Swamp Things

The Roanoke River Paddle Trail comprises 200 miles of creeks, rivers and swamps in North Carolina. Below, a turtle dives off a log.
The Roanoke River Paddle Trail comprises 200 miles of creeks, rivers and swamps in North Carolina. Below, a turtle dives off a log. (Inset And Above By Wessel Kok)
By Diane Daniel
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Here's something you might not know. River otters hold pool parties at night. They jump and dive and splash, and sometimes they get into arguments, but those seem to get settled quickly.

When my husband and I spent a night camping on a wooden platform in a swamp off the Roanoke River, we were expecting to hear birds, and especially owls, who say a lot more than "whoo . . . whoo." Their eerie-sounding screeching can fill a forest. Which it did. But we were prepared for that. We were not, however, expecting all that splashing. Maybe that's why we couldn't stop chuckling. It was like hearing kids at a pool, but so dark that you couldn't see them.

"A lot of people are surprised by the sounds in the water," Cindy Tripp told me later. "People don't realize how alive the swamps are."

Tripp is executive director of Roanoke River Partners, a nonprofit group created a decade ago by volunteers from five North Carolina counties. The group started and maintains the Roanoke River Paddle Trail, 200 miles of interconnected creeks, rivers and swamps, mostly surrounded by protected land. Most people start the trail at or around Jamesville, which is just west of Plymouth and 80 miles west of the Outer Banks.

The group has built 12 camping platforms, with at least a few more to come. Last year 878 overnight permits were issued, and many more people used the trails for just a day, Tripp said. During the six years the group has registered campers, there have been visitors from 28 states and three foreign countries.

True to its mission, the paddling group has set up a system that is as compelling to the novice as it is to the pro. Some campers do multiple-day trips, but we, absolute beginners, kept it simple by going out for only one night. All we had to do was leisurely paddle on backwater creeks off the main river for about three hours before reaching our reserved platform, called Beaver Lodge. We stayed on slow-moving creeks about 150 feet wide, had maps and good directions, and the route was marked (though that's not always the case).

We started our adventure, as many do, from Roberson's Marina, between Williamston and Jamesville, which sells permits and rents canoes. Owner Carolyn Roberson also is the reservation taker for the entire platform system.

After a few twists and turns up Gardner Creek, it wasn't long before the U.S. Highway 64 din faded and the nature show unfurled. Along the course, with the sun at our backs, we admired miles of graceful, curvy cypress and tupelo trees, dripping Spanish moss and clusters of knobby cypress knees. Trees, some flowering and others sporting palettes of new-spring green, stood stark against a deep blue sky, with the whole stunning scene reflected below on the tannin-stained water.

We passed turtles sunning themselves on logs, watched fish pop the water's surface and admired the results of several beaver engineering projects.

As we had hoped, it was bird paradise. Great blue herons and pure-white great egrets strutted through the swampy woods. Woodpeckers' rat-tat-tats filled the air; a barred owl barreled over our heads.

Few humans were in sight. Three motorboats with fishermen passed us slowly, as well as a foursome paddling in kayaks. We'd chatted with them at the start and ended up stopping by their platform for happy hour.

By the time we neared Beaver Lodge platform, we were deep inside another world. To get there we turned off the main creek onto a smaller branch that fed into a swamp. We maneuvered around trees until we spotted home. Ours was a double platform, connected to Beaver Tail by a walkway, and each has a privacy wall for the privy.

This is probably not a good place for sleepwalkers to stay, because with one misstep you can be in the swampy water. And it can also be a bit tough in the bug-filled summer, unless you want to cover yourself with DEET. Still . . . "there are people who camp in the summer," Tripp said, "but more use the platforms in the fall and spring."

After quickly setting up camp, we paddled back out to the creek and up the river for 30 minutes to reach Barred Owl Roost platform, where our new friends had cold beers waiting. They were camping for two days and reported later that they'd taken three wrong turns the second day but still had the time of their lives.

My husband and I were back in our camp chairs by sunset. As dusk became dark, the swamp snapped to life, and those boisterous otters kept the party going under the dim light of sparkling stars.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company