Boats, Birds, and Banjos

Camping, paddling, birding, and making music with friends

We headed to Eastern North Carolina for Spring Break 2021 with our TAXA Cricket camper, our kayaks, and a week of groceries. The weather was terrific; we saw some good birds and played music with friends; we learned some North Carolina history; and we paddled in a beautiful swamp. 


It didn’t take long to attach the roof rack to the truck, then load the boats and hitch up our Cricket. We planned to stop at a sub shop to get lunch for the road, but I had mis-remembered when they opened, and we hit the road sub-less. But a quick stop at a friendly Jimmy John’s in Greensboro fixed that, and we were on our way to Pettigrew State Park. 

As we drove around the Raleigh beltway, I suddenly remembered that our lovely lightweight fancy kayak paddles were safely stashed away. In the garage. At home. Two hours away. Four hours round trip to go back and get them. Sigh. If we turned back, we’d double our driving time and arrive at our campsite at 7pm, far later than I’d like. If we didn’t, well, kayaks aren’t much use without paddles. Then we remembered the REI store a few miles away in Cary, and turned off the highway. It turned out that REI didn’t have many choices, but the nearby Dick’s Sporting Goods had a great selection of reasonably priced paddles. We took the opportunity to enjoy lunch in their parking lot, and were back on the road in well under an hour. 

Pettigrew State Park borders Lake Phelps, a large, shallow pocosin lake in a very remote area of Eastern North Carolina. There is a tiny campground with 13 sites and a bathhouse, no hookups. It was fully booked for Easter weekend, with all but one site taken. The park includes the sites of two colonial plantations. One, Somerset Place, is now a North Carolina State Historic Site, with the original Georgian plantation house and many outbuildings. 

“Originally, this atypical plantation included more than 100,000 densely wooded, mainly swampy acres bordering the five-by-eight mile Lake Phelps, in present-day Washington County. During its 80 years as an active plantation (1785-1865), enslaved persons converted thousands of acres into high yielding fields of rice, corn, oats, wheat, beans, peas, and flax. Meanwhile, enslaved and free millwrights operated sophisticated sawmills that turned out thousands of feet of lumber. By 1860, Somerset Place was one of the Upper South’s largest plantations.”

– from the NC Historic Sites website

We set up the camper and our Quickset Clam screen house — affectionately known as the “yurt” — and got a nice campfire going for the chilly evening. It got into the mid 30s the first couple of nights, so a campfire made it much more enjoyable to hang out. We were both surprised at how warm the yurt was, even on a cold night. Blocking the wind and holding in some heat makes a big difference. We set up our outdoor kitchen inside the yurt, along with chairs, tables, and an outdoor rug. I heated up some pork barbecue for dinner, along with slaw and potato salad and a cold beverage. (No alcohol allowed in state parks. Well, that’s the rule, anyway. I’m certain that everyone follows the rules.) 


There’s a pleasant boardwalk trail through the swampy edges of Lake Phelps, leading to a dock with a swimming area. DF walked out to the benches on the dock to watch the sun rise while I fired up the stove to make coffee. I joined her with the coffee mugs on a cold, clear morning. Later, back in camp, I made a large breakfast of scrambled eggs, potatoes, ham, and cheese, along with toast and raspberry jam. 

We walked over to Somerset Place and toured the site, though we didn’t have time for the formal tour. Like a lot of old Southern historical sites, this one is lovely. Pretty grass, large shade trees, a view of the lake. It’s quiet, and peaceful. I think this tends to reinforce the “Tara” view of the South, the “Lost Cause” and the “Boys Who Wore the Gray” and all that. Pretty Southern belles and their romantic gentlemen farmers, who went off to fight for “freedom.” The reality would have been far different. Hundreds of people, most of them enslaved Africans, worked 12 hour days cutting timber, digging the canals by hand, sawing logs into wood, running the huge farm, and dying in the “hospital” on the property. It would have been brutally hot, buggy, loud, and dangerous. 

The visitors center is in an old “boarding school” building on the site, where the owner’s children were sent to live and study away from the main house. The site does attempt to talk about the history of the enslaved people who were there, which is a welcome addition to the site. They have reconstructed two of the almost 30 slave quarters on the property, and listed the number of people living in them. The informational panels also talk about 80 people taken from West Africa specifically for their knowledge and skill with growing rice. After the Civil War, 

“Nearly all the emancipated black families left the plantation by the end of 1865. The financially crippled owners eventually sold and left the property, never to return. The plantation itself remained functioning through 1945, but it was never profitable without enslaved labor.”

– from the NC Historic Sites website

That can probably be said for most of the colonial plantation system in the U.S.A. The plantations generated huge amounts of wealth for a very small number of people, but only because they weren’t paying their workers. (Not to mention the horrible inhumanity of the entire system, of course.)

It was a sad place with echoes of its people in the land and the forest. 

Later that afternoon we drove down to Washington, NC. Our Old Time banjo playing friend LB lives on the river there. We had contacted her ahead of time to see if she wanted to play some tunes, in our first post-vaccination jam. Another friend was able to join us, and we spent all afternoon playing old time tunes and talking. It did not go unnoticed that the music we play, and the instruments, have a direct connection to the people at Somerset Place, especially the African people who would have been playing the banjo and the fiddle at a gathering or dance in the big house. Much of what we think of as “mountain music” comes from Down East in North Carolina, where different musical traditions from Europe and Africa formed something new. 

Another cold evening in camp, though we skipped the fire and went straight to the heated camper. 


The next morning we walked out to the swimming dock, but the wind-driven waves were almost to the deck and it was bitterly cold. We retreated to camp for coffee and breakfast. 

There are several hiking trails along the shoreline of the lake, and we chose to hike to the “Bee Tree Overlook.” The trail was an old carriage road between the two plantations, and ended at a modern farm field at the edge of the park property. There was a large canal running out from the lake, one of many that had been built for transportation. At one time the owners thought they might be able to drain the entire lake for farming. It was a pleasantly warm morning and the hike was easy (it’s very flat there.) 

After lunch we took our fiddle and banjo over to Somerset Place and sat in the shade and played very old tunes for an hour or two, thinking about the people who had lived there. 

I started a campfire early in the evening, hoping to have a warm spot to hang out until late, but it was very smoky and of course the wind put all that smoke straight inside the camper. I was able to get the fire to calm down a bit and we stayed up a while, looking at the stars. 


As we were breaking camp early Monday morning, DF spotted a large bird in a tree about 100 yards away. With binoculars, it turned into a Great Horned Owl. Then, another one showed up in a branch above it. The second was a fledged juvenile, who then fluttered down to join its parent on the large branch. The adult had a small mammal – maybe a squirrel? – and it proceeded to rip the animal into bite size pieces and feed the juvenile. I had time to get a spotting scope set up so we could get a closer view. About that same time a park service maintenance person was working at the check in station, so I walked over and invited him to view the owls. He was happy to get the chance to see them, as were we.

We had thought to leave late in the morning and stop in Edenton for lunch, but there were no good places to park our truck and camper right downtown, and none of the places we liked appeared to have outdoor seating. So we got an earlier start instead, on the road by 10am. We had to stop at the AutoZone in Edenton to pick up some fuses — I had blown a fuse in the camper that controlled the 12 volt outlet where we plug in the fridge. (Pro tip: the 12v outlet on the kitchen cabinet of the Cricket is only 5 amps. If you plug a phone charger into the 2.1amp USB outlet on the same circuit, there is not enough juice for the fridge and it blows the fuse.) The folks at the store were helpful and everyone was wearing a mask. 

We arrived at Merchants Millpond State Park before noon and checked in at the visitors center. Had camp set up in an hour or so and had an easy lunch in camp. The campground here has about 20 sites, and they are very well spread out. Site 5 was very private, but close to a water spigot and a short walk from the central bathhouse. By the time we walked down to the pond, it was hot — up into the 80s, a far cry from the freezing temps we had a few days earlier. We didn’t have many birds on this walk. I think we’re a week or two early for peak migration. 

I set up our solar panels to top up the batteries. They seem to work pretty well, though I have never had enough time to leave them set up to fully charge the two AGM batteries in the camper. I was getting over 10 amps from direct midday sun, which seems pretty good. I did buy a set of longer extension cables for this trip, but one of them must have a bad connector, because they kept throwing an error message on the solar charge controller. The shorter cords I already had worked fine. OK, the new ones can go back to Amazon. 

We made a fancy dinner in camp, gnocchi with pesto, and sauteed kale with garlic and olive oil. Did I mention that the weather was just perfect all week? We could cook and eat outdoors, and be cleaned up before it got too buggy as the sun set. The only real environmental hazard was the pine pollen that was coming down in waves all over the campground. Everything we own, inside and out, was covered in yellow pollen. 


We slept in until after 8am this morning. This is very unusual for us, but I guess we needed the sleep. We made a quick breakfast of coffee and muesli, and went down to the pond for a paddle. 

Merchant’s Millpond is, as the name implies, an old millpond. There is a dam at the western edge, and the pond is filled with cypress and tupelo trees. It’s like paddling in the forest, or maybe Jurassic Park. The water is black and mostly still. The park maintains a launch area with a small parking lot near the dam. In pre-COVID times, they also rented canoes.

We had a nice 3 hour paddle, then came back to camp for lunch and to hang out during the hottest part of the afternoon. We were trying to figure out a bird we had seen. I thought it might be a yellow throated warbler, and played its call on my phone. DF confirmed that’s what it was, and I put the phone down. But the call kept sounding. I checked the phone, it was off. More bird calls. Finally realized it was a live bird, sitting just outside the yurt, responding to the bird call I had played. We also saw parula warblers, lots of blue gray gnatcatchers, all the different woodpeckers, and many large turtles. 

At 5pm we drove back to the put-in and walked around the dam, looking for birds. We found a few, but the most interesting sight was the river herring, milling around by the thousands just below the dam. There is a fish ladder, but we couldn’t see any herring using it. The herring catch used to be a big deal years ago, and it looks like they still come back in the spring. 


Another, longer paddle today, but we got a much earlier start. On the water shortly after 8:30. We found more birds, including an adult bald eagle sitting on a nest in a large pine tree on the north bank of the pond. The earlier start gave us better light, and made me wish I had brought a “real” camera for the first time this trip. 

After lunch we went over to the visitors center and played some tunes in the shade nearby. (I think that’s nicer than playing in camp and bothering other campers. I wouldn’t want someone playing their radio loud enough for me to hear it in camp.) We had been playing for half an hour or so when a park ranger came strolling over. DF immediately stopped playing, in the middle of the tune, assuming we were getting thrown out. The ranger turned out to be an old time music fan, and a good guitar player as well. I grabbed my little Recording King out of the car and he played a couple of tunes with us, and also noodled around with some excellent flatpicking. We had a great conversation about music, jams, and artists we admire. He has a brother who lives near us, and I hope we’ll see him again at our weekly old time jam back home. 


We were up, packed, and ready to roll by 9am. We had an easy drive home, with a stop in Zebulon for gas and Bojangles biscuits. Got home midafternoon and unloaded everything all over the garage. My job over the next few days will be to clean all the gear and put it away.