Whiteoak River canoe / car camp trip report , April 11-13, 2003
Christy had a week off for Spring break before Easter, and we decided
to take advantage of it by heading towards the coast. I've lived in
North Carolina for 20 years, but I'd never been to the outer banks.
We decided to correct that problem on this trip.
One of the reasons I'd never been to the outer banks is the difficult
drive. All the websites suggest driving from Charlotte through
Greensboro and Raleigh to get to Morehead City and the southern outer
banks. The idea of driving through Charlotte, Greensboro, and
Raleigh on a Friday afternoon is enough to make me want to go another
direction. We decided to take the back way.
We took 74 through Monroe, which was the worst part of the drive.
After that tedious stretch, we actually traveled highway most of the
way to Lumberton. From there we followed a series of back roads to
Jacksonville. Along the way, we passed over many of the premier
blackwater rivers in the state. First we crossed the Lumber, and
then the Cape Fear, the South, and the Black were within a few miles
of each other. Later, we crossed the NE Cape Fear. Finally, late in
the day, we crossed an ancient bridge over the Whiteoak River in the
tiny community of Stella. I scoped this one out carefully, as we
planned to paddle it the next day. After 5 hours of driving, we had
nearly reached our destination, but we still needed to find a place
We drove into the Croatan National Forest on Great Lake Road. A
friend of ours had told us about some great car camping spots in the
area near a lake. Unfortunately, he couldn't remember the name of
the lake. I guessed that it might be Great Lake, but I must've
guessed wrong. We drove all the way to the lake, and saw only one
decent campsite along the way. That site was occupied, and it was
starting to get dark. To complicate matters, it had rained the
previous 5 days, and an already swampy area was unusually wet. There
were occasional side roads, but most were a muddy mess. We debated
camping at the parking area at the lake, but decided against it.
There was a gated road here that might have led to campsites, but it
was flooded. In the end, we decided to head back down the road in
hopes of finding a spot that we'd overlooked.
We explored a couple of passable side roads but couldn't find any dry
ground to camp. Finally we found a narrow forest road that looked
promising. I got out and scouted it on foot. It stayed dry for a
hundred yards or so before encountering a shallow pool. It looked
passable, but it was impossible to determine the condition of the
road beyond it. In the distance, the road reached a field that
looked like it might have campsite potential.
I returned to the car, and reported what I'd found. I told Christy
that I didn't think we should try it. The next thing I knew, she
said she wanted to give it a try, and the Volkswagen disappeared into
the woods. I walked after the car, and skirted the first puddles.
Beyond, I could make out the shape of the Jetta, with the canoe on
top, stuck in the mud. The car was at the edge of the field, but
could go no farther. Christy tried rocking it back and forth, but it
was no use. The water on the right side of the car was up to the
It was just about dark when I waded into the icy swamp water to
push. I tried not to think about what else was swimming around in
there. Snakes? Alligators? Between Christy's rocking and my
pushing, we were able to get the car within a few feet of being out.
In fact, the back left tire was on dry ground. Unfortunately, the
front right tire was in a deep hole. No amount of pushing or rocking
was going to move it. The low point came while I was trying to
push. I was already knee-deep in the muck, and straining with all of
my strength, when the tires spun, sending a sheet of frigid swamp
water into my hair and down my back.
Temps were in the 40's and I was in blue jeans, and the possibility
of hypothermia seemed all too real. What to do? We had a cell
phone, but what were the chances that we could find someone to tow us
out on a Friday night? Finally we decided to walk down the road to
the campsite we spotted. Hopefully they'd be able to help us out.
We weren't sure how far we'd have to walk. I was afraid it might be
a mile or two, as the campsite we'd seen was near the beginning of
the road. Luckily, it was only a couple hundred yards. We reached
the campsite, which contained several tents and a couple of vans.
This wasn't the pickup trucks I'd been expecting. The campers were a
Biology class from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. They were in
North Carolina looking for plants and animals, especially reptiles.
They had endured a week of rain but were still in pretty good
spirits. They were a friendly group, and more than willing to try to
help. The vans never would've been capable of pulling us out
though. Instead, they offered to let us stay with them for the
night. We returned to the car and retrieved the essential gear. We
returned to the campsite, where they fed us some wonderful chili that
finally helped me begin to warm up. Unfortunately, I had completely
forgotten dry shoes, so I had to walk around barefoot all night.
That night, I slept fairly well except for one nightmare that
involved the Jetta slowly sinking into the swamp, until only the top
of the canoe was visible.
In the morning, our generous hosts fed us breakfast. Then, several
of the bravest souls tried to push the car out. Even with 8 people
pushing, it wouldn't budge. It seemed that it had sunk further into
the mud overnight, to the point that it wouldn't move at all. We
returned to camp, and I debated who to call. Who do you call when
your car is stuck in a swamp in the middle of nowhere?
I had been exchanging emails with a local outfitter for the past
week. He was going to shuttle us for our Whiteoak River trip that
morning. I called Scott at Boondocks, in hopes that he could
recommend someone to call. To my amazement, he told me that he'd
come and get us within the hour. An hour later, he arrived with his
father in a powerful 4WD pickup. They backed all the way down the
narrow track, and hooked a chain to the hitch on the Jetta. They
pulled the car out in no time. It was like magic watching the car
emerge from the swamp. Picture, if you will, Yoda levitating Luke's
spaceship out of the swamp in "Return of the Jedi". That's what this
looked like. Scott acted like this was an everyday occurrence in the
area, saying that they'd pulled a friend out of a ditch only a few
days before. We thanked them repeatedly, and made plans to meet up
with Scott to do the shuttle after we'd gotten organized.
We returned to camp, this time driving the car. Our hosts from
Gettysburg were packing up, just as the sun was finally coming out
for the first time all week. Before they left, they freed many of
the reptiles they'd caught during the week. There were several
interesting lizards, but most impressive were the snakes. The red-
bellied water snake was rather intimidating, especially when he
opened his mouth. He was not in a good mood. They also freed a
large Black Racer. The most interesting though was a colorful Corn
Snake in the process of shedding his skin.
We wished our new friends a safe journey and claimed the campsite for
another night. Then we organized our gear and drove back down to
Boondocks. It was almost noon, but there was still plenty of time to
Now, it's time for "vote for your favorite joke." Which of these
phrases best sums up the first day of our "adventure"?
1) Aren't you supposed to take the canoe OFF the car before you put-
2) 1998 Volkswagen Jetta, white, 5 speed, with moonroof. Excellent
condition, except for minor water damage.
4) Who says women can't parallel park?
We drove back down to Stella and met back up with Scott. Our
original plan had been to paddle all the way from US 17 in Maysville
to Boondocks in Stella. That's a 19 mile run though, and would
probably take 8 hours. Due to our late start, we decided to try an
abbreviated run. For a modest fee, Scott followed us to Haywood's
Landing. We left our car at the parking area, and rode with Scott to
Maysville. When we reached the campground, we found the river
flooded. The stream was well out of its banks, and running fast.
Scott told us we should expect to make good time under the
conditions. We paid $2 for the launch fee, and $15 to Scott for the
shuttle. Then we had a quick lunch before we got on the river.
The trip started off fast and exciting. We dodged our way through
the trees, and I'm not sure we were necessarily always in the actual
river. The current was fast, and I spent the first couple of miles
steering frequently but not really paddling. Finally, the river
ahead narrowed as it passed under an old bridge. I knew this was the
first of two "rapids" on the river. I wasn't sure what the condition
of the rapids would be like, with the water so high. The first
turned out to be an exciting rush of fast water, but nothing more.
The second was totally washed out, and then we entered the first of
several lakes. We saw a couple of fisherman here, but otherwise the
river was totally quiet. We paddled through the lakes, and stopped
once to let Saucony out. Previous experience has taught us that she
behaves better in the canoe when she's tired. We let her swim for
awhile to get rid of some of her energy.
After the last lake, the river really got nice. At first it passed
through farmland with high banks, where it was open and exposed to
the powerful sun. Then we entered the national forest, and the
change was dramatic. The river turned into a swamp, with nothing but
cypress and tupelo in every direction. This part of the river was
beautiful, and we weren't in any hurry for it to end. We encountered
a couple of fallen trees that provided obstacles, but we were able to
get through. In a couple of places, it was hard to tell which way to
go, despite the strong current. We even passed a couple of great
campsites along this section in the few areas with dry ground.
Shortly past the campsites, we passed a couple of boaters heading
upstream against the current. It must have been tough going on that
day. We continued downstream, and the river began to widen. The
narrow blackwater stream opened up, and downstream from the
powerlines it really changed character. Here we actually had to
paddle, as the river was wide enough that we couldn't totally rely on
the current. We encountered a couple of powerboats in the final
couple of miles as well. The best part of the river was behind us,
but the river still had one more surprise for us. Christy spotted it
first, swimming in the river. As we approached, there was no
mistaking the form of an alligator. As we neared it, the alligator
disappeared underwater and seemed to head for a swampy area on the
right side of the river. We never saw it come back up. The
alligator was a fine highlight to a great day on the river.
We reached Haywood's Landing in time for happy hour, which consisted
of potato chips and a beer. There is a toilet there, as well as a
couple of decent campsites on the bank above the river. We had
considered camping there, but it's a busy area. There were lots of
trucks with boat trailers in the parking lot when we left.
Scott had offered us showers at his place, and we headed back to
Boondocks to take him up on the offer. We didn't see him, but used
the showers at his campground. It was wonderful to wash off all of
the swamp mud that I'd bathed in. Afterwards, we headed back to
camp. Along the way, we stopped at a farm, where a friendly fellow
gave us all of the scrap firewood we could haul. We were finally
able to get him to take a few dollars for it, and headed for camp.
That night we enjoyed grilled steaks and fresh salad, along with a
wonderful fire. We slept well, with the calls of owls to help us
Scott at Boondocks was a huge help. He took the time to drive out
into the swamp to help a couple of total strangers. Aside from that,
he runs a nice operation. The shuttle was quick and efficient, and
reasonably priced. He also has a store, with rentals and guided
trips, and a nice camping area overlooking the river. I strongly
recommend his services if you plan to paddle in the area.
www.theboondocks.net. (252) 393-8680.