Old Black Water...
Updated: Jun 22, 2021
"You know what's better than having a canoe? Having a friend that has a canoe!" My dad never used this exact expression when I was growing up, but he did say it in reference to times when friends would let us borrow a vehicle or tool we didn't have or invite us to a beach or mountain home we didn't own. And while we graciously enjoyed many experiences thanks to the kindness of others, I realized later that the real benefit was being surrounded by so many people who enriched my life with their unselfish generosity.
Two such families were the Mozingos and the Bigelows. They lived just one and five blocks away from my childhood home respectively, our lives were intertwined with school, church, and sports (as was pretty much every family's in Lumberton), and on any given Saturday any one of the neighborhood kids could be found in another's backyard, playing Jailbreak, jumping on trampolines, and sharing bicycles and other toys. But, in my opinion, the Mozingo and Bigelow backyards had one distinctive advantage over the others...they had canoes.
This was especially crucial to maximizing fun in town because just seven blocks west of us was Stephen's Park, which was the closest access point to the county's greatest treasure, the Lumber River. I can't count the number of times I borrowed those canoes and discovered anew the beauty and majesty of this natural wonder that brought trade and life to the indigenous peoples long before European settlers arrived. The river is over 100 miles long and there are many amazing areas to explore, but for this inaugural Paddle NC post, I have to share what was always my favorite half-day paddle: Stephens Park to High Hill.
The Lumber River is also known by two other names: Drowning Creek, which it is still called to the west in Scotland County, and the Lumbee River, which it was called by Native Americans before the state adopted the name "Lumber River" in 1809. In the late 1700s through mid 1800s, lumber and pine stores were shipped down the river to the mouth of the Pee Dee in Georgetown, South Carolina. There are no present-day remnants of this industry of Lumberton's namesake, so it is even more appropriate that many locals still refer to the river as the Lumbee. In fact, the largest Native American tribe in the Eastern United States adopted the river's name, which is thought to be an Algonquian word meaning "dark water."
The Lumber River is a free-flowing river that was designated a natural and scenic river by the N.C. legislature in 1989, which affords it additional preservation protections. It is the only black water river (the color is formed by tannins from vegetation decay) in the state to be given this designation. Because the river meanders through swampy, lowland areas, there are few bluffs along its shore, with a notable exception being High Hill. Here, the river turns sharply to the southwest, and over millions of years it has eaten into the sandy earth, leaving a bluff around 20 feet high. Although the coast is 60 miles away today, High Hill reveals a time when the ocean covered North Carolina, and sharks teeth, sea shells and other fossils can be uncovered when the water is low enough.
The Paddle It's almost exactly a 6-mile paddle downstream from Stephen's Park to High Hill. The current is steady but, even after a hard rain, almost never too strong that you can't turn around and head back the way you came. Just past High Hill is the NC 72 Wildlife boat access ramp, so with two vehicles you can make this a one-way trip and save the 1.5 hours it will take you to paddle back to the orginal put-in. If you're planning on the full 12 miles with time to play, I'd bank on spending a good 3+ hours on the water.
- Map Link
- Distance: 12 miles out and back
- Rating: Easy
- Time: 3-4 hours
The experience itself is magical. Cypress, pine and oak abound, and there are several river bends to explore. The perfect time of year to go is in the fall when the water is still warm, the mosquitoes aren't biting quite as much (still always take insect repellant) and the river depth is low. With low water comes more exposure of cypress knees, sandy shores and, if you are lucky, High Hill's fossilized remains of the past marine life that once dominated the area.
When you make it right at six miles and begin anxiously looking for High Hill, don't stress too much, as you can't miss it. The river gets wider and will bend sharply over 90 degrees south-southwest, and High Hill will be on your left. It's literally the only bluff you'll pass after paddling through downtown Lumberton, but if you find yourself passing a boat ramp before seeing it, just turn around and paddle back a hundred yards, staying to your right. Finding a place to dock here can be a little tricky depending on the water level, but it's well worth it, especially if you find a shark's tooth.
In a contest with over 3,000 votes and 200 unique submissions, Great Outdoor Provision Co. listed the Lumber River as one of "North Carolina's Ten Natural Wonders."
If you worked up an appetite, stop by the Dixie Drive-In afterward. Opened in 1963, it's literally a drive-in parking lot where they take your order from the car window. I recommend a burger with the homemade chili and slaw.