When you set out to kayak the historic Haw River on an excursion set up for you by someone else, it’s hard to suppress speculative thoughts about your blind date and wonder how it will all turn out. This was on our minds as we drove past an entering Alamance County road sign earlier this year on our way to the Haw River Canoe & Kayak Company at Saxapahaw, North Carolina.
A leisurely drive along Swepsonville-Saxapahaw Road parallels the Haw and suggests a hint of our forthcoming adventure. A tough bridge built for hard times stands over massive, craggy, dark gray rocks, chiseled into the river bottom by the waters bonding the town of Saxapahaw to the earth and the history of this area.
On arrival, we could see adventurers struggling to sandwich their watercraft among the rocks around the Saxapahaw bridge. But we never foresaw when we left here, our memories would bear an indelible imprint of this place as Aramanche, a place where Native Americans saw water flow through blue clay.
Unplug to Reconnect
A fluid calm permeates the room when Joe Jacob talks, a placidity like the flat water nature invokes above a nearby dam, as he answers our pre-adventure questions at his Haw River Canoe & Kayak Company. A marine biologist by education, Joe spent 20 years with the Nature Conservancy kayaking around the lower 48 states and Alaska while focusing on marine ecology.
Hooking people up with the rapid running waters is what Joe has been doing for years. As our group of eight, mostly baby boomer-types from all over the United States, gathers to embark on Joe’s For The Adventurer excursion, one of us asks, “How adventurous is it?”
“Oh, it’s a calm two-hour paddle,” interjects Matt, our guide for the day. Joe’s river naturalist-guides, a team attired equally in blue, project his on-the-water, weathered look, and an indomitable enthusiasm for tackling running waters. And like Joe, they exude an unsurprising oneness with nature.
But if you ask Joe what he wants people to get out of this experience, he blurts out, “I want them to unplug and reconnect.”
His response is enough to make one wonder, “Is that what humans have been doing here over the years?”
Geography Displays A Violent History
When you cast your eyes out over the Haw, you see tranquil and rapid running waters, deep cuts into riverbanks and tree lines, and evidence of the dominating torrential waters that have run for millennia along this 110-mile river down to the Cape Fear basin near the Atlantic coast.
Matt leads our group up the river beyond a nearby dam to a fleet of kayaks cinched to a tie station. “You can see the water is pretty calm today,” he says. “We’re at 42,000 cubic feet per second right now, but the flow was 242,000 CFS just a few days ago during the heavy rains.”
One look around and it’s easy to grasp what he’s talking about. The current river level is a good 10 feet below where we stand. And the high watermark is more than 10 feet above us.
During our safety briefing, Matt tells us to stay away from the nearby dam waterfalls and watch out for fallen trees laying just below the surface of the river. Combining the two in the river can be deadly.
Waterfalls below a dam can spell disaster because gravity can create a vortex pulling boaters under for their last ride. Fallen trees can trigger their ejection into rapid waters. The good news for us is we won’t face the hard running waters on our trip.
After our briefing, we’re off. Placid, thick, olive green water caresses our paddles — it’s impossible to see the river bottom. This makes sense. Lakes create the green algae. Along the Haw, dams create the lakes.
Is this how we unplug and reconnect? Is this what happened here with those who came before us?
Step into A River and Back into History
Matt paddles his standup paddleboard alongside our group filling us in on geographic and historic details about the Haw. Eagles, hawks, and seabirds fly by us as we course along the river.
It seems significance around here stems from the history that oozes from the land and the water. Matt tells us how the lives of generations of Indians and later, European colonists, are bound up in this river.
Dr. William Vincent, historian for Alamance County affirms this and tells us, “It was the presence of the river here that drew the early settlers into the local community.”
Long before Europeans set foot in America, Indians traversed The Great Trading Path from Chester County, PA, along the Shenandoah Mountains roughly to where I-81 and route 220 meet near Danville, Virginia, today. From there, settlers found their way into North Carolina along the Haw.
Adventurous white traders exchanged European goods for pelts with Indians along the path and tributaries across the Appalachians during the late 1600s and early 1700s. But this practical arrangement between the traders and the Indians didn’t last long.
Overcrowding in port cities like Philadelphia during the 1700s, impelled settlers to pull up stakes and follow the path to the fertile bottomlands cleared by the Sissipahaw and other Eastern Siouan peoples living along the Haw. Colonial settlements squeezed out American Indians, who found themselves in conflicting alliances with the British, French, colonists, and one another in squabbles over land and food sources.
Amid conflict and colonization, a silent, deadly enemy chipped away at the Native Americans. They had no immunity to European diseases — smallpox, chickenpox, influenza, and the measles. By the late 1700s, their populations were wiped out in the Piedmont-Blue Ridge region.
While the Haw was central to the lives of Native Americans and settlers, it appears cultural accord was elusive because of these various threats.
Did the settlers find collegial harmony along the Haw?
Dr. Vincent tells us colonists moved along The Great Trading Path settling in communities as separate ethnic — German, Irish, English — and distinct religious groups — Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Lutherans.
“Harmony is a more modern concept than what would be prevalent during that time frame,” stated Dr. Vincent. “[The] Scotch Irish Presbyterians built towns on the eastern side of river. Germans did so on the western side, and the English and Irish Quakers occupied the southern part of the Haw of what is Alamance County today. There was not a lot of mixture and exchange.”
It seems our jaunt with Matt would be unheard of over the past three centuries.
From Dams to Modernity
We have generations of dam builders to thank for our recreational use of the Haw today. Matt tells us we’re on a level-1 run, guide-speak for the placid lake portion of our trip.
Land clearing back in 1700s and 1800s led to topsoil runoff into the river, depleting the rich bottomland critical to farming. Enterprising settlers turned to the river for hydropower by building dams.
The dams led to lakes along the Haw. In fact, by 1850, there were so many dams along Haw there were no free-flowing sections in the river.
Dr. Vincent says, “The river determined the placement of the early mills and that affected the demography. Gristmills later became saw or textile mills because they needed water power from the river.” Towns like Saxapahaw sprung up along the river because of the mills.
Dams are great for eagles and osprey looking for their next catch. And humans seeking flood control solutions and hydroelectric power love them as a natural source of renewable energy.
But Matt tells us there’s a downside to dams: still waters represent a loss for paddlers who enjoy moving waters and rapids. And dams have a negative effect on water quality and aquatic life. They stifle temperature differentiation and cut off fish spawning. Shad and sturgeon were a primary food source for the area until dams prevented their migration for spawning.
The Return of the Whitewater’s
When hydroelectric power began around the 1880s, it seemed dams would dominate the destiny of the river forever. And then the agent of their death was born: railroads.
Mills don’t move. Businesses brought raw materials, such as textiles, to the mills for processing. The advent of the railroads turned the logistics of the mill business model upside down. The river was no longer a lifeline for industry.
Coal became accessible as humans became less dependent on local goods. Hydropower died out along the river by the 1950s, with a few exceptions, leading to a breakdown of existing mills.
The result is a free-flowing river, now offering up to level-III white water rapids in some places. These are the spots where Joe wants you to unplug and reconnect.
A Look Back At Our Time On The Haw
At the end of our jaunt, it became clear our journey along the Haw was more mental than physical. We didn’t forge rapid waters forcing us to focus on our survival. Ours was a journey back in time.
It’s clear we couldn’t unplug and reconnect during the colonial and industrial eras. A sampling of our group reveals some of the reasons.
There’s Arlene and Joel, both Jewish and in their eighties, and from what we can tell, they’ve been adventurers in the great outdoors for decades. They couldn’t have paddled the Haw back in the colonial era because of their age and religious affiliation.
Then there’s Patti, Mary and Grace. Patti and Mary are single baby boomer females. And Grace is a married mom with young children. Their presence on the river by themselves would have been forbidden throughout much of US history.
Then there’s Karla and I, also boomers, and unlikely to have lived long enough back in the day to be on the river.
Beyond the historic differences, there are plenty of reasons to go out on the Haw today.
If you’re a black American or just interested in American history, you’ll visit to have fun and to bask vicariously in the river that was once part of the Underground Railroad. Along this river, Quakers would shepherd slaves from house-to-house, across the Ohio River, and into the free territories in the west.
If you’re a history buff with an archaeological bent, you’ll visit the Haw to find that blue-gray clay the Siouan Indians used as body paint. It was found in Saxapahaw, and the Indians called this clay Aramanche, meaning, a place where water flows through blue clay in Eastern Siouan. Dr. Vincent believes the name Alamance County stems from this word, although some he says, speculate about different origins of the word.
If you’re interested in seismology and history, you’ll be curious about the natural fault line running from this area down to Charleston, S.C., that triggered the Great Charleston Earthquake of 1886. You can see this line on the surface under a little bridge in the nearby village of Glencoe, N.C., along Highway 62.
If you enjoy riding the rapids as an outdoor explorer, you’ll need to visit with Joe Jacob and his team to embark on a Class-III white water adventure. The fault line that runs from Glencoe down toward the Cape Fear river basin features sharp drop-offs triggering the rapid waters adrenaline junkies crave.
Can You Unplug and Reconnect?
It seems Joe is on to something when he tells us to unplug and reconnect. A 2017 study by Project: Time Off, declares the American vacation is a casualty of our work culture. Fifty-five percent of American’s left vacation time on the table at their employers during 2016. This equals $658 million unused vacation days; $223 billion lost in total spending; $1.6 million in total jobs lost; and, $65 billion in lost income.
But you can unplug and reconnect on the Haw River for just a few hours on a weekend, an afternoon, or a short vacation whenever you wish.
Joe was right. But did we fulfill his wish for us?
We found history, tranquility, and communion with others we could not have found on this river 300-years ago. And we found it in the triangle of the Piedmont, near Burlington, N.C., a two-hour drive from the Blue Ridge parkway. This was a worthwhile blind date.
When to Go
You can visit the Haw and Alamance County anytime. But check the weather before you go. Snow and ice may be a challenge during the winter.
What to Do
Paddling trips with the Haw River Canoe & Kayak Company at Saxapahaw, North Carolina include paddle dinners, Owl Prowls, and white water excursions. You can find details about their offerings on their website.
The Haw River Trail is a 70-mile long multi-use trail following the path of the river. Twelve local North Carolina governments run the Haw River Trail Partnership.
Minutes away from the canoe and kayak company, you’ll find the five-star Saxapahaw General Store — a place offering up tasty local beers and foodstuffs. The Haw River Farmhouse Ales brewery is only a few feet away. These are great places to stop after a hardy day on the water.
About a 20-minute drive away in Burlington, North Carolina, you’ll find the Alamance County Historical Museum, at 4777 N.C. Highway 62 South, Burlington, NC 27215, beside the E.M. Holt Elementary School.
How to Get There
Interstate highways and secondary roads crisscross North Carolina.
From I-95, drive west toward the Raleigh-Durham area and take I-40 or I-85 toward Burlington. Look for signs for Saxapahaw.
I-85 runs southerly out of Richmond, Virginia through Durham and westerly to intersect with I-77 at Charlotte. Look for signs for Burlington/Saxapahaw in either direction.
Raleigh-Durham is the nearest international airport.
Links in Alphabetical Order
Alamance County Historical Museum: www.alamancemuseum.org
Alamance County Visitors Bureau: www.visitalamance.com
Haw River Canoe & Kayak Company: hawrivercanoe.com
Haw River Trail: www.thehaw.org
Haw River Farmhouse Ales: hawriverales.com
Saxapahaw General Store: saxgenstore.com