NC Signature Magazine
Have Paddle, Will Travel
The Roanoke River Paddle trail offers beautiful scenery, an array of wildlife, and, most important, a dry place to pitch your tent.
Written by Diane Daniel
Here’s something you might not know: River otters hold pool parties at night. They jump and dive and splash, and sometimes they get into argument, but this seems to get settled quickly.
When my husband and I spent a night camping on a wooded platform in a swamp off the Roanoke River, we were expecting to hear birds, and especially owls, who say a lot more than “hooo … hooo.” They can get downright feisty, making all sorts of eerie, wonderful cries that blanket the forest. We were prepared for that. We were not, however, expecting of all that splashing. Maybe that’s why we couldn’t stop chuckling.
“A lot of people are surprised by the sounds in the water,” Cindy Tripp told me later. “People don’t realize how alive the swamps are.”
Tripp is the executive director of Roanoke Rive Partners, a nonprofit group based in Hamilton that a decade ago by volunteers from five counties was created along the Roanoke. The group started and maintains the Roanoke River Paddle Trail, 200 miles of interconnected creeks, rivers, and swamps, mostly surrounded by protected land, with 12 camping platforms and more to come. Las year 878 overnight permits were issued, and many more used the trails for just a day. During the six yeas the group has registered campsite, there have been visitors from 28 states and three foreign countries, Tripp says.
You don’t have to be a skilled outdoor adventurer or an experienced paddler to appreciate the backwater beauty here. Slough some campers do multiple-day trips, we kept it simple by going out for only one night and to a perch that took only three leisurely hours of paddling to reach. We stayed on slow-moving creeks about 150 feet wide and had maps and good directions. The route was marked, although that is not always the case.
We started our adventure, as many do, Roberson’s Marina, between Williamston and Jamesville, which sells permits and rents canoes.
After a few twists and turns up Gardner Creek, the din of U.S. Highway 64 faded, and the nature show unfurled. Along the course, we admired miles of graceful, curvy cypress and tupelo trees, some dripping Spanish moss, and clusters of knobby cypress knees. Flowering trees and others sporting palettes of new spring green stood stark against a deep blue sky, with the whole stunning scene reflected below on the tannin-stained water.
We passed turtles sunning themselves on logs, watched fish pp the water’s surface, and admired the results of several beaver engineering projects.
As we hoped, it was bid paradise. Great blue herons and pure-white egrets soared overhead and strutted through the swampy woods. Woodpeckers’ rat-tat-tats filled the air; a bared owl barreled over our heads.
Few humans wee in sight. Three motorboats with fishermen passed us slowly, as well as a foursome from Raleigh, and Charlotte paddling in kayaks. We’d chatted with them at the start, and wee hoping to stop by their platform for happy hour.
By the time we neared Beaver Lodge platform, we wee deep inside another world. To get there, we tuned off from the main creek onto a smaller branch that fed into a swamp and dodged tees until we spotted home, a double platform connected to Beaver Tail by a walkway. Each has a privacy wall for the privy. This I s not a good place for sleepwalkers, although the water seemed mostly shallow.
After quickly setting up camp, we paddled back out to the creek and up to the Barred Owl platform, where our new friends had cold beers waiting. They were camping for two days and reported later that they’d taken three wrong turns the second day, but still had the time of their lives.
My husband and I were back in our camp chairs by sunset. As dusk became dark, the swamp snapped to life, and those boisterous otters kept the party going under the dim light of sparkling stars.
GEAR UP, RENT A BOAT, HIRE A GUIDE
Frog Hollow Outdoors
Owner Banks Dixon leads regular day and overnight trips on the Roanoke, provides instruction, and rents kayaks and canoes. [Frog Hollow also provided insight and planning logistics for Diane Daniel’s trip]