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Trip Report – Timeless in North Carolina
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Author:  Mike McCrea [ March 11th, 2013, 3:28 pm ]
Post subject:  Trip Report – Timeless in North Carolina

Using the Tortoise Reserve as my home base I arrived in Bladen County NC on Valentine’s Day, bearing a heart shaped box of chocolate (with a bite taken out of each piece) and a van full of tools and camping gear, intending to paddle the best of eastern NC and continue working off an “Incomplete” earned in a 1974 Field Biology class.

(More on the Reserve Days later)

After a few days of rough carpentry and manual labor the forecast showed a mix of weather, including cold nights (27f) and short spell of rain. Perfect conditions to paddle into one of the more protected sites at Hammocks Beach State Park two hours east of the reserve.

I need a long spell of alone time, and Hammocks February should provide just that. I arrived as the Park opened with favorable tidal timing for the shallow approach to the paddle in sites, aiming for site 12 in a protected canopy of stunted live oak.



Site 12 offers a superb hideaway from wind and weather, and with tent and tarp up and the canoe completely covered and spring lined down using the a small tree and the spiral dog run stake I’m ready for the nights forecast rain.



I want to figure out the tidal flux between Bogue Inlet and the campsite channel, so I pull out the watch I use almost solely for tidal timing and find the battery dead. Turning to the dreaded cell phone I found that it displays the time. Whodathunk it.

I staked the rising and falling tide over the next few days and was able to discern that low tide, in the narrow neck between the Bouge Inlet marsh and the inner-island tidal lake, falls 2 hours after Bogue Inlet, as it takes a long time for the lake to drain, but high tide is almost right on the inlet, as the inrushing water piles up in the narrows.

Low tide in the inlet is very low.


Time to set up the wind chair for maximum protection and don my winter apparel.



It is brisk out, and a personal warming fire would be a comfort. The fire-in-a-can is ideal; I can light it for a bit of warmth and, once warmed, put it out with the cover and wander again into the chill of the high dunes behind camp, turning it on and off like a personal heater.


Not a bad first day, and there lots of exploring to do. Given the forecast I doubt I’ll see another soul; rain and thunderstorms tonight with high winds, with SW winds tomorrow 15-20, highs in the 50’s, lows in the lower 30’s.

The aural background is a mix. Mostly the surf, with a base note of artillery exploding in the distance, and when the wind is right the low moan of the Bogue Inlet horn. The Marine aviation seems less that in October of last year; just a few distant helicopters and one flyover of 10 tilt-rotor Osprey in 3/7 formation. Awesome.

There followed several days of wandering the high dunes


Checking out the other protected campsites. #14 is well wind protected, level and large, with a good landing before the worst of the inlet shallows


And falling down rabbit holes


Until, several days into my stay I looked down the channel to see a lone kayaker slowing paddling and towing his way in my direction. Whereupon I soon met Legally Blind Dave, a visually impaired Swansboro kayaker who paddles into Bear Island largely on instinct and feel.

I do not mention that I made a wrong turn, even with a marked trail to follow.


Legally Blind Dave filled me in one some local history that isn’t in my guidebooks, including the location of Fort Huggins on the south side of Huggins Island (attacked twice by the Union Navy and taken, burned demolished by explosive. This area has a long history of explosions.

Dave also told of the remains of Congressman Dare’s Bear Island home, nestled in the high and forested dunes above site 14. I looked, I did not find, but the view from that highest point on the island is spectacular.

I cannot get to know and appreciate an area while passing through on foot or in a boat. I need to sit amongst the trees and shrubs and look, listen and think for a few days. Hammocks Beach gave me that opportunity.

Author:  Mike McCrea [ March 11th, 2013, 3:45 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Trip Report – Timeless in North Carolina

Some beta

Hammocks Beach State Park

Fort Huggins

Bogue Inlet tides

Author:  Erhard [ March 11th, 2013, 5:20 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Trip Report – Timeless in North Carolina

Thanks for posting the location links.

A neat trip - even if it's so close to places I would try to avoid in summer. This is a lesson in trip planning: plan in all four dimensions... :wink:

Author:  ezwater [ March 11th, 2013, 8:43 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Trip Report – Timeless in North Carolina

Was that "rabbit hole" actually created by a gopher tortoise? Didn't think they were as far north as NC. I haven't ever seen an eastern cottontail dig a tunnel that could house a mouse.

Author:  Mike McCrea [ March 12th, 2013, 10:06 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Trip Report – Timeless in North Carolina

Erhard wrote:
A neat trip - even if it's so close to places I would try to avoid in summer. This is a lesson in trip planning: plan in all four dimensions... :wink:

Hammocks Beach is a wonderful place to camp and paddle in the off-season. I too would avoid it in the summer, and late spring and early fall. My plan was to spend a month, from mid-February to mid-March, paddling some of the best of North Carolina, and Hammocks Beach was just the start.

Next up, the Waccamaw River

ezwater wrote:
Was that "rabbit hole" actually created by a gopher tortoise? Didn't think they were as far north as NC. I haven't ever seen an eastern cottontail dig a tunnel that could house a mouse.

That was my thought as well, but I don’t think they range as beyond South Carolina. It was an unused burrow (no tracks). I’ll send a herp friend the photo and see what he thinks.

Author:  Mike McCrea [ March 12th, 2013, 11:56 am ]
Post subject:  The Waccamaw

With my fingers sufficiently toughened by 4 days of salt water exposure it was time to head back to the delights of the Tortoise Reserve, including a well stocked workshop in which to play and boxes of drywall screws to start with my bare hands while balanced atop a ladder holing a drill.

In 16 days at the Reserve I used up half a 5 lb box of 1 ½” drywall screws, another half box of 2” screws and wore out a set of gloves.


I was joined for a few days at the Tortoise Reserve by NC friend Bill, and as we put the heavy lifting behind us we cogitated plans for a river trip. My original intention had been to paddle the Lumber River, starting at Chalk Banks. For access issues this was not to be, and Bill proposed a stretch of the Waccamaw as an alternative.

The Waccamaw River flows out of Lake Waccamaw, one of the largest of the Carolina Bay Lakes (nee Pocosin Ponds) and drains the Green Swamp, the largest cypress/tupelo/gun swamp in NC. Between the lake outlet and the South Carolina border the Waccamaw runs through 45 miles of little developed swampland, although much of the riverbank in NC is posted.

In South Carolina the river continues SE for another 50 miles to Conway SC, below which it widens, deepens and becomes less attractive as a tripping venue.

Bill guides a bit locally, and I followed him to a private put in below NC 904, where we could leave our vehicles for a $3 fee and avoid the first half mile of bankside houses. Our “cars”, plural; Bill had also arranged a haul-back shuttle via the missus to simplify our logistics (Thanks Claire).

We were headed to Bill’s favorite highground campsite across the border is South Carolina. Much of the riverbank on either side is owned by the Heritage Preserve, and camping is permitted.


The river was very high from recent rains, and I was happy to follow Bill’s lead, especially when he opted not to paddle across the flooded oxbows through a minefield of hidden cypress knees.


The scenery is fascinating as always in a cypress swamp and the sky is wispy blue.




We arrive at Camp 1 to find it trashed. A previous party (accent on party) had left behind an assortment of beer cans, a sodden comforter and more peculiar trash, including an empty fire extinguisher and a padded office chair.

Bill and I are both paddling big boy haulers; center seated Penobscot 16’s. We have ample garbage bags and cleaned up the site in short order, hauling out two full 39 gallon trash bags, the fire extinguisher and the chair when we departed.

Spruced up the site makes for a fine place and we plan to linger for a day and base camp, paddle and explore.


Our explorations reveal the remains of some old duckhunting platforms, built in a peculiar fashion, with a low dock and set of stairs to reach a higher gunning platform. A style I have not seen before, likely designed to be accessible at different water levels.


We also discover a massive root ball of a recently toppled cypress. The root ball itself is the size of a dump truck. Some exploratory digging and scraping at the centuries-old exposed bottom with a stick soon reveals a stone arrowhead. An old guide to NC State Parks (Biggs and Parnell) notes “Archaeological evidence indicates continuous habitation of the lands for several thousand years. Among the people who lived there were the Waccamaw-Siouan”

I haven’t seen a stone since arriving on the coastal plain, and it would be interesting to identify the material and perhaps whence it came. We vow to return to the root ball with a better digging implement than a sharp stick, but somehow never do.

The best discover though was only 50 yards from camp. There a long-ago forest fire had ravenged a longleaf/loblolly forest, leaving only the now-shaded stumps of burned pine standing like miniature church spires. Resin rich church spires.

We have fatwood. Lighter. Heart-of-pine. Even the narrow spires are impossible to break off by hand or foot, and are difficult to saw. But the core is so resin rich as to resemble amber, and burns long and hot.



(The chair ended up being the most comfortable place to sit at the Tortoise Reserve workbenches)

One guide trait to treasure – they can cook, and you will eat well.



I’ll have the Waccamaw Special - three eggs over easy, sausage, English muffin, coffee and orange juice.

I feel privileged to have been shown some of the Waccamaw’s best, and feeling that this is Bill’s place won’t reveal too much. But I’ll be back.

Bill does provide the following gauge information. The Freeland NC gauge was at 10.7 ft / 891 cfs and slightly rising and the Longs SC gauge was at 9.4 ft and 1740 cfs and steady.

After a wifely pickup and back shuttle I was on my way 2 hours north, back to the Tortoise Reserve to more additional projects further towards incompletion.

Next up – Carolina Bay Lakes.

Author:  Erhard [ March 12th, 2013, 12:02 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Trip Report – Timeless in North Carolina


Author:  Mike McCrea [ March 12th, 2013, 1:17 pm ]
Post subject:  Carolina Bay Lakes

Back at the Tortoise Reserve I waited out a stretch of bad weather playing in the shop. Just like home, put me in the shop with projects and time to diddle and I’m a happy man.

I’ve been east to Hammocks Beach. I’ve been south to the Waccamaw. I’ll paddle and camp at Merchants Millpond en route north. Time for something a little westerly. In 20+ years of visits to the Tortoise Reserve I have yet to paddle a Carolina Bay Lake.

Carolina Bay Lakes are oval depressions strung on the Atlantic coastal plain.

Perhaps as many as 500,000 of these elliptical Pocosin Ponds exist running in northeast to southwest orientation. Some are developed, but west lay two that are protected and managed by Jones Lake State Park

The park campground itself is nothing special, though it is empty expect for one kayak laden minivan. Jones Lake would make a convenient location for exploring the nearby Black and South Rivers.

Singletary Lake State Park is also nearby, and is open only to group camping.

Jones Lake is the second once-segregated NC State Park I have visited (the other being Hammocks Beach). The Park also manages the nearby Salters Lake; a pristine Coastal Bay in Bladen Lakes State Forest.

Access to Salters is by request, and if you ask nicely a Ranger will lead you through a series of well maintained State Forest sand road twists and turns, opening locked gates, until you arrive at Salters.


Lock the gate on your way back out.

Undeveloped coastal bays are a peculiar place to paddle. There may be a rim of sand at the southeast end.


Otherwise the shoreline is impenetrably dense vegetation, preventing the erosion of wave action and accumulating eons of peat. You won’t be getting out of the boat much.


The only manmade objects on Salters were a small paddle-to observation tower for birding (I would have stopped had I know it was permitted) and a single wood duck box. Otherwise there is nothing in sight that wasn’t there centuries ago.

I did complain to the Rangers that I somehow managed to paddle into the wind at all times during a clockwise circumnavigation of the lake, and that I was utterly unable to fulfill the family tradition of “10 pieces of trash” pick up before leaving a place. I managed to find only three after scouring both the lake and landing.

I’d like to see Salters or Singletary during migration. Next spring or fall trip.

Back to the Tortoise Reserve to play in the shop and wait out a spell of extreme winds.

Next up, Merchants Millpond State Park

Author:  Mike McCrea [ March 14th, 2013, 11:26 am ]
Post subject:  Merchants Millpond State Park

Merchants Millpond State Park

My intention had been to paddle some of the best of eastern North Carolina, and no sampling of NC coastal plain paddling would be complete without a trip to Merchants Millpond.

I have not been to Merchants since discovering the delights of the Black and South River in Bladen County; my last visit would have been in Spring 2004, after Hurricane Isabel devastated the mature beach forests bordering the swamp.

One of the amenities of Merchants is the availability of three paddle-in group sites, available for reservation by any organized group. MMP defines “organized” loosely; essentially any group of 8 or more can reserve a group site.


On arriving that the Ranger station I mention that I really like the group sites and the Ranger give me a wink-wink-nod-nod and allows that I could always claim I got lost and camp at one of the group sites, but also offers that a group is expected on one or the sites on Saturday.

I opt instead for one of the 8 individual sites and am told “Well, I’ll put you on #1, but you can stay at any site you like”. North Carolina State Park Rangers, finest kind.

I do stay at site #1, with 1, 2 and 3 all being waterfront sites with spectacular swamp views and proximity to the water.



Merchants Millpond is a busy place “in season”, peaking in April and may in spring, when the absolute cacophony of breeding frogs (bull frogs, carpenter, cricket, leopard, tree frogs and chorus frogs) get going. The decibel level is astounding, and just when you think it has quieted for good the symphony of meeps, honks, chirps and bellows will commence again.

In early March I heard only peepers, and one whose call sounded like the feeding chuckle of a duck.

Merchants also holds the highest population density of water moccasin I have ever seen. In warm weather, especially at high water levels, every cypress stump holds a coiled cottonmouth. I saw none, nor any of the (very few) alligators in the pond. It is not quite spring at Merchants.

Boat and camp secure I enjoy a long and hearty fire. I brought no saw or axe, but downed wood is plentiful this early in the year before the sites have been repeatedly occupied.


I am pleased with the high intensity reflective tape, both on the canoe and on the food barrels.



As I walk down to the canoe the next morning I am greeted by an inquisitive/belligerent river otter, who plays hide and seek among the cypress trees a few feet offshore, alternately chuffing and, one would swear, grinning.

It is very windy. A good day to paddle in the protected density of the cypress swamp.


As I am picking my way through the cypress I encounter a father and teen age son paddling a heavily loaded canoe. And towing a (barely) floating plastic deer sled piled to zero freeboard with split firewood.

Yoikes. Beyond the coals-to-Newcastle aspect I couldn’t imagine towing anything through a cypress swamp on a windy day, much less that contraption. I chat them up briefly and find that they are slightly lost, and that I will have neighbors.

Hoping for the best I spend much of the day poking around Lassiter Swamp far into the eastern edge of the millpond. The inflow of Bennets Creek is nearby, but I’m saving that for tomorrow.

Back at camp I make ready for the night and find that my neighbors are very quiet and respectful. Not a bad reintroduction to people. As far as I can tell they never get much of a fire going, and the father later mentions that the wood got “kinda wet” on the way in.


Next morning I am up early and away from the madding crowd of two, heading for Bennets Creek. There is some open (for a swamp) water and it is still breezy; I’m glad to have the covers on the Penobscot.


The entrance to Bennets Creeks is indistinct, but eventually discernable by working against the direction of the bent bottom grasses in search of current.


Merchants Millpond has been described in guidebooks as “a gem”, and “a gem of the highest magnitude”. If so Bennets Creek is the Crown Jewel.


One unusual benefit of the area are the highground slopes and ridges that appear from time to time along the water’s edge. Eventually some leg stretching, beech-backrest sitting beckons and I pick out a likely waterside hill.


Serenity, peace and quiet. And, as I am paddling back to the creek, a gunwale thump.

Not a gunwale, a cockpit thump. A group kayakers come into view, paddling upstream. I see that a few are wearing binoculars, and sense some anxiety that I might precede them upcreek.

I make my downstream intentions clear and paddle back downstream, again enjoying the quiet of solitude. Exiting onto the still windy swamp I come across a disaster in the making.

A disarray of a 6 or 7 park rental canoes, each of them pinballing cypress knees, carried along by a stiff tailwind. Each canoe containing one Japanese tourist parent and two Japanese tourist children, all dressed somewhat alike and all thankfully wearing a PFD, but equally clueless about how to even hold a paddle.

One of them put a gunwale to the water as I watched them come, and I snuck into a dense grove of cypress to vacate the field of play as they flailed my way.

What are my options here? “Hello”, “Nice day” and “You’re all going to die” as they bounced past brought no response. I can’t possibly explain that they are going to have to paddle upwind on the way back, much less offer some hint about how to hold a paddle.

If one of them goes over (a better than even money bet) I’ll wager that at least one more goes over trying to help. I really don’t want to be exercising my bow-over rescue pantomime, especially with spray covers on my canoe.

Gotta go, best of luck. Please don’t swim before I’m out of sight.

Once back in camp I kept an eye and ear out for any sign of them returning across the millpond, but saw or heard nothing. I was thinking of letting the rangers know they might need to go fetch them when another canoe cruised past camp at high speed and slammed head on into a cypress trunk directly in front of me.

It occurs to me that not only have I been timeless for the past 3 weeks, I’ve also been day and dateless, not having a calendar. Or, until now, a care.

It is, I calculate, Saturday. A warm if windy Saturday, and I have violated my cardinal rule of avoiding popular paddling places on weekends.

Tomorrow is predicted to be even more beautiful, mid-60’s, sunny skies and light winds. I think I’ll get packed up and paddle out early.

I arrived at the launch the next morning to find a dozen cars in the once empty parking lot, and as I was packing the van a number of boats from the group camp paddled in. One of them approached and said “You’re Mike McCrea”. Having recognized me from the van’s Duckhead and Tortoise Reserve stickers Rufus had me at a disadvantage.

Meeting kindred spirits made for a fine re-entry to civilization, and a good way to end a long trip.

Next up, some off topic Tortoise Reserve.

Author:  Mike McCrea [ March 14th, 2013, 12:00 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Trip Report – Timeless in North Carolina

The Tortoise Reserve

The Tortoise Reserve has been a feature of trips to the Carolinas and points south for more than 20 years.

Run by friends of 40 years, having a place to hunker down in bad weather and gear up for the next trip makes all the difference to an old man’s wanderings. Having a well-organized shop in which to work and play, combined with a life-time’s paddling opportunities in easy reach, is a large part of why I enjoy the North Carolina Coastal plain.



The shelving got a little interpretive late in the night. I blame it on using scrap wood.


As always my thanks to the wonderful people of North Carolina


Author:  Mike McCrea [ March 16th, 2013, 2:17 pm ]
Post subject:  Eastern North Carolina and snowbird stopovers

For iced-up northern paddlers considering a snowbird run south, the coastal plain of eastern North Carolina is a worthy stopover, or even a final destination. I had paddling invites from great friends in north Florida and the Everglades, but couldn’t shake free of the abundance of paddling in eastern NC. I spent a little over three weeks roaming around some of the best of eastern NC and still didn’t paddle half of what I wanted to float.

For much of that time it was considered to be “unseasonably cold” for the region, enough that the radio, newspapers and locals all remarked as such. What few local boaters I saw were bundled up like Nanook of the North.

To wit; it was mostly in the 50’s during the days (with a low in the upper 40’s and a high in the mid-sixties), with nights in the mid to upper 30’s (a low of 27 early on).

This was frigid for North Carolinians, and I saw very few people in boats of any kind. Late February/early March are in fact typically quite comfortable for hardy Yankee folk with good gear. The upside of a late winter visit was no people (Merchants excepted) and no bugs in the swamp or marsh.

The downside was a dearth of pre-migration birdlife or other fauna, a reasonable trade for me. If you are into birding the spring migration on April and May is the time to visit.

The number of rivers, lakes, coastal bays and shoreline available in eastern NC for tripping or paddle-in camping is remarkable, and NC’s “paddler parks” (Hammocks Beach, Lumber River, Merchants Millpond and others) are well executed and well managed.

Next time, more of the Black and South rivers; those are perhaps as fine as anything on the NC coastal plain and most sections remain little visited. The Lumber River as well will have to wait for another trip.

As will more of the Waccamaw in SC.

Best guidebook for the area is Paul Ferguson’s “Paddling Eastern North Carolina”. I see there is a 2nd edition. I’m in for an updated copy. ... 0972026819

Scuttlebutt has Ferguson working on an Eastern South Carolina guide, done (I hope) in the same well perfected Corbett/Gertler format. I’ll have one of those too when it has been published.

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