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Swamp, bears, snakes: Just another canoe trip on the Roanoke

  • Chicago Tribun
  • Published Friday, June 22, 2012, at 10:59 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, June 22, 2012, at 10:59 p.m.

ROANOKE RIVER, N.C. — “Do you think you think it’s possible to sleep in a canoe?” I said to my companion.

In all my years of canoeing, that question had never occurred to me before. But paddling on the Roanoke River in eastern North Carolina, with the sun dipping low in the sky, I was beginning to think my canoeing buddy and I might have to.

Ford Worthy and I had set out that morning about 10, some 17 miles from our campsite. By 5 p.m., though, we had yet to reach it.

On a normal canoe trip, that would be no big deal. We’d just find a sandbar or a grassy spot and pitch our tent. But the Roanoke runs through a swamp dense with cypress trees, and on either bank, we’ve looked in vain for any hint of dry ground or open space.

I had flown into Raleigh the previous evening, where Ford, who lives in Chapel Hill, picked me up for the drive to Williamston, two hours away. He had in mind a restaurant he’s known since he was a boy — the Sunny Side Oyster Bar, a rustic spot where you can watch your oysters being steamed.

We were met by Ford’s father, who ordered his shellfish well done, while his son went with rare. I decided to try both. As we ate, Ford made a disclosure: “If I had to pick a last meal, this would be it.”

Lucia Peel arrived, bearing a key to the bed and breakfast she operates. “I may be walking the dog when you get there,” she said. Her father and Ford’s father were fraternity brothers in the 1940s, and Ford met her a couple of years ago at this very place.

We then proceeded to Haughton Hall, a 1912 colonial house restored in 2003. Lucia has three handsome guest bedrooms. I got the Nags Head room, a large, bright space with a private bath, a four-poster bed, antique furniture and an oil painting of the innkeeper. I slept soundly under her gaze.

She claimed she is not much of a cook and not a morning person, but she kept us entertained over a delicious breakfast with stories of the good-ole-boy hunters who stay here. “I call this a breakfast casserole,” she said, “because they wouldn’t eat it if I called it quiche.”

Lucia then put on her other hat: head of Roanoke River Partners, founded in 1997 to make the river a better venue for canoers and kayakers. We chose a canoe from her collection and strapped it atop her Jeep Liberty for the 15-minute drive to Roberson’s Marina, on Gardner’s Creek, a tributary of the Roanoke.

The woman running the store has been known to lend paddles to canoers who forget theirs and to refuse payment. Don’t ask me how I learned this.

It’s a cool, bright October day, and Ford and I have the narrow, meandering creek mostly to ourselves. Known as “black water,” it gets its color from tannic acid, from decaying vegetation.

We see some blue herons and an egret, but not much other wildlife. This is not entirely unwelcome: In the spring, Lucia took a nature photographer on an outing in search of snakes. In the midst of mating season, they saw 55. Only about one in every six, she assured us, was poisonous.

As we paddle, Ford tells me his father has several favorite axioms. One is, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Another, relevant today, is: “Water runs downhill.” It’s true when the terrain has a slope, which swamps do not. Lacking a current, we have to paddle.

Finally we round a bend and spy a small dock. Beyond is a 100-foot boardwalk leading to a raised wooden platform measuring 28 feet by 16 feet — bigger than some apartments I can recall. Happy to have something solid under us, I raise the tent while Ford heats dinner on his camping stove.

This time of year it gets dark long before bedtime, and you can’t have a campfire on a wooden deck. Surrounded by an impassable swamp, you can’t do much else, either. So we spend the evening playing gin rummy by lantern light.

The next morning we occasionally encounter speeding bass boats, on the river for a fishing tournament, and we pass a large pulp mill in Plymouth, a town of 4,000. About 5, we find our campsite, on a stagnant creek amid a bear sanctuary.

One recent camping party, Lucia had informed us, had unwanted company. “The bear showed up during the night and sat outside the tent huffing,” she recalled. But eventually it moved on.

After dinner, we realize we’re not sure what to do if confronted by black bear. Finding that we have cellphone service, we text Ford’s wife, Allison, to ask. She responds immediately: “Keep still and hold your breath. And pray!”

Ford, I learn the next morning, spends hours lying awake hearing “bears” slosh across the swamp. In the middle of the night, I was startled out of my sleep by a blood-curdling growl — which turned out to be Ford, snoring.

One novelty on this trip is that the campsites lack pit toilets, and campers are expected to follow a “pack it in, pack it out” policy. The drill involves a 5-gallon plastic bucket, a trash bag and cat box filler. The ultimate portable toilet, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

The next morning we paddle for two hours to a takeout spot, where Lucia and her dog are waiting. We waste no time making a stop to get rid of our trash bag, then return to Haughton Hall to retrieve Ford’s car and hit the road.

No trip to North Carolina is complete without barbecue. We stop for lunch at Gardner’s Barbecue in Rocky Mount for Brunswick stew and pulled pork sandwiches topped with vinegar sauce, accompanied by sweet tea.

The restroom facilities are very nice. And you could do worse than to have your last meal here.

IF YOU GO:

Williamston is 118 miles east of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

Rooms at Haughton Hall: $70-$90 each weeknight, $80-$100 on weekend days.

Camping fees: $20 a night for 1-2 people; $10 a night for each additional person.

Canoes: free for guests of Haughton Hall B&B (252-792-0070, haughtonhallnc.com) or from Lucia Peel at directorroanokeriverpartners.org; they can be rented along the river.

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