The Inland Paddler: New Places, New Perspectives

This time of year, it’s easy for me to not see the forest for the trees.  In other words, I get so focused on the Big Race of the Year and or paddling the same place workout after workout that I forget to look around and take in the scenery. To remember why I paddle in the first place – to be outside.  To see things, things most people don’t ever see.

So, that’s why it wasn’t so hard for Sarah to twist my arm and get me to join her group for a 22-mile paddle down the Tar River, from Greenville, NC to Washington, NC. this past Sunday. Even though I know that a long-distance paddle before a long-distance race isn’t necessary, isn’t particularly effective or isn’t necessarily smart.

I was lured by the opportunity to see a new place.

And to paddle somewhere other than my local lake, which frankly, since I have been training there since December, is getting just a little tired.

The Tar River. Doesn’t sound especially inviting, does it? But it has a rich, important history.

The headwaters of the Tar originate in the Piedmont of North Carolina, in one of the rural counties above Raleigh and Durham and it flows 215 miles to the southeast, where it eventually meets and becomes the Pamlico River, right about at Washington – the original Washington, residents there are quick to point out. This Beaufort County (oh and that’s Bow-fort, not Bee-you-fert) riverfront town was established in 1776 and is actually the first city to be named after our country’s first president.

According to many historians, the origin of the river’s name comes from the tar barges that use to carry pitch down the river – as part of eastern North Carolina’s early naval stores industry.  It doesn’t come from the river’s color, even though it is a dark tea color, especially after good rain. Naval stores were important to North Carolina’s early economy, from lumber for ship building to the pine sap used to make tar for caulking and turpentine.  As I paddled, it wasn’t hard to imagine these barges making their way downstream with barrels of cargo. Many of these vessels were pole barges…wherein the helmsman and his crew would push and pull the barges along via the use of long poles.

You see where I am going with this.


Standup on the Tar is nothing new.

And neither is my canoe. Canoeing in dugouts has been going on on the Tar for hundred of years.


This early 1800’s specimen was pulled from the river upstream near Louisburg in 2001 and historians believe this and another pontoon like it were lashed together to create a river-going cargo carrier.  So, a cousin perhaps to my Puakea Ehukai outrigger. I think it is safe to say I probably am the first person to pilot a contemporary Hawaiian outrigger down the river.  Judging from the looks we got from passing fishermen, the four paddleboards and one OC must’ve been a sight.

The Grimesland bridge is built on the site of one of the country's earliest river ferries, and on the highest "bluff" above Washington
The Grimesland bridge is built on the site of one of the country’s earliest river ferries, and on the highest “bluff” above Washington

The river and its importance to carrying forest and farm products across this part of North Carolina caught the attention of the early legislature, which in 1784 ordered the river be cleared of all obstructions to make the river more navigable. The Tar River Navigation Company was the result of that action and the company worked mostly above Greenville to build a series of locks and dams.

There was a time when steamers, ferries and even a submarine were common sites on the Tar.


But now, at least in the area between Greenville and Washington, fishing boats and the occasional ski or wake boarder boat is about all you’ll see.


Oh, and with kayaks and canoes, drawn to the river’s natural and remote beauty and the availability of paddle-in platform camping.

Aquatic life is extremely diverse in the Tar-Pamlico river basin and it is home to a wide variety of freshwater mussels, including the endangered Tar River spinymussel.


We saw herons and we heard plenty of other birdlife too  – including kingfishers and maybe even a pileated woodpecker. It was a bit cooler than it has been so there were a few turtles but no other reptiles.  I was grateful for that when, stupidly reaching around to fetch something out of my drybag, I huli’d or flipped the OC over.

I guess I now have the dubious distinction of being the first person to huli in the Tar River.

Like many rivers that were once important to commerce and thus find large towns and cities on their riverbanks, there’s trash. I’ve seen more trash on other rivers, sure, but we paddled with plenty of plastic bottles, and lots of styrofoam flotsam and jetsam that once were cheap grocery store coolers. We picked up what we could…fortunately this day we did not find a fridge, like Sarah did a year or two ago. And yes, she hauled that thing out.

The river was high and fast – from the recent rain.

Because of that deep tea color, and the overcast, seeing submerged obstacles was difficult, especially for me, sitting down.  In hindsight, the OC might not have been the best choice for this paddle. Next time I’ll go standup so as not to risk damaging the canoe. If the river level had been lower, I probably would have been in trouble.

Ending the 4:26 paddle in the historic town of Washington was fun.  One of the things I love about paddles like this is seeing a town or city from the water, from a different view point.  It’s why I love the Chucktown race, because you get to see the glory of that city’s waterfront from the water. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Washington, but it was very cool to see her from the water, in much the way her early residents and settlers would have. I was intrigued by a boathouse that appeared to be abandoned right on the riverfront which sported a worn sign – “Pamlico Rowing Club.” Thoughts of renovation popped into my head.

We took out at the boat ramp next to an inviting “summer in ENC” kind of restaurant called Backwater Jack’s, but since we had to shuttle 30 minutes back to the put-in at Greenville Town Commons, we skipped the urge for sweet potato fries and loaded our gear up.  We headed straight to SUPDogs, a Greenville and East Carolina University staple with the most appropriate name.


I finished the 22-mile paddle tired but feeling regenerated and confident for Chattajack.  But more importantly, I have a new appreciation of the Tar, and with confirmations that Eastern North Carolina -with its iconic waterways- is a wonderful place to explore.