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Two youthful excursions down the Haw River to the coast become topic for book 60 years later

Nearly 60 years ago, when a group of four young men pushed off from the banks of the Haw River on a homemade raft, none of the rookie sailors had any inkling of what they’d discover on their trek to the sea — let alone that it would become material for a book.

Now, after two years of writing, rewriting, and editing, an account by the oldest of the four, Herman Johnson, details the first journey in 1962 and a second in 1974 with a different crew. Still, he told The Alamance News, even though it’s available to the public, it wasn’t originally planned for such a broad audience.

“I was going to write a little story of the trips and things for the grand-youngins’,” the 80-year-old said in an interview last week. “When we started writing it, it just kind of evolved. I thought it was going to be a little story, and it turned into a book.”

“We wanted them to know the stock they came from,” he added.

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While the majority of the book, Rafting Down the Haw River to the Sea, vividly details Johnson’s and his family and friends’ two adventures down the Haw River to the mouth of the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, readers can also find a more personal, autobiographical section at the end — including sage entrepreneurial advice accumulated over decades of operating his own business — written up primarily for his descendants.

In detailing the two trips and how they were planned, Johnson illustrates the challenges that the groups faced, from being thrown from their vessels in battles with rapids to encountering storms and a couple of less-than-savory characters.

“Some of them fellers had been fishing on the river all their life — never seen anything come down the river, never a boat come down the river.  Then, all of a sudden, here comes this thing and us on it, pulling up and asking questions about where we were at.”

– Herman Johnson, author of Rafting Down the Haw River to the Sea

Still, he notes, the wonders along the river worked their way solidly into his memory and those of his fellow crew members, who were mostly comprised of close family. As of the first trip, none of the young men had ventured far from their homes in Alamance County, making the adventure downriver an orientation of sorts to the world past the county line.

Most of the few people that the men met along the river were kind, curious, and simply surprised, Johnson explained, adding, “They were astonished more than anything.”

“Some of them fellers had been fishing on the river all their life — never seen anything come down the river, never a boat come down the river,” he said. “Then, all of a sudden, here comes this thing and us on it, pulling up and asking questions about where we were at.”

insight from the trip: “We’re seeing basically the same thing that we would’ve seen if we’d been there a thousand years before.

– Herman Johnson, author of Rafting Down the Haw River to the Sea

Along the way, Johnson writes, were sights like a massive geological formation not yet taken in by the National Park Service; an equally grand, man-made wonder resting in the middle of the Cape Fear; and stretches of the river so wild that he felt transported back in time.

“I thought about it a lot on the first two trips we made,” Johnson recalled. “We’re seeing basically the same thing that we would’ve seen if we’d been there a thousand years before.

“Even though it’s built up more than it was then, you’re still very much in the wilderness,” he added. “Your attitude kind of changes. You know that you’re heavily involved in a natural situation, and you begin to understand a little more about survival and things like that.”

“It’s a big accomplishment. I’m very proud of it. I’m very proud of him, because not only did he run our company, but he sat in [his office] and wrote day after day.

– Patty Johnson Wilson, Herman Johnson’s daughter

Johnson, who acts as chairman of Haw River’s planning board in addition to owning and operating Burlington Mechanical Contractors, credits the younger of his two daughters, Haw River council member Patty Johnson Wilson, as crucial in getting the book to print. As he steadily jotted down the story on pieces of paper during brief breaks at the office, Wilson, who serves as an accountant for her father’s business, edited and typed his words.

“It’s a big accomplishment,” Wilson said. “I’m very proud of it. I’m very proud of him, because not only did he run our company, but he sat in [his office] and wrote day after day.

“I enjoyed the [stories of the] river trips,” she added. “But I also want his grand-kids and his great-grandchildren to know the trials and tribulations that he went through these 80 years of his life. To see what the world was back then, and how hard he had to struggle, and how hard he had to work to get where he is now.”

Necessary breaks were taken from writing as business picked up, she said. But, like the plans of many others that were embarked on in 2020, the writing process took an unexpected turn with the onset of the pandemic.

“COVID hit, and my uncle got sick,” she said, referring to Herman’s brother and crewmate on the second trip, James Harold Johnson.

“He passed away while I was writing the book,” Johnson added.

With one of the book’s greatest supporters, and a useful set of memories, passed away, Wilson said that completing the project became “a mission.”

Now completed and published at the end of March, Johnson’s family has shared dozens of copies, with others being distributed and sold by others, like former Haw River museum director Gail Knauff. Copies can also be found online at Amazon.

Meanwhile, Johnson, who built his home years ago next to the river and has long been an advocate for its protection, acknowledged that he has moved past his days of braving the river on makeshift vessels. But that didn’t keep him from encouraging others to make the trip, albeit with safer, white-water rafting equipment.

“Get it and go for it,” he said. “It’s a wonderful experience.”

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