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Whiteoak River canoe / car camp trip report , April 11-13, 2003

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  • Andy Kunkle
    FARFRUMUVEN 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
    Message 1 of 1 , May 19, 2003
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      FARFRUMUVEN

      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
      to camp.

      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
      bumper.

      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
      paddle.

      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-
      in?
      2) 1998 Volkswagen Jetta, white, 5 speed, with moonroof. Excellent
      condition, except for minor water damage.
      3) Farfrumuven
      4) Who says women can't parallel park?


      BOONDOCKS

      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
      rest.

      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.
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