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South River in North Carolina

Trip Overview

South River paddling and work party, 5/30/03 - 6/1/03

Another work party at the Tortoise Reserve.

But this time I plan to do some paddling too. Twelve years of slave labor on the banks of the South River and I've yet to wet a paddle there. Enough is enough. So I filled the van with tools and work supplies and camping gear, filled the cooler with beers and racked a couple of canoes. And racked the naked frame from a 1963 Trailcraft Scout. And the equally naked frames from a pair of "Jesus Shoes" (pontoons for the feet). Paddling pal Dave will drive north from Florida, I'll drive south from Maryland, we'll paddle and work together like old times and Paddling Dave will haul the canoe frame and Jesus Shoes back to Florida to grace the shop rafters of a local outfitter friend.

400+ miles later I arrive at the Tortoise Reserve compound. Well, near at the Reserve. The long dirt road into the place is seriously flooded; before proceeding I wade through water flowing across the road to check the depth. Calf deep; the van can handle it, but with rain in the forecast this could pose a problem getting back out on Sunday.

Supervisor Dave and laborer Alex greet me and I commence disgorging tools and gear. Dave, knowing the intensity of my aversion to anything bearing the loathsome words "Some Assembly Required" assigns my first task - assemble a Workmate.

57 parts and pieces, and a set of assembly instructions that should be enshrined in the screw-the-consumer Hall of Fame. Written in 1-point font on a tiny piece of paper, and featuring a series of complex assembly diagrams each the size of a dime, these instructions neglected to mention the need for a magnifying glass (not included). Step 1 and Step 2 should have put me on my guard:

Step 1 - Important - Lay out and identify all parts and pieces and read all instructions before beginning assembly. If these directions are followed assembly will proceed smoothly.

Step 2 - Important - Lay out and identify all parts and pieces and read all instructions before beginning assembly.

Ah, bugger that, I'm a guy. I don't need no stinkin' instructions. Several hours (and several beers) later things were not proceeding smoothly, and I had gone back to squinting at Steps 1 and 2, identifying parts and wondering why there was no diagram for Step 7 (Attach flamulator S1 to sprocket CC with carriage bolt XY, aligning ferruginator F4 with axis of planetary rotation).

Having, in due course assembled something that vaguely resembled a WorkMate Supervisor Dave and I wandered off to attempt to unclog the drainage culvert that was flooding the entrance road. This was a half-hearted attempt at best, as beer o'clock was fast approaching, and we decided to wait until a later arrival volunteered to swim into the culvert with a flashlight between their teeth to see what the problem was.

Additional laborers had begun arriving and, following the usual pattern in which the greater the number of volunteers the less work is actually accomplished, we ceased efforts on our assigned tasks and concentrated on the beverage at hand. Florida Dave arrived with his cedar stripper, and a high-water exploration of the South River was planned for the following dawn.

South River - NC 41 to Ennis Bridge Rd (9.4 miles)
OC2 - Alex Siess/Mike Lowe, OC1 - Dave Maneval, Mike McCrea

Supervisor Dave had managed to dissuade me from paddling the South River for a dozen years with tales of strainerage from hell, the result of several tropical storms and hurricanes that had swept through the coastal Carolinas over the past decade. But the State had recently gone to considerable effort to clears these blackwater rivers and the guidebook descriptions (Paul Ferguson's "Paddling Eastern North Carolina" and the vintage "A Paddler's Guide to Eastern North Carolina" by Bob Benner and Tom McCloud) sounded irresistible.

One guidebook description would prove to be irrelevant to the flooded waterway on which we paddled: "At low water many sandbars are available for lunch and rest stops. The river is confined to one channel, with banks up to 12' high".

To which I would add: "At high waters there are no sandbars. And no banks. The main current of the river cuts across the continuous oxbows through the forest and, trust me, you don't want to go there."

Determining the actual course of the river was a curious exercise. Instead of following the current the lead boat would scan the flooded forest for hints of the main channel. The South River is narrow enough to flow beneath a nearly closed canopy of cypress and oak, and the main stem was discernable by staying between the trees that lean inwards from each bank. Keeping in the middle of ///_\\\ would usually keep us out of the woods and on the river proper.

The South River is a little known gem. Densely forested, the river begins in the Mingo Swamp and flows 85 miles to the Black; with the bottom half deservedly designated an Outstanding Water Resource.

The South, and the other nearby blackwater runs in the lower Cape Fear basin (Six Runs Creek, Little and Great Coharie Creeks ands the Black River itself) are reminiscent of the Pine Barrens, and in fact these Carolina lowlands are ecologically similar in flora and fauna to New Jersey's famous paddling venue. They are certainly as serpentine as Pine Barren's rivers; the longest straight stretch - worthy of mention in the guidebooks - was 3/10 of a mile.

The South River is also a birders paradise. I saw as many Prothonotary warblers on Saturday's nine-mile paddle as I've seen in the rest of my life combined. Not to mention various other warblers and sundry songbirds, turkeys, ducks, geese, hawks. The songbird chorus emanating from the surrounding swamps was an auditory delight.

A quick and effortless 9.4-mile run saw us back at the Reserve before lunch. Paddler Dave and I tackled our next project; re-orienting the bunkhouse so that it was aligned with the library and greenhouse. Two hydraulic jacks, two come-alongs and two hours later this was done. Not until days later did we realized that crawling under the bunkhouse to position the jacks involved a visit to Chigger-World, home of the unrelievably maddening itch.

Task number two was to unclog that blocked culvert. Assuming my natural born supervisory role I graciously allowed Paddler Dave to crawl into the downstream end of the culvert. This inspection proved to be a fruitless black hole, so Dave reversed course and tackled the upstream end, probing about in waist deep mucky water.

Dislodging a giant plug of plant matter and bamboo root a torrent of water rushed through the now unblocked culvert, the ensuing vortex nearly sucking Dave's shoes from his feet. Leaning on my shovel I was tempted to applaud, but needed one hand to hold my beer and the other for my pipe. With proper supervision Paddler Dave does nice work.

Flush with success (pun intended) we took a stroll down the road to the landing and crew cut the low hanging roof-scarper branches as we went. We need to get a couple of guys with clippers standing in the bed of a pick-up and slowly cruise all of the dirt roads at the Reserve to perform a similar hack job. Next time.

Speaking of next time: I want to build a lumber and materials rack in the pole barn to get stuff up off the ground. Want to build a couple sets of sawhorses too, none such being in evidence. Extend the front porch on the bunkhouse, and build some four-foot wide bunk platforms. Paddle in the morning, work in the afternoons, drink at night. Almost heaven.

A few more simple tasks - Paddler Dave routed a sign for the entrance road - and we punched the clock and settled back in the driving rain. Despite the fact that neither Alex nor Mike had gotten more than a few hours sleep in recent memory we coerced them into committing to a dawn run on the river next morning.

At half past five the following morn I was bursting into various outbuilding in search of my paddling companions. After rudely awakening some seriously grumpy late night revelers I finally located Alex curled up in a dark corner behind a bureau in the main cabin. If I didn't know better I'd have thought she was hiding.

South River - Rte 701 to NC 41 (8.6 miles)
OC2 - Alex Siess/Mike Lowe, OC1 - Dave Maneval, Mike McCrea

The water level had risen further overnight, and the Wildlife Boating Access landing was submerged beneath fast flowing water. Today's run would require significant maneuvering, boat control and route selection. Alex and Mike were successful in accomplishing all three requirements for the first 8.59 miles, whereupon, almost within sight of the take out, a tricky turn caught them unawares.

Having preceded them through this maneuver I had some inking of what was potentially about to transpire, pulled an immediate eddy turn and waited. Not for long, as I soon heard the distinctive sound of a capsizing canoe, followed, thankfully, by the sound of two swimmers laughing heartily.

We quickly recovered the swimmers, canoe and gear, and issued the customary paddling citations. Alex was cited for taking first place in the (hopefully annual) South River Wet Tee Shirt Contest, and contest runner up and Mr. Congeniality Mike was cited for failure to recover a Yankee's cap (it is entirely possible that I was standing on it, grinding it viciously into the swamp mud with my heel. Damn...sorry Mike)

Sunday's quick-water run saw us returning to the Reserve before most revelers had awoken, in time to fire up the giant coffee pot as a G'morning Sleepyheads greeting. Time to scour around and find my tools (mostly successful) and commence planning another work & paddling visit to the South River Tortoise Reserve.

Early October, maybe the full moon weekend of the 10-12. Do a little manual labor. Paddle a couple more sections of the South River (further upstream, Butler Island Bridge to Rte 701 - 14.8 miles...further downstream, Ennis Bridge Rd to the Black River - 13.4 miles). Drink a little beer.

Sounds like a plan. Dave, Alex, Mike?

(I may have to leave a decent canoe and paddles at the Reserve for visitor use. The next canoe we rebuild perhaps)


None except landing ramps at Rte 701 and Ennis Bridge Rd.


Find where Rte 701 crosses the South River just east of Garland on a map. NC 41 crosses 8.6 miles south of there. Ennis Bridge Rd. crosses 9.4 miles south of NC41.

  • Duration: 2-3 Day Trip
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II)
  • Group Rates: No

Locations on this Trip