Three of the things I’ve never done: I’d never kayaked on the Catawba River, even though the Catawba River Keeper website links to some of my resources about the river. I had never been to Lansford Canal State Park. I had never seen spider lilies in bloom. All of that was about to change.
I had made some new friends online who frequently paddle the Catawba. From the photos that they had been posting lately, I knew I wanted to get over there. I really wanted to launch from Stumpy Pond and explore some of the flatwater areas of the river. There are the ruins of a ghost town near the Great Falls area, and I really wanted to check those out. However, it’s also peak spider lily season this week. I decided that I should take advantage of the timing to see them, instead.
Lansford Canal is home to one of the largest populations of spider lilies. These flowers are rare, and require lots of sunlight, as well as swift-flowing water and rocky shoals. Wikipedia has this information:
Hymenocallis coronaria requires a swift, shallow, water current and direct sunlight to flourish. The plant grows to about 3 feet (0.9 m) tall and develops from a bulb that lodges in cracks in rocky shoals. It blooms from early May to late June. Each fragrant flower blossom opens overnight and last for one day. They are visited and possibly pollinated by Paratrea plebeja, commonly known as the plebeian sphinx moth, and Battus philenor, the pipevine swallowtail butterfly.
The plant was first observed in 1783 by William Bartram and described as the “odoriferous Pancratium fluitans which almost alone possesses the little rocky islets”. He saw it growing in the Savannah River near Augusta, Georgia.
There were some challenges. First, as a solo paddler I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle a point-to-point paddle that would normally require a shuttle. Secondly, spider lilies require shoals, which mean rapids. I didn’t really know anything about the river, or what that would entail. I didn’t think they would be anything I couldn’t handle, but it would influence the decision as to which boat to take. Finally, the weather was looking iffy.
As for the first two challenges … this is a short paddle, a little over a mile, at most. I could drop off my boat at the put-in, park the car at the take-out, and hike the trail back through the park to the boat. My Perception Torrent would be the perfect boat for such a short trip through unknown rapids. It had been a long time since I’d used it, and it was time to dig it back out. As for the weather, I’ve paddled in the rain before. As long as it wasn’t a lightning storm, or a deluge that raised the water level, I would be OK.
It seems that there is no good way to get from Greenville to Lansford Canal. I could have gone south and cut through Whitmire, or north along I-85. For some reason I chose north. Simply following the GPS, I never had a good feel for where I was once I got past Blackville. Regardless, I found Landsford Canal with no problem. I pulled into the upper entrance to check in with the ranger.
The ranger wasn’t in his office, but there was quite a bit of activity. A local photography club was unloading cameras and gear of all types. It seemed each photographer was burdened with at least two DSLR camera bodies and different lenses, and at least one tripod. Those spider lilies didn’t stand a chance.
I decided to check out the take-out, so I drove on down to the second entrance. The park spans the length of the canal along the river. The take out was near the lower lock. The trail back was clearly marked, but it looked like it might be a haul to get the boat back to the car.
I headed on back to the put-in, and was able to check in with the ranger. He give me directions and instructions so that I wouldn’t miss the take-out. The river path is fairly wide, but the banks are braided with island channels that can be confusing. I unloaded my gear and left it with the ranger, then drove back down to the take-out.
I started the trek back along the trail to the put-in, but first I wanted to take a closer look at the lower lock. One photographer had broken free from the herd and was lining up some interesting shots. I decided to copy him.
The trail continued through the forest along the banks of the river. Surprisingly, there were not many good views of the river from the trail. The islands prevented a view of the main channel, so I wasn’t able to scout rapids from the banks very well. There were other remnants of the old canal. The trail passed through one of the locks, then past an old mill site.
About halfway along the 1.25 mile trail the view opens up. With no island obstructions, there is a clear view across the river to the rocky shoals where the spider lilies take root. This is the prime spot, and the park has constructed a deck. When I arrived, the first of the gaggle of photographers had already set up shop.
The views were incredible. I paused to take a few shots, but I determined to hike back to this spot with my big camera when I was done paddling. Even so, I knew I’d never be able to capture this with any type of camera.
Past the viewing platform I had better views of the river, and could get a feel for what I’d be facing in terms of rapids. So far, it didn’t look too bad.
However, none of these open spots looked out onto the lily fields, and that was causing no small amount of frustration for the lagging photographers who were still coming down the trail. They kept asking me, “Are there really any lilies here?” I told them just to be patient, keep hiking, and they would be rewarded. Many of them looked like they didn’t do much hiking at all.
Finally I reached the other end of the canal, marked by the locks at the upper end.
I could see that my first challenge was going to be the remnants of the old diversion dam that forced water into the canal. It looked like I’d be able to find a better route if I first paddled upstream, then further out into the channel.
When I got back to the put-in I found that others were also leaving their boats. A couple was dropping off theirs so that they could make the hike I’d just made. As I got my gear together for launch two couples asked me if I gave tours of the river. I guess I looked like I knew what I was doing. I had to confess that I’d never been on this river, but I sent them to this website for more information about paddling.
The launch wasn’t ideal. There was a 2-3 foot drop into deep, swift water. I found a place where the current wasn’t quite as strong, and lowered the boat in with a tow line.
From there I followed my plan, heading upstream, then to river left to clear the diversion dam. The water seemed a bit low, which means lots of rocks just under the surface that could snag a boat. I had to pick my way carefully.
I did pretty well negotiating the shoals. Any rock encounters were temporary bumps. Sadly, though, it meant that my attention was constantly on paddling, and I couldn’t take many photos. Also, this whitewater boat spins, so it was difficult to take the time to line up a shot when I could catch the occasional eddy. I was going to have to rely on the GoPro.
Finally I reached the stretch I’d seen from the overlook. Seeing these plants from water level really is spectacular, and is definitely the way to go. The skies were overcast, so I didn’t get any cool lighting, but I enjoyed paddling among the flowers anyway. I pulled into a couple of eddies to take more photos.
Here’s a short video clip of my paddling through the lilies.
The ranger had said that when I saw the observation deck I should make my way river right so that I wouldn’t miss the take-out. The next landing is six miles downstream over flat water, and I wanted neither to paddle that far in a whitewater boat, nor hike that far back to the car. Truth is, though, I didn’t need to get as far over as I did. I paddled down a narrow, shallow channel where I had to avoid some downed trees, when I could have stayed out in the open channel just a bit more.
The actually landing channel was just as narrow, and it was OK, that I had anticipated it. Signs clearly marked the entrance to the proper channel and at the actual take-out. I had a moment of panic where I thought that the first sign was the actual take-out. However, it didn’t look quite right, so I kept going. I second-guessed the decision, thinking I’d have a LONG paddle and hike back if I were wrong. Soon enough, though the actual take-out side loomed ahead.
I dragged the boat out and along the path, but it was the wrong path. I had to pull my boat up and over the lock bridge. Another path I’d scouted earlier led straight to the car. Even though it had been a short paddling trip, I guess I was tired.
I changed into dry clothes, loaded up the boat, and re-hydrated. I switched to my Nikon D7000 with the 200-500mm lens and started hiking back to the overlook. I was really tired, and the hike seemed to take longer. However, once there I got some good shots.
A couple of other kayakers were picking their way through the lilies, taking a very different route than I had. They looked like they had done this before. The kayakers who had left their boats right before me also made their way down.
I had the observation deck to myself. The photographers had all gone. I took a few moments to stretch out on the bench before making the long hike back to the car. By the time I DID get back, I was worn out. I had an aching ankle, and I had hiked further than I had paddled. It was worth it, though.
It was a great trip out to Lansford Canal, It’s an interesting venue, even if the lilies aren’t in bloom. But, you really should visit mid to late May to catch this stretch at its finest. For a solo stretch of paddling with a bit of moving water, it’s hard to beat.