On the Water And In The Woods

Sea kayaking, sailing, and lightweight backpacking in the-Chesapeake Bay, Mid-Atlantic region

Friday, August 10, 2007

Holladay Island, Chowan River NC

Kayak Camping on the Chowan River, North Carolina
By Greg Welker

A swampy, forested river that is still relatively remote and undeveloped, the Roanoke River at the Virginia/North Carolina border has been on my places to paddle list for several years. The Roanoke River Partners (http://www.roanokeriverpartners.org/) have established several paddle in camp sites along the Roanoke River. Reading through the information about these campsites it appeared that almost all would require a car shuttle due to the typical river current.

However, recently the Chowan County Parks and Recreation Department opened up five new campsites on Holladay’s Island, in the Chowan river. This island is located about 20 miles upriver from Edenton, NC. (http://www.roanokeriverpartners.org/Platforms/Holladay/Directions.pdf) A check of the chart revealed this was within a section of the river where current would not be a factor in an out and back trip. All of these island campsites are platforms, or “chickees” in the swamps, and sit about two to three feet above the typical water level. The island has essentially three places to camp. Two of these are single platforms, on the east and west sides of the island. At the south point, there is a group campsite composed of three interconnected platforms. I made my reservations and payment by email for the Holladay West platform.

I arrived at the Chowan river around noon. The launch location I was using was a paddle launch site at Cannon Ferry, slightly downriver from the island. The launch area has a boardwalk along the river, a port-a-pot, and a gravel parking area easily visible from the road. The area looked ok to me for leaving my vehicle overnight. I loaded up the Pisces while swatting mosquitoes and wondering if a mid July camping trip in a swamp was a good idea bug wise. It was an easy launch from the sand beach. The river is about 1.5 miles wide at this point with a long South/Northwest fetch , and I would imagine that in windy conditions there would be whitecaps out here in the open. I took a leisurely 1 mile course to the south end of the island. Almost all of the river shoreline is cypress swamp, and from my position the island also looked to be heavily forested in cypress. Arriving at the southern end, I paddled into the cypress and found the dock for the southern group campsite. These sites are made more for canoes than kayaks, with a wood step about 8 feet long being about 1 foot above the water, and then a loading platform about a foot or two above that. In a kayak, this means that you pull up along the platform step and do a dock exit, which is not always the most graceful of maneuvers. A quick exploration of the site and I got back in the boat to circumnavigate the island. I enjoyed quietly paddling in and out of the cypress along the edge of the island. It was apparent that “island” was not going to mean dry land. While I saw a deer and signed of otter and raccoon, I did not see anything I would consider dry land. All three of the sites sit back from the river about 100 feet into the swamp, which provides some privacy and protection from wind and waves. They are well marked with yellow signs if you are observant.

Completing the 3.5 mile circumnavigation I backtracked to Holladay West and examined the landing platform. Some poking with the paddle revealed that there was a sand shoal along the back corner of the landing platform that was only about one foot underwater. I stood on this shoal while unloading the boat. Having platform camped from a kayak before, I figured out a way to prevent individual items from dropping overboard during the unloading. When loading the boat’s front hatch, I took a line with several plastic clips strung on it. I tied one end of the ling to the item that would go furthest up into the bow of the kayak, and then proceeded to clip the other items in the order they would go into the boat. This way, during the platform unloading and loading if I dropped an item into the water I would be able to retrieve it by the line.
Better than watching your camp stove sink out of sight!

Holladay West platform consisted of three platforms connected by wooden boardwalk. The first platform was the landing platform, and this connected to a boardwalk that ran back further into the swamp to the camping platform. The camping platform was about 16’ x 24’, with a toe rail along the edge and six vertical posts along the edge. The posts were about seven feet tall, with eye bolts on top. These would work well if you were looking to rig a tarp during rainy weather. The platform is also equipped with a wooden counter for doing your cooking (so you don’t scorch the platform). Between the landing and camping platforms a short T takes you to a privacy screen that conceals a wooden thunder box (aka privy). This was somewhat unexpected, as the site instructions on the web indicated it was total Leave No Trace. Looking at the spiders, I decided my portable facility was a better choice! Since the camping is all on wooden platforms, a free standing tent that does not require staking is essential. In windy conditions, you could tie off the tent to the toe rails. The platform could easily fit two 2-3 person tents, and you could squeeze three tents on it and still have some room to sit, eat, etc.

All of the platforms were well shaded by the cypress, and there were amazingly no mosquitoes. However, there was a healthy population of biting flies, and I quickly changed into long pants and long sleeved shirt. Dinner, to the sound of distant thunder, involved swatting a few flies. Once dark came, the flies went away, and I spent a pleasant evening listening to the swamp sounds – again, not a single mosquito! The island was reported to usually be a good spot to listen to owls, but during my circumnavigation I had noticed several crows in the trees. Typically, crow sightings mean that the owls won’t be around, and I heard only a few owls off on the river shoreline.

Next morning I woke early and quietly packed up. The river air was still, with patches of fog. I quietly paddled along the western edge of the island, watching for wildlife in among the trees. At the northern tip I headed east to the river shore, and explored Catherine Creek. This is a very nice, pristine creek, and well worth a day paddle. Following the river shore south, eating lunch in the kayak, I eventually ended up back at the launch site in mid afternoon.

I imagine this island would be very nice in the fall, perhaps as part of a trip downriver from Winton, about 16 miles upstream, with a take out down at Edenton, 22 miles downstream. With a wind from the north, this would be a very enjoyable trip. With a south wind, you would reverse the trip, but being careful of the large fetch between Edenton and Holladay Island.