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Cape Fear Riverwood: From waterlogged to high-end flooring perfection

      More than 100 years ago, on this stretch of the Cape Fear River fronting downtown Wilmington, N.C., you would have seen holding pens piled high with pine and cypress logs ready for the saw mill. Today, in their place, you'll see a barge and crane dragging up those old, long-forgotten logs from the bottom of the river, so they can be milled into luxurious, eco-friendly flooring for homes throughout the South. 

      The business behind pulling up those old "sinkers" is Cape Fear Riverwood, based in Navassa, N.C. In January 2008, Jesse Jarrell and wife Anna acquired the business that turns river-recovered wood and building-reclaimed lumber into high-end flooring, paneling, beams and mantel pieces -- despite the fact that neither had experience running milling machinery. "I look at it as an adventure," says Jesse. They pair were drawn, as are the company's customers, to the unique history and lore of the logs themselves.  

      The story of the logs begins more than three hundred years ago. In the 1600s, when North Carolina was originally settled, its forests were dense with long leaf pine and cypress trees. They were slow-growing trees, taking up to 200 years to reach maturity and, as a consequence, were extremely durable. It became the lumber of choice for boats, buildings and homes. King George III claimed the largest trees within three miles of the Atlantic for himself -- earning heart pine the nickname of "the king's wood." Cut timbers were floated down the Cape Fear River to the port city of Wilmington, where saw mills stood. Loggers stored the logs in holding pens on the river, because the supply was so enormous and because it kept them from cracking. Inevitably, the densest logs sunk to the bottom of the river and embedded themselves in the silt and mud. Because the supply was abundant and there was no way to retrieve them, loggers didn't bother reclaiming their loss. Deprived of oxygen, the logs remained under the mud, without rotting, for sometimes hundreds of years.  

      Knowing that historical back-story helps today's log-recovery team at Cape Fear Riverwood locate where to find old timbers lying at the bottom of the river. "The process starts out with historical information -- old maps showing where different things were. When we see an identifying marker, like where a log pen might have been, we go in with sonar to look for activity on the bottom," Jarrell explains. His team uses a crane to lift out mostly pine and occasionally cypress -- and a lot of mud in the process. Then the recovered logs go to Cape Fear Riverwood for milling. 

      The end product is riverwood -- golden-toned, custom-milled, heart pine lumber. "It's got a lot going on, from a color and grain standpoint," says Jarrell. "I think everybody who hears the story finds it interesting. They want to know how the logs got there, how we got them up and what's our manufacturing process is." William and Sharon Keech in Raleigh wanted to know more. So before making a decision, they drove to Wilmington and what they saw at the mill swept them away. "We were totally unprepared for how beautiful it was," says Sharon. "And we were fascinated by how much care Jesse took with the wood, how labor-intensive the process is. My husband made the decision right on the spot. I remember thinking, 'I would love to live with this.' It felt like satin under foot." The Keeches remodeled a third of the second story of their home with recovered riverwood. "During installation, our builder kept stopping the process to take photos. He said it was the most beautiful thing he'd ever done," Keech says. 

Using repurposed wood means no living trees are cut. And the supply of river-recovered wood is plentiful: Since 2000, the team has been retrieving logs from the same mile-long stretch of the river -- and they have three more miles they can tap. The only "new" flooring Cape Fear Riverwood sells is FSC-certified, made from trees that have been sustainably harvested. In an effort to be fully green, the Jarrells recycle all their company's byproducts: Sawdust and shavings go to local horse farmers for bedding, and the rippings (the part of the board that is trimmed off) and bark are turned into mulch. "I think the previous owners burned a lot of the waste, but we changed that. We thought it was important to do," Jarrell says. 

      While taking care of remnants of North Carolina's past, the Jarrells are looking out for future generations of Carolinians by following sustainable practices. And in the process, they're helping customers make their own connection between the past and the future. "It was exciting to see the wood and how they harvest it out of the river. And I'm left with the feeling that the history of North Carolina is in our floor, that we can feel it under our feet," says Sharon Keech. "We didn't just buy wood, we bought a story."