The Scuppernong River is an extraordinary blackwater river, which meanders for more than 15 miles between its source at/near Phelps Lake and its mouth at the Albemarle Sound northwest of Columbia. The river is hydrologically connected to Phelps Lake via a series of 3-4 mile long narrow canals that are aligned mostly southwest-to-northeast from the north bank of the lake. The canals converge 1-2 miles southwest of Creswell and the “natural” river channel begins an easterly flow through a mostly agricultural landscape in east central Washington County. After crossing into northwest Tyrrell County, the Scuppernong meanders mostly eastward, but soon strays almost due north. At a point roughly 1.5 miles east of the county line, the river resumes an eastward path, which it maintains until it eventually turns north-northeast approximately 3 miles south of Columbia. From Columbia, the river turns to the north-northwest and flows about 4 miles to its mouth at the Albemarle Sound (click to see aerial photos).
No matter how much we enjoy the weekly grind, each of us needs to get away from time to time. To some, like me, these diversions are often much more than a respite from the cadence of the workplace. In truth, I am actually in love with my work and find that I look forward to reporting for duty each and every day; however, I have learned that my ability to make useful contributions and to create productively is measurably enhanced by side trips to special places. Let me tell you about one of these special places.
For more than 15 years I have had a desire to explore the Scuppernong River in Washington and Tyrrell Counties (see map). I even lived in the Albemarle region (Elizabeth City and Edenton) for several years in the mid-late 1990’s. During these years I traveled on assignment throughout the Albemarle-Pamlico region, driving across the Scuppernong River Bridge on a regular basis, sometimes 3 or 4 times a week. I am a blackwater, coastal swamp kind of guy. I spent much of my youth on, or in areas immediately adjacent to the Little Pee Dee River, the Waccamaw River, or one of their tributaries in coastal South Carolina. I was usually fishing, hunting, camping, crabbing, or critter collecting. So every time I have encountered the Scuppernong River in recent years, a powerful, visceral urge to paddle that river would come over me like stink on a tidal mudflat. Alas, time got away from me. I moved to the lower Cape Fear basin about a week before Hurricane Floyd hit the state and found myself refocused on the daily, weekly and monthly rituals that have a way of side-tracking a man, keeping him from giving proper weight to the important and meaningful diversions. I was the culprit, not the job. I didn’t give adequate care and weight to the value of the side trip. Following a very enjoyable, but brief year and a half stretch in New Hanover County I was soon on my way back to Raleigh for my final stint with the state of North Carolina. Throughout the years I kept the Scuppernong River experience alive in a special place in my heart. Although I was disappointed that I had not made the opportunity happen, I was comfortable in the knowledge I would some day visit that river with a paddle in my hand. That opportunity came on October 6.
In my household it is never easy to do a side trip without some thoughtful advance planning and preparation. Sometime in July I mentioned to my wife, Jane, that I was planning a couple of short outings in the fall. Having been my partner for 41 years, Jane is accustomed to hearing this tune…and she knows better than to talk me into changing my plans. She knows better, not out of fear, rather out of wisdom. She might really prefer I stay home that weekend to sand and stain a piece of furniture, or tackle an arm-long list of honey-dos, but she also knows how pliant I become on my return from these glorious outings. Lord knows no matter how much spiritual energy I invest in plotting these side trips, and how very much I am restored by them, the truth is I always feel so guilty about going. She loves me and I truly love her. To go on these trips is like the feeling Br’er Rabbit had about the Laughing Place. Life is good…there is balance. Going gives me delight and I come back ready to take on new challenges at work and I am enthusiastic about moving furniture, or tackling a list of honey-dos. George smiles and Jane Smiles….Br’er Randy grins. It works!
Randy headed east in his beloved 1993 LandCruiser the morning of October 6. It was touch and go. The evening of October 5 was filled with drama. Sometime during the evening, the evil one conspired to set fire to the EQ hazardous waste storage facility in Apex, resulting in chaos and confusion in that community. Jane and I live in Apex. Local and state authorities were drawing up evacuation plans and I just knew that Jane and I would be heading to some school gymnasium for 48-hrs of utter hell. In the middle of the night I knew that dark forces were lining up against me. These forces were confident I would never go on my trip to the Scuppernong River and leave Jane behind in the toxic clouds that were hovering over Apex. Right!…little did they know about the powers of a flummoxed ecowarrior. When the dust settled, we learned that our residence was located outside the evacuation zone so we would be allowed to carry on as if nothing happened! Ha!! Although we were less than a quarter mile on the safe side of the evacuation line, it might as well have been 100 miles. I was heading east in the morning!!
I arrived at Lake Mattamuskeet around mid-day after driving through non-stop rain all the way from Raleigh. The forecast in Raleigh was for more of the same on Saturday, the 7th, but before I hit the road, I saw more promise in the internet weather forecast for eastern NC. The truth is I didn’t care if it rained on Saturday. I arranged to stay at Mattamuskeet, because it was the only available lodging in the area other than a B&B in Columbia. I wasn’t in a B&B mood. I fished some at Mattamuskeet that afternoon and caught several bass. After an average seafood dinner at Fairfield, I turned in early and headed for Columbia early the next morning.
I put the canoe in at a NCWRC ramp located northwest of Columbia. It was dark and very foggy. Two motorboats put in while I was paddling into the main channel. They turned left and headed to the Sound. I figured they were going to the Sound Bridge to fish for stripers. I paddled to the mouth and then turned and headed upstream. It was about 8:00 AM.
For the next 8 hours I paddled the Scuppernong and enjoyed the most incredible journey through a serene aquatic system unburdened by anthropomorphic distractions. In fact, I was incredulous that I never saw another human being. Only occasionally did I hear reports from distant shotguns, presumably from duck hunters far removed from my private paradise.
The width of the river ranges to well over a thousand feet at its lower end, and only gradually narrows as I traveled upstream. The tides and wind were working against me as I traveled up and down the river, but the effort was exhilarating. At around 3:00 PM I was approximately 3-4 miles above Second Creek, where the river was only 200-300 feet wide. I turned around and headed into the wind and against the tide to retrace my route.
During the transit I was privileged to observe a black bear along the edge of the swamp forest on the north side about a mile upstream of the confluence with Second Creek. I also saw two deer, both does, at the water’s edge within 30 minutes of sighting the bear. Neither of these large mammals was startled by me and they slowly faded back into the swamp as I continued paddling. Turtle sightings were numerous and so were otters and muskrat. Wood Ducks, teal and mallards were sighted at various meanders along the route. Black fish (bowfin) sightings were numerous and were easily identified when they rolled over at the surface of the water, displaying their broad, rounded tails. I have caught this fish all over eastern North and South Carolina and they can be very feisty for short intervals…they also get pretty large.
Towards the end of the trip, a couple of miles upstream of Columbia, I was paddling along at a good clip and a disturbance on my right caught my attention. When I looked I saw a large (6+ feet long) alligator surface and immediately orient his snout directly at the canoe. He was only 10-15 feet away from the canoe, but his persistent fixation on me and the canoe was unnerving. A canoe is a wonderful craft for navigating through relatively still waters, but is not the most stable platform while on the water. My concern was that his curiosity might result in a closer encounter that might destabilize the canoe and its valuable contents. Nothing is more unsettling than the image of me thrashing around in the water, two miles from anywhere, with an overly curious (=hungry?) aquatic carnivore in the water with me. Re-boarding an over-turned canoe in the middle of a blackwater river with an alligator as a pursuant is not my idea of fun or harmony.
The journey was memorable and I would do it again in a heartbeat…but, there are other special places to experience and so little time. Next up…the White Oak River. I hope to paddle the entire river during a long weekend in November. I am taking applications for a paddlemate.