Christy had a week off for Spring break before Easter, and we decided to take advantage of it by heading towards the coast. I've lived in North Carolina for 20 years, but I'd never been to the outer banks. We decided to correct that problem on this trip.
One of the reasons I'd never been to the outer banks is the difficult drive. All the websites suggest driving from Charlotte through Greensboro and Raleigh to get to Morehead City and the southern outer banks. The idea of driving through Charlotte, Greensboro, and Raleigh on a Friday afternoon is enough to make me want to go another direction. We decided to take the back way.
We took 74 through Monroe, which was the worst part of the drive. After that tedious stretch, we actually traveled highway most of the way to Lumberton. From there we followed a series of back roads to Jacksonville. Along the way, we passed over many of the premier blackwater rivers in the state. First we crossed the Lumber, and then the Cape Fear, the South, and the Black were within a few miles of each other. Later, we crossed the NE Cape Fear. Finally, late in the day, we crossed an ancient bridge over the Whiteoak River in the tiny community of Stella. I scoped this one out carefully, as we planned to paddle it the next day. After 5 hours of driving, we had nearly reached our destination, but we still needed to find a place to camp.
We drove into the Croatan National Forest on Great Lake Road. A friend of ours had told us about some great car camping spots in the area near a lake. Unfortunately, he couldn't remember the name of the lake. I guessed that it might be Great Lake, but I must've guessed wrong. We drove all the way to the lake, and saw only one decent campsite along the way. That site was occupied, and it was starting to get dark. To complicate matters, it had rained the previous 5 days, and an already swampy area was unusually wet. There were occasional side roads, but most were a muddy mess. We debated camping at the parking area at the lake, but decided against it. There was a gated road here that might have led to campsites, but it was flooded. In the end, we decided to head back down the road in hopes of finding a spot that we'd overlooked.
We explored a couple of passable side roads but couldn't find any dry ground to camp. Finally we found a narrow forest road that looked promising. I got out and scouted it on foot. It stayed dry for a hundred yards or so before encountering a shallow pool. It looked passable, but it was impossible to determine the condition of the road beyond it. In the distance, the road reached a field that looked like it might have campsite potential.
I returned to the car, and reported what I'd found. I told Christy that I didn't think we should try it. The next thing I knew, she said she wanted to give it a try, and the Volkswagen disappeared into the woods. I walked after the car, and skirted the first puddles. Beyond, I could make out the shape of the Jetta, with the canoe on top, stuck in the mud. The car was at the edge of the field, but could go no farther. Christy tried rocking it back and forth, but it was no use. The water on the right side of the car was up to the bumper.
It was just about dark when I waded into the icy swamp water to push. I tried not to think about what else was swimming around in there. Snakes? Alligators? Between Christy's rocking and my pushing, we were able to get the car within a few feet of being out. In fact, the back left tire was on dry ground. Unfortunately, the front right tire was in a deep hole. No amount of pushing or rocking was going to move it. The low point came while I was trying to push. I was already knee-deep in the muck, and straining with all of my strength, when the tires spun, sending a sheet of frigid swamp water into my hair and down my back.
Temps were in the 40's and I was in blue jeans, and the possibility of hypothermia seemed all too real. What to do? We had a cell phone, but what were the chances that we could find someone to tow us out on a Friday night? Finally we decided to walk down the road to the campsite we spotted. Hopefully they'd be able to help us out.
We weren't sure how far we'd have to walk. I was afraid it might be a mile or two, as the campsite we'd seen was near the beginning of the road. Luckily, it was only a couple hundred yards. We reached the campsite, which contained several tents and a couple of vans. This wasn't the pickup trucks I'd been expecting. The campers were a Biology class from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. They were in North Carolina looking for plants and animals, especially reptiles. They had endured a week of rain but were still in pretty good spirits. They were a friendly group, and more than willing to try to help. The vans never would've been capable of pulling us out though. Instead, they offered to let us stay with them for the night. We returned to the car and retrieved the essential gear. We returned to the campsite, where they fed us some wonderful chili that finally helped me begin to warm up. Unfortunately, I had completely forgotten dry shoes, so I had to walk around barefoot all night.
That night, I slept fairly well except for one nightmare that involved the Jetta slowly sinking into the swamp, until only the top of the canoe was visible.
In the morning, our generous hosts fed us breakfast. Then, several of the bravest souls tried to push the car out. Even with 8 people pushing, it wouldn't budge. It seemed that it had sunk further into the mud overnight, to the point that it wouldn't move at all. We returned to camp, and I debated who to call. Who do you call when your car is stuck in a swamp in the middle of nowhere?
I had been exchanging emails with a local outfitter for the past week. He was going to shuttle us for our Whiteoak River trip that morning. I called Scott at Boondocks, in hopes that he could recommend someone to call. To my amazement, he told me that he'd come and get us within the hour. An hour later, he arrived with his father in a powerful 4WD pickup. They backed all the way down the narrow track, and hooked a chain to the hitch on the Jetta. They pulled the car out in no time. It was like magic watching the car emerge from the swamp. Picture, if you will, Yoda levitating Luke's spaceship out of the swamp in "Return of the Jedi". That's what this looked like. Scott acted like this was an everyday occurrence in the area, saying that they'd pulled a friend out of a ditch only a few days before. We thanked them repeatedly, and made plans to meet up with Scott to do the shuttle after we'd gotten organized.
We returned to camp, this time driving the car. Our hosts from Gettysburg were packing up, just as the sun was finally coming out for the first time all week. Before they left, they freed many of the reptiles they'd caught during the week. There were several interesting lizards, but most impressive were the snakes. The red-bellied water snake was rather intimidating, especially when he opened his mouth. He was not in a good mood. They also freed a large Black Racer. The most interesting though was a colorful Corn Snake in the process of shedding his skin.
We wished our new friends a safe journey and claimed the campsite for another night. Then we organized our gear and drove back down to Boondocks. It was almost noon, but there was still plenty of time to paddle.
Now, it's time for "vote for your favorite joke." Which of these phrases best sums up the first day of our "adventure"?
We drove back down to Stella and met back up with Scott. Our original plan had been to paddle all the way from US 17 in Maysville to Boondocks in Stella. That's a 19 mile run though, and would probably take 8 hours. Due to our late start, we decided to try an abbreviated run. For a modest fee, Scott followed us to Haywood's Landing. We left our car at the parking area, and rode with Scott to Maysville. When we reached the campground, we found the river flooded. The stream was well out of its banks, and running fast. Scott told us we should expect to make good time under the conditions. We paid $2 for the launch fee, and $15 to Scott for the shuttle. Then we had a quick lunch before we got on the river.
The trip started off fast and exciting. We dodged our way through the trees, and I'm not sure we were necessarily always in the actual river. The current was fast, and I spent the first couple of miles steering frequently but not really paddling. Finally, the river ahead narrowed as it passed under an old bridge. I knew this was the first of two "rapids" on the river. I wasn't sure what the condition of the rapids would be like, with the water so high. The first turned out to be an exciting rush of fast water, but nothing more. The second was totally washed out, and then we entered the first of several lakes. We saw a couple of fisherman here, but otherwise the river was totally quiet. We paddled through the lakes, and stopped once to let Saucony out. Previous experience has taught us that she behaves better in the canoe when she's tired. We let her swim for awhile to get rid of some of her energy.
After the last lake, the river really got nice. At first it passed through farmland with high banks, where it was open and exposed to the powerful sun. Then we entered the national forest, and the change was dramatic. The river turned into a swamp, with nothing but cypress and tupelo in every direction. This part of the river was beautiful, and we weren't in any hurry for it to end. We encountered a couple of fallen trees that provided obstacles, but we were able to get through. In a couple of places, it was hard to tell which way to go, despite the strong current. We even passed a couple of great campsites along this section in the few areas with dry ground.
Shortly past the campsites, we passed a couple of boaters heading upstream against the current. It must have been tough going on that day. We continued downstream, and the river began to widen. The narrow blackwater stream opened up, and downstream from the powerlines it really changed character. Here we actually had to paddle, as the river was wide enough that we couldn't totally rely on the current. We encountered a couple of powerboats in the final couple of miles as well. The best part of the river was behind us, but the river still had one more surprise for us. Christy spotted it first, swimming in the river. As we approached, there was no mistaking the form of an alligator. As we neared it, the alligator disappeared underwater and seemed to head for a swampy area on the right side of the river. We never saw it come back up. The alligator was a fine highlight to a great day on the river.
We reached Haywood's Landing in time for happy hour, which consisted of potato chips and a beer. There is a toilet there, as well as a couple of decent campsites on the bank above the river. We had considered camping there, but it's a busy area. There were lots of trucks with boat trailers in the parking lot when we left.
Scott had offered us showers at his place, and we headed back to Boondocks to take him up on the offer. We didn't see him, but used the showers at his campground. It was wonderful to wash off all of the swamp mud that I'd bathed in. Afterwards, we headed back to camp. Along the way, we stopped at a farm, where a friendly fellow gave us all of the scrap firewood we could haul. We were finally able to get him to take a few dollars for it, and headed for camp. That night we enjoyed grilled steaks and fresh salad, along with a wonderful fire. We slept well, with the calls of owls to help us rest.
Scott at Boondocks was a huge help. He took the time to drive out into the swamp to help a couple of total strangers. Aside from that, he runs a nice operation. The shuttle was quick and efficient, and reasonably priced. He also has a store, with rentals and guided trips, and a nice camping area overlooking the river. I strongly recommend his services if you plan to paddle in the area.www.theboondocks.net. (252) 393-8680.
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