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Different strokes / August 13, 2014
Take the observation in the spirit it is given — free of charge, worth every penny — but in one minor respect, Lake Gaston has clear bragging rights over Buggs Island Lake.

No, it’s not the fact Lake Gaston is mostly fluctuation-free and Buggs Island (née Kerr Reservoir) bounces up and down as a U.S. Army Corps flood control impoundment. Much-larger Kerr may be yoked to Mother Nature, but the natural beauty that comes with the bargain is hard to beat. Of course, the more developed character of Lake Gaston appeals to some tastes, but Buggs Island/Kerr features an actual shoreline town in Clarksville and there’s plenty for people to do once they step onto dry land. It’s also easier than ever to get off the boat, thanks to the growth of marina slips in recent years.

Nope, none of the usual Kerr vs. Gaston, Mac-vs.-PC arguments are sufficiently compelling to declare one lake superior over the other. Different strokes for different folks. But on the subject of strokes, you’ve got to hand it to the folks on Lake Gaston: They have a fabulous thing going with their annual August event, The Crossing.

What is The Crossing? It’s as simple as it sounds: An opportunity to cross the lake at Eaton’s Ferry Bridge, either by foot across the highway bridge, or by sea via paddleboat, kayak or whatever goofball vessel you can cobble together, or — my favorite — by swimming the lake end-to-end, from one shoreline to the other. (Swimmers start their mile-long plunge by jumping off a barge that ferries everyone out a short distance over the water from Morningstar Marina, staging ground for the event.) This year’s Crossing was held this weekend, on a very, very dreary Saturday morning. And it was awesome.

This is the second year I’ve taken part in The Crossing. The weather in 2013 was clear and hot, customary for an August morning. This year, not so much. Late in the week, the weather forecast for Saturday pointed to a strong probability of thunderstorms all day long. When I set off around 7 a.m. to make the drive to Eaton’s Ferry Bridge, I figured most likely either the event would be cancelled by the time I arrived, or, almost as bad, only a dozen or so idiots would be there to hitch a ride on the Crazy Barge. Shows what I know: Some 400 people had registered in advance for The Crossing, and I’d be willing to bet that up at least two-thirds braved the steady rain to actually show up.

Speaking of bravery, one of the swimmers Saturday was Army Master Sgt. Cedric King, a Norlina, N.C. native visiting home for the occasion. From his military pedigree, you’d guess King is a stud — but this doesn’t even begin to tell the story. Two years ago he lost both legs after encountering an IED (improvised explosive device) in Afghanistan. He continues his recuperation at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., but King returned to the lake this weekend to attempt the mile-long swim. In brief remarks beforehand, King told the crowd that he hoped to inspire others to achieve greater things and show off his home county of Warren, N.C., in a positive light. Accompanied by his wife, Khieda, pictured below, Sgt. King did the entire community proud. It was an honor to be in his presence. Doubly so to be crossing the same body of water.

South Boston News

And after a few minutes the swimmers were off! The physical challenge can be as grueling or as relaxed as one chooses to make it. (No comment on the length of time it took me to finish. Almost needless to say, others made landfall far out in front. I finished a few seconds behind a woman from Richmond who, in my humble opinion, deserves the title of Iron Maiden. A mom, naturally, maybe in her late 30s or 40s. And just in case you were wondering, no official times were kept, a departure from past years’ practice.)

One more note about the swim itself: If you’ve ever asked yourself the question, “Whatever happened to Flappy Bird?” — the cell phone gaming sensation yanked off the market by its own inventor for being too addictive — perhaps this shot at the finish line will provide a clue:

South Boston News

(Admittedly, the joke would work better as an animated GIF, but what do I look like, a Buzzfeed peon?)

So, let’s get to our point: Buggs Island Lake and Mecklenburg County need something similar to what Lake Gaston has. One of the most appealing aspects of The Crossing is how it unites folks who otherwise might rarely mix it up outside their respective divisions and subdivisions. With events such as The Crossing — and through the work of its sponsoring body, the Organization to Support the Arts, Infrastructure and Learning on Lake Gaston, or O’SAIL — the chock-a-block Lake Gaston community finds common cause, for one wondrous summer weekend, anyway. Might a similar dynamic work to the advantage of Mecklenburg County, too?

Just imagine: a countywide festival/Ironman competition featuring a mile-long swim across Buggs Island Lake in Clarksville, followed by a thrilling bicycle race into Mecklenburg’s interior (with the route ideally snaking through Chase City and Boydton), with the finishing kick in South Hill, La Crosse and Brodnax — a 5K race, a half-marathon, whatever, perhaps taking place on the Tobacco Heritage Trail. Such an event would (1) showcase the county’s natural splendor, (2) draw high-achieving, hard-charging weekend warriors (read: masochists) to the Lake Country for a long, ka-ching-filled weekend and who-knows-what-else after that, and (3) present an organizing challenge for the towns and county that, if surmounted, could lead to other unexpected (and positive) outcomes further down the road. Such an undertaking obviously would have to start small and grow over time, but the building blocks are theoretically in place: a lake, a trail, public parks to serve as potential staging grounds, and communities that could collaborate productively to pull the entire thing off. What could possibly go wrong?

From our talk-is-cheap introductory paragraph, you’ll immediately perceive that last line is a bit of leg-pulling. Staging a county-wide triathlon/marathon/ vomithon would be a major challenge, in the sense that the word “major” can actually mean “quite massive.” O’SAIL enlists some 150 volunteers, many on whom are stationed on the water, to pull off its superbly run event. The volunteer effort required to organize a swimming-biking-running competition across Mecklenburg would be orders of magnitude greater. Tapping a leadership cadre with representatives from each of the county’s communities alone would be fraught with pitfalls. While my command of French is sadly lacking after so many years in the classroom not understanding a lick of what the teacher was saying, I do retain enough of the language to know what I’d say if it was suggested that perhaps I should volunteer: Moi?

Fortunately, there are better people in the community who might just have the time and the patience and the skill to organize an event that would be a lot of fun and even significant from the standpoint of fostering countywide cooperation and civic involvement. Speaking to about 100 swimmers gathered on the banks of Lake Gaston on a thoroughly rotten day, still moving a little unsteadily as he makes the adjustment to life with two prosthetic legs, Master Sgt. Cedric King challenged everyone to test their limits and demonstrate the best that the community has to offer. Fine sentiments indeed. And when an authentic hero speaks, who are we not to listen?

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