Somewhere deep in the Three Sisters Swamp of the Black River in North Carolina is a 1675 year-old bald cypress the stuff legends are made of. Scientists have tagged her BLK69, the locals refer to her as Methulsela. And get this - she's probably not the oldest of her kind but she claims the title as the oldest documented tree east of the rockies - and she can only be located by boat.
The Black River Time Machine is a short but truly epic kayakpacking expedition that runs what many call the crown jewel of flat water paddling in North Carolina and over the 37 miles you'll bear witness historic, economic and natural history. From the late 1800's till around 1926 the Black was a major shipping route transporting goods of timber and naval stores on steam powered barges to and from the port of Wilmington into the heart of the North State. The emergence of railroads put an end to the practice and the river has been left to nature to reclaim for nearly 100 years.
Our put in was at a private boat ramp 1.75 miles north of Hwy 41 (See notes + map below for public alternatives) arranged by the good folks at the Friends of Sampson County Waterways who do an excellent job of maintaining the passage. Our late afternoon start only allowed us enough time for a short 8.25 mile hop to our first camp on the west bank just up-river from Wildcat Road.
Aptly named the river gets its dark color from leeching cypress tannins that line the its banks. So dark in fact that much past two-feet from shore or 6 inches from the surface you cant see anything. Its an eerily satisfying paddle thru black coffee and we give it a 4/10 difficulty rating due only to the navigational ambiguity of the Three Sisters section.
Day 2: A wild turkey gobble served as our alarm clock to begin day two which starts off wide but slowly narrows as the canopy increases in height. The day's 16.5 miles also takes you thru the first of the swamps giving you a glimmer of Three Sisters, still a full day down river. Camp for night 2 is a sandy east facing bank which gives you a perfect view of a glorious Carolina sunrise. Evening settled in with the sound of locals making their way to favorite fishing holes and a spring peepers symphony, promptly starting at 8:18 (The Hour of the Frog).
Day 3: 'THE' Black River swamp sneaks up on you as the main channel narrows and becomes less defined and the cypress knobbed banks shallow and then slowly disappear. Welcome to Three Sisters.
The advice we received from multiple sources to get thru the swamp was simply "follow the current" and looking back on the traverse its really the only advice that makes sense because you could likely go one of a thousand-and-one ways, each paddle equally magnificent as the one before. There are dead ends so don't be surprised if you find one or three. Call it beginners luck but we only had to back out of one which costs us less than a half mile of distance and honestly we didn't mind the back-track. It was just as interesting the second time.
In any event trail-blazing thru Three Sisters is not to be rushed under any circumstances. Not only due to her complex navigation but more so to the surreal and magical beauty that lies within. Its almost too much to take it and we were somehow overcome with the sense that we were intruders in time.
Every report of the Black says that its always above flood stage and due to the diligence of the Friends of Sampson County Waterways its appears to be always clear of obstacles and strainers. We were both in Wilderness Systems Tsunami 165's which gave us ample dry storage for food, water and gear. Keep in mind that there are no resupplies on this route, although the water is filterable.
We had the perfect kayaks for 97% of this trip. There were a few times through Three Sisters that a shorter craft would have made some of the tighter turns easier - even a 125 or a 140 in the same line would have saved a few strokes but would have made the load-out much more of a challenge.
The Black River Time Machine is a human curated kayakpacking adventure. Download the guide and you'll have everything you need to repeat this fantastic 3 night kayakpacking trip. Sorry, but we never did find the legendary Methulsela otherwise we'd let you know where she was as well.
GPS locations for your put-in, take out and campsites are included - Free.
JOHN D'AMELIO calls central North Carolina home and is the Executive Editor of kayakpacking.co. Until he can figure out how to paddle full time he works as a freelance designer + writer.
He and his wife of 28 years have 7 children that keep them busy and outdoors.