Knock one more from the bucket list. After a couple of years of woulda-shoulda-coulda we finally found the perfect long weekend to make it to North Carolina’s Roanoke River Paddle Trail and the camping platforms managed by Roanoke River Partners. Lots of friends and local paddlers have enjoyed these resources for several years and we figured the time was ripe for us to indulge as well. Thanksgiving weekend was open and the forecast was for sunny weather with highs in the 60s F and lows in the 30s F.
Our plan was to begin on the river in Williamston and work our way downstream to Plymouth, stopping 3 nights to sample the variety of platforms available. These range in locale from platforms adjacent to the Roanoke River proper to small cypress/tupelo swamp streams tributary to the Roanoke. Several of the tributary swamps open to other streams on both ends so it’s possible to plot several routes among campsites for the night.
From the Roanoke River Partners website, we located a local guide providing shuttle service. Heber Coltrain operates Roanoke Outdoor Adventures providing a variety of guide and adventure services in the area. Heber is a veritable bank of knowledge on the area. During the 22-mile, half hour shuttle between Williamston and Plymouth, he’ll give you a thorough idea of the history of the area and what you can expect to see along the river trip.
Our paddle started from Williamston, passing under the US Hwy 17 bridge. Just upstream of the NC Wildlife Resources boat ramp/launch, the Roanoke Partners have placed their newest platform: River Landing, adjacent to the ramp parking lot. This would be a great location for a later arrival to begin a river trip the following day. Our goal for the first night though was the Conine platform, about 5.7 miles downstream. A gentle current helped us on our way downstream as we immediately began to enjoy the peace of the river corridor.
Around one right-hand bend I noticed some odd structures on river-left and beached to investigate. Recent storms or high water had apparently uprooted some bankside tree and brought to the surface long-abandoned sections of a railroad car that had long since been partially “consumed” by the vegetation. No clues as to how this car got here. There’s no apparent railway anywhere near the site.
We arrived at Conine after about 2 hours on the water after a leisurely paddle. The platform is situated in a cyprus/tupelo floodplain which was then above water. A long boardwalk to the water provides access to the screen-enclosed shelter during higher river levels. Situated away from the shelter, a small enclosure allows private situation of paddler-provided sanitation facilities (think “groover” if you’ve floated/camped on western rivers). These enclosures are provided at all of the platforms we visited.
Darkness fell upon us quickly this fall evening and the mosquitoes wasted no time seeking their own repast before temperatures drove them to ground at night. The bugs were bearable and we cooked and ate on the “porch” of the platform, enjoying starfields we can no longer see in the light-pollution at home. As night fell, it quickly became apparent why the area is so well known for its owls. We were treated to ongoing and multiple barred owl conversations throughout the night.
Following a relaxed breakfast in the morning, we put back on the river and headed downstream toward our next planned campsite: Barred Owl Roost on Devil’s Gut. Moderate current along the way (ref. USGS Roanoke River @ Williamston stage of ~6.5-7.0′ stage that day) made maintaining 3-4 mph pretty easy. The river is about 75-100 yards wide along this stretch. We saw a good variety of birdlife along the route including a large number of bald eagles, osprey and great blue herons. Reaching the Devil’s Gut confluence, we turned right and upstream in the still waters of this tribuatry. Passing stands of large bald cyprus on our right and more cleared areas on our left, we eventually forked right once again into the small unnamed tributary on which the Barred Owl Roost platform sits. This channel progressively narrows to only a few boat-widths before you ultimately see the boardwalk to the platform ahead. After only a little over four hours of paddling, we arrived at Barred Owl Roost.
This platform is far up into the cypress forest. There literally is no view of anything but cypress on every side. A long access walkway from the water leads to the large platform. We enjoyed the rest of the afternoon with a stretch and book and had a leisurely supper.
After dark, I decided to take advantage of a beautiful starry sky and take a night paddle though the forest and back out into Devil’s Gut. Lots of wildlife out at night. A steady line of raccoons were out foraging on river-right; their eyes reflecting my headlamp’s beam. Every hundred yards I’d be startled by the sudden SLAP! of a beaver’s tail on the water’s surface as I approached. I found a wide spot on the creek, set the paddle down and laid back in the kayak, enjoying the star-studded sky.
Barred Owl Roost comes about its name honestly. We lay in the tent that night and listened to entire communities of owls pass the area, each moving one tree at a time in turn, playing hopscotch past us. The community waxed and waned in conversations and squabbles, sometimes bringing smiles to our faces in its raucousness.
Following a late and leisurely breakfast, we set out on the next day’s journey back out of Devil’s Gut and onto the Roanoke again. We made a quick stretch stop at the Astoria Road Wildlife Resources boat ramp to admire its expanse and “brand-newness”. This would be a good put-in for those wanting to experience a short overnighter at the Barred Owl Roost or Beaver Lodge platforms.
Before long we were rounding the left-hand bend alongside Jamesville, NC. After two days of dehydrated food meals, the thought of a good burger at lunch brought back Heber Coltrain’s mention of the Jamesville Chuckwagon. We decided to put ashore and go in search of. A couple of blocks walk later we found it and settled in to some burger-fries-tea goodness in the sunshine. We were entertained during lunch by an impromptu and vigorous political “caucus” going on across the parking lot. Iowa has nothing on Jamesville.
Just below Jamesville, the Roanoke begins to widen considerably. You pass by high-ground on river-right lined with some nice houses and properties and on river-left by dense cyprus/tupelo wetlands, all posted as hunting-club lands. Still enjoying some current and a little back-wind, we leaned back, enjoyed the ride the river provided and soaked up a little more fall sun.
As we approached a long left-hand bend below Jamesville I noticed some more old structure in the wetlands on river-left.
Getting out to investigate, it turned out to be an old steam tractor and the trappings of what I would interpret as an abandoned steam-run saw mill.
The provenance of the site was attested by the cypress and tupelo growing through and around the machinery, telling of a day when the local resources were being readily utilized for building materials.
We faced a stiff afternoon headwind turning left into Broad Creek which lessened only slightly after soon turning left into Cow Creek. Luckily, our destination, the Cow Creek Platform was only a short paddle from there. The leisurely day took 5 hours from platform to platform.
The end of the dock of the Cow Creek platform looks out over a 150 yd wide creek edged by cypress/tupelo wetlands. The walkway to the platform quickly takes you into close-quarters among the heavy vegetation. It took a little sweeping (brooms are stowed at all the platforms we visited) of the various leaf litter and cypress seedpods at the site. (Word of caution: the cypress pods contain a thick resin. Be prepared to live with it if you walk around in your socks before sweeping).
The warmth of the afternoon even tempted me into jumping into the water at the end of the dock and taking a quick towel off to relieve some of the camping funk of 3 days. I grabbed my sleeping pad and a book and whiled away the remainder of daylight. The sun sets directly across from the dock of the Cow Creek platform and when conditions are right, will give you a remarkable view. We enjoyed quite a light show as the sun fell below the horizon. Cow Creek did, however have the worst mosquitos we experienced during the trip. We wrapped up in long sleeves, jackets, pants, socks and headnets and still managed to squeeze some enjoyment out of the evening.
After dinner, we decided to reprise our starlight paddling and took off on up Cow Creek to Bull Creek and to its headwaters as far as we could maneuver the boats. For much of the 4 mile roundtrip we could turn off our headlamps and maneuver by starlight. It was a nice way to relax for the evening and get away from the mosquitos for a while.
The final leg of our trip would take us down the widest portion of the Roanoke we’d see this trip, past the sprawling Weyerhaeuser plant and to our destination of Plymouth. We faced a pretty strong headwind for most of the day, particularly passing Weyerhaeuser.
The din of industrial operations at the plant, that we could hear very clearly the evening before, got louder and louder as we approached the last mile to the plant. This industrial setting is quite a contrast to the relative lack of development and human noise we enjoyed for much of the trip and gave us our “welcome” back to society.
We ended our trip within a mile of this, only two and a half hours out from Cow Creek, taking out a a small municipal boat ramp just beside the police station in Plymouth (a nice parking spot and security for the takeout vehicle!). We’d covered only 44 miles over 4 days/3 nights, but had seen/heard quite a bit of wildlife, experienced some great scenery, and “gotten away from it all” for a relaxing respite. It was a trip we’d been trying to do for a while and were glad to have experienced the Roanoke. Here it was Thanksgiving Sunday in Plymouth and we were told that the Golden Skillet was the place to be. When we pulled into the overflow parking lot, that became pretty self evident. The trip home was on a full stomach.
Meta for the trip