Are You Boys Armed?

Last June, when Mike Johnson and I beached our kayaks at Cow Pens Landing, a public boat ramp on the Neuse River west of New Bern, N.C., and began pitching our tents, several people told us we couldn’t camp there – not allowed.

Mike Johnson, L, Pat Stith on Day One, after portaging around Milburnie Dam
Mike Johnson, L, Pat Stith on Day One, after portaging around Milburnie Dam.

Actually, it was. Bill Hines, our river angel, had gotten permission for us from the powers that be.  It was a good  thing, too.  Mike and I were worn out.  We pitched our tents on a small grassy spot next to where we had pulled our kayaks out of the river and next to the boat ramp parking lot. All we wanted to do was eat quickly, get into our tents, and go to sleep. It has been a long, blistering hot, 36-mile day.

Mike, a retired Navy commander, and I, both novices, had put in just below Falls of the Neuse Lake in Raleigh, 181 miles upstream, and headed for the coast, for Oriental, N.C. This was Day Six. Two days to go.

As we began eating supper a fellow who called himself “Gator” drove up on a four-wheeler and got to talking. He told us this was a place where people came to drink a little, party, and said if it got too rowdy we could camp in his back yard. He lived up the road a little ways, on the left.

The Neuse River, on a beautiful day.
The Neuse River, on a beautiful day.

Still later two fellas arrived on motorcycles, nice guys it turned out, and asked if we were armed.

We said, “No.” They were surprised.

They said they had paddled most of the Neuse River and said they always carried weapons. Were we aware that there might be some drinking going on when it got good and dark?

After they left a North Carolina wildlife officer showed up, called by someone who thought we were camping illegally. It was almost dark.

He advised us to get written permission next time and then he did something I had never seen a lawman do: he gave us his name and telephone number and said to call him if and when the trouble started. If he couldn’t come, he said, he’d call for a trooper, or a sheriff’s deputy.

With that, I laid down to go to sleep.

The first shot was fired at 2:15 a.m., in the parking lot a few feet from our tents. The next two shots were fired a few minutes later. After that, let’s just say I slept fitfully.


Bill Hines, paddler extraordinair
Bill Hines, river angel and paddler extraordinaire

We made it to Oriental, thanks in large part to Hines, our river angel, who arrived at Cow Pens the next morning, loaned each of us a sea kayak, which you have to have in the big water near the coast, and paddled with us the last two days.  His wife hauled our kayaks to Oriental.

When I got home from our eight-day paddle trip several people asked me, “Did you have fun?”

My response was the same as it was when I finished thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2015: “Define fun.”
The 225-mile trip from Raleigh to Oriental, where the Neuse empties into the Pamlico Sound, was beautiful, interesting, challenging. I learned stuff – I almost learned how to paddle a kayak. I met some terrific people. I made good memories.   I’m glad I went.  Everything doesn’t have to be “fun.”

Coming Monday: “F”