Where the river otters play
Even though I grew up half a mile from the Lumber River and paddled its downtown waters often, one spot I'd never visited was the former community of Princess Ann. Just 18 miles south of Lumberton, I always heard that the river really opened up there, and several family friends loved to boat, fish and camp in the area. So in July 2020, I was glad the Passport challenge gave me an excuse to head back to my home county and grab another stamp, because since 1989, Princess Ann has been home to Lumber River State Park.
Princess Ann was the second oldest town in Robeson County and the site of its first post office. It's also home to the highest banks in all of the Lumber River and was therefore a perfect settlement spot to avoid flooding. As far as I can tell, the town was named in honor of Queen Anne, the queen of England, Scotland and Ireland (and eventually Great Britain) from 1702 to 1714. She spelled Anne with an e, but we Robesonians never let a little grammatical error stop us from honoring a matriarch.
Although only a road with the princess's namesake marks the former town now, this natural and undeveloped river took a decade to evolve into a state park. The upper river, which is near Wagram, was designated as North Carolina's first recreational water trail in 1978. In 1981, it was established as a national canoe trail, and in 1984, the state designated the lower river as a state canoe trail. Finally, in 1989, thanks to lobbying efforts by the Lumber River Basin Committee among other groups , the N.C. General Assembly established the Lumber River as a state park.
The Paddle The air was heavy with humidity as I drove southbound along I-95, and the sun's heat radiated up from the asphalt and down from the sky while I unloaded my kayak. Sunscreen and bug spray were necessary for a comfortable adventure, but I had to keep the car cranked and the A/C pumping so I could apply it to my face without sweating it off within 30 seconds. When I stepped back outside, the mosquitos danced on my skin looking for any inch where OFF wasn't present, but I knew the only true repellant would be the breeze on the water. In other words, it was July in southeastern NC, and it was a perfect day to paddle.
I launched quickly and a bit ambitiously, as my original hope was to make it to Fair Bluff. I realized within a minute, however, that this would not be an option. Not only had I gotten too late of a start, but the current was definitely stronger here than in Lumberton, and it was moving me downstream at a fair clip. So I figured I'd go as far as I thought prudent before turning around, making sure I had enough sunlight, water and energy to paddle back.
- Map Link
- Distance: 8 miles (out and back)
- Rating: Moderate
- Time: 2 hours
And, then, almost as soon as I'd settled into my seat and was just beyond the voices of a few fishermen and campers, I encountered a local that would make the whole trip worth it. A river otter was making his way slightly upstream from one bank to the other as I paddled toward him. Although I managed to grab a seventeen-second video of the experience, time moved slower as I watched the otter swim within 15 feet of my boat and disappear amidst the underbrush. It was an exciting and unique interaction, since the presence of river otters is more often experienced through habitat markings like mud slides than actual live sightings. The next local I saw, however, was definitely more surprised at my presence and not nearly as graceful.
While rounding another bend just five minutes later, a young white-tailed buck helping himself to a drink of river water came into view. I startled him, and he immediately attempted to leap to the shore. Dry land, however, is hard to come by in this swampy area, and I watched in amusement as my would-be deer friend attempted to find sure footing, moving without regard for the noise and scene he created. He struggled frantically for about half a minute; it was both humorous and amazing.
Having only traveled half a mile and having already enjoyed the company of an otter and a deer, I thought that if I didn't see any more wildlife, it would still have been an amazing day. And with the exception of a great blue heron, who I seemed to annoy as he swooped over me for a mile or so, I spent the rest of the excursion soaking up the sun, admiring the cypress trees, and wondering how an abandoned school bus ended up on the east side of a river bank.
Just a few hundred yards later, I found shade near a rundown pier, and decided it was time to head back upstream. It ended up being a smart decision. Within seconds of lifting my paddle, the current would stop my forward momentum and begin pushing me backwards. I had to still my mind to prepare for what I knew would be a rhythmic and steady four-mile push to the boat ramp. The return trip took about an hour, and I definitely earned my supper, but just in case any future adventure seekers haven't gotten the message yet: the current is strong here, so be prepared!
As I loaded my boat back onto the rack and toweled off, I saw a few locals moving their day's catch from paint buckets to coolers. The early evening sun was no longer beating down, and a breeze from the river kept the air more pleasant and cooler than before. Away from any traffic noise and surrounded by pristine, untouched nature, I thought surely this is God's country. And then, just a few hundred feet after exiting the park, the street sign at the next intersection came into view. It divinely read "God's Road." Turns out I was right.
Union Maj. General William T. Sherman crossed the Lumber River in several places on his famous March to the Sea. One major crossing point was the Gilchrist Bridge, located at the park's Chalk Banks access.
You're in the heart of strawberry country, so try to plan your visit around the first weekend in May, when the NC Strawberry Festival is held in Chadbourn. Short on time? Grab a bucket from Jack Pait Strawberry Farm in Lumberton.