Originally published in the North Carolina Wildlife Federation Journal, Fall 2014.
My favorite paddle trip is usually the last river I was on, so it’s no small feat to whittle down the best canoe or kayak trips in North Carolina for experiencing wildlife. North Carolina boasts 17 river basins. Rivers such as the Little Tennessee flow into the Mississippi River and ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico, while others open into the Atlantic Ocean like the Neuse. The amazing diversity of our rivers is one of the many reasons North Carolina is such a great place to experience wildlife and wild places. I hope this list will inspire you to connect with nature in your backyard or in another part of our state.
French Broad River
With headwaters nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the French Broad River quietly flows through Brevard, then into Asheville, allowing for a serene paddle where you might catch a river otter at play or even glimpse a white squirrel. This section is great for canoeing, fishing, tubing, and stand-up paddle boarding. My favorite section stretches from Hominy Creek into Asheville.
The river is flanked by the Biltmore Estate and the largely undeveloped land supports a diversity of wildlife. As the river nears Marshall, the whitewater section begins, and if you intend on watching wildlife you might think about switching to a raft as the river rolls toward Hot Springs.
“The majestic views of rocky outcrops and the sparkling roar of the French Broad River rolling through rural Madison County warms my soul and calls me back year after year,” says Michelle Pentecost, NCWF board member, of the French Broad River near Hot Springs. Beavers, great blue heron and deer can be seen in and along the river and anglers can try for the celebrated muskellunge, or “muskie,” but smallmouth bass fishing is the most popular. Birders will delight in spotting migrant warblers, wood ducks, kingfishers, and other species. The best way to experience wildlife on this river is by spending a few days on it. The French Broad River Paddle Trail allows the adventurous to camp for multiple days along banks of the French Broad River from the headwaters to the Tennessee state line. For more information, head over to frenchbroadpaddle.com.
Little Tennessee River
A gem in the heart of Western North Carolina, the Little Tennessee River is a hotspot for bio diversity and the best way to see it could be with a mask and snorkel. You might think you’re snorkeling around a tropical coral reef when you see all the colorful fish schooling in the crystal clear waters. Most people experience rivers from above by fishing or floating (both excellent ways to enjoy this river), but when you get to experience the river from underwater it reveals an entire new world of colorful fish, freshwater mussels, and even the giant salamander called a hellbender. This special river, full of rare species, is getting some extra attention by NCWF and partners by having it designated as a Native Fish Conservation Area. “This designation will bring greater attention to the diverse array of native fishes inhabiting the river and will help ensure their survival,” says NCWF natural resource specialist Fred Harris.
The lazy headwaters of the eventually mighty New River begin right here in North Carolina and are an excellent place to tube, canoe, camp, and fish. A favorite of Appalachian State University students for tubing near Boone, this river is also great to canoe. This river is hailed as one of the oldest rivers in the world. Geologists estimate the New has been flowing for between 10 million and 360 million years. Bucolic landscapes make for great wildlife habitat along the banks of this river, so bring your binoculars in addition to your fishing gear. A wide variety of songbirds, wood ducks, kingfishers, and red-winged blackbirds inhabit the banks. Further downstream from the Boone area, New River State Park offers canoe-in camping so you can experience this wild place during longer trip. My favorite section to camp starts at the Wagner put-in and flows to the Virginia state line. More information on camping at ncparks.gov.
A Wild and Scenic designated river in south-central North Carolina, the Lumber River offers great swamp and eastern hardwood habitats. With 24 canoe put-ins at road crossings, there is ample opportunity to see a wide variety of wildlife like deer, mink, ducks, and even alligators, rare at this latitude. For birders, the uppermost section of the river offers the opportunity to see the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Many other rare species can be found here such as pine barrens treefrog, river frog, and the giant yucca skipper. Novice paddlers will find the lower sections to be more accessible, as the upper section requires advanced skill to navigate around the fallen logs and other obstructions. While these logs and sandbars may make it harder to paddle, they do create important habitat for a number of species, as many an angler can attest. If hunting is your interest, the Lumber River offers deer and squirrel hunting opportunities with three boating accesses managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission for this purpose. Other hunting lands, like the nearby Sandhills Game Lands and Bullard and Branch Hunting Preserve, offer further opportunities. Make sure to also keep your eyes open for fossils and artifacts, as river banks are a great place to find these ancient treasures.
Merchant’s Millpond offers spectacular wildlife sightings in the 760-acre millpond, which has been impounded for almost two centuries. “For those who have never experienced eastern North Carolina blackwater paddling it’s hard to describe the experience. One word comes to mind though and that word is enchanted,” says Tim Gestwicki, CEO of NCWF. Mature stands of bald cypress trees adorned with Spanish moss create habitat for bats, frogs, migrating birds, turtles, snakes, ducks, river otters, and many more. Bowfin, a top predator in the millpond, are a unique sight for those anglers willing to face their sharp teeth. Plenty of other game fish await anglers in this unique blackwater system. A great way to experience Merchant’s Millpond is in a canoe. Winding through floating duckweed, water ferns, and yellow cow lily, a paddle here is an experience not to be missed.
A unique natural body of water in southeastern North Carolina, Lake Waccamaw is a large Carolina bay, named for the species of bay plants found nearby like sweet bay and red bay. Some say this lake may have been formed by meteorites. Many rare plants and animals are found here in large part because the limestone rock in the area neutralizes the otherwise acidic water creating suitable habitat. The Venus-hair fern, green-fly orchid, seven-angled pipewort, narrowleaf yellow pondlily and water arrowhead, are all on the state’s rare plant species list, and can be found at Lake Waccamaw. Several fish, mussels and snails found nowhere else on earth live here, including Waccamaw darters, Waccamaw fatmucket, and the Waccamaw siltsnail. After a paddle around the lake, you should make sure to check out the nearby Green Swamp preserve where you can see three different carnivorous plants in the beautiful fire-dependent pine savannas.
Downstream from Raleigh, the Neuse River becomes free-flowing and offers large flatwater sections of river suitable for all types of vessels. An excellent river to experience the striper run, the Neuse is home to several species of fish that spend part of their time in the ocean and the other part in freshwater like shad, herring, and American eel. Near the mouth of the Neuse, the river changes from fast-moving to slow-moving estuary habitat before joining the Tar and Pamlico Rivers in Pamlico Sound. Exploring estuaries is an amazing experience and best done in a kayak. Estuaries are important and productive nurseries for almost all coastal game fish as well as birds, oysters, and countless other species. Anglers, birders, and just the curious will be pleased with a paddle in the Neuse. The beauty and productiveness of this river showcased in its estuary is an adventure worth taking.
Flowing from the coastal plain westward into the piedmont, an unusual orientation for a North Carolina stream, the Hitchcock Creek Blue Trail near Rockingham offers 14 miles of entry-level paddling in a wide variety of habitats, including a white cedar forest. The town of Rockingham worked with the national non-profit American Rivers group to remove Steele’s Mill dam, an obsolete dam no longer serving its intended purpose of powering a cotton mill.
The dam removal alone was a great win for the community, but the benefits did not stop there. American Rivers continued to work with Rockingham to develop a Blue Trail, a waterway adopted by a local community that is dedicated to improving family-friendly recreation such as fishing, boating, and wildlife watching, and conserving land and water resources. This Blue Trail is an excellent example of a community embracing its natural infrastructure to stimulate the local economy, encourage physical fitness, improve community pride, and make rivers and communities healthier in the wake of the loss of water powered mills.
The Hitchcock Creek Blue Trail offers a great opportunity to explore the unique floodplain forests. To make it easy, a few outfitters have popped up to help outfit you for your adventure. The mountain laurel was blooming and the birding was great while I kayaked there in May for the ribbon cutting of the paddle trail. Want to know more about Blue Trails? Check out bluetrailsguide.org
Your Hometown Stream
Do you know what river lies closest to your home? Can you imagine the wildlife you might see there? Is it the same stream that supplies your drinking water? While it’s fun to plan trips to the far-flung corners of North Carolina, there are plenty of opportunities to see wildlife closer to home. While you’re planning a trip to one of these wildlife wonder, make up your own list and make sure to add a hometown paddle trip.
For more information on the river basins in North Carolina, check out the fantastic river basin publications here: eenorthcarolina.org/riverbasins.html.