A Community of River Keepers by Elise Wallace

A Community of River Keepers

My very first outdoor trip was on the Catawba river in January 2009. As a freshman in college who had never camped before I signed up for a three day, two night kayak trip. Growing up, camping for my family meant riding around the country in my grandparents forty-five foot motorhome.

I packed all the warm clothing I owned and bought a pair of rubber boots, decorated in camouflage, from Walmart. That was my required waterproof shoe wear. The trip leaders had to launch themselves on top of sheets of ice to break a path to our camping platforms. It rained the second day and I was the final, struggling paddler on the way back to the pickup point on the third day.

From then on, I was hooked on outdoor adventures.

Since that first trip, I’ve paddled whitewater, attended roll clinics and rafted the Upper Gauley River in West Virginia. I fell in love with backpacking and four years after that freezing Catawba River trip, I completed the first 700 southern miles of the Appalachian Trail.

After following a friend’s paddling trip through Patagonia via email updates and pictures, I felt a pull to get back on a river. I decided on a trip down the Yadkin River Trail from West Kerr Scott Damn to High Rock Lake. The trip would cover 125 miles over 5-7 days. 

Since it had been years since my last paddle camping trip, and I was unfamiliar with the Yadkin River, I met with the Riverkeeper, Will. He was kind enough to tell me about the trail, places to camp, and tips on water supply. Unfortunately the Yadkin River is not safe for drinking in this situation. Camping filters are not adequate. I was reminded then, and during my trip, how important the Riverkeeper’s work is —making sure that the drinking water is safe for over 800,000 people is so important.

On October 16th I set out on the Yadkin River Trail at the Tailwater Access. October is a wonderful time of year for a trip like this. The mornings and evenings are cool, sometimes cold, but in the afternoon when the sun is directly above the river it is warm.

At the end of the first day, after the Clingman Road access, in the town of Ronda, I scouted for a place to camp. During this time of year, the water level is low. At times I had to drag my boat over shallow riverbed and the banks are made of squishy mud that has been sitting under water all summer, only recently exposed.

I wanted to find a wooded, secluded section of bank to camp to accommodate my hammock, there there are plenty of trees and it doesn’t leave a footprint or require me to disturb the ground. I tacked back and forth across the river searching for a spot to camp.

Since the water level was low, every spot I noticed required that I climb a few feet up the bank. Smooth brown mud rose to meet green underbrush before flattening out to more solid ground. Each time I reached the bank and stepped out of my boat, the silty, smooth mud enveloped my foot, then my ankle, up to my knee if I had continued putting weight down. Finding a bank that would support my weight proved difficult. I eventually pulled into an eddy and used a tree as my dock. I was able to set up camp next to a harvested corn field.

Campsites were something that I tried to plan into my route as best as possible. It is difficult, but important to find a designated campsite that lines up with your mileage goals for each day. I was not always able to find a park or make it to an access point before setting up camp.

The relationship between paddlers, landowners and the Riverkeeper rolled through my mind during those five days. I understand and respect the No Trespassing and Private Property signs nailed into trees and hung on docks along the Yadkin River. Landowners are an important part of protecting the river.

The recreational aspect of any natural resource is also a valuable aspect of protection. The Yadkin River is not only a source of drinking water, and a resource for industry but a beautiful and valuable resource for recreation. Whether fishing, or kayak camping, or swimming or visiting a park along the banks, people of the Yadkin River Basin interact with the river.

I watched the TEDx talk that Will Scott gave at the Cary Academy (see earlier Riverkeeper blog entry) back in 2016. He points out that we think of ourselves as North Carolinians, or living in Wilkes County, or Winston-Salem, but we don’t think of ourselves as a part of the Yadkin River Basin.

After five days on the Yadkin River I realized that most of my company were Blue Herons, raccoons, turtles and herds of cows. The few people I saw and waved to, were fishing, or sitting in their backyards enjoying the sunset river view. I felt aware of and in touch with a major natural resource less than an hour from my home. A resource that provides my drinking water. 

I’d recommend a paddling trip on the Yadkin, but I have difficulty recommending a complete trip of the trail. I found myself caught between the desire to respect land ownership and paddling etiquette with the schedule of my trip.

I started thinking about my time on the Appalachian Trail and the ecosystem of relationships that surrounds the trail. Trail angels leave their magic throughout the 2,200 mile long trail. I found oranges hanging in trees and took meals at homes along the trail. People offered rides and opened their homes to support my journey.

I wondered, could a group of landowners, people who support the recreational relationship with the Yadkin River, similarly show their support?

I envision a future trip, on the Yadkin Trail that includes connecting with such people. A network of landowners that open lines of communication for paddlers to request a campsite for a night. Having the opportunity to meet and speak with community members that steward the land closest to the Yadkin River would only make this paddling experience more rich and rewardingly collaborative. I would have been so grateful for the opportunity to include camping permission in my trip planning and conversations with community members in my trip experience.

There are only two people who work in the Riverkeeper’s office. Collaboration is key for the integral work of this office. At the end of the TEDx video, Will encourages the audience, and all of us, to become active citizens of the Yadkin Peedee river basin. Speaking with legislative representatives about bills related to coal ash recycling, or volunteering for a clean-up event — we all have a part to play in the protection of our river. Coming together to experience the river and engage in dialogue surrounding our interactions and connections, that is a part of the Riverkeeper’s work and one in which we can all participate.

I completed the Yadkin River trail, five days after I began. When I share pictures and stories from my trip, I realize that I saw more animals than people. The solitude was rejuvenating. The wildlife I saw is an indication that protection efforts  and the Riverkeeper’s water quality advocation is working. I came back home more centered and calm. I do wish though, that I had conversations with landowners, and experiences with fellow citizens of the Yadkin River Basin to share. I’d like to paddle in the future, amongst a community of river keepers.