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Just keep paddling

For the non-motorized traveler, a journey of 75 miles is quite the haul. On foot, by pedal or by paddle, relying on self-propulsion to travel such a distance is a relatively rare experience in the age of the internal combustion engine, and one that requires a good deal of planning to be successful.

To this slightly overweight reporter, with a cigarette addiction, a fairly sedentary job and two years of casual paddling experience on the Pamlico River, the prospect of a 75-mile kayaking trip down the Neuse River was downright daunting.

Yet last week, after a few months of cockamamie conniving with two old friends, that’s exactly what I found myself doing. Setting out from the small town of Seven Springs in Wayne County, our goal was to paddle to New Bern over the course of three days.

Everything we would need, save a few meals and some beers enjoyed at restaurants along the way, would be tightly packed into our kayaks — shelter, food, water, etc. The only thing I decided to leave at home were the smokes, replaced by a steady supply of nicotine gum and transdermal patches.

Setting out the first day from Seven Springs to Kinston, there was a genuine sense of adventure. One of my companions had paddled the whole of the Neuse the year before, from Raleigh to New Bern, and had a fairly good idea what lay in store. But for me and our third companion, the unknown was the only certainty.

Over the course of our three-day sojourn, the natural beauty we encountered was breathtaking. From the thick willows and elder cypress trees lining the shoreline to a vast assortment of wildlife, we had the chance to see the things one gets to see only in the quiet places of the world.

Our animal sightings alone were extensive — blue herons, kingfishers, bald eagles, blue jays, wood ducks, geese, barn owls, grey squirrels, deer, turtles and jumping fish accented our trip with moments of wonder. These natural greetings were mirrored by the friendly hospitality we found at each stop along the way, in Seven Springs, Kinston and even in the middle of nowhere.

On the flip side, however, we also saw the unintentional damage wrought by humans on these quiet places. At nearly every turn, especially in the narrower portions of the Neuse River, deadfall that might otherwise serve as habitats for wildlife instead became berms where trash and refuse accumulated — garbage and a plethora of plastics uncaringly discarded from communities upriver.

From a physical standpoint, the journey was demanding. The first leg of 25 miles left us tired, sore and ready for bed by 8 p.m. The next day, pushing ourselves to roughly 35 miles to cut into the final day’s journey, left us exhausted to the point where it hurt to raise our arms above our heads.

All along the way, our more experienced companion repeatedly offered the simple, yet profound advice: “Just keep paddling.” Following that mantra, we powered through the pain and fatigue, entering a Zen-like state of pushing our bodies to the limit, even when our brains and muscles were screaming for rest.

After hearing him say those words for the 50th time on our second day, we could have easily killed him in the night at the Cow Pen Landing boat ramp that evening. His advice ultimately served us well, however, and will undoubtedly be a source of inspiration for me in other areas of life.

In the grand scheme of the three-day trip, the rewards were great. Each of us came home physically stronger, mentally tougher and spiritually uplifted. We had seen some places that few people in eastern North Carolina can claim to see, and each of us took home a greater appreciation of our region’s waterways. Personally, I haven’t had a smoke for about a week now, and I hope that’s a habit I’ve permanently left behind.

While I thank the patient reader for indulging in my tale, I’ll leave you with this: it doesn’t take a 75-mile, multiday trip on the Neuse River to experience and enjoy some of the same things we did.

Right here in our own back yard, the Tar-Pamlico River and its tributaries offer a rich variety of natural wonders, conveniently accessible in the course of an afternoon. With its beautiful waterways, and convenient options for kayak and paddleboard rentals, Beaufort County is an excellent place to start your own self-propelled adventure.

With the sweltering heat of summer behind us, this fall is a great time to get out on the water and leave the incessant cares of the real world behind, if even just for a few hours. You might just be surprised at how strong you really are. In any case, always remember — “Just keep paddling.”

Matt Debnam is a reporter at the Washington Daily News.