Even though the Lumber River is one of five rivers in North Carolina designated “wild and scenic” by Congress, the winding waterway is little used except by locals who grew up there.
The Lumber River stretches 115 miles from its headwaters at Drowning Creek near Southern Pines to the South Carolina Line, where it merges with the Little Pee Dee River near Nichols, SC. Eighty-one miles of the river is designated as wild and scenic. Like many coastal rivers, few of them flow in a straight line; instead, the river is switchback after switchback.
It is a tannin-stained river with a rich dark brown tone; however, the color of the water belies how clean it is, in part because of its mostly sandy bottom and limited development along its corridor.
The nearly 18,000 acres bordering the river are owned or preserved by the State of North Carolina and the Lumber River Conservancy, a nonprofit group founded by the late Lumberton businessman Carr Gibson and the late lawyer Dickson McLean III. Approximately 4,000 acres are attributed to the efforts of the volunteer group. The Lumber River Conservancy, founded in 1991, is one of the oldest in North Carolina.
Lumber River State Park adjoins the river in several sections. There is a campground, boat launch and picnic area at Chalk Banks, near Wagram, in the county of Scotland. The river then flows through the former tribal lands of the Lumbee tribe near Pembroke, under Interstate 95 in Lumberton, to Boardman at US 74, then forms the border between Columbus and Robeson counties until that it reaches the state border. Lumber River State Park is headquartered at Princess Ann Landing, near Orrum, Robeson County, not far from US 74.
EASY FLOTATION ON THE RIVER
It was at Princess Ann Landing that I met Dickson McLean IV, a lawyer from Wilmington who plays a leading role in the Lumber River Conservancy; Joseph White, director of the Conservancy and professor of biology at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke; Lumber River State Park Superintendent Lane Garner and Ranger Zachary Lunn.
That day, March 27, a group of four fathers and their sons from Trail Life Troop 1533 in the Raleigh-Durham area spent the night at the Princess Ann Landing Campground and are ready for a day of paddling.
It reminds McLean of his childhood where he and his father, brother Robert and friend Neil Lee, who would later become the park superintendent, took five-day canoe trips as Sea Scouts from Lumberton to Georgetown, Carolina. from the south, the terminus of the Lumber, Waccamaw, Little Pee Dee and Pee Dee rivers at Winyah Bay.
At dusk, they were looking for sandbars on which to pitch tents and camp.
McLean remembers waking up one night to the sound of the lapping water, then feeling a damp sensation seep into his sleeping bag later. The group did not know they were close enough to the ocean to know the tides. To make matters worse, two of the three canoes had taken off. Dickson and Robert grabbed flashlights and miraculously found one canoe downstream, then the other.
LAUNCH PREPARATION FROM THE DISEMBARK OF THE ORRUM BOAT
The river had a constant flow due to heavy rains earlier in the spring and winter. A week ago the river would have been dangerous to paddle, Garner says.
“It still flows like it did a thousand years ago,” he adds.
Paddlers should always call ahead to find out about river conditions, Garner warns.
Park staff have occasional calls for lost paddlers and drownings. The river is largely free of downed trees, thanks to a rigging program in North Carolina that cleaned up the river after Hurricanes Matthew and Florence.
Still, paddlers should be aware of the dangers underwater and be careful not to get distracted or get lost in the backwaters, which are ancient river beds bypassed by the main channel over time.
Garner says the upper portion of the river was designated as North Carolina’s first recreational water trail in 1978 and the lower portion was designated as a canoe trail in 1981.
“Having the national and state designation of being naturally wild and scenic is pretty impressive,” Garner says. “It is the only blackwater river in North Carolina with this designation. This river attracts a small number of paddlers who just want to mark this river on their checklist. It also has a rich history and many recreational opportunities. It is peaceful and beautiful.
HISTORY OF THE LUMBER RIVER
It is believed that the American Indians colonized the river about 20,000 years ago. Four hundred and twenty-nine archaeological sites have been listed in Robeson County, according to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System website. The earliest artefacts include a canoe estimated to be 1,025 years old.
The river takes its name from the extensive logging operations that created a large-scale economy for the settlers. In the early days of the nascent lumber industry, logs were floated to Georgetown, a distance of about 75 miles. The men who tended the log rafts would have brought them back on foot or on horseback to the area if the water flow was too strong for paddling.
Boardman, located on the river where US 74 crosses the Columbus-Robeson line, was home to the Butters Lumber Company, creating one of the most prosperous communities in the area. Forest trams ran throughout the region leading to the sawmills. The 20 mile rail platform leading to Fair Bluff can still be seen in many sections.
CALM PADDLE THROUGH NATURE
Today’s 11 mile paddle is easy; there is enough flow for the boats to move forward on their own. The morning freshness gives way to a warmer day with a little wind. The trees are just starting to turn green and a few red buds and dogwoods are showing color.
It’s a silent paddle, except for our conversation. We scare the same group of wood ducks out of the water half a dozen times. There are few signs of civilization except for an area where there are a few cabins and an abandoned school bus left to rust long ago. There is a RV and RV campground a few miles upriver from Princess Ann off Macedonia Church Road in Columbus County.
Lunch is a few hours down the river on a small piece of sandy land owned by conservation.
Nature calls us and we stretch our legs and back. Lunn asks Garner to demonstrate his ability to call for warblers, small common birds along the river.
The Superintendent of Garner Park is an accomplished “phisher”. Phishing is the art of attracting birds with a repetitive, raucous call. While we have lunch, Garner wows our little troop as he leans back and starts to hook. Within seconds, three curious if not slightly agitated warblers are perched in a small tree above him.
Garner, the warbler whisperer, smiles as if to admit he’s pretty good at it.
The only motorized boat of the day, a jon boat, comes with three people. They politely slow down to minimize the wake, then take off towards Fair Bluff.
An elevated piece of land belonging to the Conservancy is a good place for lunch. Despite a morning spent on the river, it is difficult to take your eyes off it.
We can start to hear traffic heading for Myrtle Beach on NC 904 when a small dark cloud approaches and the bottom falls for about 10 minutes. McLean and I put on raincoats, but the other guys were paddling through. The sun is coming back quickly.
We know we are nearing the end of our three hours of paddling when we see the Fair Bluff River Walk. We stop at the North Carolina Wildlife Commission landing stage at Fair Bluff, throw water from the canoes and load them onto the transporter who will take them back to Princess Ann for a trip another day.