We watched the sun set full of pinks and oranges as we discussed the final details of our trip. We were about to paddle 120-plus miles on the Roanoke River. Our 16.5-foot touring kayaks would take us from the source of the Roanoke at Weldon, North Carolina to the Albemarle Sound, where the Roanoke, Chowan and other minor rivers form an estuary before pouring their contents into the Atlantic Ocean.
We were doing this in December.
A trip like this had been on my mind since my junior year in college. Known as a “source to sound”, this kind of paddling trip starts as close to the beginning of the river (i.e. “source”) as possible and ends when the river opens up to an area larger than a bay before finally flowing into the ocean (i.e. “sound”).
North Carolina has a number of options for a source to sound, but with the Roanoke River having the added benefit of camping platforms available right off the water, we decided to make our journey on its waters.
Camping platforms along the river can vary, but typically consist of one area, roughly 12’ by 16’ in size, for paddlers to take up residence overnight. Most of these have only a privacy area — no toilet — making it necessary to pack along a portable toilet and TP kit.
However, there are the occasional deluxe ones. “The Bluffs”, a platform along our route, was one of these. The name alone makes it sound like an upscale hotel — and for a paddler days into their trip, it is. A winding boardwalk, screened-in platform, balcony, and a pit-toilet would make it a luxurious stop for us along this paddling trail.
Morning broke as we set off for Weldon, a small North Carolina town of less than 2,000 people. Being late December, there wasn’t much action when we arrived at the boat ramp; most people were hunkered down for North Carolina’s winter. We set off down the river heading east to the sound.
The Roanoke’s water had a wintery brown and grey tint to it. All the leaves had fallen off the trees and red clay covered the banks, making it easy to pick out the green patches of mistletoe tucked in the trees. With a cooperating current, we found ourselves at our first camping platform in short order.
The water level was low and made getting to the camping platforms an adventure. Some areas had wooded platforms, helping paddlers keep clear of the muddy Carolina clay. Others didn’t. I imagined the surrounding wilderness laughing at us as we skid our way from our boats to drier patches of soil. We joined in: During our trip, we did belly-flops and balancing acts to try to approach the platforms without falling in the river or plopping in the mud. Laughter ensued, spilling out onto the water and into the woods.
The second night of the trip brought us to Broadneck Swamp, game lands owned by the state. Our camping spot was within a hundred yards of the river and surrounded by wetlands. When we woke in the cold morning, we found a beautiful fog had fallen over our site, lingering until we started our paddle.
Later that day, it poured. Our heads were tucked tightly to our chests as we put all our might into moving forward against the storm’s accompanying winds. I burst into crazy, hysterical laughter at the situation’s sick joke: All my energy was being used up as I paddled straight into 30 mile-per-hour headwinds — and no progress.
Celebrating (and Civilization)
We paddled through New Year’s Eve, covering more mileage than any other day of the trip. Exceeding our goal of 30 miles, we glided into Williamston, our resupply point, late that night.
Considering we were dressed in kayaking gear and had a lingering smell about us, we stood out as we walked around Williamston looking for food. Due to the late hour, businesses were closing and shooed us out; Subway was our saving grace.
Back at camp, to celebrate passing the 100-mile-mark and to ring in the New Year, we attempted to stay up until midnight by playing cards. But the rigors of the day won out. We found ourselves awoken by the sound of fireworks at midnight, having slept through the celebrations.
The next day we wandered into the swamps of the Roanoke. It seemed as if we weren’t in North Carolina anymore. A barred owl stared us down as we silently paddled through black water and cypress trees. Flocks of birds danced in the sky as we passed trees chewed by beavers and covered in Spanish moss that swayed with the wind.
Knowing When to Call It
Cypress Cathedral, our final camping platform, was tucked back in a swampy area. Cold and wind, both increasing as we discussed our plan for the next day, put us in decision mode. We debated between taking out a day early or staying put on the platform for an additional 24 hours.
The next day, as we passed the Weyerhaeuser paper mill, the shoulder of one of our crew started bothering him, validating our decision to take out a day early.
The Highway 45 bridge was the last sight on our source to sound trip. We took out under the bridge, bummed that we didn’t make it to the Albemarle Sound as planned.
Two more days of paddling would have brought us to our destination. But the long paddles, the stumbling to our platforms, the walk in Williamston to find food, that first sunset before our journey even started — even the rainstorm with its intense headwinds — it was all worth it. Being outside, soaking up the moments and memories, is what we’ll remember for years to come.
Some people bring in the New Year indoors. We started the year with an adventure already under our belts.
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