What's swam in, paddled in and drunk from all over?
Updated: Jun 22, 2021
As a home owner, there are many things I often take for granted. Like the water that flows from my kitchen faucet. Or the lights that turn on when I flick the bedroom switch. Even the rain that drains down the corner of my street instead of flooding my neighborhood. And at 5 p.m. on a typical June evening, these modern conveniences are definitely the last thing on my mind. If time allows, I'd rather be soaking up the last rays of the summer sun from the cockpit of my kayak, trading the noise of combustion engines for that of water lapping on my boat hull.
On days like these, I'll often head just a few miles south down 751 to the northernmost point of a body of water that is known for its magnificent sunsets and abundant waterfowl population. But I didn't always realize that, depending on where one lives in the Triangle, the same paddle destination I love is also responsible for that tap water, electric power and dry street I benefit from daily: Jordan Lake. The History
Jordan Lake is a nearly 14,000 acre manmade reservoir formed in 1982 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished a nine-year project to dam the New Hope and Haw Rivers. It was constructed to alleviate flooding after Hurricane 9 caused extensive damage along the Cape Fear River in 1945 (the U.S. National Hurricane Center did not began naming storms until 1950). Jordan Lake Dam is located at the southern tip of the lake just two miles north of Mermaid Point, which is at the convergence of the Haw and Deep Rivers where the Cape Fear River is formed. Originally called the New Hope Lake Project, it was renamed in memory of the then recently deceased U.S. Senator B. Everett Jordan in 1974.
But the advent of the lake did not just help with flood control. It also provided drinking water to several Triangle municipalities, including Durham, Cary, Holly Springs and other townships in Wake and Chatham counties. Birds and fish also became much more abundant, not only because of the new body of water but because of the seven waterfowl impoundments constructed north of the lake to replace lost wildlife habitats and hunting opportunities. Additionally, the Jordan Hydroelectric Project located at the dam has provided enough power for about 4,000 households since 2012.
What attracts most folks to the lake, of course, is the fun stuff. The N.C. State Parks maintain fourteen miles of biking trails, several boat ramps and swim beaches, and hundreds of RV and camping sites. And between the state recreation access areas, New Hope game lands and other public lands, there is no private development along on the lakeshore. This has helped preserve one of the most popular spots for visitors and photographers near the dam. Here the largest population of bald eagles in North Carolina show why fishing is their favorite lake activity. Ironically, this is also one of the only areas of the lake I haven't visited.
The Paddle My favorite access point is just six miles south of the I-40 / N.C. Hwy 751 exit. Right after you cross the northeastern most finger of the lake there is a gravel shoulder that widens on the right. There's no signage, but if there's even a ray of sunshine peeking through the clouds, there's a good chance that one or two other cars will be parked there. Once the boat's unloaded, you'll need to carry it about 150 yards on a path to the right until a small beach opens up. It's also likely you'll see some folks fishing, swimming or lounging as you put in.
From this point there are several sections of the lake to explore. The map link in the Adventure Details Section showcases my favorite loop, which has you first heading south with the current. There are a couple of decent beaches where you can pull ashore, but I like to make a beeline for a small island about 1.5 miles away. This can be fun to hop off and explore or just paddle around. From here you can make your way to a point along the western shore which is marked by another finger of the lake where Morgan Creek drains. Turn north to explore this shoreline, which is my favorite of the paddle. That's because here the raptors are king.
Be sure to look up, as you're almost always certain to see osprey circling. A few red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks often favor this area, and you might even catch a glimpse of a bald eagle. Double-crested cormorants prefer the sticks and dead trees protruding from the shallow areas and great blue herons like to perch along the pines towering above clay embankments. The best way to spot these magnificent creatures is to paddle a bit and then let your momentum glide you while making as little noise as possible. But don't get too frustrated when they fly away as you approach. A bird's eyesight is significantly better than a human's, and they see green and blues extremely clearly. I learned this fun fact this after I bought my neon green kayak.
- Map Link
- Distance: 8.5 miles
- Rating: Easy - Moderate
- Time: 2.5 - 3 hours
After moving 1.5 miles back north, turn right to head underneath the 751 bridge you drove over to access the lake. Before you get there you'll notice a few clay bluffs other visitors often like to fish from. The bridge underpass is another popular fishing spot, so watch that you don't accidentally tangle your paddle in a friendly line. Once through, it's almost like you have an entirely new lake to explore. My favorite area is directly ahead with a grove of trees that you can pass through if there's been decent rain in the last few weeks. Depending on the season, cormorants will often perch by the dozens on the limbs, and they'll give you quite a spectacle with their warning calls and aerodynamic flights.
Once you've had your fill of this section, you're just a bend and-a-half from your put-in point. I've done this entire loop as described here, paddled smaller portions when I nearly got caught in a thunderstorm, swam from the beach to the island on a hot summer's day (the current is stronger than you think), and enjoyed tubing behind my friend's motorboat several miles south. The one thing I've never done, however, is had a bad time. I'm sure you won't either.
Mermaid Point gets its name from a 1750s legend that mermaids were often spotted playing along a now submerged sandbar. The sightings lived and died with patrons of the former Ramsey's Tavern. Maybe it was the whisky?
Lions and tigers and cougars, close by? Take friends and family to see these big cats and more at Carolina Tiger Rescue, located just two miles east of the lake near Pittsboro.