Platform Camping On The Roanoke River
Here's something you might not know. River otters hold pool parties at night. They jump and dive and splash, and sometimes they get into arguments, but those seem to get settled quickly.
When my husband and I spent a night camping on a wooden platform in a swamp off the Roanoke River, we were expecting to hear birds, and especially owls, who say a lot more than "whoo . . . whoo." Their eerie-sounding screeching can fill a forest. Which it did. But we were prepared for that. We were not, however, expecting all that splashing. Maybe that's why we couldn't stop chuckling. It was like hearing kids at a pool, but so dark that you couldn't see them.
The platform system is overseen by Roanoke River Partners, a nonprofit group created a decade ago by volunteers from five North Carolina counties. The group started and maintains the Roanoke River Paddle Trail, 200 miles of interconnected creeks, rivers and swamps, mostly surrounded by protected land. Most people start the trail at or around Jamesville, which is just west of Plymouth and 80 miles west of the Outer Banks. The group has built 12 camping platforms, with at least a few more to come. They have been used by hundreds of North Carolinians, as well as by people from at least 30 states and several foreign countries.
True to its mission, the paddling group has set up a system that is as compelling to the novice as it is to the pro. Some campers do multiple-day trips, but we, absolute beginners, kept it simple by going out for only one night. All we had to do was leisurely paddle on backwater creeks off the main river for about three hours before reaching our reserved platform, called Beaver Lodge. We stayed on slow-moving creeks about 150 feet wide, had maps and good directions, and the route was marked (though that's not always the case).
We started our adventure, as many do, from Roberson's Marina, between Williamston and Jamesville, which rents canoes. After a few twists and turns up Gardner Creek, it wasn't long before the US Highway 64 din faded and the nature show unfurled. Along the course, with the sun at our backs, we admired miles of graceful, curvy cypress and tupelo trees, dripping Spanish moss and clusters of knobby cypress knees. Trees, some flowering and others sporting palettes of new-spring green, stood stark against a deep blue sky, with the whole stunning scene reflected below on the tannin-stained water.
We passed turtles sunning themselves on logs, watched fish pop the water's surface and admired the results of several beaver engineering projects. As we had hoped, it was bird paradise. Great blue herons and pure-white great egrets strutted through the swampy woods. Woodpeckers' rat-tat-tats filled the air; a barred owl barreled over our heads.
Few humans were in sight. Three motorboats with fishermen passed us slowly, as well as a foursome paddling in kayaks. We'd chatted with them at the start and ended up stopping by their platform for happy hour.
By the time we neared Beaver Lodge platform, we were deep inside another world. To get there we turned off the main creek onto a smaller branch that fed into a swamp. We maneuvered around trees until we spotted home. Ours was a double platform, connected to Beaver Tail by a walkway, and each has a privacy wall for the privy.
This is probably not a good place for sleepwalkers to stay, because with one misstep you can be in the swampy water. And it can also be a bit tough in the bug-filled summer, unless you want to cover yourself with DEET, which means the platforms are most popular in the fall and spring.
After quickly setting up camp, we paddled back out to the creek and up the river for 30 minutes to reach Barred Owl Roost platform, where our new friends had cold beers waiting. They were camping for two days and reported later that they'd taken three wrong turns the second day but still had the time of their lives. My husband and I were back in our camp chairs by sunset. As dusk became dark, the swamp snapped to life, and those boisterous otters kept the party going under the dim light of sparkling stars.
If You Go:
For information on the Roanoke River Paddle Trail, call 252-798-3920 or visit www.roanokeriverpartners.org. To make camping reservations, call (252) 792-3790. Camping fee is $20 for up to two people for one night, and $10 for each additional person.
Roanoke River Paddle Trail Resources:
Canoe rentals for the Roanoke River Paddle Trail from small shop on Highway 64, three miles west of Jamesville. Call ahead, 252-217-2979.
Frog Hollow Outdoors
Owner Banks Dixon leads regular day and overnight trips on the Roanoke, provides instruction and rents kayaks and canoes. (919) 949-4315
Kitty Hawk Kayaks
Husband-and-wife team Heather MacLean and Herman Hall offers overnight paddling trips on the Roanoke and rent kayaks. (866) 702-5061
Don Gray, who also builds river platforms, will provide guides or rent canoes for paddle camping trips on the Roanoke. (910) 624-0347 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Roanoke-Cashie River Center
Center has canoe rentals and also interpretative displays and boardwalks on the Cashie. At 112 West Water St. in Windsor, NC. Reach the center, operated by the Partnership for the Sounds at (252) 794-2001
Wilderness Adventures Kayak Shop
Canoe & Kayak rentals and sales and guiding, 754 McCotters Marina Road, Washington, (252) 945-2582
For do-it-yourselfers, a helpful book is Paddling Eastern North Carolina by Paul G. Ferguson with information at www.paddlingeasternnc.com.
Trail information also is available online at North Carolina Paddle Trails Association, at www.ncpaddletrails.org and at ncsu.edu/paddletrails/
Where To Stay
The Inn at Grays Landing, 401 South King St., Windsor, about 4.25 hours from Washington. Rooms are $89 to $139. Info: (877) 794-3501
Big Mill Bed and Breakfast, 1607 Big Mill Road, Williamston, about 4.5 hours from Washington. Rooms are $69 to $135. Info: (252) 792-8787
Where To Eat Year-Round
Lasca's, 307 W. Granville St., Windsor, (252) 794-5058, local favorite for moderately priced family dinners and Italian.
Deadwood Smokehouse Grill, 2302 Ed's Grocery Road, Bear Grass (just south of Williamston), (252) 792-8516, dinner Friday and Saturday, lunch and dinner Sunday, at family run Western-style theme park.
R&C Restaurant, 211 Washington St., Williamston, (252) 792-3161, local family fare.
Seasonal seafood spots worth planning your trip around:
Sunny Side Oyster Bar, 1102 Washington St., Williamston, (252) 792-3416. Sunny Side has been shucking oysters since 1935. Open September through April.
Hammerhead's Oyster Bar, 117 N King St, Windsor, (252) 794-5960. Another local favorite, serves dinner Wednesday through Saturday, September through April.
The Cypress Grill, 1520 Stewart Street, Jamesville; (252) 792-4175, on the Roanoke River off Route 64. Famed riverside herring shack, open from January through April.
By Diane Daniel
added: December 23, 2008
updated: August 12, 2009
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