The first time I got in a kayak, it was at a Boy Scout Summer Camp in West Virginia, and all we did was paddle around the same small pond where we held our canoeing merit badge class. To say the least, I didn’t feel the thrill of kayaking — until I moved to North Carolina. My first paddle here was on Bald Head Island, and it set the hook. Since then, I’ve paddled blackwater creeks; the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds; and lakes, rivers, and reservoirs all over the state. I don’t know if I have a favorite place to paddle — too many places come to mind — but I know five places where you should put your boat in the water the next chance you get.
Roanoke River: Paddling to the Devil’s Gut
During North Carolina’s colonial days, and well into our statehood, the Roanoke River was a key route for trade and transportation. Today, it’s a river rich with recreational opportunities, from superb bass fishing to excellent paddling opportunities. One of those paddling opportunities is the trip to Devil’s Gut near Jamesville. Most stories on the name of the place come back to the still, black water that can be a little spooky, especially at night. This paddle is easy and quite lovely; the forest is close to the river in some places, and the wildlife is abundant. You can plan an afternoon paddling trip, or you can make it an overnighter and stay at one of the river camping platforms here.
Rocky River Blueway: Pharr Family Preserve to Riverbend Farm
You might think it would be hard to find a place to kayak anywhere near Charlotte that’s not packed with paddlers — until you learn about the Rocky River Blueway. Plans call for the Blueway to stretch 59 miles from Cabarrus County to the confluence of the Rocky and Pee Dee rivers in Stanley County. But we’re paddling the first five miles or so, from the Pharr Family Preserve to Riverbend Farm, which are the only two put-ins at this end of the Blueway. The scenery is excellent: farms and fields, rocky bluffs, and some rapids (the fun kind, not the intimidating kind). You can see plenty of wildlife from the river as well: egrets, kingfishers, woodpeckers, turkey, and even deer. The Rocky River doesn’t experience significant seasonal fluctuations, so you’ll find good water here year-round.
Three Sisters Swamp: Bald Cypress and Black Water
As a kid, Creature from the Black Lagoon creeped me out; perhaps that’s why I love the chance to paddle on the blackwater creeks, rivers, and swamps in eastern North Carolina. For me, Three Sisters Swamp is the epitome of blackwater paddling: Like the strange Amazonian waters from the classic creature flick, the water here gets its dark color from tannins in the water. In both cases, it creates an eerie effect, but only in Three Sisters Swamp will you find some of the oldest bald cypress trees in the world. One tree in particular, appropriately named Methuselah, dates back to at least 364 AD. Forestry experts don’t believe it’s the oldest in the swamp— just the oldest they can accurately date. Paddling here, the scenery goes from a wide river lined with hardwoods and smaller cypress tress to the narrow corridor among the huge, ancient bald cypress. The river and its course through the swamp meanders and turns, but with care, it’s easy to pick out the right path.
Milltail Creek: Paddling the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge near Buffalo City Road
If you want to paddle a remote, wild place, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge should be on your list. Fifteen miles of paddle trails make their way through the waterways, and Milltail Creek offers close to 10 miles of round-trip paddling through the woods and marshes of the Inner Banks. Wildlife abounds here, and you can count on seeing egrets, herons, and other water birds. More elusive denizens of these woods include red wolves and black bears, which you’ll most likely neither see nor hear. One creature you probably will see is the refuge’s namesake alligator, as you’re paddling in their northernmost known habitat. The creeks and waterways here range from open areas rife with marsh grass to tree-lined waterways.
Cheoah River: Big Fun for Experienced Paddlers
This run is all about the whitewater. Along this section of the Cheoah River, you’ll hit back-to-back-to-back Class IV and V rapids, so it’s for experienced paddlers only. As a dam-controlled river, you’ll find different river flow depending on when you get your boat in the water, but since the TVA announces water-release dates, it’s easy to figure out when the water will be high and mighty. Depending on where you put in, you’ll find yourself facing some technical waters, boulder fields, a 12-foot waterfall, and some challenging currents. There’s good news, though: The lower run of the river goes by the Tapoco Lodge, so you’ll have a nice place to stay, grab some grub, or both.