River Culture: Ephemeral River Art

Sandcastles of the River


I first met the Lone Kayaker many years ago as he was stacking rocks in the river. Moving slowly and deliberately about shin deep in the riverbed the short stack grew surprisingly quickly. The rocks, harvested from the riverbed where he stood, were tightly fitted forming a 4 foot tower – plum straight with four sharp corners. It was simple and beautiful … and ultimately very temporary.

If you’ve floated the Dan River in the Hanging Rock State Park and Danbury, NC area over the past 15 years you’ve probably seen one.

While I didn’t really need an explanation for his work (which I’ve helped with from time to time) he has provided a few different stories. Initially I understood them to be “Monuments to the River Gods” for the purpose of taunting the deities to knock them down with high water. This made sense for very practical reasons: paddling the river during low water is not so much fun … and building stacks in the riverbed is really only possible during low water. Regardless the truth of mystical “River Gods,” building massive and beautiful towers when the river is low and ‘boney’ is not a bad way to spend your downtime.

Since then he’s given me a couple other explanations as you’ll read here – in his own words:

I was on my way to the Dan River to go kayaking not so long ago and stopped at the Danbury General Store to get some snax to take with me. As I stood by the counter waiting for my turn I noticed a picture of a stack of rocks. I recognized the stack of rocks as being the Snake House on the Dan River at the Playwave. I also recognized it was the Snake House of 2013. I knew because I am the one who built it. I reached over and picked up the picture. There was a whole stack of them. It was a 2016 calendar put out by the Stokes County Arts Council. At that moment time stood still and my mind raced back to that day in time. It was early June. I was trying to get it built before June 21. I’ve built a Snake House on the river every year for so long I can’t remember them all. But that day in June 2013 I had paddled to the Playwave and was working on the Snake House. It was up to about 4 feet high when a man came floating down the river and paddled up to me. “Hey, I want to ask you something. Is that supposed to mean anything?” I could tell from the tone of his voice he wasn’t really interested in the stack of rocks. He was just wanting to be a smart ass.Without even turning around I said, “Well, it falls on the Arcadian Layline.”“The Arcadian Layline?” he said in a puzzled voice. By then I was walking away from him picking up more rocks. I said, “Yeah, you know like the Georgian Guidestones.”

As with an elaborate sandcastle at the beach which might take many hours of labor to complete only to be wiped clean by the daily tide – you don’t build with the expectation that the work will survive long. The Lone Kayaker – from my personal observations – builds for the joy of the process and to create something of substance and beauty. Providing shelter for the river’s water snakes adds a more tangible purpose. Teasing passersby is just a side benefit.

The appearance of permanence on a stage of constant change where creation and destruction are the closest of friends.


[NOTE: The Lone Kayaker – as he mentions in his story – is not a very social person and values his privacy above just about anything else. While many know his true identity I am honoring his artistic requirements.]

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