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Haw River Through-Paddle #2

Updated: Jun 3, 2023

This spring featured another 50-something mile through-paddle of the Haw River with three friends (organizer Guil, Sean, and Jason). This trip closely mirrored a trip I joined two years ago, as detailed in this blog post. We paddled essentially the entire Haw River over three days, camping comfortably in between. Notable differences from two years ago included timing (a couple weeks later this year), water levels (lower this year), weather (more rain while paddling this year), and equipment casualties (worse this year).

This was also my first long trip in my Liquidlogic Remix XP 10, which I bought last year with precisely this type of adventure in mind. It’s a “crossover” whitewater kayak that also has a drop-down skeg for flatwater sections and ample dry storage, perfect for a multi-day adventure. I also used a “new” paddle, converting a broken flatwater paddle into a much shorter paddle that could be used with high-angle whitewater strokes.

Don’t put too much stock in my fancy gear lingo. This trip is doable in many types of boats. Our flotilla was diverse, including a recreational sit-on-top kayak, a recreational sit-inside kayak, and a canoe. All fared well, and the canoe actually had the advantage in many sections of river.

All in all, spending three full days on the Haw made for another intimate and unforgettable trip with this natural jewel of the piedmont.

Day 1

The starting logistics were straightforward. We left Jason’s car at the takeout at Robeson Creek, met up with the rest of the crew in Glencoe, loaded all 4 boats into Kevin’s truck (he joined the 2021 trip, but not this one), and got to the put-in at High Rocks Road in Rockingham County around 8:20. In the parking lot, we were greeted by a towering shagbark hickory, my favorite tree.

This section of the river is narrow and shady; very different than the Haw most people know. Tree canopy covers much of the river, native azaleas and mountain laurels dot the riverbanks, and there are only a couple of small rapids. Many of the trees were some version of horizontal, either in the river of hanging over it. My boat was well-suited to shimmy over the fallen trees (though my companions had to leave their boats to climb over many logs). The leaning trees were the focal point for everyone’s favorite paddling game, which we call “toss or loss.” You go under the tree, your paddle flies over the tree, and you catch the paddle on the other side.

The game is fun, but there’s a price to pay (hence the “loss” in the title). As we were nearing our mid-day takeout in Altamahaw, I leaned way too far to the side trying to catch my deflected paddle, flipping my boat. My camera—which I had negligently failed to secure in its dry bag—did not survive. Even worse, because I bought the camera on the “gray market” (perfectly legal, but not from an authorized Nikon USA retailer), Nikon refused to fix it. So, this otherwise mostly free trip cost me the price of a replacement Nikon D500. I thought about taking this opportunity to switch to a mirrorless body, but there still isn’t anything with comparable performance in this price range; the D500 reigns supreme for wildlife photography. Although it’s discontinued, I was able to find a new camera (another gray market model) on eBay. Hopefully it will last me at least another 5 years and 120,000 frames. Anyway, you won’t see much other than iPhone photos on this blog.

Speaking of, my iPhone also ended up on the bottom of the river. It remained submerged for 5 to 10 minutes, buried in the mud about 3 feet underwater, until I was able to recover it using my feet. The phone still works great, so I can attest that the newer iPhones are indeed waterproof. My well-sealed 300 mm f/4 lens (attached to the camera) also survived unscathed, thankfully.

Our afternoon paddle was less eventful. The river becomes much larger after the Haw meets Reedy Fork, so there were fewer and fewer trees to dodge, hop over, or play with. Despite the low water levels, this stretch wasn’t too bumpy, so we made good time, arriving around 5:15 PM to set up camp at Guil’s house in Glencoe. Pizza delivery has never tasted better!

Time, Distance, and Weather: We were on the water for a leisurely 7 hours and 40 minutes (not including a lunch break), covering about 16 miles across 3 counties: Rockingham (1 mile), Guilford (4 miles), and Alamance (the remainder). The first 8-mile leg (from High Rock Rd. to Altamahaw) took 4:10 for 8 miles, and the second 8-mile leg (from Altamahaw to Glencoe) took 3:30. Four dams interrupted this stretch of river: Brooks Bridge (portage and quick break); Altamahaw (portage and lunch break); Indian River (no portage needed; the dam was mostly clogged with trees, but the tunnel was open); and Glencoe (portage and camp).

Weather & Water Levels: The weather on Day 1 was the best of the trip, with sunny skies and temps ranging from 57 to 80F. Water levels were a bit low; 0.95 feet (25 cfs) on the Reedy Fork gauge; 2.4 feet (280 cfs) on the Haw River gauge.

Wildlife: We saw and heard plenty of wildlife over the day, including 59 species of birds (including 78 warblers across 9 species). Herps included two Common Watersnakes (Rockingham Co., Alamance Co.), a juvenile Eastern River Cooter, Northern Cricket Frogs, and an unidentified frog. Invertebrates enjoyed the sunny weather; I saw dozens of Spine-Crowned Clubtails (new county record for Guilford County, and fairly common along the Haw in both Guilford and Alamance), 6 other species of dragonflies, >40 Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, a handful of other butterflies, and scores of spiders (especially in the tree-covered upper reaches).

Day 2

The first half of the second day of the trip was my least favorite stretch. On top of my broken-camera woes, the morning featured thunder and rain. But experience is all about attitude, right? Once I got in the right mindset, the periods of downpour were actually pretty fun to paddle through, and I stayed relatively dry in my spray skirt. Paddling in the rain is fine, but thunder is not! We briefly took shelter under an old mill at the first sign of thunder, then took a longer break at Red Slide Park during one particularly violent thunderstorm.

The morning also featured a combination of wide, rocky river sections, low water levels, and fully-loaded kayaks (with all our camping gear, etc.). This slowed us (or at least me) down a little, as my spray skirt made it more difficult to free myself from the ever-present rocky stretches. I was dryer, but slower, than my three companions. Some of the rapids were fun, but most would have been a lot more fun with more flow. The scenery was great around the rockier sections, where lots of old (and some refurbished) mill buildings took advantage of the river gradient in years past.

As with most of the Haw, rocky/rapid sections were periodically interrupted by slow-moving flatwater sections. On one of these, a disturbing amount of runoff befouled the river, emanating from some huge ongoing development. This is why you need generous riparian buffers! This stretch of river also features scenic wonders like I-40. Joking aside, it’s actually pretty cool to paddle under a mega highway.

We made it to Swepsonville River Park for lunch right around the time the sun came out (albeit briefly). This marked a turning point for the day, as the remainder of the paddle featured deeper flatwater stretches above two dams. More paddling, but no more rock hangups. That is, until we made it to the other side of Saxapahaw Dam and had to zig-zag upriver around several islands to reach our campsite. The flow was too low for me to stay in my boat the whole way there—only Jason’s low-draft canoe managed that feat.

Saxahapaw Campground (run by a great guy, Mike) features some excellent amenities for both car-based and river-based camping. After setting up our tents and hanging our wet gear out to dry, another thunderstorm came through, drenching everything. Wetness is just the way of things when you spend a weekend on the river. We were able to dry off before heading into town to finish the day with beers at Haw River Farmhouse Ales (probably my favorite brewery) and dinner at the Eddy.

Time & Distance: Our pacing was similar to Day 1; we covered about 17 miles over 7:40 (including portages but excluding thunderstorm and lunch breaks). The first 11.5-mile leg (from Glencoe to Swepsonville) took us 5:10 (4:30 on the water, plus the thunderstorm breaks). The second 5.5-mile leg (Swepsonville to Saxapahaw campground) took another 3:10, including two long portages at Puryear and Saxapahaw Dams. The entire paddle was within Alamance Co.

Weather & Water Levels: The weather on Day 2 started rainy but ended up mild, with temps ranging from 55 to 68F. Water levels were low enough to be annoying: 2.3 ft (250 cfs) on the Haw River gauge.

Wildlife: Given the weather and my broken camera, I was less wildlife-focused on this day’s stretch than the preceding one. However, I am pretty much constantly birding by ear, and I tallied 67 species for the day (including 116 warblers across 11 species). As the river grows in size, the avian diversity seems to increase dramatically. We also saw one aquatic mammal, which I suspect was a Mink, as it seemed a bit small for River Otter. Herps included some Cooters and a heard-only Green Tree Frog. Several invertebrates showed up in the drier afternoon weather, including three species of dragon/damselflies and two species of butterflies.

Day 3

Our third day was glorious, for various reasons. For starters, it was another full day on the Haw—how can you beat that? It also featured the river sections I’m most familiar with, which just so happen to include the most beautiful scenery and the best whitewater. Yesterday’s curse (wet weather) was today’s boon, raising the water levels and giving us a bit more push for our longest day on the water (22 miles). We also had lighter boats, thanks to the generosity of Mike at Saxapahaw Campground, who let us stash all of our camping gear for later retrieval.

The first half of the second day of the trip was my favorite stretch, a nice contrast to the day before. My day began with a low-speed seal launch into the river. Once we were all in the water, we were graced with a sunrise glowing through the mist-shrouded river. Water temps were much higher than the chilly 45F air temps, so it took a while for the sun to burn off the fog. The Haw was enchanting; pictures don’t do it justice.

At some point on this leg, Guil successfully executed a final paddle toss over a hanging tree, less common on this part of the river. With that, he clinched the “toss or loss” title with 14 points. (I again took—or maybe tied for—second place, with 13 points.)

We stopped for a quick break at Chicken Bridge, where I dropped my phone in the water a second time. Still waterproof! As we navigated one of the larger rapids after Chicken Bridge, one of Jason’s paddles snapped in half, equipment malfunction #2 of the trip. This one was (sort of) solved with duct tape, but he also had a backup paddle (which was also held together with duct tape).

We enjoyed a relaxing lunch on the most glorious rock island known to man (in between Chicken Bridge and Bynum Dam). Shortly after that, Guil’s kayak sprang a leak through the back keel. Equipment malfunction #3 was solved with duct tape.

The whitewater adventure began in earnest after portaging Bynum Dam, and we all made it downriver without significant problems. My paddle snapped in half while surfing the wave at the bottom of Gabriel’s Bend, pinching my finger in the process. Equipment malfunction #4 was, unsurprisingly, solved with duct tape (though I’m not sure if this twice-broken paddle will survive much longer). I also dropped my phone (phone drop #3) in some deep, fast-moving water here, but I snatched it as it sank, averting disaster. Guil and Jason had some bumpy moments but stayed in their boats the whole time. Sean took on water after Gabriel’s Bend, but self-rescued. I also rescued myself from a (sort of scary) pin at The Maze, an aptly named series of rapids with some fun drops and not-so-fun rocks. Some idiots paddling a canoe with a small child capsized while attempting Moosejaw Falls, so we stuck around to assist as necessary. They were okay.

After the exciting Lower Haw whitewater, we made the short flatwater paddle to the take-out at Robeson Creek, triumphant but exhausted.

The return logistics were fairly simple: we loaded all 4 boats on top of Jason’s jeep (and all 4 guys inside it), stopped at Saxapahaw campground to reclaim our gear, then headed to Guil’s house in Glencoe, from which point we headed home in our own vehicles.

Time & Distance: Higher water levels led to slightly faster pacing on Day 3. We covered more than 24 miles (it’s probably 22 miles if you bomb the river in a straight line) in 9:00 on the water. The first 15-mile leg (from Saxapahaw to the lunch rock after Chicken Bridge) took us exactly 5 hours. The second 9.5-mile leg (past Bynum and US-64, taking out at Robeson Creek) took exactly 4 hours. The day’s travels featured one last stretch through Alamance County, then the river becomes the Alamance/Orange border, then the Alamance/Chatham border, and the final stretches of river are all within Chatham County. There’s only one portage on this stretch, at Bynum Dam.

Weather & Water Levels: The weather on Day 3 was perfect, with fog transitioning to full sun, with temps ranging from a brisk 45 to a comfortable 68F. Water levels were good, with 4.9 feet (1500 cfs) on the Bynum gauge; 3.1 ft (400 cfs) on the Haw River gauge.

Wildlife: The wildlife opportunities started strong and waned as the day progressed and the river became dominated by whitewater (diverting my attention from animals to paddling). I encountered 68 species of birds for the day (including 286 warblers across 11 species). Notable were 76 singing American Redstarts, a species completely absent from the previous river sections. Hooded Warblers were also present this day but absent on the two prior days. Numbers of Prothonotary Warblers were also significantly higher on this stretch (70) than Day 2 (25) or Day 1 (3). I noticed the exact same trends on our 2021 through-paddle, so despite the anecdotal data, I think it’s fair to conclude that the lower stretches of the Haw include significantly better bird habitat than the upper reaches. If you’re into numbers, this chart illustrates the day-to-day flux of warblers I heard singing:

Beyond birds, we also encountered a Common Watersnake and some River Cooters, plus a possible River Otter seen by some members of the party (not me). A fair number of dragonflies were present in the rockier sections (probably Septima’s Clubtails, among others), but I was more focused on paddling at that point of the journey.

Summary by the Numbers

4 guys, 3 days, 2 nights, 1 river.

We traveled approximately 57 miles of the Haw River by boat (16+17+24 miles). This involved 24:20 on the water (7:40+7:40+9:00), including portages and stretch breaks but not including longer lunch breaks, which added about an hour each day.

Car shuttle distances varied, but mine was 66 miles on the front end and 87 miles on the back end. Cars are faster than boats, so I only spent about 3:30 in the car. That’s a pretty good travel-to-experience ratio.

Casualties included 2 broken paddles, 1 broken boat, 1 broken camera, several small lacerations, bruises, and sore muscles, and 1 strep throat.

I encountered 84 bird species on the trip (compared to last trip’s 73), plus a scattering of other wildlife.


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