I haven’t backpacked since college. Although I have had a long love affair with camping, my only backpacking trip was more of a one-night stand. You know, one of those experiences that seemed like a better idea the night before than the morning after. Not that it was a bad experience. I just decided that carrying a 40-pound pack was not my thing. I always figured that bicycle camping would be my ticket for adventure travel until I ran across a picture in the Raleigh News and Observer. The photo captured a setting of several canoes tied to the dock of a small camping platform and nearly concealed within a cypress grove. Suddenly my desire to go camping was rekindled but this time I’d be sleeping out under the stars on camping platforms along a designated paddle trail.
Roanoke River Paddle Trail
The camping platform highlighted in the Raleigh News & Observer is part of a paddling trail network managed by the Roanoke River Partners — a grassroots non-profit serving the five North Carolina counties that border the Roanoke River. RRP operates 16 of these platforms that were constructed in the Roanoke River basin in order to bring tourist dollars into an area of North Carolina that had been hit hard by plant closings and the demise of the herring fishing industry.
When they were first built, locals weren’t so sure that they wanted outsiders paddling through their backyard playground but the project has proven to be quite successful. A recent study revealed that the Roanoke River Paddle Trail generates over $550,000 to the regional economy annually. This impact is the result of both the overnight campers and day-trippers utilizing the trail and facilities along the river. It is projected that since the construction of the first platform in 1997, the trail has attracted well over 15,000 overnight campers (with an estimated four to five times that many day trippers).
The Internet can be an adventure traveler’s best friend and through RRP’s website, I had two platforms reserved along with a growing file of information on kayak camping. Man learned thousands of years ago that a boat was better than one’s back for carrying a load, and I was planning to put that into practice. Packing a kayak for camping is like packing a backpack. The stuff has got to fit, and the weight has got to be properly distributed. Since we were not taking canoes, there was no place for coolers and lawn chairs.
1st Outing – San Souci Shuffle
Our target launch date was the last Friday of April, which we hoped would still bring cool nights to minimize the bugs that inhabit swampland. My goal for our first trip was a short paddle the first night and a longer paddle on Saturday and Sunday. We intended on camping one night at Lost Boat and the other at Otter One. Both camping platforms rest within the Roanoke River basin and are located just off Route 17, south of Edenton, NC on the Cashie River.
We arrived at Lost Boat just barely before dark after a four-mile paddle from the Sans Souci ferry landing. The camping platform was nestled in a small cove just off the Cashie River. We quickly set up our tents anticipating that the resident mosquito population would soon arrive to party with us but the cool spring evening kept the bugs at bay. Our first night was exactly what I had hoped for. The night was quiet except for the nocturnal sounds of owls, frogs and other wildlife at play in the woods.
The next day we could have paddled back to our launch site to restock for day two and paddled downstream to Otter One. Instead, we opted to take out our kayaks and spend part of the day in nearby Plymouth, which was hosting a large Civil War reenactment. After lunch and a tour of the town, we launched from Route 45 and paddled across the intersection of the Roanoke River, Middle River back to the Cashie River and down to end of Broad Creek.
Despite the five-mile paddle, Otter One was not far from Plymouth for the average crow, and the evening’s peace was occasionally broken by cannon fire and musket volleys from the rabble-rousing reenactors in town. It’s always good to bring a book along for the evenings on the platform since you can’t build a campfire on the deck and roast marshmallows for entertainment.
Paddle the Same River Basin Twice
Our second annual excursion took us to Royal Fern. We left the boat ramp at the beginning of beautiful Conaby Creek and paddled three miles to the end of a smaller creek. Royal Fern was the most secluded place I have ever camped. There were absolutely no sounds of civilization of any kind and animals bounded through the woods in and out of the creek all night long. The swamp forests along the Roanoke River floodplain provide ideal habitat for bears and this area is no exception. Although no bear encounters have been reported around the platform in a couple of years, I could not resist shining my flashlight out of my tent during the night to see if any eyes were looking back from the darkness.
For this trip, Steve and I decided to make it a three-day expedition. Leaving Royal Fern on Saturday morning we paddled out to the Roanoke River for a 12-mile paddle that routed us into the Albemarle Sound for our second overnight at Otter One on the Cashie River. Unlike the prior year when a 15 mph wind had kept the fisherman at home for the weekend, this year we passed fishing boats throughout the day.
We had hoped to find a portion of beach about halfway through the trip to allow us to snack and stretch our legs but the shore of the Sound was lined with dense trees and logs pushed ashore by two hurricanes. We were left with no place to get out of the kayaks so we rested while floating in an eddy behind some fallen trees at the mouth of the Cashie. By the time we arrived at Otter One, we were anxious to get out of the boats.
By foregoing a mid-day trip into town, we arrived earlier in the afternoon than we had planned. This gave us more time on the platform than we were accustomed to and a sort of “what do we do now” kind of experience. After a short nap, I opted to fish, and Steve paddled off to a nearby eagles’ nest before we cooked dinner.
Three’s a Charm
On our third trip to the backwaters, we were able to recruit two others to join us. Launching from a private ramp at the River’s Edge Restaurant in Jamesville, we paddled three miles up river to the Barred Owl platform. Barred Owl was the first camping platform, and it has one of the most beautiful settings as it stands over the water at the end of a long creek.
That night we were blessed with a clear night, a full moon and a leafless tree canopy. The sound of fish feeding on the surface and hoots of the neighboring barred owls filled the night and left us thinking, “Camping doesn’t get any better than this!”
Saturday’s treat was to return to Jamesville and lunch at the Cypress Grill. It is widely known for its fried herring that were once abundant in the Roanoke River. The Grill is a quaint riverside shack of a place with friendly folk, homemade pies and numerous other fried fish entrées. The Grill is a seasonal restaurant and it’s only open from January to April.
After an abundant lunch of fish and pie, we paddled nine miles to Three Sisters, which was typical of other platforms with its small dock and walkway leading back to a raised platform in the trees. A few platforms have near water level piers but most require the paddler to climb out the kayak onto a dock about one foot above the water.
We completed this trip by completing a circle back to Jamesville via Cut Cypress Creek. This route completes a short cut across the top of a “V” formed by the Roanoke River as it flows past Jamesville. The creek is a scenic passage through a tree canopy until it reconnects with the Roanoke.
Packing a kayak for camping is like packing a backpack. The stuff has got to fit, and the weight has got to be properly distributed. Since we were not taking canoes, there was no place for coolers and lawn chairs.
For the most part, these paddle trips are without too much technical challenge but our trips have not been without some memorable moments. On our first trip we learned that even a small river like the Roanoke could quickly whip up some waves when driven by 15 mph winds. Cut Cypress Creek runs a small but steady current from west to east, which makes it difficult to maneuver long sea kayaks around fallen and submerged trees. One in our group twice learned that you don’t limbo too far to one side when passing under fallen trees across a creek. And finally, in emergencies, help is generally reachable by cell phone or by other boaters during the day. However, always be well prepared and plan accordingly.
After three trips, I can say that the logistics for camping on these platforms are easy. They are simple to reserve, and there are so many options for short or long paddle trips. The platforms average around 400 square feet. They provide posts for stringing tarps or hammocks, and they have a private area for your own portable privy. Summer campers report that bug spray is a must, but cooler weather campers can enjoy bug free nights. For more information, to make online reservations, or link to other camping platforms in the region visit Roanoke River Partners website at www.roanokeriverpartners.org.