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Our spring paddling fling always points south toward warmer weather, but our destination in years past has been north Florida and a hook up with friends in the Silent Otter Paddling club.
This year we elected to stop well short of Florida, head first for the NC/SC border and then work our way back north sampling North Carolina’s blackwater treats.
First stop, Lumber River State Park. I had a good feeling about this unknown venue just from a phone conversation with a Park Ranger, Neil Lee. A preliminary call for basic information turned into a lively and enjoyable half-hour chat, and I could tell we were on to something good.
Our planned departure pre-dawn Saturday was wisely delayed for 24 hours, as the weather forecast called for severe thunderstorms and large hail in southern NC. Wisely because the drive south on Sunday was pleasantly unharried by bumper-to-bumper Saturday spring break traffic and didn’t involve 8 hours of I-95 in the rain. Good call.
We arrived at the Lumber River State Park headquarters in the early afternoon and who do we meet but Neil Lee. Meet and well met; Neil is everything a Ranger should be – affable, knowledgeable and outgoing.
Neil suggested that we would probably like site #7, but allowed that if we didn’t we could always switch to another site, as, unbelievably, we were the only campers in the park. Neil was right (and not for the last time), sites #7 and #8 are idyllically situated right on the water edge. $9 a night and a bargain at twice the price.
The Lumber River State Park comprises 8000+ acres of land scattered along 115 miles of river, with 5 canoe-in sites, 9 walk-in campsites and a group walk-in site. Their newest drive-in area at Chalk Banks is more primitive than the headquarters area at Princess Ann 110 miles downriver, but is open only on weekend until later in the Spring.
Camp established we took a brief exploratory paddling upriver, pausing on the way back to poke up a feeder creek at the head of Griffin Whirl. Returning to camp we attempted to arrange a shuttle plan for a downriver trip the following day but were unsuccessful in contacting the Fair Bluff area outfitter (River Bend Outfitters).
Our shuttle plans were still in limbo the next morning, and still no answer at River Bend. Just as we were about to go to plan B (drive the van downstream to Fair Bluff and hitchhike back) southern hospitality reared it’s head and a chat with a local visiting the park turned into an offer to follow me to Fair Bluff and drive me back.
Even the volunteer shuttle was a treat, as I was filled in on local history, custom and current events en route back to camp.
That 11.3 miles is the stated mileage from Paul Ferguson’s Paddling Eastern North Carolina. Other mileage estimates are also available; different Park publications and handout have it as 11.7. Time estimates vary even more wildly.
Eleven miles at typical Duckhead speed would be a full days dawdle, but I had forgotten that Diane and the boys are more active and consistent paddlers than my winter companions CWDH and Topher. We paddled a hundred yards, and no muckle up. Another hundred yards, still no muckle up. Soon we had gone a mile without stopping. This could take some getting used to, passing by all those inviting white sand beaches without stopping.
Although my family doesn’t muckle-up as frequently as the winter crew they do share some attributes. Exchanging lead boat positions, so that everyone gets an equal chance to paddle as probe. Exchanging boats, so that everyone gets a chance to paddle different hulls.
And, somewhat surprisingly, standing tall. Diane and Tyler routinely stood in their canoes and paddled with their 9-foot double blades. I was feeling a special kinship with Cooper, who remained seated in his kayak, but when he swapped into the Freedom Solo he too stood and paddled. I still think this is all DougD’s fault. And I guess I need to make some setting poles for the family. The horror…the horror.
We did eventually stop a time or two, as the sandbar beaches invited lunch breaks and leg stretcher stops, arriving at the Fair Bluff take out in a respectable if fast-for-Duckheads pace of over two miles per hour.
Our arrival at Fair Bluff was serendipitously timed, as Stacy Keen, the proprietor of River Bend Outfitters ambled down to meet us, and a shuttle plan for the morrow was quickly established.
Boats racked and a short stop for ice cream we were soon back at camp, settling in for an evening of all-terrain Bocce, a spell of horseshoes at the park-provided pits and the now familiar evening serenade of Pileated Woodpecker drumming.
The Pileated population along the Lumber River is as impressive as any I’ve ever encountered, and the near constant ‘pecker drumming was the first in a continuing series of different dawn and dusk background sounds that would continue throughout the week.
Stacy Keen arrived as promised on Monday morning and, leaving his vehicle at the Park rode with us upriver to the Rte 74 access. Stacy allowed that this was an unusual style shuttle and didn’t know what to charge us. I suggested $20 or $30, and he responded that $20 sounded about right. Nice folk down thataway.
That’s 8.4 Ferguson miles. 9.4 by the Park’s estimate. Apparently in North Carolina distance is relative. Kinda like the suspicions some folks harbor about the veracity of the Duckhead mileage logs.
Ferguson’s guide ranks the scenery for both of these sections as an “A”. Needs an update; although yesterday’s lower section (section 14 in the guide) was unblemished by intrusion, this upper stretch contains several apparently recent buildings and developed inholdings. And far fewer white sand beaches. Still, it is open, unstrainered and pretty enough when away from the occasional structure – give it a solid “B”.
It also has twice the gradient (0.8 feet per mile vs. 0.4 ft/mile) as the lower stretch, and could easily be combined with the next section upriver (8.1 miles from Rte 2121 to Rte 74, 1.7 ft/mile gradient) for a longer day paddle.
Maybe next time. Although next time we’ll probably set this trip up as a downriver camper and stop at the Piney Island canoe-in site along the way. In any case there will be a next time; the Park, the river and the good people we encountered guarantee that.
Breaking camp on Wednesday we headed all of 70 miles away, northeast to the Tortoise Reserve and friend Dave Lee, stopping along the way for moon pies and RC Cola at a Piggly Wiggly. The family had never seen the Tortoise Reserve, and Dave hadn’t seen my kids since they were running around as buck-naked babies. The boys wear clothes with some frequency these days, and one of the babies now goes 6’2” and 230lbs. Trust me, you don’t want to see that running around naked.
Usually Tortoise Reserve visits at least purport to have working intentions – rough carpentry, building tortoise pens, general maintenance – but this drop in was all take and no give, abusing Dave’s hospitality for running water, hot showers, washer and dryer. Oh, and would you mind running shuttle for us Dave?
Another creative shuttle solution – Dave followed us to the take out, left his car, rode along with us to the put in and then drove our van back down to the take out – put us on the nicest section of the South we have yet paddled. We have covered most of the middle South, having now done everything from Rte 242 down to Ennis Bridge Rd.
Next month we hope to float the 13 mile section from Ennis Rd down past the confluence with the Black, and continue filling in the top end with a dawn paddle from Butler Island to NC 242, leaving only the less scenic top end un-paddled.
I deem this the nicest section because it was the narrowest and twistiest piece of the South we’ve covered so far. Relentlessly serpentine, heavily canopied and only minimally strainered, this section is a low-water beauty.
At lower water the few speedbump logs would have been more difficult to thump over. At higher water the few limbo logs wouldn’t have had room to squeeze under (a few were sit on the bottom of the boat close as it was). And of the two get out and portage around obstacles one was a cypress log the size of a school bus and so high or low water wouldn’t make a difference.
The other portage around was a series of 5” thick limbs which necessitated a long, ugly carry. “Necessitated” because I forgot to bring a saw, which would have turned a grueling 100 yard poison ivy and smilax battle into a 5 minute bit of sawyering and free-passage float. Note to self: Buy four saws, put one in each boat.
Narrow, canopied and, at low water, strung with plentiful white sand beaches, beckoning a swim and wet exit practice.
Refreshed and boats rinsed we were back at the Tortoise Reserve in time to again perform no useful work, although Dave did treat us to a scenic tour of another large property along the locks of the Cape Fear, following that with a guided tour of astoundingly tacky White Lake.
Back at the Tortoise Reserve Tyler and Cooper were eagerly awaiting Dave’s promise of a canecutter hunt, but one thing leading to another (one thing being beer, and another being another beer), the evening passed into night gathered around the fire, listening to the South River background music of Whip-poor-wills (whose call does sound like “whip-poor-will”) and Chuck-will’s-widows (whose call sounds nothing like “Chuck-will’s widow”, but is remarkable close to “F@#$ You, F@#$ You, F@#$ You”).
Early to bed and early to rise (well, early to bed anyway, to the disgust of Dave) we were packed, racked and rolling the next morning on our way north to Merchants Millpond State Park for a group canoe-in camper.
Mileage unknown, unless c2g was running his GPS the whole time…it was somewhere between 1 and 100 miles…I’ll just call it an even 50 for the Duckhead mileage log.
This was the first time we’ve been back to Merchants since a semi-disastrous southern paddling trip in 2000. It is still, as always, a wonderful place; the words I see most often used to describe Merchants (and the adjoining Lassiter Swamp) is “a gem”. Or, more appropriately, “A gem of the highest magnitude”. Yeah, that’s it :-)
A multi-faceted gem. The individual/family paddle-in sites are excellent. And the Group sites are fabulous; reservable by any organized paddling club (“organized” and “Duckheads” being two words not often seen in the same sentence), spacious enough to accommodate a dozen tents and an easy-peasy 1 mile paddle through the swamp along a buoy-marked trail.
Did I say 1 mile? I meant 10…yeah, at least 10. Yup – wouldn’t you say so Dave? But, such beauty and luxury comes at a price. A buck a person a night. Unbelievable.
Merchants rents canoes, inexpensively, both for day paddlers and for paddle-in campers, and the launch was busy with rental Discos.
Checking in with the Rangers (and playing my friend of a friend card) I discovered that there were no other group sites reserved for the weekend. This is, mind you, an Easter Friday check in.
Later though, being the properly genial sort of Ranger that I now expect in North Carolina State Parks, they sent the families who arrived too late for an individual site over to one of the empty group sites. Sorta like being bumped from coach to first class. And so we were able to challenge neighbor Ed and sons Grant and Will to a bit of all terrain bocce.
At the bustling landing we hustle off the boats, pack and go. Perhaps a bit hurriedly; the sudden presence of more than a few other humans is a bit of a shock to my perception of reality, given the previous week of nothing-but-elbow-room solitude.
So hurriedly that, after loading boats and shoving them afloat I am again paddling sweep. I really enjoy paddling last, bringing up the rear, lingering and floating by myself. Just floating and thinking.
Paddling last and thinking to myself “Those buoys don’t look orange to me”. I even asked my non-color blind family, but was assured that they had some color on the bottom”. UV faded I guess. Damn State Park budgets. My eyes must be getting worse.
A hint for paddling Merchants – Do not follow the white (duck weed discolored on the bottom) buoys, they don’t lead you anywhere in particular.
Back on track we neared a mime in a kayak. He was doing a piece of performance art that involved much finger pointing and weird pursing of lips. We thought about knocking him out of his kayak to finally answer the age old question “When a mime falls in the water does he make a sound”, but as we got closer we saw the sunning alligator he was in fact motioning towards.
Not a bad sized gator for that far north.
Branching off of the orange buoy trail and onto the yellow buoy trail (which admittedly look exactly the same to me) we were soon at the group sites and staking out or claim. With a spacious group site there were plenty of choice spots, more than enough for our three tents, two hammocks, one Riverwing and sprawling camp kitchen.
I did forget to bring the roll-a-table, mis-remembering the presence of picnic tables. Easily rectified by making log tables. Unfortunately that ease was due to the one recent and devastating change to the Merchants paddle-in sites. During a hurricane a couple of years ago (Isabelle?) the park lost hundreds of huge beech trees. There are still many standing, but the sites were once ringed with enormous grandifolia. One of my favorite trees, and one of my favorite Latin names. Grandifolia. That be some grand crowning foliage.
There is no end of easily collected firewood at Merchants now, and there will be for years to come. Son Cooper is a great lover of scrambling around up, in and on trees, so this was his deciduous nirvana.
Still, I’d rather have the mature beech fortress surrounding the sites.
About the time we got our sprawl arranged the c2g’s arrive. Dave, Terri, Melissa and Tim, paddling two canoes and two kayaks. It’s a solo paddling family congregation we have for the Easter celebration.
Now we’re just waiting for Frank and Doc, and Alex, who is coming tomorrow. It’s hang around the camp and play games time. Although I think c2g disappeared a time or two for exploratory paddles.
A little bocce tournament. Cooper and I, being gracious hosts, allowed Tim and Melissa to win (OK, we got whipped fair and square, rotten kids).
A fierce game of “Oh Hell” (AKA: Tee Pee), a bidding/trump game that brings out the cut-throat and boisterous in my supposedly peaceful Quaker family – I can only bear to watch. And listen:
“I’m 72 points ahead, what could go wrong” I hear Ty boast. And I see a familiar glimmer of fire in Diane’s eye.
36 points ahead
26 points ahead
25 points ahead
17 points ahead
13 points ahead
11 points ahead
1 point ahead
Tyler, son, when will you learn not to mess with mom when it comes to cards. Didn’t I tell you she won me in a game of rummy?
Evening draws nigh, and the third of our variety of dusk music begins. Woodpeckers at Lumber (coyotes too). Whip-poor-wills and “F@#$ You” birds at the Tortoise Reserve. Merchants is all frog serenades.
Not quite the keep-you-awake-at-night cacophony of previous trips, but enough to provide a pleasant “Be-bop…Freeeet - Reeeet…Be-bop” background.
Dusk. Still no Doc. Still no Frank. Ya know, that was a big gator.
A brief shower and distant thunderstorm Friday night was the only inclement weather we experienced on the trip, and Saturday dawned clearing and warm. Breakfast dawdle and lookee there, missing companion Frank is approaching, bearing gifts.
Frank who got caught in a 5 ½ hour traffic back up on the way down, arriving after dark to find the Park gates locked. Frank who slept in his car. Frank who will undoubtedly win a savior award at the 2006 Duckhead ceremonies for showing up with 30 pounds of ice, a pack of Marlboros, two bundles of split, seasoned firewood, a couple of jugs of water and an array of snack foods.
No tent or sleeping bag – Frank has to drive back home tonight. He just paddled in as the roving commissary. Now that’s a Duckhead! All hail Frank.
Still no Doc though. Perhaps we should paddle out and see if the gator looks suspiciously well fed.
The gator looks normal, other than the Tilley caught in his teeth, and the too-late rescue mission turns into a daypaddle up into Lassiter Swamp.
Solo paddling, swapping lead and last, hanging back with friend Frank to shoot the shit, we soon lose site of the boats ahead. I shoot ahead of Frank, paddling hard and finally catch sight of Dave and Tim. Seeing their route selection I stop to wait for Frank to catch up.
I wait and wait and wait. No Frank (getting to be a familiar refrain). C2g and Tim paddle up – from behind me. They must have gotten discombobulated, good thing I’m here to set them straight. I fill them in on which way I believe everyone headed, they paddle on and I continue waiting for Frank.
Then the rest of the Lassiter party paddles up from behind. I tell them that it gets pretty open and windy heady, and that Dave & Tim past me a few minutes ago, and that we might want to turn around and head back.
In the gentlest possible terms (NOT) my teenage sons inform me that “Uh, ‘back’ is this way dad”
What the…? I have a pretty dependable sense of direction, but for some reason Merchants turns me upside-down. Not just paddling – when I get up from the campfire I invariable head in the opposite direction of my destination. No single barrel, no Holy Hand Grenade, no weird Topher Energy Mimosas, no peaty Double-barreled Rgams.
I think there must be some undiscovered iron ore deposit at Merchants that throws off my internal compass.
As dusk approached, Frank took his leave and we stripped him of everything but his canoe, paddle, PFD and what he was wearing – food, water, firewood, ice, smokes - every thing.
This seemed unfair, since he had paddled in with so much. So we sent him out with our accumulated trash.
Doc being gator-chow we are still missing Alex and canine companion Whiskey. There is no alcohol in North Carolina State Parks, but, despite his name, Merchants is dog friendly. Excepting Assateague dog friendly is a Duckhead standard.
As sunset draws near I paddle out to see if I can intercept Alex en route in. Paddling along the buoy-marked trail (Yellow or orange, not white) I am treated to the now familiar experience of encountering c2g, out paddling by his lonesome. Given the chance c2g will paddle.
We muckle briefly ands he asks if he can try my teenage bedwetter stick in his Prospector. I hand it over and grab the spare single.
Look at me, I’m single-blading. Wheeeee!
Ok, ok, it was kinda fun. In a quiet, old-school sort of way. Although it did reminded me of my old ’68 Chrysler Newport when it was only running on 4 cylinders.
Pausing up here and there along the buoys, I was mentally debating if solo devotions constituted a muckle up, when a gunwale thump alerted me to the arrival of Alex and Whiskey.
The gunwale thump was Whiskey’s 47th slippery tumble (of a cumulative total of 300+); either front paws sliding off the bow deck plate or rear paws slipping on the inside of the canoe. He does have a proud and balanced stance in the canoe, he just needs some traction.
Alex- you need to come visit for a day, we can do a little outfitting – bow wow and otherwise – on your boat, and probably have enough time left to float a piece of the Gunpowder.
This is what had been missing from a classic Duckhead trip – A DOG.
No Leah/Lucy/Rikki/Dr.Bob/Wilma/Buscuit/Molly/Ruthie/Baxter and a couple of dozen other canine canoeing companions. I was missing my vicarious dog time.
Let us bow our heads for a great canoe dog; RIP Lucy. Daughter of Leah, sister of Doc Bob, bow-seated star of Paddler Magazine photos, companion of many an adventure. You were such a good girl, and with you passes the last of a generation of Duckhead dogs.
But the next generation is coming. Whiskey did great for his first long paddling trip; he handled the sensory overload well, at least until the Duckweed illusion got to him on the paddle out.
And he’ll have company in his next generation canine pals - Mobey, Sadie, Wrigley, Linus and others.
All our companions now accounted for, except the unfortunate Gamey mississippiensis meal, we settled in again for our last night of blackwater swampin’.
Alex had brought treats - little did I know all of the devious goodies Alex had brought – courtesy of the South River refrigerated canned good supply.
Ah, aged Mah-an-wauk-seepe, from the Potawatomi, meaning gathering place of rivers. A perfect sustenance for a gathering place by a river. I have always suspected there was a deep, hidden mean behind by Dave’s favoring of that swill. (Sampling one from the basement I find it disturbingly distasteful – it needs company, desperation, a powerful thirst and no other choice else remotely available).
Alex – no Guinness? WorkerDave would be appalled.
More fireside circling, several challenging games of Botticelli (the c2g clan is killer at being “it” in that game) and piles of fire wood, gotta burn it.
Combine a small Eastwing axe, a bow saw, abundant downed & dried wood and an old Bunyan-esque-ian forester with toys at hand and kids to teach and, well, suffice it to say we left a nicely sawn pile for the next folks (I’d still rather have the grand beech trees).
Seven days in blackwater repose and finally, on Saturday night, I managed to stay up past 10pm. If only Dave Lee were here to see me now.
Running such a surplus of sleep roused our entire crew at an early hour and, with a dark cloud band on the morning horizon portending unsettled weather, we packed up fast and dry and were too soon paddling out.
Whiskey, who had been engaged in a weekend’s long theological debate with the scattered covering of duckweed, deciding if he should be Jesus and walk on water (“It looks solid”) or Moses and part the sea (“Behold, as I leap and swim the duckweed parts before me”) finally elected to test the waters.
I don’t think it was a deck standing bow-wow tumble, I think it was a deliberate abandon ship decision. Alex effected an inaugural dog re-boarding (efficiently done too – lemme tell you some dog and canoe stories, Alex – you done good).
So, once is an accident, twice is a pattern. I saw the second Whiskey wet exit, and it was straight into a thick patch of duckweed. It was no accident, it was an experiment.
And that joyous experiment at that, bounding up and down around the cypress tree shallows, coating himself with an encrustation of duckweed - that was his eureka moment! Behold as I part the duckweed!
With Whiskey again re-boarded, thoroughly loaded with new experiences and now destined to sleep for the next 12 hours, we paddled the remaining hundred yards to the take out. Dang, I think, this was too quick.
OK, lesson learned; never say the trip ended too quickly.
Tyler drives our ride down to the landing as Cooper tells me “You’ve got to see the van”. The first thing that crosses my mind is that a tree has fallen on it (once you awakened to see a large Locust tree crushing your van you never forget it).
But it’s not a locust tree. It’s thousands – no tens of thousands – of jelly beans festooning every nearly horizontal surface of the van. Rain gutters, roof, roof racks, hood, wind shield wipers, bumpers. You name it, if it would hold an ovoid in place, it was jelly beaned.
One of Dave’s henchmen (hench-women? Wench-homen?) had paid us an Easter visit.
Oh, not just covered with jellybeans; it had been hot and sunny out, covered with melted jelly beans.
Oh, paybacks are gonna be hell. Especially since this was itself purportedly payback for what was, in fact, not my deviousioty, but, as I recall, a Dave Maneval Easter commemoration.
I was though pleased to see that it was a case of massive retaliation. I respect that, even if it was mistaken retaliation. After driving down to the landing there were still thousands of jelly beans stuck to the van. Ty and Cooper picked off the relatively un-melted beans one by one and filled a gallon zip lock.
Paybacks is a coming and they gonna be hell. Massive retaliation. You betcha.
Oh, wait, that’s not the end. We de-bean the van, rack the boats, load the gear, say our goodbyes…and the key won’t turn in the ignition. 10 minutes of struggling and silent cursing and it still won’t turn. You would think pleas like “Come on baby, just one more time” would have some effect. Nope.
AAA called, a locksmith dispatched, a WWMD (What-Would-Maneval-Do) plan B envisioned: If the locksmith can’t fix it, Diane, you paddle back in with the boys and live on used jelly beans and Old Mah-an-wauk-seepe. I'll get a tow and sleep in the van at garage, wait for it to open and come get you Monday. Or maybe Tuesday, it’s Easter Monday, so who knows if a garage will be open.
Fortunately the local locksmith, who had been to Merchants the day before for a rental canoe “Keys went ‘plonk’ in the swamp” episode, was a skilled older gentleman, who arrived in a similar Ford van, knew his stuff, started the van and suggested we drive home without further key turning.
Compared to being towed from Maine to New Hampshire, renting Ryder trucks and flatbed trailers to haul derelict vehicles through the rest of a trip and back home, calling tow trucks into the depths of Green Ridge State Forest, or New Germany State Forest or other unidentifiable East Bupkiss Nowhere areas (“Where are you again exactly?”), and once locking 5 sets of keys in the van, eh, this was nothing.
Great trip. Great weather, Great rivers. Great company. Next year with Dave, Anita and Sadie, canoe camping on the Lumber, followed by some Canecutter catching at the Tortoise Reserve.
It’s a plan.
More pictures of this trip are available at:Webshots
Free Standing Boat Racks
The Kayak Wing
Gedi Convertible Helmet