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Charles E. Jordan High School

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Sugar Lake Then and Now.... - Carolyn Carson JHS '79


Around 2003, I was in my early 40s, recently separated and living in a two-bedroom apartment with my three kids in the Chatham County part of Chapel Hill.   Our lives had changed dramatically that year.   Sometimes when tragedies come and great change enters your life, some of your past runs together and fades.  We were doing okay, but every single particle of my life was in limbo.  I was slowly returning to the person I had once been.  Sometimes separation and divorce will do that to you, return you to who you once were.  Sometimes its a blessing. 


My oldest daughter, Hope, was probably somewhere around fourteen or fifteen and hanging out with some classmates she had known for most of her life.   I thought I was, if nothing else, a good shepherd to my kids.  I was the honest, straight up mom that told it like it is.  I had been part of a group of kids in high school that were known somewhat for their partying ways so I thought myself to be a cool, well-informed parent.   I thought I knew a little something about kids because of how I was, but that was in the 1970s and things were different. 


In the 1970s crack was something in the cement or between ones cheeks.  Beer was something one could purchase at 18, liquor at 21.   The only people we knew that had tattoos were our fathers, and then only if they had been in the military.  Being gay was taboo.  Piercing was limited to females and it was ears only.   Music was on albums, cassettes, eight track or FM radio.  We didnt grow up with MTV and very few of us actually had cable.  Telephones were in the kitchen and your parents bedroom.  Sexual innuendo and swearing were surprising to hear on any airways.  Birth control was something you did not ask your parents about and as the story goes, safe sex meant your parents were out of town.


Despite the big differences, I came to find out that my kids also believed they were invincible.  Additionally, they had the same thirst for rebellious excitement.  I remember once Hope informed me who she was hanging out with.  I had one of those mom moments where you think.Is that the person I want my kid to hang out with?   Those kids are like.....well, they seem like God Forbid, like  me and my friends at that age!!!.   Then she said it.  She said, we're going to Sugar Lake.


When she informed me that she was going to Sugar Lake, the past flashed in my mind.  Sugar Lake was something I had forgotten about.  Sugar Lake was something that got lost in the twenty-some preceding years of wifehood and motherhood and struggles that brought my marriage to an end.   Some of the past just sprang into my head and then slowly came back in little bits and pieces.  In a moment that was both brief and lengthy at the same time, I thought how long it had been since I had done several things, including but not limited to and in no particular order I had not in twenty-some years:   (1) been intoxicated anywhere but my own home; (2) climbed cliffs; (3) walked barefoot on rocks; (4) listened to a live band; (5) smoked something other than tobacco; (6) plunged off a rock or a diving board into water in which I could not see the bottom; (7) piled untold numbers of friends into a car; (8) bought an inner tube from a guy on the side of the road; (7) floated in water while drinking an adult beverage, before I was an adult; (8) been bitten by a fish; (9) not been entirely sure of exactly where I was; (10) been pursued by an officer of the law for anything more serious than a speeding ticket or most importantly, (11) wore a two-piece bathing suit in public.  :-o.  Among the memories of nudity, underage consumption of alcohol and fish biting, I had a fleeting "holy shit" memory of climbing a cliff in a bikini, mildly intoxicated and trying to get to my vehicle because I didn't care to be in a place where gunfire had become part of the festivities and I didn't know how I would explain to my mother how or why I had gotten shot, in Chatham County, in a bikini, climbing a cliff, after illegally consuming enough alcohol to make the climb more cumbersome that it had been two hours before when I was still sober. 




Warren Toms & Larry Crocker


Nancy Herget-Winkler



Not only was Hope going to Sugar Lake, but it was not her first trip.  Not only was she going, but her little brother and sister were going.  Not only were they going, but it was not their first trip there!   The place I went in my youth that exemplified everything exciting and rebellious, the place I had not thought of in twenty-some years, the place I could not even remember where it actually was..this place was now the cool place my child would visit for fun in the sun, skipping school and partaking of illegal substances.   Ahhhh....I needn't worry.  My children didn't do that kind of thing.   Yeah right!    


Embarrassingly, I am not entirely certain of how Sugar Lake came to be.  I heard stories that it was a rock quarry and during some excavation and underground spring was tapped and water filled the quarry.  I have been told there are excavation equipment and cars beneath the water.  There was an area on the far side that sloped down into the water, but that was not where we went in the 70s.   In the 1970s,  we partied on rock beds.  If you jumped into the water, the leap was at least 20 feet.  If you wanted to get out of the water, you climbed the rocks the same distance or swam to the other side where one could exit the water without climbing.  Being a Durhamite, going to Sugar Lake was a trip.  To get there, you drove forever into the country down Mt. Gilead Church Road in Chatham County.  When you entered the area, there was man on the side of the road selling inner tubes for $5.00 each.   It seems he charged admission, but I cannot remember for sure since I was never the driver on the adventure.  Each car was handed a pamphlet which as I understand it was revised over the years.  This one is from the late 1970s.   



Chatham County was dry a dry county and very rural then so you had to get your adult beverages elsewhere prior to arrival.  In the 1970s and probably into the 1980s there was a diving board and a stage.  There was even a public bathroom.  The Holla Band played at the stage.  Hundreds of people would be floating around on inner tubes, drinking beer, diving off the board or the rocks, sunbathing and picnicking.  Life could not be more carefree.  I suppose this fun continued through the 90s and obviously into the early part of the 21st century, but subsequently the barriers were beyond approach.


I heard those things changed over the years.  I heard that by the time my daughters friends attended Sugar Lake, they had to park outside a locked gate and the place was much less accessible due to the surrounding foliage and lack of road.  It seems the size and aggressiveness of the critters and fish had increased from what she and others told me.   It also seems that the place was policed quite a bit and it was not uncommon to be approached by officers who among other things, confiscated various mind altering goods. 


 In 2008, I had been introduced to a new form of cyber communication, Facebook.  My kids were experts at Facebook, but I was not so sure of how this whole thing worked.  A friend of mine, Cassandra Kramer, had introduced me to Meet-up, a few years prior and I had made a great deal of friends.  Meet-up is a great thing for divorced people re-entering the social scene.  One of my Meet-up friends invited me to join Facebook.   I had heard my children talk about making friends on Facebook.  I was less than curious about it all until I found myself online, looking for friends.  How amazing it was to find people on Facebook that I knew 30 some years before. 


On wintry days when you stay inside, you sometimes do things you wouldnt ordinarily do.  On one cold winter day near Christmas 2008, I decided to start a Facebook Group.  I called it, I Skipped School and went to Sugar Lake.   I put up a few scanned pictures and I invited a handful of old friends to join.  I also invited my daughter, Hope.  Hope invited I dont know how many of her 1000+ Facebook friends.  As of this writing, one day after Hopes 20th birthday, the Facebook Group, I Skipped School and went to Sugar Lake has 677 members spanning more than 30 years of generations.


 Members are invited to write stories about their adventures and include pictures.  The dated pictures of the 1970s and 1980s are so much fun to look at and the stories of youthful rebellion are always fun.  Sugar Lake was a great place that had appeal for so many people in their youth.  In some ways, It is a shame that kind of place is almost nonexistent now.  Liability seems to control recreation to the point where having fun is far too pricey and regimented.  However, being a parent, I think I am more at ease with things at the present state than how it was when I was young.   I am sorry I don't know much more about Sugar Lake or how it came to be.  Perhaps someone from the over 600 people who have joined the Facebook Group will have some knowledge about it.  Even if they do not have knowledge about the history of the place, Sugar Lake provided some fun and interesting memories of carefree youth for several generations