I've got one foot on the platform, the other foot's on the train.
I'm going back to New Orleans to wear that ball and chain.
- from House of the Rising Sun, a blues standard
Ever since I moved back to Durham in October, two things have happened: everyone has told me how bad the drought has been, and it has rained in biblical proportions. It was this generous, gentle flood that we rode to camping platforms in a beautiful cypress swamp replete with Spanish moss and misteltoe (not to mention snakes and leeches) .
We met to begin our trip too early in the morning (8 AM) on April 27, a Sunday. "We" consisted of Anne, Leslie, Xavier, Julie, Marc S., Marc D., MK, Marybeth, and myself. Despite the fact that 22% of the people in the group were named Marc and even more were French, we managed to remember who we were for most of the trip. Our rendezvous in front of Marc D. & MK's house took just thirty minutes which I found nothing short of amazing. Clearly, I thought, these people take their fun seriously.
Our destination was just a few miles shy of Jamesville, NC on Route 64 where it crosses Gardner Creek. En route Anne and I spotted a turtle that was flipped over in the middle of the two eastbound lanes of traffic. We pulled over and I braved traffic to rescue the critter. As I did so an oncoming SUV blew his horn rather than slow down, thus reaffirming every ugly stereotype I have about SUV drivers. (i.e. Selfish louts more familiar with the CD changer than the turn signal etc. etc.) To add to my stress, as I picked up the turtle I realized it was a snapper. Caught between blaring metallic death and hissing reptilian dismemberment, I must confess I chose option three and dropped the turtle. In my defense: it was an accident, and only from a height of a few inches, and on his back, and I did recover to pick him up and carry him out of the path of the SUV.
We all arrived at the Gardner Creek putin within a few minutes of one another. There is a kountry store there that rents canoes and sells sodas and bait (from separate coolers, fortunately). With nine of us renting canoes (Old Town Discovery 158s), packing gear, and organizing the shuttle, things moved quickly. The takeout was only a few miles away in Jamesville so the shuttle run was short but it still gave us time to sponge out the boats. In the process we came across a number of live leeches in the boats. I didn't see the rental agreement so I don't know if the $50/boat for two days was supposed to cover leeches or if we got them for free. In any case Marybeth and I were glad to have our kayaks we'd brought from home.
I think there's a boat ramp in the parking lot but it was hard to tell as the water was a foot above flood stage and at that level everything looks like a boat ramp. We shoved off without a hitch and were officially on the water at noon.
Our route was simple -- Gardner Creek to Devil's Gut and then a short run up Deadwater Creek to the Beaver Lodge camping platform. Our trip was slighly complicated by the flood, because floods make the creek and river channels in the swamp less significant. Once the water rises above the banks, it moves with less discretion than an SUV driver listening to Rush Limbaugh. In short, everything flows in one direction. In this case that meant east towards the Albemarle Sound or left to right on this map. This in turn meant that we sometimes paddled against the current. Some years ago my brothers and I paddled the Congaree Swamp in flood and we found the canoe trail almost disappeared into the swamp (my brothers and I nearly did too). Gardner Creek posed no such problems as the section we paddled was about 50 feet wide at its narrowest and thus even someone who voted for George Bush would have the wits not to get lost.
The swamp (which is called Cooper Swamp on my map) was typical southeastern cypress-tupelo swamp in its full spring glory. This meant vivid, unblemished greenery crowning stately gray-brown trunks accented with beards of Spanish moss. The weather was also fine -- some sun after days of (what else?) rain and temperatures just warm enough to be a little hot. We paddled in Gardner Creek on an easy current that mostly went in the direction we wanted to go, and eventually turned right onto Devil's Gut. After a short trip on Devil's Gut we made a final left turn up Deadwater Creek (easy to find, thanks to the sign) to get to the Beaver Lodge platform. Other than being distracted by wildlife (lots of snakes and turtles, a few herons, two owls, and the occasional swimming leech) our trip had been without incident. We paddled lazily and reached the platform in less than three hours.
Stated simply, the platforms rock. "Rock" in the good sense of "rock and roll" and "steady as a rock", not the rocking chair sense which is good in its way, but not if you're pitching a tent on it. The platforms are fairly large (ours was 20' x 20'), solidly built and kitted out with steps, ring bolts and even a privy. (A portable toilet was part of the canoe rental.) The water was about a foot below the top of the platform which made it perfect for boat exit and entry. I'm told that in summer one often has to slog through mud to get to the platform which is an experience I'll gladly miss out on. As for us, the platforms were the only dry ground we saw between putin and takeout. Don't miss the practical implication of this -- if the water was a foot higher, we would have had nowhere to camp. There's more info about water levels below.
Once on the platform we wasted no time in covering every square centimeter with camping gear. That accomplished, we celebrated by breaking out the wine. I am sad to say that although I have a lot of respect for the French for opposing the war in Iraq, our companions competely blew it in the beverage department. The result was that I became a hero for having a bottle of Ernest & Julio Gallo, which is the first time that's ever happened. With conditions approaching yippee! on the fun scale we pitched tents. Anne and I nobly volunteered ourselves for the space furthest away from the privy.
While we settled, a few people test-drove the kayaks. Marybeth and I had brought sea kayaks which are suboptimal boats for swamp paddling. "Swamp" isn't even the right word, "flooded forest" is more like it. Imagine lots of flat water with a little current and three-foot diameter trees spaced every five to ten feet. Can you see how a seventeen-foot boat and a seven-foot paddle might be a little awkward? We could not see the test-drivers but we could hear them as they hit trees, the boat, themselves, snakes and leeches as they navigated through the forest like the balls in a slow-motion, all natural pinball game.
Once we had pitched tents we still had several daylight hours left so we went back on the water as a group. We took a short trip back to where Devil's Gut met Gardner Creek. On the way we spotted two snakes with tail entwined in a love embrace. (No photos -- this isn't that kind of Web site.) We paddled up Devil's Gut a short distance but the current was strong and not in our favor so we opted instead for some more forest action which was somewhat curtailed by poison ivy vines. Brushing past trees is less fun when they're covered in the three-leaved scourge. On our way back to camp we noticed that the snake couple was noticeably more relaxed and smoking tiny cigarettes.
Evening fell at the platform with all campers present and accounted for and we were soon treated to an audio show by some barred owls. Barred owls are the least owly owls that I know of. They're not strictly noctural, and they have little patience for cartoon owls' genteel "hoo-hoo"s. Barred owls skronk, squeak, squawk, whoop, bark and generally make any sound you could think of and a few you can't. The ones we heard no exception and although they were most active at dusk, they continued to vocalize all night.
Later in the moonless night, I took a solo kayak trip without lights. I had a headband flashlight, but I switched it off so my eyes would adjust to the low light. This enabled me to see trees silhouetted against the sky but little else. The night sky was stunning. I drifted with the current and never got out of sight of the lights of the platform because it would have been so very, very easy to get lost. I was nervous and feeling very much out of my element when suddenly something thumped my boat right next to the cockpit! "Night gator!" I thought. "Snapping turtle! Swamp jaguar! SUV!" I swung my paddle with one hand and reached for my revolver with the other, only to come up empty on both counts. The rotting stump I had drifted into was only a few inches above the water and I've never owned a gun. Realizing I was more of a threat to myself than anything in the swamp was, I paddled back to the platform where Anne was impressing everyone with her culinary skills.
The next morning we rose to another lovely day. Our first job before breakfast was dislodging the ants from the Fig Newmans and chocolate. Ants, it seems, thrive anywhere, especially with sloppy campers like us around. After breakfast we packed and shoved off into what looked like the world's largest latte. We paddled east (with the current) down Devil's Gut for a short time until we came to the creek that leads Barred Owl Roost platform. Exhausted by our episode with the ants and the general stress of coping with so much bird song, sunshine, fresh air, and relaxation, we struggled to the platform to renew ourselves with an early lunch. Marc and Marc went swimming; Marc D. required a lot of prep time which consisted of standing in water up to his BVDs and saying, "It's cooooooooold!" but he eventually went which is more than the rest of us were willing to do. During lunch we spotted a snake hanging in the nearby bushes (one of many snakes that we saw) and prothonotary warblers in the trees.
After a long, lazy, nappy lunch we shoved off again and were soon on the Roanoke River proper with the current moving us steadily towards Jamesville. We passed a few boaters, all of them fishermen, including one who had his oxygen tank in the boat with him. Fortunately they were more interested in actually fishing than showing off the size of their Evinrudes so the river remained peaceful.
There's not much more to tell, just more pleasant paddling through a flooded forest. A partially submerged boat ramp at the takeout made access easy. The Cypress Grill (phone 252-792-4175) is also at the takeout. It is a ramshackle establishment that specializes in river fish. These places are usually simple (fish both ways -- fried and broiled) and tasty but it had closed for the season a few days before we arrived so the fish-eaters among us were out of luck.
There was one detail left to take care of which was returning the rented canoes and portable toilet. The latter, we learned had to be cleaned out by us into a porta-john. "Us" in this case turned out to be Marc & MK -- the rest of us were somehow urgently needed elsewhere when the time came for that chore. I certainly would have volunteered selflessly as I usually do, but, alas, I was still at the takeout watching the boats while the end-trip shuttle was run. For this reason I also can't say if the rental place inspected the boats to see if we'd returned their leeches. I suspect not.
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