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‘Triangle's rivers let canoers get a good paddling’
By ROB SHAPARD : The Herald-Sun
DURHAM -- Banks Dixon is no whitewater snob.
As long as there's enough water to keep one of his canoes or kayaks afloat for a few hours, he's willing to paddle pretty much any body of water. A languid, summertime river that seems to have no current, a narrow creek with overhanging trees and vines or a calm lake mined with submerged trees -- they're all a chance to be outdoors and move through the world via a different means of transit.
Dixon, 31, is a Durham native who's been exploring the natural world in Durham, Orange and the surrounding counties since he was a kid.
He's come to a belief he feels strongly enough about to base his career on: It may not have the wild torrents that often flow in the mountains or out West, but the Piedmont is rich with opportunities for canoeing and kayaking.
"There's a lot more paddling in the area than I think most people realize," he said. "It's definitely graced with an amazing amount of locations. It's worth taking extra time to discover."
Dixon started his own outfitting service a couple of years back called Frog Hollow, running paddling trips in the area, renting equipment and giving lessons.
For a recent three-hour outing with Dixon, the access point was a gravel road at the edge of the Treyburn business park, past a sign that read, "Road Subject to Flooding" -- actually a good sign when you're in search of water. An early-morning fog quickly burned off and gave way to August heat that seemed after a while like it would boil water, which was the color of iced tea in some places and split-pea soup in one of the small tributaries.
Dixon headed down the Eno, which was at a dry-weather low and covered in parts by a layer of green-yellow pollen. The Flat River soon appeared to the left, joining up with the Eno like a highway on-ramp.
At that point, the waterway technically becomes the Neuse River, although many people consider all that area as simply a backwater of Falls Lake, Dixon said. From there, the two-boat group paddled through five more turns in the river and reached the lake, which was dotted with white egrets.
Along the way, several great blue herons stalked minnows in the muddy flats of small coves, and flew off when approached.
Cicadas buzzed in the trees, and annoyed kingfishers gave their staccato squawks. Two beavers tried to scare the boats away from their lodge on the southern bank, and on the way back, a green heron crisscrossed the river ahead of the boats.
A fisherman went by in an aluminum boat, with a 25-horsepower motor and a cooler strapped to the bow, sending out small waves that rocked the canoe and kayak.
"There's your whitewater for the day," Dixon joked, not long before the boat ramp came back into view.
Although he appreciates such a flat-water experience, Dixon isn't immune to wanting some rapids to test his skills with the kayak.
The Eno has stretches that can meet that need when the water is up, and Dixon also mentioned a mile-long "gorge section" on the Little River just above the reservoir in Durham, which runs strongly after heavy rains.
The Haw River also provides some faster-moving water during rainy seasons, as it cuts through Chatham County on the way to Jordan Lake. The Haw attracts quite a few experienced paddlers to sections like Gabriel's Bend and Moose Jaw Falls.
But it also draws people with more bravado than knowledge, and rescue crews have had to pluck several paddlers from the river over the years.
"You get someone with granddad's old aluminum [canoe] deciding they want to get out and brave the river," said Dixon. "The trick is that you don't want to get out on a river when it's up at these massive flood stages. You've got to be very careful about not getting out there and doing something beyond your abilities."
Joe Jacob is another avid paddler who built his work around his love for being outside and on the water. A New Orleans native, Jacob moved to Chapel Hill in 1982 and then down to Chatham, where he started the Rock Rest Adventures outfitting service a few years later.
Jacob, 59, also spent two decades working for The Nature Conservancy. About three years ago, he sold his Chatham business to Get Outdoors, and now he spends the summer months in Alaska, leading canoeing and sea-kayaking trips with his new venture, Alaska Personal Journeys.
He spoke this week from Clam Gulch, Alaska. He said the natural beauty he sees in North Carolina remains important to him as well.
"For me, the Haw River was a real treat, because I grew up in New Orleans," he said. "The only time you would get a rapid was after a hurricane, and the interstate got flooded and the water was flowing over the rooftops of cars."
Even with the growth in the Triangle, people can still get a sense of wilderness spending time on the Eno, Haw and Deep and other local waterways, Jacob said. With his old guide company in Chatham, Jacob asked his customers to do an evaluation at the end of their canoeing trips.
"What I got from those was that people were just trying to de-stress," he said. "There's an insanity that comes with civilization, and people just need to get away from that sometimes.
"There is just a sort of peacefulness that comes from being around water."
<>A few of Banks Dixon's favorite paddles
The Eno River between the Pleasant Green and West Point access points: has both flat-water stretches and some class I and II rapids when the water is up; also sense of history from old mill sites.
The Flat River north of Lake Michie, from State Forest Road to Wilkins Road at the lake: has a Class III section before the lake; also the spot where Dixon first saw a bobcat in the wild.
The Beaver Dam section of Falls Lake: a nice flat-water area where no gas-powered motors are allowed.
The "Three Rivers" area, where the Eno and Flat rivers flow together to form the Neuse and enter Falls Lake: diversity of water types, with the rivers, tiny creeks and lake.
The Deep River along the border of Chatham and Lee counties: flows past areas like the old Endor Iron Furnace and McIver Landing, has a strong sense of history.
The Haw River in Chatham: some class I and II rapids between Chicken Bridge Road and U.S. 15-501, then some more challenging rapids from U.S. 15-501 down to Jordan Lake, through sections such as Gabriel's Bend and Moose Jaw Falls; not for beginners when the water is up.
The Cape Fear River, from Buckhorn Road in Chatham south of Harris Lake, to Lillington in Harnett County: goes past Raven Rock State Park, and includes some camping possibilities along this stretch; Dixon also highlights campsites and Jordan and Falls lakes, especially in the fall.