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Haw River Through-Paddle

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

I spent a beautiful 3-day spring weekend through-paddling 55 miles of the Haw River with three other intrepid adventurers, and can’t wait to do it again. You don’t really know a river until you follow it for days on end, observing its subtle evolution from stream to rushing rapids. I’ve spent a lot of time on or around the Haw—my wife and I married on one of its bridges; I lived next to it for a couple years; and I’ve paddled and floated parts of it dozens of times—but I really didn’t know the river until now. And if I learned anything, it’s that I still have a lot to learn.

I’ll start with some general commentary on the trip, followed by a more detailed play-by-play, with Nature Reports at the end of each day.

The journey was well-organized by Guil Johnson, a friend and a fellow board member of Friends of Lower Haw River SNA. He lives and breathes the Haw every day as the Haw River Trail Coordinator, and I’m more than a bit jealous of that. I was happy to team up with him and two others (Sean and Kevin) for the full 3-day journey downriver; we were joined by a fifth paddler (Will) on Day 2. Some of the pics on this blog are courtesy of my companions.

We put in at the northernmost official public access—High Rock Road in Rockingham County—and wound our way downriver through Guilford, Alamance, and Orange Counties before taking out where the Haw becomes Jordan Lake, in Chatham County. Did we paddle the entire Haw River? Close enough, in my opinion. I’m not sure we could’ve realistically started any farther upriver, and I don’t think anyone was interested in paddling the last 5 miles of Jordan Lake, portaging around the massive Jordan Dam, and then paddling 4 more miles until the Haw “becomes” the Cape Fear. So, I’d count this as a more or less complete paddle of the Haw.

The logistics of the 3-day trip were simpler than they might seem. We camped overnight between segments, first at Guil’s house in Glencoe, then at Saxapahaw Campground. There are a couple other options for camping (e.g., Shallow Ford Natural Area and Spirit Island), and I suspect you could make this a long 2-day trip if you planned things right. But the 3-day pace was perfect.

The weather was also nearly perfect: highs in the upper 70s, with partly cloudy skies for the majority of the trip. We did have some nighttime storms while camping, but these were a blessing, as they that added enough water to the river to make our paddle a bit faster, more interesting, and less bony.

All four of us were in basic recreational sit-inside kayaks (I took my wife’s boat, which is more maneuverable than my 14-footer); they all handled both flatwater and rapids fine and had plenty of room for storing gear. I made two equipment upgrades prior to the trip: First, I added some medium-density foam to the seat, a sorely-needed upgrade given the many hours of butt-seat contact. Second, I invested in a 35L zip-top dry duffel. This was a bit more of a splurge, but the zippered dry duffel is so much more convenient than typical roll-top dry bags, especially for storing a lot of gear. It performed admirably when fully submerged (more on that later). I also had two equipment malfunctions during the trip: First, throughout the entire first day, my boat slowly but surely took on water, which I had to almost constantly bail out. This slow sinking could’ve been a real deal breaker, but I was able to locate and seal the leak with some silicone caulk later that night. Second, on the last day, my paddle holder broke. Worse things could happen!

Some of us earned nicknames during the trip, but you don’t want to hear about those. So what did we do all day? Well, we paddled some, floated some, navigated some rapids, took breaks, soaked in the scenery, and found other ways to entertain ourselves. Chief amongst these was a game that we really need to find a good name for. Here’s the idea: you and your boat go under tree jutting out over the river, but your paddle goes over the tree, and you catch the paddle on the other side. One point for an unassisted catch; zero points if it hits the water or your boat first; negative one point if you lose your paddle in the river (it happened pretty often). I had a solid lead for most of the trip, but Sean edged me out by the end of the trip, with 22 points to my 21.

We also kept our eyes and ears peeled for wildlife. I’m in birding mode more or less 24-7, but this obviously wasn’t a birding trip, so I mainly birded by ear as we made our way downriver. Even so, I observed 73 species over the weekend. It was interesting to observe the neotropical migrants that were absent from the upper portions but prevalent in the lower sections; I presume this is due more to habitat preference than migration timing. We also saw a fair number of herps (reptiles/amphibians) and a handful of odes (dragonflies/damselflies) and leps (butterflies). I managed to net (catch-and-release) a few odes on the trip, and picked up one lifer: a Spine-crowned Clubtail, my only “new” animal for the trip.

Everybody either flipped or swamped their boat at least once, but paddling this stretch of river never felt unsafe. Run the river at your own risk, pay attention to water levels, scout rapids in advance, and consider paddling with an experienced guide (or at least a friend). Those things considered, I’d say just about anyone should feel comfortable paddling most of the sections with a life jacket and a basic boat. The last section (from Hwy 64 to Jordan Lake) is the only part that folks should think seriously about. If you’re interested in learning more about the route, I’d recommend this River Kings youtube playlist, the Haw River Trail website, the Friends of Lower Haw website, and the Haw River Assembly website.

Okay, that’s enough background; now for the play-by-play. I’m writing this a week later, so hopefully I won’t miss anything terribly important.

Day 1: High Rock Road to Glencoe (16 miles)

We put in at High Rock Road in Rockingham County around 8:00 on Friday morning. What a different river! It’s narrow (maybe 20 yards across), almost fully shaded by trees, and there are more logs than rocks. Much of this section passes by fields and early secessional habitat, but we also saw some nice collections of Mountain Laurel. I don’t remember any rapids, but there were some riffles, and the water was definitely moving, just not very fast. We scooched our boats over a couple tree trunks, but otherwise had a smooth, relaxing ride for a mile or so until we crossed over into Guilford County. The Guilford County section was basically the same as the Rockingham section, though it was interrupted by our first dam and portage at Brooks Bridge.

After 5 miles, we were in Alamance County, home to more river miles of the Haw than any other county. The river here was similar to the Rockingham/Guilford sections (the natural world doesn’t care about arbitrary line-drawing exercises), but with slightly less fields and more lush alluvial forest in the floodplain.

After a couple more miles of slower backwater paddling, we reached the dam at Altamahaw, portaged, and stopped for a leisurely lunch break. Some notes about Altamahaw: The dam was leaking, with water rushing out of a few holes midway up the dam. It’ll be interesting to see how long this and other ancient dams last, and how the river will change once they tumble down. It also smelled pretty bad below the dam, owing at least in part to a domestic goose carcass on the riverbank. Interestingly, a group of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails were feeding on the dead bird’s bill; I’ve never seen that before.

Back to the paddle: immediately below the dam, the river was rocky and had a nice set of rapids that banked into a sheer rock wall, where one of our party lost his boat (on Day 3, the rest of us caught up with him). A mile or so past Altamahaw, the Reedy Fork joins the Haw and the river widens considerably. (Sidenote: the stream behind my childhood home in Greensboro joins North Buffalo Creek, which joins Buffalo Creek, which joins the Reedy Fork, which joins the Haw. I’m not sure that I ever appreciated my longstanding connection to the Haw until this trip.)

Anyway, this portion of the Haw was a bit faster than the upper sections, with a bit more rocks, riffles, and rapids, but still nothing like the Lower Haw. We passed by Shallow Ford Natural Area (a potential camping option), then had a bit more moving water before we got to the small dam at Indian Valley, where we had a few options. One: we could take a narrow, walled-in tunnel around the dam. This was blocked by trees, so off the table. Two: we could just portage around the dam. But that’s no fun! Three: we could jump the dam. A couple of us, myself included, went for that option. I said small dam, and I meant it. It’s 2 feet high, and safe to boat over. It was a lot of fun at the time, but the video of our (especially my) descent is pretty underwhelming. Some things are better as first-person-view memories, without any third-person pictures or videos.

After Indian Valley, we covered a mile of backwater to the Glencoe Dam, where we hauled out around 4:30 PM and headed to Guil’s house. The Glencoe mill village is fantastic. I have obvious personal attachments to Bynum, but Glencoe is a far better-preserved old mill town. We enjoyed a great cookout, set up our tents, hid inside the house as a thunderstorm rolled in, then headed to our tents for the night. After the rain stopped, Barred Owls put on a nice show, and that was the end of Day 1.

Wildlife on this first section didn’t disappoint, although it perhaps wasn’t quite as interesting as later sections. I’ll spare you the details of the 49 bird species observed (mostly heard) for the day, but I might as well mention a few. The early secessional habitat in the upper sections held lots of singing Field Sparrows and a few Prairie Warblers, more prevalent there than later in the trip. We ran into Wood Ducks fairly consistently, and as we got into Alamance, we saw more and more Canada Geese. Exciting, I know. Towards the end of the day’s journey I heard my first Prothonotary Warbler, the first I’d heard all year (and the fifth year bird I picked up on Day 1).

Beyond birds, I managed to net (and release) a couple of Stream Cruisers and a Springtime Darner. But the main nature highlight during this section was a Spine-crowned Clubtail I managed to photograph on the riverbank. This was a lifer dragonfly, and my primary target species for the trip. We also saw dozens of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails. The only herps we came across were some River Cooters and a Pond Slider.

Day 2: Glencoe to Saxapahaw (17 miles)

Day 2 began with a big breakfast, followed by an 8:30 put-in below the Glencoe Dam. River sections below large dams tend to be fairly rocky and rapid-filled, and this was no exception, offering a wet, chilly wakeup as our wide-cockpit kayaks splashed around.

As we made our way downriver, the river started looking more and more like the Lower Haw I’m familiar with, but with longer stretches of quiet, moving water, and not so many rocks. There were still plenty of small rapids, and even more history. Sometimes the two blended, as the remnants of extremely old, long-gone dams created small, linear rapids. I wish I could remember the names of all the standing mills we saw, as some were impressive and have a lot of great development potential. We also started seeing more large river islands on this stretch, including one (Goat Island) that’s over a mile long. Owing to the nature of the river along this segment, this was also our best day for the paddle-over-branch game.

We made one stop at Red Slide Park in the town of Haw River before lunch at Swepsonville River Park. After lunch, we portaged the Puryear Dam not far downstream and poked around an interesting old mill building before getting back in the river.

The morning had been perfect, with moving water and sunny skies. After Swepsonville, the weather turned cloudy, the wind picked up (the wrong direction), and the water stopped moving. We had a few miles of backwater before we got to the Saxapahaw Dam, and it was the most unpleasant part of the trip. I do a lot of flatwater paddling, and dam backwaters are usually my go-to. However, when you’re trying to put river miles behind you, still water and a headwind are the last thing you want. I really missed my 14’ boat with trolling motor attached.

Anyway, we eventually made it to the portage, and there the real fun began. At 30 feet tall, the Saxapahaw Dam is the largest we encountered, and the portage is a real beast. We hauled our boats (full of camping gear, etc.) a solid quarter mile before the put-in below the dam. Then things got even more fun (this time, I’m serious). The portage dumps you out at the mill race on river left, but our campsite was tucked behind the dam on river right, upstream and around a couple islands. The upstream/cross-current battle through several small rapids was the toughest paddle I’ve ever done, but it was also one of my favorite paddling moments of the trip. (Not everyone enjoyed this as much as me, and some of our party hopped out of their their boats to walk a part of it. I encourage anyone staying at this campground to accept vehicle transportation across the river.)

We finally made it to our campsite at Saxapahaw Campground. What a place! It’s situated on 10 acres of prime riverfront property, with well-developed campsites, above-average amenities, a forested tree canopy overhead, and the sound of rushing water in the distance. The owner, Mike, was accommodating and the other guests were a lot of fun. After setting up tents, we made the short walk to downtown Saxapahaw for drinks and a great dinner at the Eddy. And, no surprise, we had another storm overnight after we got back to our tents. Again, this was a gift, not a curse, as it raised the water levels just the right amount for the next day’s journey.

On to the Day 2 Nature Report. This was an especially biodiverse stretch of river. Out of 60 bird species for the day, we saw plenty of new ones, including an Osprey and some Spotted Sandpipers at Glencoe, a Mallard and a Hooded Merganser a bit downriver, a pair of young Great Horned Owls perched next to a nest near Swepsonville, and our first Bald Eagle of the trip near Puryear Dam (they were far more numerous on the Lower Haw). We also passed under a lot of bridges. How is that relevant to the Nature Report, you might wonder? Well, some of the earlier bridges had dozens of unoccupied Cliff Swallow nests, while bridges towards the middle had a few birds flying around, and bridges farther downriver seemed fully booked with dozens of swallows. This was a good illustration of how the full river paddle allowed me to observe changes across the entire course of the river, and ponder whether the differences in species diversity and abundance were due to timing (a couple days difference), location (a few dozen miles difference), habitat (as far as swallows go, they’re all just bridges), or something else.

Beyond birds, we saw more herps than on any other stretch of river, including a Dekay’s Brownsnake early on, a baby Common Snapping Turtle at Puryear Dam, more River Cooters, a Green Treefrog in the reeds at Saxapahaw Lake, and a Copperhead at the campsite. I also saw a few odes, including another Spine-crowned Clubtail and a Lancet Clubtail at Swepsonville River Park.

Day 3: Saxahapaw to Jordan Lake (22 miles)

Day 3 began earlier than prior days, as we had a longer paddle ahead of us. The splashy whitewater below Saxapahaw Dam woke us right up, and the extra water in the river shepherded us along at a steady pace.

We paddled through Alamance County until Cane Creek (the first one; there are apparently two Cane Creeks) meets the river, at which point the river separates Alamance and Orange Counties. We passed under Union Bridge (Old Greensboro Road), and eventually came to a three-way intersection of county lines, after which point the river separates Alamance and Chatham Counties. We were getting closer to (my) home, and you could start to tell as you looked at the river. Wider, shallower, rockier, more islands, and more submerged grasses.

Our pace was fast enough that that we bypassed our initially planned lunch stop on some rocks near Chicken Bridge, waiting to take out until we were about a mile before the Bynum Dam backwater starts. Great decision. Our picnic venue could not have possibly been better: a thousand square feet of relatively flat, smooth rock shelf near the riverbank, with a dramatic view for many miles. I’ve hung out on a bunch of rock gardens in the Lower Haw, and this one is the best I’ve ever seen. We ate, I took a refreshingly cool swim, and then we were back in our boats.

After a long set of rapids, we finally hit the slow-moving backwater and paddled for a couple miles until we reached Bynum Dam, our final portage of the trip. Then we were back in the water for the last stretch of river. This section is almost entirely whitewater, and (as described below) can get tricky. The casual nature observation portion of the trip was over, and the paddling portion in full swing. I strapped on my life vest, retired my birding gear, and secured all my belongings in dry bags before heading downriver.

The first bit from Bynum to highway 64 wasn’t too tough, but a lot of fun. I had run it twice before and (sort of) knew what to expect. After Pokeberry Creek, we stayed river left and navigated a fun rapid that can be somewhat technical at lower water. And at the last island before 64, we went river right, and a couple of us took a nice fast S-shaped rapid.

Once we got to 64, the real show began. This is the gnarliest part of the Haw River, and the reason why it’s considered the best whitewater in the Piedmont. Every rapid has a name, and all are to be taken seriously. The river was flowing just over 2000 cfs (5.5 ft on the Bynum gauge) when we ran it (typical/low water is closer to 800 cfs or 4.5 ft), so we had less of an issue nagivating rocks and bony sections, but also had to contend with bigger waves and faster flow. The main problems arose from our massive open cockpits, which let in a lot of water.

The first signature rapid we ran was Lunchstop Rapid (Class II+). It was a lot of fun and not too dicey, through one of our party tipped catching the eddy at the end of the run and ended up swimming a bit. Second up was Ocean Boulevard (Class II), a long but consistent field of big waves and fast water. We all made it through that one unscathed, but invariably had to bail water afterward. We skipped 3-Foot Falls en route to the star of the show: Gabriel’s Bend (Class III).

After scouting on foot and settling on a strategy, we proceeded one by one; I drew the short straw and went last. The first of our party made it through clean. The second got spun around, went backwards (!) through half the rapid before miraculously spinning back around and finishing clean. The third took on enough water to destabilize his boat, and he went swimming. By the time I got to the end of the rapid—unscathed and still in control—I saw both him and his boat. He was safe, but his boat was pinned against some boulders about 20 yards upstream, effectively out of reach for anyone but me. I got his boat free, but was pinned against the same boulders in the process and ended up with my own boat full of water. No big deal, as I was able to haul the boat out on the boulders to drain. The rest of the crew then executed phase 2 of the rescue mission, which involved a little swimming and some nice rope work.

Once we were all safely back in our boats, we opted out of Moose Jaw Falls, The Slot, and The Maze, and instead cut across to river left, where we took on Harold’s Tombstone (Class II+). This time, it was my turn to lose my boat (last but not least). I hesitated picking a direction around two boulders, got stuck sideways, took on water, and had to climb onto the rocks to empty my boat for a second time in 15 minutes. Fortunately, my pride was the only thing damaged by this low-speed fumble.

After the signature rapids, we zipped down a bit more moving water before landing in Jordan Lake. From there, it was a short paddle to the pull-out at Robeson Creek. The last stretch made for an exciting ending to this amazing, intimate journey along the river, and one that I can’t wait to do again. We said a final farewell to the river around 4:30 PM, loaded our boats on our trucks (which we’d dropped of Thursday afternoon), and were soon on our way home to a hot shower, a warm dinner, and our waiting wives.

But wait! Let’s not forget the Day 3 Nature Report. The birding was best on Day 3, with 62 species. This included a couple new warblers for the trip (and year)—Hooded Warbler and American Redstart—plus many more Prothonotary Warblers and Yellow-throated Vireos than earlier in the trip. The increased numbers and diversity of neotropical migrants again made me wonder whether this was a function of timing or of location/habitat (probably the latter).

An immature Broad-winged Hawk was a nice surprise at Saxapahaw, but not as nice as the avian surprise that awaited just north of Union Bridge. There, on the Alamance County side of the river, I found a flock of Evening Grosbeaks—only the second I’ve ever seen, and the first that were self-found. Sweet! Around the same area, I also managed some photos of an immature Bald Eagle that dropped a rather large fish as it flew overhead, probably startled by our presence. As we got closer and closer to Jordan Lake, we saw more and more eagles, but only a single Osprey. By the end of the trip, I had tallied 73 species of birds (again, most of which were heard-only). Most abundant (well, most noticed) were Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (191 individuals), followed closely by Northern Cardinals (190) and Northern Parulas (189). It’s funny that the numbers were so close.

Beyond birds, we were joined early on Day 3 by two massive Common Snapping Turtles floating downriver, disappearing underwater shortly before a stretch of rapids. We saw another one of these monsters basking on the riverbank downstream from Bynum, plus many River Cooters. I spotted a Northern Watersnake just below the Bynum Dam, and we saw a whopping 4 more below Hwy 64. Not a bad trip for herps! I also managed to photograph yet another Spine-crowned Clubtail at lunch, plus two Septima’s Clubtails (one near Chicken Bridge, another below 64). The latter species has historically been very difficult to find away from the Haw River.

Although I didn’t dive as deep into the river’s natural history as I might have on a dedicated birding trip, the collective experience was better for it. I gained a more complete perspective viewing the wildlife not as the end goal, but as an integrated component of the broader experience that is The Haw River.

That’s all, folks.


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