Black River in North Carolina

by  guest-paddler

A self-supported trip created by guest-paddler

Trip Overview

Every spring Dave Lee hosts a Work Weekend of volunteer labor at the Tortoise Reserve on the banks of the South River NC, an opportunity to sweat, be bitten by fire ants, and drink cheap beer. And paddle some beautiful blackwater rivers in the Cape Fear basin.

I arrived at the gate to the Tortoise Reserve early Thursday afternoon. The locked gate to the Tortoise Reserve. Next time Ill remember to bring those bolt cutters Dave declared we would not need.

Just as I had decided to find a hardware store and buy a hacksaw Dave arrived and we proceeded into the Reserve to disgorge tools, parts, materials and assorted equipment. I had stuffed most of my home shop into the van, to the point that lumber, ladders, and toolboxes occupied the back, the floor and all areas but the drivers seat.

Having established my home away from home workshop beneath the pole barn roof Dave and I set upon a few simple tasks; re-erecting the entrance sign, which has been repeatedly stolen by frat boys due to its alliterative allure and colloquial double meaning, built a couple of sets of heavy duty sawhorses (I was pleased to see these in constant demand as the work weekend progressed), replaced a tortoise pen gate and installed a multi-can crusher (with unexpected results the kids loved crushing cans and would snatch empties before they even hit the ground, which completely eliminated the largest aspect of policing the area). Not only that but Dave was deviously delighted with the idea of drilling a hole in the front crush plate so that half filled cans would forcibly eject their contents onto the operators chest, creating an impromptu wet tee shirt contest.

Having successful accomplished those tasks we toured the Reserve, creating a prioritized list of jobs-to-be-done and set about producing a satisfactory quantity of empty beer cans for the kids to crush.

By Friday morning a contingent of free labor had arrived and the Reserve resembled a bustling ant colony, although these worker ants all seemed to be hammering or sawing with one hand and drinking cheap beer with the other. Much was accomplished, especially in the realm of providing the kids can crusher materials and a paddling trip was scoped out through the old forest section of the Black River with the help of Fergusons Paddling Eastern North Carolina guidebook.

Black River (Beattys Bridge Rd to Hunts Bluff Rd access)
12.9 Miles
OC2 Mike Lowe/Roman _____, Alex Siess/Leo ____
OC1 Mike McCrea
K1 Dave Maneval

Setting shuttle the river at both ends appeared wide, flat and slow, promising a long day of paddling. While it was a longish day with little current the river changed character dramatically at the halfway point.

As the river began to narrow we came upon a couple in a tandem canoe beached at the apex of a bifurcation. They had been to the left, and the river petered out. They had been to the right, and the river grew too shallow to paddle and diffused into many tiny channels too small to permit passage of a boat. They had watched a party of paddlers in rec kayaks go right and were waiting to see if they returned equally befuddled.

We pressed on to the right, following the current when discernable, and soon came upon the rec kayakers, scattered throughout the swamp with their boats wedged between cypress trees. Clueless, stuck and making no discernable progress.

This area, known as the Three Sisters or the Narrows, contains the oldest trees in North America, core sampled to 1700 years old, and some may be as old as 2000 years. Surprisingly not as large as some along Maryland or Delaware cypress swamp runs (the massive specimens along the upper Pocomoke or James Branch come to mind) these were the dwarfs and disfigured trees that loggers left standing a hundred years ago.

We continued to pick our way through the bewilderingly thick swamp, trying to follow the current while looking ahead for a clear path (sometimes the meat of the current would head into an impenetrably dense area of trees and it would be necessary to diverge from the flow and pick a more open route off to one side, all the while keeping one eye on the main flow in order to not lose it entirely during the detour into the forest primeval).

Somewhere in the midst of this challenge Maneval disappeared, and given his penchant for selecting the route less traveled the possibility of again concluding a days paddle surrounded by the hubbub of Search & Rescue loomed large.

Just as the trickiest part of this swampage began to thin I heard the unmistakable sound of a canoe flipping over, followed by laughter from Alex and Leo. Interesting this, because I had been asked to create a certificate commemorating Alexs unexpected swim on the South River during last years trip. Interesting because, in writing the inscription for her certificate the phrase capsized yet again appeared. Interesting because I had a feeling, I had faith; I just knew I could count on Alex to fulfill that prophesy. Thanks Alex.

As the baffling swamp route began to become more obvious we were treated to a visual oddity a field of large cypress knees unlike any Ive ever seen before. While the cypress trees were thinly scattered the knees were large and densely clustered in a bizarrely alien fairyland.

Just as suddenly as the river had petered out it reappeared, fifty feet wide and flowing slowly. Taking a bankside shore break at the rivers reemergence Maneval soon reappeared as well. Finding that his road less traveled meandered through the swamp to no end and no obvious outlet, he had backtracked and followed what current there was to reemerge behind us.

Pondering Duckhead trivia we realized that new companions Leo & Roman counted as Duckhead paddlers # 498 and 499. The milestone of Duckhead paddler number 500 would occur on the next outing that included a new paddling companion.

Back to the Tortoise Reserve, feeling a bit guilty about having absconded with some of the hardest working and most skilled serfs for the better part of the day, we accomplished a few more tasks and gathered together for the dedication of the Barbara Bonner Turtle Conservation & Education Center. Leslie and Dave spoke in memory of Barbara, and Dave got something in his eye and was hard pressed to continue.

Back to work - aint the beer cold - and as darkness fell we retired to the library to conclude the bidding on the silent auction, in the end raising over $800 for the Asian Turtle Consortium (that darned Arthur outbid me for the Tortoise Reserve work weekend hard hat). Another peek at the Ferguson Guide and we had a run selected for the morrow.


Black River (NC 41 to Wildcat Rd)
6 Miles
OC1 Mike McCrea
K1 Dave Maneval

Having decided on an early morning run on another section of the Black, the plan was for Maneval and I to kick Mike Lowe when we awoke to ascertain if he was sufficiently sober to join us. We took Go away you bastards as a no.

This section of the Black would be a fine choice for a short novice run, with naught to impede our progress but a single limbo log, and we were back at the Tortoise Reserve by mid-morning to cross our remaining tasks off the list and admire the quantity and quality of work others had accomplished.

Amy had scrubbed, swept and scoured many of the outbuildings, including the main cabin and bunkhouse. Charlotte and Arthur had bow sawed their way through immense quantities of fallen tree branches. Leo had hauled and stacked cords of firewood. Mike had tackled several painting and trim jobs on the library walls. A contingent of volunteer laborers had constructed a new tortoise pen (without Daves help this became the first level and symmetrical structure at the Reserve). Leslie and Alex had established new plantings in many of the inside and outside pens. And more, much more. One of the joys of the Tortoise Reserve Work Weekends, besides good company and bad beer, is the startling realization come Sunday afternoon of exactly how much has been completed.

Over the course of the weekend Maneval and I managed to accomplish the following:

Install door trim in the tortoise greenhouse, clean & install plastic on greenhouse ceiling, reattach the insulation, re-install a damaged shelving unit, secure the removable boardwalk planks, re-erect a toppled headstone in graveyard and straighten some other leaning stones, install a dryer vent, rout & install signs on bunkhouse, repair a lock set on tool shed, (not to mention drink large quantities of beer, which may be why I cant remember our other tasks, and why many of those above were completed by Maneval while I supervised and drank his beer before it got warm).


South River (at Tortoise Reserve frontage)
0.3 Miles
OC2 Mike McCrea/Dave Lee, Alex Seiss/Leo ____/Biscuit Lee

As the various volunteers eased their aching bodies in their vehicles and departed Alex managed to convince Dave to partake in a short paddling trip, making him my 500th paddling companion since I started keeping track in 1997. This for me was truly one of the highlights of the weekend, not only hitting to 500 mark, but to have Dave Lee as number five hundred. Hard to believe that Ive known Dave since 1971, have traveled and worked with him throughout the mid-Atlantic and desert southwest, and had yet to wet a boat with him. When the Christmas awards ceremony rolls around there is sure to be a special prize for number 500.

Not only has Dave been enshrined as the 500th Duckhead paddler, but he will likely remain forever at the bottom of the Duckhead mileage list, since the heavily strainered nature of the South River prevented us from paddling more than a few hundred yards. With a scant 0.3 total miles Dave has replaced C. Serps 0.8 miles, which had occupied last place in the mileage count since November of 97.

Having reached this milestone it seems like an opportune time to look at the Duckhead statistics 373 adult paddlers, 101 kids, 27 dogs and 201 Duckhead paddling trips since 1997.

Whadda ya know, we reached another milestone at the Tortoise Reserve work weekend; the early morning float down the Black with Maneval was the 200th Duckhead paddling trip. Serendipity, if I had known in advance and had my pick of companions for the 200th trip it would have been Maneval. Mark that one down as another award.

And, unbeknownst to us, we passed another Duckhead milestone on last months Trap Pond strainer-fest, our 100th Duckhead paddling kid. Another award in waiting.

Packing tools and gear I racked one less boat than I came down with. Ed Evangelidis old Shenandoah having been nicely rebuilt - thanks especially to Topher for the gunwales and deck plates, Maneval for the seats and to various donors for other parts and pieces I was able to leave a loaner canoe at the Tortoise Reserve, along with some spare paddles and PFDs. And I have a second Shenandoah waiting in the wings to rebuilt as soon as I find another set of gunwales, so eventually the Tortoise Reserve will have a fleet of loaner canoes and gear available.

Next work weekend at the Tortoise Reserve Ill need to build a canoe rack for growing loaner boat fleet. Build a lumber rack in the pole barn. Build a couple more sets of sawhorses and a 4 x 8 tabletop for the sawhorses. OK Dave, you can start making my work list for next spring now.


Boat ramps and parking at Wildlife Boating Access points.


Paddling Eastern North Carolina (Paul Ferguson)

The Tortoise Reserve

Trip Details

  • Trip Duration: 2-3 Day Trip
  • Sport/Activity: Canoeing
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II)

Trip Location