For Orange Co. residents: University Lake off Jones Ferry Rd. and Cane Creek Reservoir off Hwy. 54. Open weekends only, these hold the water supply for Chapel Hill and Carrboro. A fairly reasonable fee is charged for Orange Co. residents, but for nonresidents it rises north of ten bucks. Your kayak must be inspected by the lake staff before you put it in the water to prevent the spread of noxious invasive plants.
Lake Crabtree off Aviation Parkway near RDU Airport. Good birds are seen on the water and in the park’s surrounding woods despite the din of I-40 traffic zooming by. Accessible docks for paddlers with physical disabilities.
Jordan Lake—free launch sites are at Farrington Point boat ramps, Robeson Creek boat ramps, Weaver Creek.
Falls Lake—free launch sites are at Upper Barton Creek boat ramp, Eno River boat ramp.
Numerous other launch sites at Jordan and Falls charge a fee in summer months.
NOTE: I strongly suggest buying a good-quality waterproof map of Jordan and Falls lakes (REI, Great Outdoor Provision Co, Townsend and Bertram) to help you locate launch sites and understand topography.
Also, if you’re really hooked, buy Paul Ferguson’s superb “Paddling Eastern North Carolina.” Be sure to get the third edition, with many updates, published this year.
Robertson Millpond, Wake Co.: a delightful pocket cypress swamp, now a county park. A marked paddle trail twists through bald cypress; water may be too low at times to complete the passage. Best in spring and fall.
Beaverdam Lake, off Hwy. 50, Wake Forest. This lake is a small arm of Falls Lake where motorboats are not allowed. Peaceful. Eagles, Ospreys, and Great Blue Herons are likely to be seen. There are picnic shelters and a bathroom. An entry fee is charged during summer.
Weaver Creek, Jordan Lake, is on the south side of Pea Ridge Rd where it intersects with Beaver Creek Road. This small lake arm, cut off by a causeway from the main lake, is a good safe place to take beginners or to demo boats, because motorboats are not allowed. Entrance is off Beaver Creek Rd.
The old hydro dam on the Haw River at Saxapahaw backs up a four-mile pool of quiet water with good scenery and nice side channels to explore. Put in at a small town park next to the Boy Scout cabin (off Swepsonville-Saxapahaw Rd.) Afterward go get food and a brew at the Eddy Pub in the hoppin’ former mill village of Saxapahaw. You’ll know you’re cool! Important safety note: STAY AWAY FROM THE DAM. Do not go paddling here following heavy rains that raise water levels and flow. Quiet water can become very dangerous whitewater. Low head dams can be deadly.
The Scuppernong River in Washington Co. is a very scenic, intimate, easy blackwater river flowing out of Lake Phelps down to the town of Columbia on the Albemarle Sound. Get on the river at a Wildlife Commission boat ramp called Spruill’s Bridge on Main Street outside of the town of Creswell (exit 558 off Hwy 64). There’s no discernible current in normal conditions. Paddle upstream, then back down, or vice versa. Camp at nearby Pettigrew State Park.
Horseshoe Lake, aka Suggs Millpond, in Bladen Co. southeast of Fayetteville is a natural wonderland. It’s a rare water-filled Carolina bay (a mysterious landform) and abounds with acres and acres of large insect-eating pitcher plants and native orchids growing on floating bog mats. The black water and its shores also support other carnivorous plants plus Atlantic white cedar, pond cypress and more. The Nature Conservancy acquired Horseshoe Lake and later transferred it to the state for preservation. Best in April and May, a two-hour drive from Chapel Hill. Easy paddling.