bring canoes, kayaks, some of them will fish, some of them will photograph wildlife, some of them just want to be quiet and get back to nature and just have time with their family or old friends,” Shields said.

“It’s like you spend the night in the middle of the Everglades,” she said. “You hear fish jumping all night, and owls calling back and forth.”

The black gum trees and a few bald cypress trees, with their widened trunks rooted in the black water, made the area seem a bit spooky and mysterious, as the boats slowly motored further up the gut to one of the platforms. 

Peele talked about the wildlife he’s seen along the river banks; deer, bobcat, coyote, and hundreds of types of birds. “There’s bears galore here,” he said. 

No one seemed to know why the section of the river was called Devil’s Gut. “It’s always been called Devil’s Gut,” Peele said. “Everybody just calls it the gut.”

Maybe it’s because it twists and turns and circles back on itself so many times.

The Roanoke River is known as the River of Death, and depending on who you talk to, it’s because it’s treacherous and taken more than a few lives, or it’s because when it floods, it has destroyed the crops in the fields along the river banks. 

On Monday, the banks along the gut and the river were flooded after nearly two weeks of rain earlier this month, and some of the wooden walkways that led to the camping platforms were underwater.

You can see the current in the water,” Peele said. “See how it’s twirling and spiralling. That’s water coming over from the river. Normally that would be dry land.”

The photographs that the Google Trekker camera took will be sent back to Google, which will edit the footage. It’s expected to take two or three months to do that work before the Devil’s Gut makes its debut on the Internet.

Officials said the virtual reality will be cause for a grand announcement and an actual celebration.

For more about camping on Devil’s Gut and the Roanoke River, go to: http://www.roanokeriverpartners.org.