Paddling the Scuppernong River

pocosin lakes nwrMotorists heading east to the Outer Banks on Highway 64 get one of their first panoramic views of a tributary estuary from the arching, high rise bridge spanning over the river. The NCDOT River Basin Sign identifies the body of water as the “Scuppernong River, Part of the Pasquotank River Basin.” The blackwater river slowly merges with the Albemarle Sound four miles north of the bridge but it’s the enchanting scenery south that has always intrigued me. This summer, my wife and I recently mapped out a half-day paddling trip and finally charted the alluring waters of the Scuppernong.

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The Scuppernong River – Where Water meets Land

The meandering coastal river flows through Hyde, Washington and Tyrell Counties. Its headwaters originate in Lake Phelps and by the time it reaches Bull Bay at the sound, it is nearly two miles wide. This is one of the least populated regions in North Carolina and one of the wildest landscapes in the southeast! The Scuppernong River characterizes a dynamic coastal natural community where water and land merge. Together, they form a contrasting environment of swamp forest, tannic waters, mystery, marshland, floating vegetation and elevated wetlands. This unique geography offers a lifetime of outdoor recreational opportunities including paddling, fishing, hunting, boating, wildlife viewing and so much more.

More than 540,000 acres of federal and state lands are currently under conservation management along the peninsula that lies between the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. This includes Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes. The refuge headquarters and Walter B. Jones, Sr. Center for the Sounds is located on the south side of Hwy. 64 on the Scuppernong River in Columbia, NC. A canoe/kayak launch is conveniently located behind the headquarters.

scuppernong river floating dock

Not so Perfect Landing

As we were launching our kayaks, a group of visitors were taking photos of a young river otter frolicking in the shallow waters. After a surprising launch calamity, I soon joined the otter as my stern got hung up on the awkwardly designed landing slide and I instantly capsized into the water. A cable had been placed under the metal slide preventing it from gradually sloping into the water’s edge. It was like launching a kayak off a pool deck four inches above the water. A boater friend of mine had warned me about the hazardous launching platform. We often joke that engineers have good intentions but their designs often do not function well in the field. I’ve witnessed several landings in the region where the launch chute is not large enough to accommodate touring kayaks over 12’ long. Next time, I’ll launch parallel to the floating dock and utilize a more conventional method that relies on my paddle as an extension to the dock.

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Anyway, my wife had a good laugh about the wet entrance as we headed upstream along the placid river. A moderate wind blew directly into our path but we easily glided forward beside the marshy flats and enjoyed a beautiful start to a blue-sky day. The Scuppernong River Interpretive Trail Boardwalk traverses through the wetlands ¾’s of a mile on the east side of the river. We noticed several large cypress trees, gum and a forest of snags along the banks. The standing dead trees provide excellent habitat for bats, owls, wood ducks, chimney swifts and other cavity dwelling species. During the day, we casually noticed a variety of birds including a pair of Red-Shouldered Hawks, Herring Gulls, Wood Ducks and several songbirds along the brushy banks. I remember reading the refuge’s brochure that informed, “More than 300 different wildlife species, including the endangered red wolf and red-cockaded woodpecker, inhabit the refuge.” Other wildlife encountered along the river corridor includes deer, bobcat, bear, foxes and a variety of reptiles and amphibians.

Riders Creek joins the river along a southeastern cove where the river begins to narrow. We paddled a mile or so above the creek’s entrance then turned around at the Scuppernong Paddle Trail mile marker 10 and let the tail winds guide us home. Before we called it a day, we continued beyond the landing and spent some time paddling along the town’s waterfront. A steady stream of Outer Banks’ westbound motorists sped along the bridge overlooking the river. Maybe one or two of them will see our kayaks drifting on the Scuppernong and decide to explore it themselves when they return back to the region between the sounds. The river piqued my interest a couple of years ago but today, it captured my full attention!

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So what exactly is a pocosin? Derived from a native American word for “swamp on a hill,” these flat, swampy coastal communities naturally occur along the Atlantic Coastal plain of the US from northern Florida to southern Virginia. They are also called southern shrub bogs and form in elevated wetlands between streams and creeks. Pocosin wetlands enhance wildlife habitat, lessen the impact of flooding and protect estuarine water quality.

 

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Currituck, the Road Less Traveled

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Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost

The summer traffic coming and going to the Outer Banks is heaviest on Saturday during the biggest check-in day. My wife and I found this out through firsthand experience. We had embarked on a Saturday trip to Corolla from Edenton, NC. At the intersection of Hwy. 158/Hwy. 168 in Barco, we noticed a travel time message sign indicating “delayed traffic” toward the beach. Following the lead of the Pulitzer Prize poet, we decided to take the one [road] less traveled and turned north and “that made all the difference.” We shifted gears, took an alternate route and ended up having a delightful afternoon touring the back roads of Currituck County.

Just a couple of miles north, we stopped at Morris Farm Market – a place that has blossomed into an authentic quintessential Northeastern NC family experience. What started as a roadside stand in 1982 has now grown to include “acres and acres” of produce, baked goods, ciders, NC craft beer & wine, tractor-churned ice cream, farm animals, tractors and more! We picked up a variety of grab-n-go snacks for an afternoon picnic then stopped by the outdoor bar to savor a pint of Mother Earth Brewery’s Sister of the Moon IPA. We listened to a local duo perform a few nice acoustic tunes while we planned the rest of the day’s backup itinerary. The chalkboard sign above the bar suggested to “Sip while you Shop” confirming that we had made a good decision to adjust our original travel plans. Down-home, down east and pet-friendly, Morris Farm Market is a “must do” stopover on your next outing to the OBX!

outdoorbarmorrisfarmmarketcurrituck ­­Currituck \KURR-i-tuck\

With our alternate plans settled now, we had a little extra time to explore the area before we set off on the afternoon ferry. The thin strip of land stretching down Currituck County mainland is primarily farmland, wetlands, open space and water. This peninsula connects the coastline and is bounded by Currituck Sound on the east, the North River on the west and the Albemarle Sound south of Point Harbor. The Currituck Courthouse and the Old Currituck Jail are both near the ferry terminal so we parked our car and walked over to the historic site and learned that the jail was constructed circa 1820 making it one of the oldest extant jails in North Carolina. Both buildings stand sentinel above the expansive backdrop of Currituck Sound.

oldcurrituckjailApproximately 15 vehicles loaded the ferry and we departed on schedule at 3 p.m. The 45-minute ferry crosses a 5-mile section of the sound, which according to the ferry captain averages depths of eight feet. The Currituck/Knotts Island Ferry is a year-round free ferry that’s managed by the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Ferry System. It makes six round-trips daily during the summer season.

Currituck, Adventures Past & Present

Local islanders refer to travelers who visit their paradise as “daytrippers.” Our Knotts Island adventure started with a scenic driving tour of Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge. The Fish and Wildlife Service administers the refuge located on the NC/VA state line along North Landing River. The majority of the refuge’s land is located in Currituck County. The island is actually a peninsula connected to Virginia’s mainland with a solitary road along a man-made causeway. The peninsula appeared as Knots Isle on early pre-colonial maps of the 17th century. Water and the geographic isolation has always defined the region and its inhabitants so naturally, it has developed a rich heritage of hunting, fishing and outdoor life. Locals claim that the origin of the name “Currituck” was loosely derived from Carotank; a Native American word for “land of the wild goose.” Today these lands provide a sanctuary for thousands of migratory waterfowl including numerous species of geese.

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The peninsula changed ownership several times since 1728 when NC commissioners drove the first stake in the ground to mark the Carolina-Virginia border. One of the most influential landowners was Joseph Palmer Knapp. The wealthy New York publisher and philanthropist purchased property on the island in 1918 and built a hunting lodge and grand resort. He also experimented with innovative wildlife management practices. Knapp and a small group of conservationist pioneers became concerned about dwindling waterfowl breeding habitat in the U.S. and Canada. The group began fundraising across the country to create a conservation organization in 1930, which eventually became Ducks Unlimited. From these humble roots, Ducks Unlimited has become one of the preeminent sportsmen-based conservation and wetlands conservation advocacy organizations in North America.

The refuge is located primarily in the southwest region of the marshy peninsula. Basically, three access roads provide entry into the refuge. Sections of the refuge may experience seasonal closures during the winter because of prescribed burns and other management-related activities. A variety of habitats can be discovered along the Marsh Causeway (NC-615), the refuge internal roads, various overlooks and pedestrian trails. Cycling is allowed along some roads and trails. The .3-mile Great Marsh Trail can be easily accessed directly on NC-615. We opted for a convenient stop at the Kuralt Trail Overlook. The observation site is popular among birders and wildlife photographers. Two spotting scopes located on the elevated platform above the Great Marsh allow excellent, up close viewing of birds and other wildlife. We also stopped by Corey’s Ditch where we enjoyed a short break throwing a cast net in the creek and observing the wide-open marshlands.

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Take Me Home, Country Roads

We chose to explore the terrestrial way home instead of back tracking on the ferry. We saw several groups of cyclists riding the rural roads. NC-615 and other low motor traffic roads along the peninsula are popular bike touring routes. The Tidewater Bicycling Association in Chesapeake, VA utilizes these routes each spring for their signature cycling event. This year they celebrated the 40th Annual Knotts Island Century, which included five route options – two that include ferry ‘hops’ during the rides.

Before our own ‘century trip’ ended, we stopped by Frog Island Seafood located at the junction of Hwy 158/168 in Barco, NC. We took their advice to “Buy Today – Feast Tomorrow!” and purchased some fresh scallops. We also sat down for a delicious meal in their diner section of the market and reflected on the day’s journey. The country roads and scenery along Currituck Sound proved to be a delightful retreat away from the bustling beach season along the OBX. We feel like we know this charming slice of land a little better now and it makes us appreciate the northeastern most region of NC we now call home!

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Going Green in the Tar Heel State

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There appears to be an increasing trend of responsible travelers who consider the environment and sustainability when booking a trip, visiting a park or dining out at a local restaurant. Today it seems, “Going green is more than being cool, it is also smart!” From “green city” travel apps to eco-friendly lodging, more and more travelers, vendors, and travel organizations are choosing eco-friendly options. In May, Mandala Research and Sustainable Travel International released an 80+page report that surveyed nearly 3,000 travelers. Sixty-three percent of all travelers say they are much more likely to consider destinations where there is a strong effort to conserve and protect natural resources. Fortunately, the Tar Heel State offers a wealth of resources for the green-conscious traveler.

Businesses Strive toward a Green Standard

North Carolina’s GreenTravel Recognition Program is one of the most comprehensive in the nation. It was launched in 2011 becoming NC’s first statewide sustainable travel recognition program. Businesses that demonstrate a commitment to green tourism practices and achieve voluntary standards are eligible for recognition. These standards include compliance to regulatory rules and regulations, environmental protection policies, sustainability practices, waste reduction and recycling, energy management procedures and other guidelines.nc green travel initiativeGreen tourism operations include lodging, food service, attractions, museums, parks, vacation rentals, convention centers, festivals and other travel-oriented businesses. The initiative has been developed through a partnership of the North Carolina Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service; The Center for Sustainability at East Carolina University; Visit North Carolina, and the Waste Reduction Partners program.

Tim Rhodes, Program Director of the NC GreenTravel Initiative, recently explained, “The purpose of the NC GreenTravel Initiative is to encourage a strong economy and promote sustainable tourism by awarding recognition to those businesses that apply and are accepted into the program.” The recognition program promotes robust economic growth and environmental stewardship in the travel and hospitality sector through the recognition of “green” travel-oriented businesses. Best of all, there is no cost involved in becoming a recognized NC GreenTravel business.

Digital Directory & Helpful Links

The website is a valuable toolkit for both residents and visitors traveling in North Carolina. Visitors to the site can browse a list or navigate a state map of Recognized NC GreenTravel members across the state. Tourism sectors are broken into several categories from lodging, dining, attractions, parks, festivals, vine & wine, nature-based and breweries. More than 100 businesses, parks, travel centers and other tourism sites are listed on the map and crisscross the state from Walnut Hollow Ranch in Hayesville to Cape Hatteras B & B in Buxton. Rhodes noted that there are 14 North Carolina State Parks participating in the NC GreenTravel Initiative including Merchants Millpond State Park in Gatesville, NC. The initiative has recently announced that Sustainable Farms can now apply for recognition. Farms currently listed on the program’s website include Hop’n Blueberry Farm in Black Mountain, Summerfield Farms in Summerfield, Ninja Cow Farm in Raleigh and Good Karma Ranch in Iron Station. These farms have met and exceeded the required criteria for becoming recognized as a Sustainable Tourism Farm.

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NC GreenTravel recognized Green Park – Merchants Millpond State Park

Whether you’re a business or traveler, you’ll discover a number of sustainable travel resources and links throughout the website – from NC Agritourism, tips for sustainable practices to green dining. Thanks to this exciting green travel program and partnership, NC travelers can now easily discover and support sustainable businesses throughout the Old North State.

Want to learn more? The North Carolina Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service (NC DEACS) can help businesses become more sustainable by providing them with non-regulatory, no-cost technical assistance and information. For information about the services provided by NC DEACS, contact tom.rhodes@ncdenr.gov or call (919) 707-8140.

Green Trips & Tips Along the Albemarle Sound Region

 

 

Step back in time and stay at the Beechtree Inn located in Hertford, NC. Choose among five pre-Civil War houses perched along 40 acres. A few of the cottages are pet-friendly. After a hearty country breakfast, take a road trip to Merchants Millpond State Park. Rent a canoe and paddle the enchanted cypress swamp and millpond.

 

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Day 2. Enjoy a lovely north-of-the-sound drive to the Outer Banks. Start the morning along one of NC Birding Trails at North River Game Land in Camden Co. Spend a casual afternoon fishing or strolling along NC Aquarium’s Jennett’s Pier in Nags Head, NC. Be sure to buy some NC Local Catch seafood while your dining out or shopping at the local market.

 

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