Adventure is self-defining. You don’t have to risk your life for an adventure. You do have to get off the couch and push yourself into an unknown. I have never paddled the Amazon nor climbed Everest, but I have gotten off the couch. I have gotten hot and sweaty, wet and cold. I have been uncomfortable for days at a time. Did I risk my life? Probably not. Did I have fun? Yes.
In 2010, four of us stood on the banks of the Chowan River and looked over at Holladay Island, our scheduled camping spot for the night. To the left of us the sun was dropping ever so quickly. To the right of us was a northerly wind blowing in our face at around ten mph. Before us was a mile of river, cold and choppy. The forecast for the night was continued windy conditions and a drop in the temperature to the upper thirties by morning.
I plan my adventures as carefully as I can, but when the weather changes you have to change. Steve and I are experienced kayakers, and we have dry gear and skirted sea kayaks. My other two friends were far less experienced with no dry gear and paddling sit on tops kayaks that provided no protection against the cold spray that the river would be throwing at us. Then there was the uncertainty of a very cold wet paddle in the morning.
Reluctantly but wisely, we decided to drive north to Merchant’s Millpond so Holladay Island would have to wait six more years for me to get there.
Merchants Millpond State Park, located in Gatesville, NC features a canoe-in campground with ten camp sites. This proved to be a perfect plan B. I had been to the millpond nine years earlier with new plastic kayaks. Steve and I drove down with another friend from Newport News, Virginia to paddle through this enchanted cypress swamp. Paddling the pond is scenic from the put in point to the other end. On the east side we ran into lily pads so thick we could not go any further. Personally I love paddling in and amongst the moss draped trees better than any open water paddling. I was happy to be back.
We followed the kayak trail in near darkness through the cypress trees which was well marked with buoys. The trail ends on the banks of the other side of the lake. There is no dock to greet you so at least one person is going to get wet feet when they get out of the kayak.
There are ten tent sites in the family camping area nestled among trees and a pit toilet, but no running water. A short paddle distance away there are three sites reserved for small groups. By the time we set up the tents, it was dark and well past dinner, but I pack for quick meals so we were eating in minutes.
We were happy with the change of plans, and we looked forward to paddling around the lake in the morning. The weather forecast was correct. The morning air was frigid and there was frost in places so I had to start my day sticking my feet into cold and wet neoprene boots before I even got into the boat. Because it was so cold, we did not paddle beyond the trail back to the ramp and we never saw any of the resident alligators.
The pond scum there clings to the hull of your kayak leaving a noticeable bathtub ring. When you take your canoes and kayaks out of the lake at the boat ramp, the park conveniently provides a cleaning station for cleaning your boat. Bring a little soap and a brush and you can save yourself some time when you get home. The park also rents canoes for overnight camping.
First night out at Holladay Island
Having spent most of my winters from January to April behind a desk, loading up the kayak and paddling away on the first Friday night after April 15th is always exceptionally refreshing. When you push off from the bank and take those first few paddle strokes, you enter a new world. You dip your paddle from side to side and quietly head upstream as one with nature. You might see beaver lodges and bird nests along the bank as you slowly pass by. Turtles wait a little longer on their logs. The bird songs are not lost in the noise of an outboard motor. You feel the warmth on your face of the sun reflecting off the water. It is magical.
We arrived at the boat ramp at Cannon’s Ferry later than we planned. It also took us longer to pack our kayaks. Packing the kayak the first night is always a race against time. Now the sun was setting as we left the canal leading into the Chowan River. My heart was racing as we turned north for our second attempt at camping on Holladay Island. As with our first attempt six years earlier, the wind was again in our face and the river sent some waves over our bows.
We had reserved the east side platform, but as we neared the island, we decided to turn to the southern platform, which is actually three platforms, instead of risking arriving after dark at the east platform. As we entered the grove of cypress trees we knew we had made the right decision.
When you arrive at a platform you should expect to do some housekeeping before you set up camp. We found the decks were covered with fall leaves and sticks, but a broom in the privy area helped us to clean off the deck. The next night we took a $3 broom to the site which was fortunate because there was no broom to sweep with.
With a swept deck and the tents erected, we sat down to enjoy dinner. In the nearby darkness an annoyed great heron voiced his displeasure with our encroachment on his territory by letting out a long scratchy discourse of discontentment as he flew to another tree. The evening then became silent of wildlife. There was just the occasional distant rumble of trucks on Highway 32.
Holladay Island has now moved to my first or second favorite place to camp while Barred Owl platform tops my list. It’s an interesting place. Even though it is an island, the ground is too wet for pines and other deciduous trees. It’s just black soggy floor of roots and cypress knees.
The next morning, the sun broke through the trees and you could see water on three sides. When you wake up to 40° temperatures, the sleeping bag is the coziest place in the world. Our intent was to skip breakfast on the platform and eat later in Edenton, so we packed our gear and circled the island before paddling back to the ramp.
The west side of Holladay Island was beautiful because you could paddle in and around cypress trees for most of the length of the island. It also blocked the northern wind. On the east side, there were no trees to paddle among and with the wind behind us it was an easy paddle to the ramp.
When we left the ramp the night before, we were the only vehicle in the lot, but we came back to a parking lot full of trucks and trailers. Some were fishing, but others were out fixing blinds for the duck season. Two of them were at the south end of the island at work on their blind when we left the platform.
Lunch and a change of plans in Edenton
Edenton is a great little town to hang out especially since I found they serve orangeades in several of the restaurants. After Holladay Island, we had planned to drive on to Barred Owl, but as we ate a late lunch, Steve asked, “Why don’t we camp here tonight?” It was like a V8 moment. Great idea!
Chowan County has three camping platforms on the south side of Pembroke Creek on John’s Island, which is actually a large peninsula just across from downtown Edenton. Sitting in the restaurant I went on line and reserved the platform for the night. The change of plans saved us an hour of driving so we set off to walk around the Cotton Mill Historic District before launching.
Edenton Harbor’s Colonial Park has a floating dock for kayak launching. Since the park also caters to boaters, the park also has shower facilities should you need to clean up after a night of camping. There is also ample overnight parking.
Reaching the platform was a short paddle across Pembroke Creek and the location was well marked with a large sign. Although we were secluded in the trees, the route 17 bridge was not far away and we did notice more highway noise than we expected during the early part of the evening. It seems getting away from cars and planes is getting harder and harder to do now.
The County’s platforms feature a counter for cooking or other tasks that the platforms owned by the Roanoke River Partners do not. This is a nice luxury and made reheating my grilled steak and accompaniments much easier than sitting on the deck and cooking.
Morning bought cold temperatures, but a beautiful view through the trees looking across the creek. We paddled around to the group three platform site which is more secluded back in a smaller feeder creek.
Under the S Bridge in Hertford
When Route 17 took a detour around Hertford it left behind a swinging draw bridge built in 1928 locally called the “S” bridge because of its two curves. I have driven across the “S” bridge, but I never thought I would be paddling under it.
We were on our second night of camping in 2009, and it was one of the most picturesque settings ever. As we left the municipal boat ramp, the Perquiman’s river was a mirror reflecting the bridge in the distance. There was no urgency to our quest, the glassy river seduced us into leisurely pace soaking up the awesome scene. Our destination took us under the “S” bridge, and up Mill Creek low bridge that was also part of the old Route 17.
The Mill Creek camping site is a double platform operated by the Perquiman County. Its tucked way up Mill Creek where the creek is barely wider than our sea kayaks. When we visited them in 2010, they were nearly new with fresh looking deck boards and the raised counter for cooking that I like so much.
The County has a second triple platform on the Perquimans River west of the “S” Bridge. Recently I visited the Perquiman’s Chamber of Commerce tourism webpage and found they have also added three nice kayak launching sites. On the webpage are the coordinates and directions for each and downloadable paddle trail maps. The Perquiman’s sites do not have a link to any online reservation system, but according to their Chamber of Commerce office you should contact Steve Burkett at 252-426-3817. For more information about their water trails and camping visit the Chamber’s web page.
As Good as it Gets
Down in the Everglades you can paddle and camp on raised platforms called Chickees. They are in high demand by campers. Here in the Albemarle Sound basin, we have camping opportunities that rival the Everglades and almost anywhere else in the world. Come see for yourself, reserve your camping platform, and make your own adventure.
Publisher’s note: All campsites on Holladay Island and Johns Island are temporarily unavailable due to maintenance and repairs.