Navigating Nature

Published 5:12 pm Friday, December 1, 2023

(Editor’s Note: This story is the fourth in a series about the Roanoke River being named the 12th State Trail in North Carolina and what that means for the river, the counties the river connects, and the people who care about preserving and experiencing wild, untamed places.)

By DEBORAH GRIFFIN

Special to RC Publications

“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit…” – Edward Abbey

“Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach us more than we can ever learn from books.” – John Lubbock

For some, finding wilderness is as easy as stepping out their back door.

For those living in the lower Roanoke Region of eastern North Carolina, connecting to the outback is almost as easy.

In November of 2021, the Roanoke River was authorized as N.C.’s 12th State Trail by the General Assembly.

The state trail begins near Gaston, a small town north of Roanoke Rapids, then twists and turns – snaking its way 140 miles before emptying into the Albemarle Sound.

The river, its creeks and tributaries, offer hours of untouched nature, ripe for exploration.

Because of the foresight of a non-profit organization, formed in 1996, navigating N.C.’s “Amazon” has never been easier.

Over the years, Roanoke River Partners, Inc. (RRP, Inc.) created a network of raised camping platforms along the Roanoke for outdoor enthusiasts to spend a night, or several, on the water under a canopy of stars and bald cypress, serenaded by the lullaby of wild night sounds.

Because of this system, thousands have been able to experience the vastness and serenity of the river.

According to RRP, Inc., 2017 alone saw 1,400 people from across the United States and several countries reserve the platforms

RRP, Inc. has been authorized by the General Assembly as the official non-profit partner of the newly designated trail. This means additional grant money, allowing RRP, Inc. to build more platforms and maintain the ones already planted in strategic locations along the river.

“There are not many places where you can camp and be this far removed and at peace with nature,” said RRP, Inc. Financial and Trail Coordinator Anne Lunsford. “We recently saw 14 bald eagles on the river which was a pretty cool sight.”

Currently, over 20 platforms are available to groups and individuals.

The platforms allow for almost any level of adventuring.

A few of the platforms are accessible by road and river and are not far from civilization. Most are available only by way of the river.

RRP, Inc. recommends kayaks, canoes and shallow water motorboats for all sites.

“Many of the platforms are tucked away in the shallow swampy areas, thus they are not visible unless you know where they are,” Lunsford said.

Having GPS is critical to finding some of the sites.

“I think that is what makes the paddle trail so unique – most of the campsites are tucked away from the public eye, making them very private,” she continued.

All the campsites are primitive.

“This means there is no running water, electricity or flush toilets. It is getting back to nature,” Lunsford added.

Some platforms are a simple open deck, with no shelter, suitable for tents. Others are roofed and a few even have screened-in areas.

Most of the single platforms can sleep up to eight. Some platforms are in a cluster and work well for groups up to 20.

Those that regularly take advantage of the platforms include church groups, scouting groups, and student groups – specifically those from East Carolina University, Old Dominion University and Virginia Commonwealth University.

“Beaver Lodge and Beaver Tail are individual sites which are connected by a walkway and can accommodate larger groups. Three Sisters and Cypress Cathedral are two individual sites that are close together – also good for larger groups,” she added.

As funding becomes available, RRP, Inc. plans to expand the system of platforms.

“We are mainly trying to fill in a few campsites and accesses along the upper Roanoke (from Gaston to Williamston) where there are some long stretches. This would make it easier to do a one-day paddle between all the locations,” Lunsford said.

RRP, Inc. is planning to put a camping site near the Rosenwald School in Hamilton, which will eventually be the Hamilton Rosenwald River Center. This is about the halfway point of the river trail.

“This will fill in one of the long paddle stretches,” she added.

Other regions with paddle trails often have boating accesses every five miles.

“It’s not as easy on the Roanoke to have access points that close, due to the many swamps we have,” she explained.

Currently, the westernmost camping location is in the town of Halifax (Tusca Landing).

The easternmost camping locations are Holladay Island and John’s Island in Chowan County.

Close to the Chowan sites, primitive campsites are soon to be added at Bertie Beach, which will eventually be available to be reserved on the RRP, Inc. website.

Reservations for all platforms are required and a fee is charged for each camper spending the night on the campsites.

“We depend on the reservation income and membership donations to help fund the trail,” said Lunsford.

People explore the river in many ways.

“The majority of visitors spend one-to-three nights at a time,” she said.

Some spend several nights, each night at a different site. Others like to stay two to three nights on the same platform.

A few others will explore the whole river over time, two or three nights each trip.

“And then, we have the really adventurous, who take a week or so, starting at the western end of the river and travel all the way to the Albemarle Sound,” Lunsford said.

Each campsite is explained in detail and reservations can be made at www.roanokeriverpartners.org.

RRP, Inc. is supported by members in the six counties that make up the Roanoke River region, and members throughout the United States. They operate on private donations, grants, and support from regional towns and counties.

Deborah Griffin is a freelance writer and can be reached at enterprise@ncweeklies.com.