In 1996, a group of grassroots leaders gathered to discuss what they could do to stimulate the economy for communities located along the Roanoke River in eastern North Carolina.
The group, which eventually became known as the 501(c)3 non-profit Roanoke River Partners (RRP), came up with a number of ideas, including developing an antique trail or a Civil War trail, promoting local products and creating a series of camping platforms.
In the end, the group decided to focus on developing a paddle trail. In tandem with the growing interest in recreational paddling, the project complemented the historical use of the river as a major transportation and development resource.
Since partners involved in the initial stages of the project also had access to large tracts of land along the river, they were willing to provide site locations for camping platforms along the lower end. Visitors could now trace the curves of the Roanoke and its tributaries, discover the variety of wildlife and its habitats, and then enjoy the unique experience of spending a night (or more) in the breathtaking beauty of the moss-draped back swamps.
RRP sought to capitalize on the unique experiences available along the river:
• Observing plant and animal wildlife, which thrives in the lush, natural environment
• Enjoying the passive recreation of photographing animals in the wild
• Fishing in secluded areas
• Experiencing small-town life
• Participating in local events and festivals
• Sampling traditional foods like rock stew, fried herring, shad and other wild game.
The Roanoke River Paddle Trail reportedly was the first private system of its type.
Today, the trail offers more than 200 miles of inter-connected creeks, rivers and swamps, including more than 6 miles of Class 2 and 3 white-water rapids.
Although the trail facilities are developed, built and managed by RRP, many are located on environmentally sensitive wetlands owned by The Nature Conservancy.
Additional trails are under construction or in the planning stages.
Reaping The Benefits
Collaboration was essential to the development of the Roanoke River Paddle Trail. Assistance came from several sources:
• The Conservation Fund
• The Nature Conservancy
• North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission
• North Carolina Paddle Trail Association
• Local communities
• Private landowners.
The trail has attracted hundreds of visitors from around the country as well as internationally. In 2009, over 1,000 user nights were booked. The platforms and paddle trails have been replicated in communities in the eastern U.S., including North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Maine.
Surrounding landowners continue to reap the benefits of the trail. For example, Tillery, N.C., is a former African-American resettlement community that is fighting to hold onto its land and preserve its history. Through work with The Conservation Fund, Gary Grant, a Tillery landowner, partnered with RRP on a camping platform site.
“This acre of land (that isn’t even cultivatable) produces more money for me than the acre of leased farmland right here in front of it,” he says.
Tom and Nancy Winslow live just outside Hamilton, N.C. A farmer, he was interested in increasing revenue from his property. The Bluff–a camping platform–was built on his land, and became an alternative income to support agriculture.
Meanwhile, initial support for the RRP camping platforms was received from Mid-East Resource Conservation & Development Council Inc. (MRCDC), The Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. A charter sponsor of RRP, MRCDC provided seed money for projects, secured regulatory permits, and assisted with grant writing, construction of platforms, installation of information signs and waterway markers.
The Conservation Fund helped coordinate and implement events, negotiated with private landowners, and provided regional networking. The Nature Conservancy assisted with the site locations of camping platforms.
Indeed, collaboration has been and continues to be the key to the successful development of the paddle trails, which continue to grow. The River Landing camping platform officially opened in fall 2010. Offering a new and different experience, it features a screened and covered facility with restrooms and showers nearby.
The platform is connected to the River Landing Boardwalk and offers picturesque views of wetlands across the river. Elevated above the wetland floor, the platform is less than a mile from the downtown area, and provides a scenic and convenient location to access the Roanoke River.
The mouth of Sweetwater Creek is less than 1 mile downstream of the platform, and provides for easy paddling through pristine waters lined with cypress trees and abundant wildlife. The platform also is equipped with two bicycles that can be used for a short ride on the connecting Skewarkee Trail to downtown, as well as to a nearby tackle shop for those interested in fishing from the boardwalk.
With so much to see and do on the platform, it’s a wonder anyone ever finds their way to the river–the real jewel of the trip. Perhaps it’s just another reason to return to the Roanoke River.
For more information, visit www.roanokeriverpartners.org.
Paige P. Schneider, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at East Carolina University’s Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies. She can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.