For a long time now I have wanted to explore the Three Sisters area of the Black River here in North Carolina. Not sure why, maybe it is because of the remoteness of this part of the Black River, maybe because of the old growth bald cypress trees that grow along the banks and in the large coves; or the number of people that I have talked with that could not find the path through either side of The Narrows. Maybe it was just because it was there and I needed to explore something that I have heard some much about.
This section of the Black River lies between Beattys Bridge Landing and the NC Hwy 53 Bridge in Bladen County. For the most part this river flows south, but meanders back and forth with many twists and bends, with some of them bending back on themselves in a horseshoe fashion. There are some lone houses along the upper and lower parts of the trip, but for the most part, you are there along floating down this beautiful river.
James MacLaren, my kayaking buddy, and I started our day off at Henry’s Landing where the river is about 200 feet wide. The fall weather this morning could not have been more perfect; with our starting out temperatures in the lower 60’s and the sky was a perfect Carolina Blue. As for the fall leaf color, well we were late and missed the peak. Most of the trees have lost their leave, but those that still had them, wow! The water was on the cool side, due to the recent cold weather that has come to this part of North Carolina. So, in short, we could not have designed a better day to adventure into the unknown; unknown at least to James and I.
We started out heading south on the river with the warm sun on our left shoulders. The warmth of the sun felt good in the cool morning. The first thing we noticed was that the river was slow moving in this wider section of the river. A week earlier, James and I had lead a group on the 8 mile section north of where we were, where the flowing much faster. Yet the further we paddled, the river began to get faster as the river narrower. As the river narrowed the river began to take on a more intimate feeling with all the overhanging trees. With the narrower river, there come some additional problems that we had to be aware of. First was the river speed; the second was we had less space to maneuver around submerged trees and logs.
As we moved further away from our launch spot, the river became more and more beautiful. So much so, I was not paying too much attention to the submerged tree in front of me. Before I knew it, I was on top of a submerged tree, trying hard to work my way through the tangled mess I was in. Because I was not on the correct path through this tree, I quickly found myself sideways on another submerged log. For those of you who don’t know anything about kayaking, you don’t want to be in a position like this, if you do, you have a big chance of going swimming! Well, I didn’t go swimming, but I came close. However, I did have a bunch of COLD water inside my kayak.
James and I quickly found a good location to pull my kayak onto dry land to drain all that water. After I got this done, we decided to explore the first of the many coves on our trip today. WOW! This first cove was large and beautiful with large bald cypress trees and deadfall to paddle around. I found myself thinking about the potential this spot had for some great fishing.
We quickly got back on the river and headed in the right direction once again. We paddled for another hour with the river getting narrower and narrower as we went. We also started seeing more and more swamp. According to the “Paddling Eastern North Carolina” guidebook, there are several small channels to the right that flow through a broad cypress swamp. There is also a “distinct” channel to the left that is about “20” feet wide. This channel is only passable when the river level is up high. This “distinct” channel is called “The Narrows”. I guess because of the narrowness of the channel. I personally think it should be renamed to something called “The Workout” or something like that. The reason for this name change is when the water is not at the high mark (flood stage), you will have to “Pull” you kayak through. If you don’t want to pull your kayak, you have to work your way through the swamp. This day, I had my 14’ kayak and James had his 16’ kayak with us, so this was not an option.
Anyway, James and I missed this channel because we were looking for the river to take an abrupt left in a “distinct” watery channel. It never did, so we kept on trucking. All of a sudden, the river was only about 4 feet wide and headed into a deep foreboding swamp. James and I looked at each other, I am sure we were thinking the same thing, “how did we get here!” After about 10 minutes of maneuvering to turn around (It is hard work turning a 14’ kayak around in a channel of swift water that is about 4’to 6’ narrower than my kayak is long.) and we got out of there. Once back up stream, we stopped and tried to figure out what had gone wrong. While James was trying to figure out what the handheld GPS system was telling us, I paddled back up stream to see if by chance we missed out turn off. After about 10 minutes of hard paddling, I realized we had not, so I turned around once again.
As I was headed back to where I had left James, I was running through my mind what we were facing. I was bound in determined to find our way through this, because I was not going to paddle backup stream to where we put in. Then I remembered seeing on the left as we entered the swamp, what looked like a power line cut, but with no power lines. This had to be “The Narrows” that we were looking for. But where was the water? (The river was just at flood stage four weeks ago and there was plenty of water in the river) When I caught up with James, we discussed what I was thinking and we agreed this had to be the place. SO, I took off and began walking this muddy clear cut. I walked, sloshed, waded for about 10 minutes before I ran into deeper water and figured this was our river.
When I got back to the boats and told James what I had found, we decided this was good news and that it was time for lunch. I wanted some energy before I pulled my kayak about a third of a mile through who knows what. Once our lunch was over, we headed out. It was not too hard work pulling the kayaks because they slipped along fine on the grass and inch deep water in places. As we pulled and tugged, we found ourselves in the mist of some very old cypress trees. I mean some of these trees had bases of at least 15 feet across. As we stopped to rest and admire these trees, I was really feeling like Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery. After about 15 minute of pulling, we got to the deeper water (5” to 6”) and could sit in our kayaks again and pole (using out paddles to push us through) our way thought the high grass and water.
The Narrows eventually began to open up once more into a normal channel about 10 feet wide and about 3 to 4 feet deep. We made it! And in one piece! And there was a grand reward just around the bend from our Narrows adventures. We came upon a large cove where we found the Three Sisters. The Three Sisters are 3 bald cypress trees that are dated to be over 1700 years old! There are many other large trees in the cove, but the researchers could not determine the ages because of them being hollow. We quickly realized that someone could spend hours here exploring the many side stream and smaller coves. This cove is also where the 3 swamp kayak trails come back into the Black River.
The remaining part of our day’s journey was uneventful. Don’t get me wrong, it was still beautiful, but after all the big trees in the cove we just left and our adventure in the Narrows, the reminder seemed just like just another kayak trip. I guess that is OK.
Now it is the day after our adventure and as I reflect back on yesterday, I am glad that we decided to explore this area. It is well worth the effort we put into this trip. The beauty of the river and cypress forest that God created was stunning and I can’t wait to head back to this part of the Black River again. Next time, I am taking my shorter kayak and explore the cypress swamp that we chose to bypass this time. I hope that I can take some of you on this same trip someday soon.