Harris recounts tale of survival

Published 1:15 am Thursday, May 12, 2011

Alva Harris did not want to die.
He fell out of his Core Sound skiff, The Grey Ghost, while pulling the boat-motor’s crank cord in preparation for a return trip home. Harris had been rowing on the Neuse River about 50 miles from the Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, relaxing while looking at nature.
He and a friend built this boat in an attempt to relive youthful days of boating on the Pungo River.
Harris now had to fight to survive. His feet were submerged in mud, and his only chance was to push the skiff to the bank. He made progress and was able to reach the bank. Then, he was unable to pull himself into the boat because of weakness caused by Parkinson’s disease.
Eventually, another motorboat owner spotted Harris and helped him into the skiff. He offered to pull Harris ashore, but Harris refused. He wanted to row back himself, for his “own self-respect.”
Immediately after the would-be rescuer left, Harris, searching for his water bottle, fell and wedged himself between the seats of his boat. He lay in the boat for an hour thinking. “This is an  interesting way to die.”
Fortunately the same boater came by again, saying, “This time, I’m towing you in. I won’t be back by here tonight.”
Harris did not refuse.
At a book signing last week at the Belhaven library, Harris said he learned something important from that episode.
“You’ve got to learn to recognize your abilities. What you can do and can’t do. I was trying to retain my youth, and it didn’t work,” he said.
Harris’ wife, Donna Ange, described how he looked when he came home that day.
“He was sopping wet from head to toe, standing in his skivvies. The phone was ruined, the wallet was completely gone. I had not been around boats, I am not a water person, but I got a clue that this was not good,” she said.
Harris told this anecdote as an addendum to a reading of his memoirs, “Born on a Buzzard’s Stump: The Memoirs of a Darwinian’s Quest.” Harris told several other tales of survival, adventure and courage to an audience of about 30 people who asked questions about various developments in Harris’ life.
“I think the fact that he was coming home was probably the main reason that there was such an attendance,” said Mamie Alexander, publicity chairwoman for Friends of the Belhaven Public Library, sponsor of the book-reading event.
Harris had a variety of experiences and roles in his life as a trapper, taxidermist, commercial shrimp fisherman and frog-and-snake collector. He also served three years during the Korean War aboard a Coast Guard ship, mined for gold in Alaska and obtained a Ph.D. in parasitology and animal ecology. He taught marine biology in Louisiana for 25 years. Stories based on these experiences illustrate the book’s theme of nature’s lessons for mankind.