Have you ever driven past a certain body of water—possibly for years—without giving it much thought? Maybe you’re a whitewater paddler and this hypothetical waterbody you’ve ignored is a lake, coastal inlet, or flatwater river that’s on your weekday commute. You never really considered it something worth paddling. Until one day, you glance out the window and wonder, why have I never paddled that?
This spring, the pandemic caused canceled trips, the closing of popular access points, and gateway communities grew concerned about incoming visitors. Many paddlers began searching for options closer to home.
Some are lucky to live in a paddling hub with plenty of world-class options, like Asheville, North Carolina, Salida, Colorado or White Salmon, Washington. Others, like me, have never been so lucky. Living far from your favorite paddling trips can require creativity to get some afternoon strokes. Never one to stop looking for places to paddle, here are a few tricks I’ve learned to find, or rather see the potential for, new paddling spots.
Driving into Bladen County, I catch my first glimpse of why I’ve come. Brief gaps in dense vegetation reveal the inky blue waters of mysterious lakes that have baffled observers for centuries.
At Singletary Lake, I park and walk toward a small clearing. When viewed from ground level, Carolina bays look like typical lakes. A few scientists in the 1800s noticed they were unusually round, but most folks dismissed them as regular wetlands. Locals suggested whale wallows from biblical floods. Then, in the 1930s, the invention of aerial photography revealed a different story.
Hundreds of elliptical depressions pockmarked the coastal plain. Some Carolina bays were bigger, some smaller. A few overlapped others. Most had been altered by agriculture or were filled with swampy vegetation. Others were encircled by sandy rims and brimming with open water. Each pointed the same direction, with long axes running northwest to southeast. In the black and white photos of the day, they looked like craters on the moon.
“The treasure has been found,” wrote Forrest Fenn, in a June 6 post on a popular site dedicated to the ever-widening search for the eccentric collector’s storied cache. A brief 100 words offered an anticlimactic ending to a controversial hunt that spanned the Rocky Mountains across four states.
In 2009, the retired Santa Fe, NM, antiquities collector claimed he hid a treasure worth around $2 million. Fenn published a book with a poem containing nine clues leading to the spot. Over the next decade, thousands of amateur sleuths joined an increasingly chaotic chase, which led to dozens of rescues and five known deaths.
In a Santa Fe New Mexican article on June 7, Fenn stated the successful searcher was a man from “back East” who wished to remain anonymous. He’d confirmed the discovery by sending a photo to Fenn, who declined to share the photo for the article.
Meanwhile, skeptical observers wondered about a hoax. Perhaps Fenn retrieved the treasure himself or there never was a treasure in the first place?
The middle part of this story is the best known. In 1869, a one-armed Civil War major named John Wesley Powell led a ragtag expedition of ten mountain men and ex-soldiers in four wooden rowboats down 1000 miles on the Green and Colorado Rivers. The crew became the first Americans to pass through what was then called Big Canyon. While camped at the Little Colorado River, Powell described it as the “great unknown,” and he later renamed it Grand Canyon.
The three-month trip came with many hardships and exhausting portages. By the time the expedition emerged from the Grand Wash Cliffs, near present-day Lake Mead, there were only six emaciated men in two boats. The three who left the expedition and hiked overland, a few days before, would never be seen again. And the story of this first descent soon became an American legend.
The basics of this adventurous story were all that I knew when I became a raft guide in California at age 20. The details remained scant (other than recognizing Powell really enjoyed topographic descriptions), when I put down his book after 50 dull pages. At the time, running whitewater seemed way more interesting. Years later, I was a transplanted teacher living in St. Louis. When some friends and I began exploring the Powell route with kayaks and rafts, I decided it was time to learn the full story.
Along the way, I discovered a few things. First, if you skip the opening 100 pages of Powell’s book, it gets pretty interesting. Second, Powell had an eventful latter life. After the 1869 river trip, Powell returned for another expedition in 1871-72. He later managed several geographic surveys of the west. He became the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey. He started the Bureau of American Ethnology and recorded many aspects about Native American cultures and languages before the destruction from forced relocation by the U.S. Government. But other than a few books—like Powell of the Colorado by Darrah, Across the Hundredth Meridian by Stegner, and A River Running West by Worster—the early part of Powell’s story is commonly forgotten, despite containing some of his most adventurous episodes.
Fourteen years before plunging into the depths of the great unknown, Powell was a 21-year-old schoolteacher living near Decatur in Central Illinois. He was a transplant from western New York State, by way of southern Wisconsin, where his family had abandoned a 5-year stint as wheat farmers.
Things didn’t look promising. We’d left pavement behind and I was—not exactly driving—sort of skidding my truck through a mud trough in the rain. Up ahead, a soiled hatchback made like wet clay on a pottery wheel and spun around, slogging back toward the interstate.
Most of the year, this was a dirt road through the recently designated San Rafael Swell Recreation Area. But heavy rain had been falling for days during one of Utah’s wettest springs on record. Now parts of the Canyonlands region looked more like Ireland. Other than this road, the rest of the Swell hadn’t received the message. The landscape beyond our windows seemed as dry as ever. Hopefully, we’d actually find a river to paddle.
Over a slow-moving hour, the road descended 1,400 feet in elevation. We first crossed a sloping plateau and then passed beneath colorful buttes and mesas. At the foot of distant cliffs, we spotted a green ribbon of vegetation.
The rain stopped by the time we parked in a nearly empty campground. There were all the curious signs of a place where paddlers sometimes congregated. Two kayak paddles leaned against an information board, which offered mostly staples holding tattered corners of papers long blown away.
Despite it being Friday of Memorial Day weekend, only three sites seemed occupied. But no people. A single tent had fallen onto its side and flapped in the wind. I walked out to the old Swinging Bridge and was relieved to see about 500 CFS of silty gray water racing between sunken banks of the San Rafael River.
The first time I heard a refuge visitor calling for help, it came from the old ferry lake. Following the yells, I walked onto the aluminum fishing pier. Two bewildered college girls sat cross-legged on a floating platform, in the middle of this blackwater inlet of the Waccamaw River.
The platform had come down the river with a flood after Hurricane Florence, and someone had tied it to the pier. Until twenty minutes before, when the girls untied the platform and drifted into the middle of the lake. No paddles. No plan. But they did have a smartphone, and they were engrossed in a video call with a boy. One girl was bragging about how they were, no joke, stuck on a platform in the center of a random lake.
The sun was a diffuse glow behind gray clouds, and the whole scene felt pretty typical for the Refuge of Lowered Expectations. So, I pulled out my phone to document the encounter.
“He’s taking photos of us,” said one girl proudly, and the other posed.
“Not much happens here,” I shouted. “This is too good to pass up.”
The first time I spotted a sign for Awendaw Creek was a few years before we finally paddled there. We were doing what most visitors do in this part of South Carolina’s Low Country, zipping 70 mph down Highway 17 through a box canyon of longleaf pine trees.
We were passing through Francis Marion National Forest, on our way to check out one of the oldest historic districts in the U.S., founded in 1670 by King Charles II. While the region between Georgetown and Charleston was definitely scenic, with matchstick pines, cypress swamps, and blackwater rivers, we didn’t think about stopping along the way.
The ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic has made bustling cities like New York resemble ghost towns. Social distancing has shut national parks and turned tropical paradises into forbidden islands. But instead of dreaming about canceled trips, why not learn about some strange places that have always been forbidden?
Turns out there’s been an actual ghost town (that’s North Brother Island, by the way) within New York City limits for 80 years. And some islands have long been prohibited—for fascinating reasons. While all the places below are restricted in some way, a few can be visited by invitation, seen from afar, or experienced through replicas (once travel restrictions have ended). For now, there’s no time quite like a self-quarantine for descending into the online rabbit hole, where you’ll find plenty of photos and information for a virtual vacation.
A cyclist explores the 47-mile Swamp Fox Passage in South Carolina.
It wasn’t love at first sight with the Swamp Fox Passage. The first
time I stepped foot on the Palmetto Trail in Francis Marion National
Forest, I was chased to my vehicle by a cloud of mosquitos. Half joined
me inside for a slap-happy bloodletting—I mean getaway—along US-17.
the first frost,” suggested the attendant at Steed Creek Ranger
Station. It was almost November, but a hot October had kept biting
insects at summer levels.
Temps came down during the next month, but my wife and I had trips planned through December. We returned in January for a short day-ride on the adjacent Awendaw Passage. It’s a scenic bluff-top trail above a creek, which starts at the Intracoastal Waterway and ends seven miles later at the US-17 trailhead. The ride was mostly flat, muddy in spots, and semi-buggy, yet intriguingly scenic through matchstick pine forest and blackwater wetlands. This convinced me to give the 47-mile Swamp Fox Passage another try.
“We considered it more of a hiking trip,” said the mysterious raft guide.
“We looked at the river as an obstacle to going hiking.”
“Wait,” I said. “Did you just say hiking?”
I was on a long-distance voice call with a veteran Grand Canyon guide
who spent his off-seasons on an island in Southeast Asia. We’d
connected through social media after I read an article about his trip
down the entire John Wesley Powell route, roughly 1,000 miles on the
Green and Colorado Rivers.
The previous February, I’d won a winter Grand Canyon permit. Now I
was in the early stages of planning my own explorations along the entire
Powell route. So far, I’d only glimpsed the route from land. My watery
visions included serenely floating through scenic canyons, endlessly
paddling flatwater, and white-knuckle-navigation through massive rapids.
But now this mysterious lifer, maybe 25 years older than me, was claiming the river-trip-of-a-lifetime was actually all about the hiking?
“Following in Powell’s footsteps, we are rafting 1,000 miles from Wyoming to Nevada,” narrates filmmaker Ben Kraushaar in the trailer for Powell 150. Created by Kraushaar and Cody Perry, the film will document a 72-day river journey through the Colorado River Basin, which retraced the route of Western explorer John Wesley Powell…
Mike: Well, I call it a color-photo narrated paddling guide. Basically, it blends elements of a traditional guidebook, a narrative nonfiction book, and coffee table book. My book offers all the info needed to select and plan the many trips available along the thousand-mile Powell route, plus a few hundred extra miles above and below on the Green and Colorado Rivers. There are dozens of trips, from day trips to multi-day expeditions. Some of these trips are famous while others are barely known to many paddlers. But interwoven throughout the book is an entertaining paddler’s retelling of the 1869 expedition, so that boaters can learn about this dramatic but often funny story of the route while they’re exploring it. And there are many pages of color landscape and action photography, much of my own work, plus some killer shots from some of the top current photographers to explore the route.
High noon on a hot summer afternoon in the Reno suburbs and I’m getting a lot of looks.
It’s probably my odd appearance. Chaco sandals. Sunburned calves. Sky blue board shorts. Bright green paddling shirt with the hoodie pulled over a visor. When combined with a few days of boater stubble and reflective sunglasses, I’ve been told I resemble an aquatic version of the 1980s FBI Unabomber sketch. I’m even clutching a bright orange Watershed drybag like there’s something suspicious inside and not just a camera.
My buddy Cole and I have been receiving a lot of attention for the past two days now, with most gawks coming from passing motorists and bored truckers, bewildered fishermen and surprised riverside residents as we paddled (and increasingly portaged) down the Truckee River. But at this moment, the latest looks seem due to the fact that a paddling mannequin from a local outdoor shop has seemingly come to life and is sauntering through the neighborhood during a heatwave without the river in sight.
How to explore the western rivers and wilderness on the route of legendary explorer John Wesley Powell
You’ve probably heard the story. In 1869, a one-armed Civil War major named John Wesley Powell led a ragtag crew of mountain men and former soldiers 1,000 miles down the Green and Colorado rivers. Their goal was to explore the final “blank spots” on the U.S map, particularly the great unknown of what was then called Big Canyon. Wild rumors reported plunging waterfalls or that the river vanished into the earth.
A Utah outfit’s ode to the best worst shuttle vehicles any river-runner will know
Hi I’m Gary! I’m old and don’t take hills too well … You can only
get in me via the passenger door … Please put a bit of oil in me before
you drive me … I’ve got a nasty little leak.
This handwritten note had caught my eye, posted on a corkboard inside a paddling shop in Vernal, Utah. Presumably authored by a shuttle customer and told from the point of view of her possibly sentient vehicle…
A new narrated paddling guidebook to the Green and Colorado Rivers celebrates the 150th anniversary of the original Powell expedition by combining the dramatic story of 1869 with color landscape photos and trip planning info. In this interview,author, photographer, and boater Mike Bezemek shares how it all came together—including how he lugged a small library down the river in a Watershed drybag.
Why is a 150-year-old expedition route still relevant today? Why should people care about this story?
Well, to start, it’s easily one of the greatest adventure
stories in American history. The 1869 Powell expedition was pretty much
the first exploratory whitewater descent ever. A one-armed former Civil
War major turned self-taught geology professor shows up to a sleepy
railroad outpost in Wyoming Territory,hauling four wooden-keeled
rowboats. With a 10-man crew, mostly mountain men and ex-soldiers, they
set off down the Green River with a bunch of flour, some bacon, and
mapping instruments—having never run a rapid.
Along the way, they encountered and named canyon after canyon, many of which are now among the most famous whitewater trips in the Southwest. They were completely unprepared for the trip. They portaged or lined about 100 of the hardest rapids but ran maybe 500 of the easier ones—plus a few hard ones, mostly by accident. Their rations spoiled, their equipment broke, their boats took a beating, and they even sunk one. They thought they could last ten months, map the river course, and hole up through the winter if necessary. But three months later, only six emaciated men wearing tattered rags emerged from what Powell called Grand Canyon. And the story became a legend.
A weekend expedition in the Ozarks leads to a nearly forgotten Wild & Scenic River
The first one caught me off guard. I was staring beyond my kayak deck
at the milky turquoise waters of Big Piney Creek in the Arkansas
Ozarks. Just sort of marveling at the fact it’s here at all — a Class
II-III Wild & Scenic River smack in the middle of the country. A
region, fun fact, also known as the Interior Highlands. After two and
half days driving across the South with my wife (one of which felt like
just crossing through Atlanta), I’d hopped from truck to kayak and
couldn’t believe my luck.
On a Tuesday in mid-May, the lower four-mile run was basically empty. At the rapid below put-in, I’d passed three local playboaters doing the thing playboaters love second-most, which is hang out on shore talking about playboating. After that, it was just white splashy holes, cold blue-green water flowing from limestone springs, and me. Until a black water snake sprinted like a whip across the pool.
I sort of knew what I was searching for and sort of didn’t. After rowing around a bend in the Green River, Rock House Canyon opened dramatically ahead. I tied my raft to shore and walked up a dry creek bed. Above rose buttes and fins of orange-brown rock, part of the Green River Formation. This geologic unit is comprised of crumbly shales and sandstones which were deposited millions of years ago when the region was flooded by the long-gone Lake Uinta.
The cliff faces shone brightly in the morning sun of early August. Somewhere near here was a Fremont Culture petroglyph panel—but I didn’t have any specifics about size, subject matter, or precise location. Also, based on the fresh claw prints in the beachside mud, there might be a nearby bear who shared my interest in rock art and amateur archaeology.
The view was startling. By standing on an old stone wall, in a
clearing just off the gravel shuttle road, Big Piney Creek was visible
far below. It was making one of those photogenic meanders, a nearly
circular 180, like the famous Horseshoe Bend in Arizona. But instead of
slicing sharply into bare sandstone, this sweeping curve was etched over
500 feet deep into the densely vegetated Ozark Mountains, which rolled
endlessly toward the horizon.
Ignoring the shattered beer bottles, crumpled wet wipes, and a tattered condom at my feet—my adventure detective skills suggested the previous visitors possessed a fascinating combination of traits, including drunk but hygienic, okay with littering and sexually responsible—this type of viewpoint was exactly what I’d been searching for. A wide overview of a typical Ozarks watershed to include in my upcoming paddling guide.
Dubbed ‘One River, Many Voices,’ the 1,700-mile, 135-day expedition sought to connect with river canyons and residents along the way
It was September, about a month into the expedition, when Mike and Jenny Fiebig encountered their first challenging whitewater. The rapid was Hells Half Mile in Lodore Canyon on the Green River. And their boat was a custom dory built by Hog Island Boat Works in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and Eddyline Welding in Moab, Utah. The dory had a roto-molded plastic hull, expertly fitted aluminum decking, and one missing feature the Fiebigs were about to experience first-hand: Unlike other boats Mike had rowed during 20 years of raft guiding, this one wasn’t self-bailing.