Flatwater Paddling in Eastern North Carolina

More than 2,500 miles of paddle trail meanders through Eastern North Carolina, making it one of the richest paddling destinations in the country. East of Interstate 95 you’ll find opportunities to satisfy every paddling interest, from sea kayaking on the big water of the sounds to Class III whitewater kayaking on the Roanoke River at Weldon. But it’s the quiet paddling on the tannic waters of lazy coastal rivers, amid ancient bald cypress in old millponds and on intimate creeks, which makes the region one of the nation’s top flatwater paddling destinations.

Day 1: Scuppernong River

A late start to a 3-day Down East paddling weekend isn’t a problem because of the abundance of easily accessible options. Put in on the Scuppernong River behind the Visitor Center on U.S. 64 in Columbia and paddle upstream as long as daylight allows. The big water feel at Columbia quickly vanishes as the river chokes down, providing an intimate late afternoon on the water.

Make sure you’re off in time for the half-hour drive to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and the popular evening Red Wolf Howlings. Shortly after the red wolf was placed on the Endangered Species List in 1967, efforts began to boost their numbers. Today, around 100 red wolves call the region home, and you can chat with them summer Wednesday evenings at 7:30 with the help of a naturalist who speaks their language.

Return to your base in Columbia for regional cuisine at the Old Salt Oyster Bar. Belly up to the stylish oval bar in the center of this renovated Main Street commercial building for the restaurant’s namesake seafood, or hope the kitchen-sink grits special is on the menu and enjoy this Southern classic with everything from shrimp, sausage and bacon to red bell peppers, parmesan cheese and finely cut fried jalapeños.

Day 2: Paddle with Alligators by Day, Bioluminescent Critters by Night

Head back to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge the next morning and three unique paddling options at the end of Buffalo City Road. For the most intimate (and shortest) paddles, try either the 1.5-mile Sandy Ridge Loop or the 2-mile paddle to Sawyer Lake. To really explore the heart of this 150,000-acre refuge, head out to Milltail Creek. Left takes you upstream 5.5 miles, right takes you 4 miles to the Alligator River. Both will provide ample opportunities in warmer weather to spot the gators that patrol these waters. Don’t see one? Keep watching those logs along the riverbank and see if they blink. The refuge offers guided canoe tours from May through September.

There’s a lot to see in the refuge, a lot which you may not have seen before. Spend a few minutes to learn more about this complex ecosystem and 10 others in the area at the National Wildlife Refuges Visitor Center across Croatan Sound in Manteo. Opened in 2012, the center uses dioramas and interactive exhibits to explain the role of the refuges.

While you’re in Manteo, take a break from your exploring to enjoy a late lunch at the Lost Colony Brewery and Café. Refuel with the Carolina Crab Cake, Roanoke Shrimp Melt or Lump Crabmeat Au Gratin Burger, take a quick tour of the brewery and you’re ready for more exploring of the natural world variety.

You might want to start that exploring on foot to work off lunch. A short drive east to the Outer Banks is the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve. More than 5 miles of trail penetrate this 1,111-acre preserve, one of the largest remaining maritime forests along the East Coast. Keep your binoculars handy to check out the more than 100 species of birds, 15 species of amphibians and 28 species of reptiles documented in the preserve.

Up for more? Good, because at 8:30 p.m. on warm-weather, full-moon nights, Kitty Hawk Kayaks leads a roughly two-hour paddle tour, either at Bodie Island or around Kitty Hawk Woods. If your trip doesn’t fall on a full moon you can take a Bioluminescence Kayak Tour and check out the underwater light show provided by glow-in-the-dark marine creatures.

Day 3: Explore More Intimate Inland Waters

Your attention shifts inland on Day 3, with an early start from base camp Edenton. And because of your long and busy Day 2, the day should probably start with a caffeinated beverage, along with a baked-on-the-premises biscotti at the Edenton Coffee House Bakery and Cafe downtown. As you wait for your Nutter Butter Mocha, call down the street to Emilio’s General Store for a “take away” sandwich (the Edentonian, perhaps, a deli sandwich with a splash of pimento cheese).

A walk down South Broad Street to the Town Harbor reveals spiffy sailboats and yachts – and out-the-door canoe and kayak rentals for a trip on Queen Anne Creek, which feeds the harbor. A nice “urban” paddle that gives you a different perspective on the waterfront and Edenton’s Cotton Mill Historic District.

Drive north of town on N.C. 32 and check the various millponds and sleepy creeks that feed the Chowan River. The Dillard Creek paddle trail begins at the base of an old milldam and meanders 4 miles to the Chowan. The surrounding country is actively farmed, but a narrow buffer of ancient bald cypress and coastal hardwoods insulates the creek from civilization. Be patient, paddle softly and your likelihood increases of catching a wood duck before it erupts from the brush or a yellow slider before it abandons its sunny perch on a downed log.

You won’t want to be on the creek come sunset, but the adjoining millpond is a grand place to end the day. Leave a small light at the put-in, paddle out to where you can still see the light, and end your Eastern North Carolina paddling journey in a blaze of orange and yellow fading to pink, purple and crimson.

Updated February 15, 2019
About the Author

Joe Miller

Joe Miller is the author of Adventure Carolinas and other guidebooks. He writes about health, fitness and adventure.

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