Where River Meets Lake

An afternoon at water level

By Corbie Hill | Photography by Moriah LeFebvre

First comes the osprey, and it’s caught something. The dark shape in its talons is likely a fish, but it’s too high in the air to see clearly.

Next comes the bald eagle, and it’s hungry, too. “Girls, look!” I say to Sarah, 8, and Lucy, 6 – Lucy, in particular, loves birds. It fascinates her that they evolved from dinosaurs, and she puts extra effort into learning to tell different species apart. As we watch, the two raptors wheel around each other, hundreds of feet above the ground, the bald eagle chasing, and the osprey dodging and wheeling. The smaller bird keeps its catch for as long as we watch.

The weather finally cooperated today for our first canoe outing of the year, exploring where the Haw River widens into Jordan Lake. I want the kids to love this peaceful and gentle form of boating as much as I do, so we take family paddles as often as we can – sometimes swinging several trips a month – hoping to plant those memories deep. But we’ve never seen a show like this bird-of-prey duel.

When they fly out of view, we stop craning our necks, focus back on the water. The Haw broadens as it approaches Jordan Lake and we make for a rocky spot on the bank where Sarah and Lucy want to get out and clamber around. It’s important that my girls grow up as drawn to Chatham’s waters as my wife, Rachel, and I are. See, I’ve paddled the Haw and Jordan Lake for several years now, but Rachel, my wife of over a decade, has me beat. She grew up in Bynum, in an old house near the Haw where her parents still live. The river was always there: She walked her dogs across the pedestrian bridge and explored the Haw’s banks with friends. When the river was in flood, she’d watch its raging waters carry enormous trees downstream. If the water was calm, she’d poke through the decaying Bynum Mill that used to stand on its banks – collapsing floors and walls be damned. When she wasn’t exploring on the river as a curious girl, her family took more traditional outings with their speedboat on Jordan Lake. Simply put, my memories on Chatham’s waterways aren’t as deep as Rachel’s.

But back to the canoeing at hand – the weather is superb, warm enough for shorts, but cool enough to not bake in the North Carolina sun. We put our canoe in at Robeson Creek, one of our go-to paddling spots. Immediately outside of Pittsboro to the east, it’s free, easy and only minutes from our house. It’s also right in the middle of all the different water adventures that Chatham has to offer: Paddle north, and you’re in the rocky waters of the Haw, with gentle rapids and stream fishing; head south, and you can reach the open waters and hidden coves of Jordan Lake; look up, and you may see eagles and ospreys chasing each other around the sky.

The waterways of Chatham can feel like a separate world, but they’re actually among our most accessible natural landscapes. You can get a used canoe for a few hundred bucks, or take a paddling trip with a local outfitter like Haw River Canoe & Kayak Company. Our own boat, a lightweight 16-footer good for either smooth lakes or whitewater, was a Craigslist find.

Experiencing Chatham by water isn’t one story, but many, depending on where you start. Bolder paddlers on the Haw start northwest of Bynum at Chicken Bridge Road, and then paddle down to the Bynum Dam where 15-501 crosses the river. This route takes you through the twists and turns of the most broad and rocky parts of the Haw. We haven’t braved that stretch yet – not with two kids and only one vehicle that can carry a canoe – but Rachel and I have paddled above her hometown’s dam. There, some paddle out with fishing rods, some are serious kayakers and others simply like to spend a few slow hours at water level.

See, I was raised on the coast, and I’m an open water paddler  by nature. I grew up in Pamlico County and could spend hours on wide, still water. But here I have a whitewater canoe, one made for rivers. Chatham has three you can paddle: the Haw, the Rocky River and the Deep River. They don’t have rapids, not the kind that would make our boat sing, but I decide to scratch that itch a little bit by paddling a short distance upstream. We let the kids out again and they jump on river rocks, watching out for copperheads, which thrive in this river. It’s good to let them have a part of this afternoon trip they can call their own, being out of the canoe to explore for a few minutes.

Soon, it dawns on me that Sarah and Lucy are doing exactly what their mother had done decades earlier: jumping from rock to rock in the waters of the Haw. Granted, Rachel never pretended to be a “Harry Potter” character when she was an ’80s kids on this river, but the connection remains. I take a moment to appreciate the sounds of the river, our relative isolation and this simple bond.

Then it is time to go. The girls get back in, we point the bow back downstream and ride the current home. CM

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