Paddling the Neuse, Part 2: Going the Distance

Before someone gets the wrong idea from this post I should say this: I’m glad I paddled the Neuse River last year.

Mike Johnson
Mike Johnson

I had a terrific partner, Mike Johnson of Franklin, N.C.; we met two wonderful river angels, Bill Hines of Oriental and Ronda Hughes of Seven Springs, N.C.  I learned some things. It was interesting.  I might do it again someday.

OK, that said:

I was surprised at how much my 225-mile trip down the Neuse was like hiking the Appalachian Trial from Georgia to Maine.

In one major way, however, it was unlike the hike — I was not certain I could make it to the end. On the thru-hike I had no doubt, ever, that I would finish, assuming I wasn’t killed, injured, or got sick. Or had to go home to take care of an emergency.

Arriving at Oriental, N.C., the end of the trip.
Arriving at Oriental, N.C., the end of the trip.

I had my doubts about finishing the river trip when I woke up on the morning of what was the eighth and final day because I knew we’d have to battle wind and rough water. 

But, first, the similarities:
•        I was tired at night, exhausted is more like it.
I thought Mike, a retired Navy commander, and I were going to more or less float down the Neuse. But to make the miles we wanted to make, to get to the spots where we wanted to camp, I had to paddle almost constantly. We averaged almost 30 miles a day, with a top day of 36.5 miles.  My sit-on-top kayak, a Hurricane Skimmer, was part of the problem. I bought it to dink around in Stump Sound, near Topsail Island on the coast, and for that it’s perfect.  But paddling it down the Neuse, trying to make miles, was like paddling a bathtub — I had work it it.

•        I blistered.
On the Appalachian Trail the sides of my heels blistered when I failed to replace my worn out boots quickly enough. On the river, my feet were fine, of course. But the rest of me blistered even though I applied lots of sun screen and wore a wide brim hat. It was 90-plus degrees most days with little or no cloud clover and no shade. I fried, even my lower lip.

•        I had little appetite.
If I couldn’t get to a restaurant I didn’t eat much of anything. I was the same way during the first few weeks on the trail.

•        The best part of the day was the end of the day.
When I hiked all day, up, down, up, down, I really looked forward to getting where I was going. I felt the same way after I had paddled all day.

  • And, yes, just like the trail, I lost stuff.

I lost so much stuff on my thru-hike I stopped blogging about it. It was embarrassing. On the river trip I lost a knife scabbard, no big deal. But when we got to Oriental and began going through our gear, loading my kayak on Brother Dave’s truck, I couldn’t find my cell phone.  Bill Hines called Blackbeard Sailing Club, where we camped the night before, and asked if anyone had found and turned in a cell phone.
No luck.
There was the slimmest of possibilities that I had left my phone at the spot where I had pitched my tent. [I live in hope.] So Dave stopped by Blackbeard on the way back home, to Knightdale, N.C., and there it was, laying in the grass.

  • Like the trail, the river has angels too, and I met two — Hines and Ronda Hughes. Ronda fed us and let us shower at her home and camp in her back yard; Bill loan us sea kayaks and got us through the waves to Oriental.
  • Brother Dave drove to Maine to pick me up when I finished my thru-hike and when Mike and I got to Oriental, there he was.

Like the A.T., the second half of the Neuse is  a lot more difficult.

Near its headwaters at Falls of the Neuse the river isn’t much bigger than a good size creek. For the first 100 miles or so, as the Neuse gradually widens and deepens, you run into a lot of obstructions, strainers, they’re called. They let the water go by, but they don’t let you go by. Countless trees have fallen into the river.   Some limbs are sticking out, some are just beneath the surface. They are not a big problem but you have to stay awake.
A few miles before you get to New Bern the Neuse begins to widen dramatically. It’s a mile wide at New Bern. It looks like the ocean, with waves and white caps if the wind is up. From New Bern on it gets wider and wider, about two and a half or three miles wide by the time we reached our destination, Oriental.

Choppy waters near Oriental
Choppy waters near Oriental, N.C.

Bill, Mike, and I camped the last night at the Blackbeard Sailing Club and when I woke up I was not sure I could make it to Oriental. Paddling in what amounts to the ocean is nothing like padding in a river. There is no current to help you. And for part of the way Bill expected that we would have to paddle into the wind and waves. He was right.
It was not an easy day for me or Mike, but doable, thanks to Hines.

Coming Monday: An Out Of Body Experience


Paddling The Neuse, Part 1: River Angels

Without Bill Hines’ help our kayak trip down the Neuse River would have ended at New Bern, N.C., assuming Mike Johnson and I had made it to New Bern.
Before we left Raleigh Bill had advised us about where we could camp. He had also emailed me a spread sheet identifying the distance between every bridge on the river so we always knew where we were, more or less.

His spread sheet was invaluable even though it was not perfect.   One time Mike and I paddled hard for 50 minutes to cover what the spread sheet said was six tenths of a mile. The actual distance we covered had to have been more like three miles or more, but when I mentioned that to Bill he said we must have encountered “thick water.”

I admit, I didn’t get it at first.

Bill Hines, paddler extraordinair
Bill Hines: He led us to Oriental.

Hines, who lives in Oriental, N.C., is a volunteer for Sound Rivers, a foundation that tries to protect the Neuse and the Tar-Pamlico Rivers. He was 70 years old but he paddles all the time, has for years, and he could go long and fast. I couldn’t keep up.
Early on I asked him how many minutes he paddled per hour.
“Sixty,” he replied.
[Hines didn’t rub it in, not at all.   Still, I couldn’t help but wish I could have rolled the clock back to July, 2015, and have him join me on the Appalachian Trail in Munson, Maine, at the start of what they call the “100-mile wilderness.”   That’s a 10-day hike, according to the trail club that maintains that section. I hiked it in five days.]   
Bill met Mike and me at Cow Pens Landing, about
23 miles upstream from New Bern, and loaned us two sea kayaks. They were longer than our kayaks, which means faster, and more narrow.  They had “skirts” to keep waves that come over the bow or the side from flooding them. He was also our guide for the last 40-some miles, to Oriental, showing us the way and reassuring us that we could do this. What a good guy.

Bill had advised me, several times, to say hello to “Ronda” when Mike and I got to Seven Springs, on Day Four.
We did.

Ronda Hughes, river angel
Ronda Hughes: She fed us, let us shower in her and her husband’s home, and sleep in their back yard.

Ronda Hughes let us camp in the backyard of her and her husband’s home, a beautiful, grassy spot next to the Neuse. She let us shower in their bathroom. And, best of all, she fed us supper – string beans, boiled squash, mashed potatoes and stew beef and gravy. [I had eaten two Pop Tarts for breakfast and candy for lunch.] I ate a heaping plate of food and when I finished Ronda said, “You want some more, don’t you.”  I did.  And I filled my plate again. Then we ate the desert Ronda had prepared, freshly baked cherry pie topped with home-made ice cream. Bless that woman.

Continued tomorrow: Paddling the Neuse, Part 2: Going The Distance