Ten places for a spring paddle

An adventure begins on Milltail Creek.

Last Thursday on a trip down east  was my first day on the water and it put me of a mind to spend more time paddling. The quiet, save for the birdsong and the occasional gal-lump of a turtle inelegantly abandoning sunny log for murky water. The wildlife, including an alligator that was even more distracted by the sun and warmth. The emergence of spring, with the pastel buds of green, white and crimson giving the world a soft focus field. The unique calm that only paddling flat water can offer.

Milltail Creek in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and the Dillard’s Creek tributary feeding the Chowan River north of Edenton are both on my list for return trips. But where to go next? That got me to thinking of some other great paddles in the state, places I’d like to get to this year, places you might like to explore as well.

Here are 10 such places. I’ve included a quick description and location. If you’re intrigued, click on “More info here” and you’ll find nearly everything you’ll need to plan a trip.

Charlotte area

1. Lake Wylie Dam
Rock Hill, S.C.

There’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde nature to the 31-mile stretch of the Catawba River below the Lake Wylie dam just over the South Carolina line. At nominal water flow, the stretch is friendly flatwater river paddling, a few rocks here and there, a Class I rapid but no more. But when the volume gets cranked up this stretch requires a whole ‘nother paddling skillset. What exactly do we mean by that? Click on More info here.
More info here.


2. Lake Brandt

Lake Brandt is one of three main watershed lakes rimming the north side of Greensboro. The lakes were created for drinking water, revered in these modern times for their vast recreational value. Brandt is the middling of the three lakes — Townsend is the biggest ( at 1,542 acres, Higgins the smallest at 226 acres. All are open for paddling.
More info here.

3. Yadkin River (Old 421 Park Access)

The 125-mile-long Yadkin River Trail includes 15 access points to help make exploring the river easier. It begins small out of W. Kerr Scott Reservoir in Wilkes County and gains steam as it meanders past Pilot Mountain, Boone’s Cave Park and Tanglewood Park before giving it up to High Rock Lake. Forsythe County’s Old 421 Park Access 20 minutes west of downtown Winston-Salem is close, but it also affords easy access to an easy stretch of the river. This is a 5.4-mile run where a steady current takes you through typical Piedmont countryside.
More info here.


4. Falls Lake (Beaverdam Recreation Area)
Wake Forest

There’s a bit of dues paying associated with this paddle. It’s big, open water for the most part, but that changes after you paddle under Old Weaver Dairy Road. You begin paddling amid reedy grass and rushes, and clumps of red maple and oak. You’ll paddle into what looks like a promising channel only to be rebuffed by downfall or a simple dead end. If the lake level is up you paddle another mile and a half and improve your chances of seeing the waterfowl known in the area, the wood ducks and mallards, the osprey and bald eagles.
More info here.

5. Haw River (Swepsonville River Park to Saxapahaw0

This dammed 5.8-mile stretch of the Haw River is good, reliable paddling year round, but it may be best in summer. Put in at Swepsonville River Park, warm up with a 0.7-mile paddle downstream to the Puryear Dam, then portage — a portage made fun, funky and easy with a set of slides (for your boat, not you). The rest of the trip is on wide, slow-moving water. Take-out is river left, just above the dam above Saxapahaw, which makes for a great after-paddle visit.
More info here.

6. Neuse River (Falls Dam to Buffaloe Road)

Raleigh is often called a city within a park. But did you know there’s a navigable river within the city within the park? From the tailrace of the Falls Lake Dam, the Neuse River flows east and south to the Atlantic Ocean. Along those first 17 miles through Raleigh the city has installed 5 boat launches, divvying up the relatively peaceful Neuse into easily paddlable stretches. A favorite is the 10-or-so miles from the Falls Dam Access downstream to Buffaloe Road, where dense foliage along the river’s banks shields you from the civilization beyond.
More info here.

Coastal plain

7. Black River (Section 5)

The Black River may be the most beloved place to paddle in eastern North Carolina, and for good reason. It’s remote, making its way through the Down East farmland of Sampson, Bladen and Pender counties. Despite the fact it passes numerous hog farms, it also has some of the cleanest water in the state, earning Outstanding Resources Waters designation in 1994. And the blackwater swamps through which it passes have some of the oldest living trees in Eastern North America. I shouldn’t need to say more, but I can and will. Read on, by following the link below.
More info here.

8. Merchants Millpond

The 760-acre millpond is peppered with bald cypress and tupelo gum trees that make every stroke an adventure. Sidle up to a trunk and see what creatures might be living in this microclimate. Or, conversely, let the enormity of the swamp wash over you and, before you know it, you’ll have no idea where you are or how you got there. A great place to paddle with a compass and map, though there is a marked trail. Canoes available for rent as well, at $5 an hour.
More info here.


9. Brunswick River Trail
Wilmington area

Only at the coast could you do a loop trail — on a river. This 16-miler begins at the Davis Creek Estuarine Water Access Area on Cartwheel Branch. After just over a mile, hang a right at the Cape Fear River. At the four-mile mark the Northeast Cape Fear intersects; continue downstream and you’ll be paddling along the Wilmington waterfront. To finish the trip, follow the link below.
More info here.

10. Zeke’s Island (The Basin)
Wilmington area

You’ll find true exploring within the Zeke’s Island area, a lagoon surrounded by Zeke’s Island, North Island, No Name Island, a beach, a barrier spit and fringing marshes and tidal flats. This unusual combination results in a small area — the Zeke’s Island National Estuarine Research Reserve consists of 1,635 acres — with a variety of habitats, from tidal flats, salt marshes, shrub thicket and maritime forest to sand dunes and beach. Great paddling.
More info here.

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Need a boat? Check out our list of 51 places to rent a canoe or kayak in North Carolina.

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