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Haw River Through-Paddle #3

Updated: May 24

Another year, another through-paddle of (almost) the whole Haw River, from Rockingham County all the way down to Jordan Lake. This was my third trip. Although it was similar to the last two trips (see my 2023 and 2021 blog posts), every year brings something new. This year, Guil, Sean, Jason*, and I were joined by a few more guys: Logan, Daniel, Reuben, and Alex*. (*Jason and Alex’s tandem canoe plans were thrown off by a last-minute injury that left Jason paddling part-time and Alex joining for post-river festivities.) As usual, we had a diverse flotilla of boats, from canoes (x3; they’re taking over!), to whitewater/crossover kayaks (both me and Logan rocked LiquidLogic Remix XPs), to recreational sit-on-top and sit-inside kayaks (always a viable option). The weather this year was great (no rain), but the dry weather also led to our lowest water levels to date. This was bearable for the first two days, but rough on our final (longest) day, adding several hours to the trip.

 


Day 1

 

The logistics for the put in-were straightforward. On Friday morning, Jason and Alex (sitting out Day 1) taxied half the group from the take-out at Robeson Creek to the put-in up in Rockingham County, and Kevin (from trip 2021) drove the other half from Guil’s house to the put-in. We were on the water by 8:45, just a touch later than prior years.

 

Here’s a summary of the first day’s paddle: (1) cruising (and tree-hopping) the narrow Haw as it passes through Rockingham and Guilford Counties and into Alamance County, with one portage at the Brooks Bridge Dam; (2) paddling a couple miles of the backwater behind the Glen Raven Dam at Altamahaw; (3) portaging for lunch at the dam; (4) the Haw meets the Reedy Fork and becomes a real river; (5) cruising down the river, taking the chute around what’s left of the Indian River Dam; (6) paddling a bit more backwater, then (7) portaging the Glencoe Dam and setting up camp at Guil’s house.

 

The single mile of river through Rockingham County and the five miles through Guilford County meander through an interesting mix of shady forest (with native azaleas and mountain laurel), agricultural land, and once-agricultural secessional habitat. The river flows gently, and its soft bottom is occasionally interspersed with rocks. There are several miles of backwater from dams, and only a few small rapids. So, the low water levels didn’t introduce too much bumping, scraping, or dragging.

 

However, the trees did! As expected, numerous fallen trees barred our passage. I’m not sure if there were more trees than usual, or if simply having more boats took us longer (for each tree, we queued up and climbed or shimmied over one at a time).


 

The not-yet-fallen trees continued to offer good sport for our game of “Toss or Loss” (you go under the tree, your paddle goes over the tree, and you catch the paddle on the other side). I didn’t participate as vigorously this year, but others carried the torch.

 

Also relevant to the trees, I brough a handsaw this year. Immediately after lamenting that it was a total waste of weight and space, me and Daniel used it to liberate a 5” branch blocking our passage after the Brooks Bridge Dam portage. This covered my boat in sawdust but validated the saw. Next year, I seriously think we should do the world a favor and load up one of the canoes with an electric chainsaw.



The Haw looks a bit more Haw-like after the Glen Raven Dam, with a wider channel and a lot more rocks. But the Haw’s most dramatic change in character comes when it is joined by the Reedy Fork, doubling the size of the river.

 

There are a few rapids on this part of the river, but the main attractions are man-made chutes around former dams. The one downstream of Altamahaw was totally blocked by a TBLJ (textbook logjam). This forced us down the extremely shallow and rocky right side of the river—a harbinger of more to come. The chute at the Indian River Dam was clear, so we skipped the 2-foot dam drop in favor of the tunnel on river left.



After a mile of backwater, we portaged the Glencoe Dam, enjoyed a nice pizza dinner with Guil’s and Sean’s families, and set up camp. I skipped the tent this year, opting to try out hammock camping for the first time. After a full day on the water, I slept like a log!

 

Time/Distance: We covered a total of 15.6 miles of river over 8:05 on the water (including portages and short breaks, but not lunch). The 7.6 miles before lunch took us 4:50, while the 8 miles after lunch only took us 3:15, as we no longer had to hop over a zillion downed trees.

 

Weather/Water Levels: The weather was mild in the morning, with full cloud cover and temps in the 50s. The afternoon was nicer, with partly cloudy skies and temps in the 60s. The water level was similar to prior years, and perhaps even a bit higher: 1.1 ft (30 cfs) on the Reedy Fork gauge; 2.3 ft (250 cfs) on the Haw River gauge.

 

Wildlife: Although this part of the river isn’t quite as bird-rich as later sections, I still tallied 67 different species of birds, most of which were heard-only. Interesting birds included Wood Ducks, an American Kestrel, and 12 species of warblers (Yellow Warbler was the rarest bird of the day).

 

Once the sun came out, the dragonflies followed. I was able to net (and release) a Springtime Darner and a Spine-crowned Clubtail, and I saw a handful of other species. Dozens of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies were also present, plus a Red Admiral. We saw our first (of many) Muskrats of the trip, plus an unidentified Watersnake. Others in the party saw a few turtles. The disadvantage of me lingering towards the back of the group, distracted by birdlife, is that I often miss seeing the wildlife that flushes or retreats into the water as the vanguard approaches.


 

Day 2

 

After a good night’s sleep and a huge breakfast at Guil’s, we were back on the water by 8:15 for another full day of paddling. Day 2 involved the following: (1) cruising and bumping down the wide, shallow, and rocky river as it curves around the east side of Burlington; (2) lunch at Swepsonville River Park; (3) a short backwater paddle to the always-interesting portage at Puryear Dam; (4) slogging it for another 5 miles of backwater (Saxapahaw Lake); (5) portaging the enormous Saxapahaw Dam; (6) crossing the shallow river diagonally upstream; and (7) setting up camp at the Saxapahaw campground and enjoying a night on the town.

 

The stretch from Glencoe to Swepsonville features abundant reminders of the historical human presence on the river, with many old mill buildings and evidence of former dams. The current human presence is also on full display as you pass under numerous bridges, including a railroad and the I-40 bridge. Somehow, there are logs pinned to the underside of the highway; I cannot imagine the floodwaters that deposited them. In general, this part of the river is wide and shallow, with moving water and some nice stretches of small rapids (which, as usual, could use a bit more water than we had). Logjams on bridge pylons were abundant, but they never barred our passage.



The second half of the day is almost all backwater, requiring some effort to paddle. The occasional headwind disadvantaged the canoes more than the kayaks. A nice surprise awaited us near the end of the paddle: Jason, in with a canoe filled with refreshments. That gave us the boost we needed to portage Saxapahaw Dam and hike our boats upstream and across the river to the campground. After getting settled, we were also joined for dinner at the Eddy Pub by Alex and by Daniel’s family.



 

Time/Distance: We covered 17.1 miles of river over 8:40 on the water. Day 2 was front-loaded, with 11.25 miles in the morning (5:10) and only 5.85 in the afternoon (3:30).

 

Weather/Water Levels: The weather mirrored Day 1: clouds gradually gave way to partly cloudy skies, and temps increased from the low 50s to upper 60s. Water levels were a tad lower than last year: 2.2 ft (210 cfs) on the Haw River gauge. Given my rock-hopping experience last year, I was worried that these levels would turn this stretch of river into a boat-dragging nightmare. Fortunately, this was not the case, and the entire run was navigable, if a bit bumpy. One exception: crossing the river to the campground in Saxapahaw required river-walking, as there was almost no water coming over the Saxapahaw Dam (instead, all the water was directed through the hydropower race).

 

Wildlife: Wildlife was abundant along the Haw. Avian diversity was similar to the preceding day, with 69 species. However, the total number of birds was greatly increased. For example, although the warbler species count was similar to Day 1 (11 species), the total number of singing warblers increased from 76 (Day 1) to 127 (Day 2). The composition shifted somewhat, too, with Prothonotary Warblers becoming much more numerous. Other species found good habitat on this stretch of river, including dozens of migrating Spotted Sandpipers (they enjoy rocky rivers) and hundreds of Cliff Swallows (nesting in big colonies under several road overpasses). The rarest bird of the day was a Great Egret, foraging in the river near the Saxapahaw Campground

 

I saw a nice assortment of 9 odonate species, including a handful of Septima’s Clubtails and an ahead-of-schedule Slender Bluet (this is the earliest the species has ever been reported in NC). Butterflies were again dominated by Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, with a few other species present. Sean (or at least, Sean’s hat) attracted a White-marked Tussock Moth caterpillar, a first for me. The only mammal we encountered was another Muskrat. The herps put on a good showing. I caught a Northern Watersnake in my dragonfly net (never tried that before!), and we saw others. Turtles were prolific near Swepsonville; in addition to numerous Eastern River Cooters, I saw a couple Yellow-bellied Sliders and a (nonnative) Red-eared Slider. We also saw or heard a couple species of frogs and toads.



During lunch at Swepsonville, we experienced the very beginning of an interesting wildlife phenomenon: periodical cicadas. Hundreds of freshly emerged adults covered the vegetation around the park, and their exuviae (shells) littered the trees and plants. These periodical cicadas spend 13 years underground before emerging en masse—a very different strategy than the annual cicadas that we see each summer. This year, 13-year Brood XIX emerged in NC (a 17-year brood is also emerging this year, but not in NC). From what I can tell, all the ones that emerged around Swepsonville were Riley’s 13-year Cicada (Magicicada tredecim). The interesting thing about this brood is that it contains multiple different species, all of which emerge around the same time. Several days later, I found the other two species (Magicicada tredecula and Magicicada tredecassini) at several Chatham Co. locations. It was interesting hearing individual cicadas vocalizing during our paddle; the full-on cicada droning wouldn’t begin for a couple more days.



Day 3

 

The last day is the longest day, consisting of (1) paddling, (3) more paddling, and (3) even more paddling. Or, should I say rock-bumping and boat-dragging? It’s all a blur now, but at the time, it was a slog.

 

In more detail and less jest, the last day involved (1) dragging our boats over rocks, followed by some small rapids around Saxapahaw; (2) paddling the long and mostly flat section through lower Alamance Co., then along the Alamance-Orange border, then along the Alamance-Chatham border; (3) bumping down a rockier section of mixed rapids in upper Chatham County, including the Chicken Bridge area (the “Upper Haw”); (4) lunch on a big rock outcrop; (5) more rapids; (6) paddling the Bynum Dam backwater, then portaging the dam; (7) bumping and scraping down the exceptionally shallow and rocky “Middle Haw” (as the paddlers call it), from Bynum to US-64; and finally (8) more bumping, scraping, and eventually boat-dragging down the shallow and rocky whitewater of the “Lower Haw,” from 64 to the takeout at Robeson Creek.

 

The first leg of Day 3 is always one of my favorite parts of the trip. The stretch of river south of Saxapahaw is tranquil and filled with birdsong; I registered 63 species over a couple hours. However, the water isn’t moving very fast (especially with the low water levels), so we had to do a lot of paddling, and we ended up lagging behind our normal pace. This was particularly inconvenient for Jason, who patiently waited for us at Chicken Bridge for over 2 hours!



As noted, the Chatham County part of the river was extremely shallow and bumpy, and we had to get out of our boats a few times. This made for a long, exhausting day. The keystone rapids were all runnable, but a bit underwhelming. We made it down without any major incidents, though the river managed to swamp the recreational sit-inside boat a few times. Three days with no injuries (at least none during the trip) and no broken equipment is all you can ask for; recall that last year we broke 2 paddles, 1 boat, and 1 camera.



After ending the day the same way we started—hauling our boats over rocks too shallow to paddle—it was good to finally get off the water. We left more cars at the take-out than prior years; this made the takeout logistics easier for everyone. I was able to head straight home after loading my boat on the truck.



Time/Distance: We covered ~23.7 miles of river over 11:05 on the water. This included 14.7 miles (5:45) before lunch, and a slow and rocky 9 miles (5:20) after lunch. (The last two years, Day 3 took between 8:30 and 9 hours.)

 

Weather/Water Levels: The weather was pretty much perfect: starting in the 50s, climbing to the 70s, with sunny or partly cloudy skies nearly all day (with one exception: our lunch break was quite cloudy). The water levels were pretty much the opposite of perfect: I think the Bynum gauge read: “painfully low and slow.” It was actually 3.4’ (300 cfs) on the Bynum gauge. Is running the river possible at this level? Yes. Is it fun? Perhaps, if you aren’t trying to cover 20-something in one day. Towards the end, I’ll admit to saying: if it’s this low next year, we’re skipping the Middle/Lower!

 

Wildlife: The southern stretches of the Haw seem to be the most biodiverse. So, Day 3 involved both the highest quantity (most species) and quality (best species) of wildlife. The first highlight was an adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron upstream of Chicken Bridge. This was undoubtedly the rarest bird of the trip; I’ve only seen this species a few times in Chatham County.


 

I tallied 72 total bird species from the day, including a Wild Turkey (heard at the campsite), a couple Solitary Sandpipers, more Bald Eagles than previous days, and a bunch of warblers. Similar to last year, the warbler composition continued to shift as the river progressed: Day 3 featured the only Hooded Warblers (6), an overwhelming increase in American Redstarts (78 compared to only 1 the prior two days), and a steady increase in Prothonotary Warblers (47 compared to 34 and 7 the prior two days). Notably, these numbers include only half the day’s birds; I stopped keeping track after lunch (focusing instead on getting down the river).



The second highlight: a Harvester butterfly landed on my hand after I cleared the last rapid before Chicken Bridge. Butterflies are hard to observe while paddling down a river, so I had low expectations for leps on this trip. I certainly didn’t expect to see a Harvester, which was a lifer for me (butterfly #138), and a hard one to search for in NC (you have to just get lucky). So, while other folks were helping drain a swamped boat, I had my own struggle: getting my phone out of the dry bag and photographing the bug before it flew off. Literally 1/4 second after I snapped the first photo, I smacked into a log and the butterfly departed, never to be seen again. Essentially the only other butterflies present all day were >100 Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and a single Zebra Swallowtail.



Beyond birds and butterflies, wildlife encounters were sporadic on Day 3. Dragonflies were everywhere, but it was impossible to keep track of or ID most of them as we hustled down the river. We saw a few Northern Watersnakes and River Cooters and an unidentified aquatic mammal, heard a few frogs, and saw thousands of Elemia river snails (prolific on this stretch of river, but not others). Others were able to ID some fish and a deer that I missed. The last animal of the trip was a juvenile Dekay’s Brownsnake at the take-out.



Summary by the Numbers

 

6-8 guys (depending on how you count), 3 days, 2 nights, 1 river. My GPS says we covered 56.4 miles. The discussion of river-miles in all the books and maps would be true if you bombed the river in a straight line, but we meandered quite a bit, hence the padded stats. This involved an all-time record 27.5 hours on the water (8:05 + 8:40 + 11:05), including portages and portages and stretch breaks but not including longer lunch breaks. On the last two trips, we only spent 25:00 and 22:45 on the water; most of this difference is attributable to the low water levels.  

 

My time on the road totaled about 75 miles and 1:45, which was way shorter than last year due to different shuttling logistics.

 

I encountered 88 species birds this trip, plus 10 dragonflies/damselflies, 6 butterflies (including 1 lifer), 5 reptiles, 3 amphibians, and an assortment of other animals.

 

Finally, for the data-lovers out there, here are some charts comparing this year to past years along various metrics.



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