Several years ago I was riding my bike down Covered Bridge Road on the outskirts of Clayton — can't recall the circumstances but it might have been as part of the first Frostbite Tour — when I saw a homemade sign along the road: "Neuse Adventures."
"Canoe and kayak rentals"? Out here?
I tucked the information into a deep mental file cabinet, then apparently stuffed it deep behind several other adventures. Finally, last month in time for Father's Day, it resurfaced and I got the chance to find out what kind of canoe and kayak adventures were to be had in Clayton.
Ah, a happy, sunny day on the Neuse.
"You doing trips on Father's Day?" I asked after dialing 553.3295.
"I'm sure we can," said the accommodating woman on the other end of the line, who later identified herself as Sherry House, wife of Johnny House, who pretty much runs the operation.
The Houses live on a family farm off Covered Bridge Road just east of the Neuse as it rolls past Clayton. About five years ago, Johnny got the idea to rent canoes and kayaks as a sideline to his day job at Progress Energy. At the time, there weren't many, if any, outfitters running the Neuse below Anderson Point down to Smithfield. It seemed like a good opportunity.
And Johnny says it has been. Though he'll rent boats year-round, his peak season is April through October. During the summer, he'll do evening trips weekdays between 6 and 8 p.m. on a short, two-hour stretch of the Neuse from just above Covered Bridge down to NC 42. Weekends he also runs a five-hour trip, from Poole Road down to NC 42. He's got four canoes, eight double kayaks and two single kayaks. Prices start at $30 for a one-person kayak on the two-hour trip up to $80 for a canoe on the five-hour journey. If you've got your own boat, he also provides shuttle service starting at $15.
This riffle is about as rough as it gets on the Neuse between Poole Road and Covered Bridge Road.
Hana and I were feeling adventurous, so we opted for a canoe on the five-hour trip. Gorgeous day, dry, temperature around 80. The river was a little low, but entirely navigable if you followed the channel. Johnny dropped us off at Poole Road around 10 a.m. "I'll meet you at 3 at NC 42. If you're early, call the cell and I'll come get you."
I'd never run this stretch of the Neuse. Upstream, I've section paddled from the Falls dam down to Anderson Point; downstream, I'd done a section through Cliffs of the Neuse State Park. This was virgin territory.
And, it turned out, a nice, novice paddle. We encountered maybe a handful of riffles along the way, one of which we pulled over and scouted just for fun. The Neuse is still small and narrow enough, for the most part, that there's good, protective canopy overhead on a hot summer's day. And several sizable boulders along the way make for good picnic spots.
Take your pick of picnic areas.
1. A family of four taking a walk down the middle of the river. They'd "put in" at Auburn-Knightdale Road, were taking out at Mial Plantation Road. "It's a good way to spend the day with the family," the dad said as we floated past.
2. Roy Rogers. OK, maybe he wasn't Roy Rogers. But when we pulled over to scout the riffle, we were surveying our option when a voice from up on the bank softly yelled, "Hello!" We turned to see an older gentleman giving a wave. "I'm out for my health walk."
"You've got a trail up there?"
"I've got 26 acres," he yelled back, again, softly. "I walk about 45 minutes a day." It was then that I noticed the holster packing a big — comically big — pistol. For snakes, I guessed. Hoped.
We chatted for a few minutes about the river, that he and his son used to paddle it years ago. "Well," he said, apparently ready to resume his health walk, "have a good trip."
Along about 2:30 I started looking for the landmarks Johnny House told us would precede the river-left takeout at NC 42. "You'll pass under four bridges," Johnny told us (or was it five?), "then keep an eye out for the golf course on your right. Just after that, you'll see a waterfall. The take-out will be about 15 minutes downstream."
I saw none of the above. I tried to pretend that a flat, somewhat open area on the high banks above might be home to a golf course, I tried my best to picture a runoff pipe as a waterfall. Finally, around 3, we came upon a bridge, either our fifth or sixth, I'd lost count. "This must be it," I told Hana. Johnny told us it was a rough take out. But this was really rough. I glanced around the boat for rope and rappelling equipment that would help us hoist the boat — a 15-foot aluminum Grumman — up the bank.
"Before we take out, let me just run up to the road and make sure we're in the right place," I said to Hana. I scurried up the bank, reached the road, looked west for a road sign, looked east for a — hey! Is that — ? Yup, 200 yards up the road was Johnny's place. We were at Covered Bridge Road; we still had a good hour and a half to get to NC 42. We must have been enjoying the river a lot more than I realized, I thought, trying to reconcile the time difference. I also realized Johnny probably didn't want to be making a pick-up around supper. I reached into the dry bag and grabbed my cell.
"Uh, Johnny ... ?" Fortunately, Johnny's very flexible about where he'll pick you up.