It’s a Swamp Thing

Merchants Millpond State Park

We loaded Puff up, plopped the kayaks on the car roof, and took off for a few days of Eastern North Carolina blackwater kayaking. We went to the swamp.

It had been over 20 years since my last visit to Merchants Millpond.  Back then the park was just being established, with zero amenities, just a boat ramp, and a shed. Today it is a very popular destination that includes picnic areas, miles of hiking trails, boat launch areas, a campground and typical state park visitors center. Most popular are the kayak trails that weave throughout the millpond and down Bennetts Creek.

Settlement in the Gates County area began in 1660. Residents of early rural communities made a living by farming and lumbering. In the early 1700s, Hunters Millpond was built at the head of Bennetts Creek to provide a means of processing and marketing regional produce. Highway construction destroyed this millpond in 1922. But further downstream, Norfleets Millpond, which was built in 1811, thrived. Gristmills, a sawmill, a farm supply store and other enterprises made the area the center of trade in Gates County. Thus, the pond became known as Merchants Millpond.


Join us for a peaceful float into another world.

We took a mid-morning float down Bennets Creek, which flows into and out of Merchants Millpond. These dark, acidic waters support a wide variety of aquatic plant and animal species.  Mink, river otter and bobcat are occasionally spotted. Deer, raccoons and opossums are also in residence.  And birds, lots of birds. 

It felt good to finally be getting our kayaks wet again. They performed well. Having kayaks light enough for us to easily load on the car roof is important to the enjoyment of flat-water paddling.

The Camping Experience

Our stay at Merchants Millpond began Sunday afternoon. We had our choice of many campsites (non-electric), which cost $12/night (senior discounts rock).  Was it quiet?  That is a difficult thing to find these days, humanity having spread its noisiness almost everywhere. But yes, except for the camper who ran his generator for 30 min., it was quiet (with the moan of traffic in the distance).

The park has about 25 non-electric sites, more than half can easily accommodate a teardrop or a little larger.  The all important facilities were clean and the showers hot. Our T@B is a Q model, no bathroom, so we always hope for nice facilities, especially hot showers.  The park office has a really nice museum quality displays about the natural and cultural history of the park 

We enjoyed the cool mornings and the warmth of our little “Puff” teardrop trailer.  The ALDE heating system worked great, as did the gas stove and water system. This was our first multi-night non-electric campout, and we were able to easily manage our power usage over two days. We cooked both inside and outside, including delicious steak kabobs on the campfire.

More about our T@B for T@BBERS – We added a door alarm purchased at Lowes for $12. It beeps or blares if someone opens the door uninvited. I have found the wheel lock to not be a necessary security item on the road, but I do try to keep it on at home. Vodka did a satisfactory (though more expensive) job of winterizing, without the lingering flavor of anti-freeze.  The water pump, originally very noisy, has quieted down on its own and is working well.  I plan to add a strobe light on the back of the trailer to alert speeding drivers of our slower pace, like the ones they use on NC school buses. We noticed a drop of 2 mpg with the added kayaks.  Oh well.  Hope to add our “Puff the M@gic Dr@gon” decals soon.  Look for us soon in Ohio for birdings biggest week.

Birding is always part of our wild adventures but we were so busy paddling and enjoying the whole experience I did not take ONE single picture of a bird.  Yeah, I know. Crazy.  Photography while kayaking is risky for the camera gear, and its difficult to stay still. Even the finding or looking at a bird can be a challenge. I did take time to get some audio of some bird calls we were hearing, which you can listen to below.

Beppu, our travel mouse, oversees camp set-up

Getting ready to cook steak kabobs

Sheree at our campsite anxious to get on the water

Pink-lady Slipper


Bird Report

While kayaking and walking the trails at Merchants Millpond and the Roanoke River I was able to get some decent recordings of some bottomland bird species, which will be posted at in a few days.  In total,  we heard or saw 59 species of birds.  You may click on the following link to see our lists, posted on the right side of my eBird profile.

Most enjoyable were the Barred Owls, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Scarlet Tanagers and dozens of Prothonotary Warblers. 


Dismal Swamp State Park

We took a little side trip up to the Great Dismal Swamp, Dismal Swamp State Park to be exact. Located on US 17 just south of the Virginia border, it protects many historical and ecological treasures.  The park allows a unique wilderness experience in a landscape that has been witness to American Indian hunting parties, exploration by George Washington and the story of the Underground Railroad.  The canal you see is part of the Intracoastal Waterway that traverses almost the entire east coast of the United States. The park proper is on the other side of the canal from the highway, so a pedestrian drawbridge was constructed. In the photo, you can see the open bridge as a sailboat continues its journey north into Virginia. They have a good trail system in place for hiking and biking. The afternoon had become quite warm so we decided to take a short hike and head back to Merchants Millpond for an evening paddle. 

Sheree' surveying the action down on the canal.

Roanoke River Paddling – Jamesville, NC

For our final paddle, we stopped at the Astoria boat ramp in Jamesville, NC. Over the past decade, a number of paddle trails have been established along the Roanoke River and its tributaries. These trails include platforms for overnight camping. We were on an exploratory adventure to check out the paddling conditions and to just have a great time. In the large photo above Sheree is weaving her way through some of the Tupelo Gum and Bald Cypress trees along the river’s edge. There were quite a few snakes and some good birds. I was relieved the current was manageable.  We look forward to our return visit to further explore some of the wildest, most pristine places in North Carolina. 

Smiles for a successful adventure in wild places.

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