Sea Kayaking On NC’s Bear Creek Reservoir

Picturesquely nestled in the Appa-lachian mountains near Cullowhee, North Carolina, Bear Creek Reservoir has become one of our favorite sea kayaking destinations.

A breathtaking waterfall beckons the adventurous from its eastern end, and we’ve observed all kinds of wildlife including a variety of ducks, raptors, and one intrepid mud turtle. It’s surrounded by rolling peaks that sweep up directly from the water’s edge, pacifying the curious visitor with their tranquility.

Agile, quiet, and swift, touring kayaks sit low in the water. By minimizing the separation between man and the environment, they provide an intimate way to experience the outdoors from water level.

We gratefully crawl from the trusty Outback wagon and stretch off an hour’s drive from Asheville. This isn’t our first time here and it looks like we have the place all to ourselves again.

Well, scratch that. A fluffy pup is shuffling across the gravel parking lot towards us, dragging along something dark and unfamiliar. As his longer-legged companion gangles awkwardly around us we realize the pooch has commandeered a discarded fish head. It’s a large one and confirms what we’ve heard about the notable trout fishing.

It’s midmorning and Steve Thompson deftly lifts one of the fiberglass boats from the rack of his car. He’s powerfully built like a Sherman tank with Tevas, and manages the transfer with one hand. If need be, Steve could punch his way through a brick wall and come out grinning on the other side.

Steve handles marketing for the Nantahala Outdoor Center’s Asheville store, and has been paddling all kinds of boats since his childhood days in Panama. So when he offers a tidbit of advice, we try to soak it up.

“The wind today will make your stern want to swing around,” he says. “The paddling will be easier when we’re facing into it on the way back.” This peculiarity is called “weathercocking” and is an old nautical term.

Steve goes on to explain how the design of a sea kayak makes it act a lot like a weather vane, with the axis just in front of the cockpit. This generally makes them more predictable to maneuver. It is indeed a blustery day, but the water looks fairly calm and we decide to just see how it goes. Soon we will realize that we’re unknowingly standing in the wind shadow of the ridge behind us.

Getting in and out of these elongated crafts is a skill that takes some getting used to. A helping hand from shore never hurts, but eventually one figures out how to balance a foot down in the center of the cockpit and gingerly slip your legs inside. A spray skirt encircles your waist and fits snugly around the curled lip of the cockpit.

Make sure the web loop on your skirt is accessible, so you can peel it off in case of a turn over. The dimensions feel somewhat restrictive at first, but actually offer vastly more leg room than a whitewater boat. It doesn’t take long for even us long-legged bean poles to get comfortable with the space.

Rich Boyer and I crack a few jokes as we paddle away from the public boat ramp. However, as we enter the main body of the lake it’s like moving out from the eye of a gale. Within a few hundred yards all conversation is forgotten and we’re individually struggling with a perfect stormy tail wind.

Rolling whitecaps cover the lake and an occasional gust rips off the top of one, sending a swirl of mist thirty feet in the air. All three of us have had some recent open ocean experience with waves, and these are much smaller, but the wind is a different story.

Even with my rudder cranked all the way over, I still have to paddle furiously on the right side to keep in a straight line. Steve’s warning about weather vanes is driven home with prejudice. “Was that small craft warning meant for us?” I holler over to Rich, hoping for a bit of levity.

“Dude, I think it was meant specifically for us!” he smiles back. Rich can always be counted on to keep a straight head no matter what the situation. My friends and I would never claim to be the sharpest knives in the drawer, but we know when we’re whooped. The conference to turn back is quick and unanimous.

While capsizing in such conditions would certainly be a challenge, we have no serious doubts about safety. We’re well prepared with close-fitting layers of synthetic clothing, neoprene gloves, and of course life jackets.

With practice, an open water rescue proves to be fairly manageable, especially with partners steadying your boat from either side. You finagle and shimmy your way back into the cockpit and then empty the boat of water with a hand bilge pump. But this is a cold spring day, and the thought of fighting the wind all the way back is depressing to boot. We mirthfully hug the shore and cove hop back to the launch ramp.

Bear Lake has shown us several personalities to date. One ethereal morning, a thin layer of fog covered the water. It curled behind Steve’s boat like jet wash in the early light. More recently we enjoyed a placid afternoon when the water surface was smooth as glass. A low ceiling of overcast reflected back color from the new spring foliage, giving the water an unusually vivid green tint.

That day was Cheryl Kirby’s first time to this reservoir. “Wow, now this is a lake I could swim!” she gushes. An avid long distance swimmer, Cheryl is hypercritical about water quality, making this remark a rare compliment.

Our friend Andrea Leslie is also paddling with us this day. Knowing she is a biologist for the NC Division of Water Quality, I ask a couple questions. “The watershed for this lake is mostly national forest land,” she says. “Runoff is almost always the biggest source of pollution and there really aren’t any major highways, developments, or industrial sites upstream from here. And not a lot of significant agriculture or construction which could deliver sediment in the runoff.”
I learn that farming can also introduce phosphorous and nitrogen into the streams. Elevated levels of these minerals flowing into reservoirs may promote larger than normal amounts of algae growth, thereby reducing clarity. The unspoiled water of Bear Lake shows little evidence from any of these factors.

“This thing keeps turning to the right.” I toss out the comment in hopes that Steve would have a quick solution, but Andrea cuts him off. “Maybe your butt cheeks are out of balance?” She and Cheryl share a chuckle over that one.

Sensing an impending double team from the women, I crank a couple hard strokes to give myself some distance. Even fully loaded these boats are fast, but they’re practically empty for this day trip and will really fly. I gain a couple lengths on them quickly and spare myself any advanced teasing.

Touring kayaks are not only fast but will also carry an enormous volume of gear. This past winter we put this to the test with a four-day camping trip to Caper’s Island near Charleston. Not only did we have tents, sleeping bags, food, and assorted creature comforts, but also fresh water for the entire stay. Later on, we were happy to discover that an impressive quantity of red wine had snuck on board as well.

The boats soaked it all up with a wee bit of room to spare. In general, you can pack in a touch more than a camping trip with a full size backpack. And since the weight doesn’t go on your back, it’s easy to justify luxuries that wouldn’t even be considered if you were on foot.

Most designs place waterproof compartments in front of and behind the cockpit. Webbing straps and fastex buckles hold their lids securely in place against rubber seals that keep moisture out. I have found the term “waterproof” is actually very relative. A few drips always seem to find their way in, so it is advisable to either pack your gear in dry bags, or make liberal use of plastic trash bags.

These two compartments will slurp up the bulk of your gear. For balance, pack the heaviest items against your back in the rear compartment, and lighter gear such as clothing out towards either end. Elastic straps on the decking are convenient for keeping water bottles, sunscreen, and other goodies conveniently within reach.

Alternatives for various hull materials and features are only as limited as your bank account. The most commonly seen boats are made from plastic. These are very rugged and the friendliest to your wallet. They are also the heaviest choice and therefore noticeably more strenuous to paddle. The next step up is fiberglass. It’s significantly lighter than plastic but requires more diligence around oyster beds and the like to keep it free from damage.

For a few weeks this year I was privileged to have the use of a kevlar boat. It was so light that even I could almost one hand it off the roof rack, but the price tag mocked my fiscal reality.

Jimmy Buffet describes the time he spends sailing and living on the water as “hydrotherapy.” Most anyone who spends a quiet occasion enjoying a lake will understand what he means by that term. Hours spent gazing out over the bow of a kayak give me welcome opportunity to contemplate the world, and appreciate the wonder of existence. All I ask for is the company of good friends, pristine surroundings, and a boat to get me there.

The Nantahala Outdoor Center offers a variety of tour boat rentals and guiding. Steve can be reached there at 828/232-0110. Mark and Cheryl plan to marry this summer. They live in Asheville.


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