Seventeen rivers flow through North Carolina, and while each has its unique characteristics and attractions, for a paddler, the Roanoke has to be near the top of the list.

The Roanoke is 410 miles long, with its headwaters in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. But from aptly named Roanoke Rapids to the coast, roughly half of the river calls North Carolina home.

In 1996, individuals from five counties bordering the river began with a dream of sharing the wealth of history and resources the river provides. Then next year,  they formed the non-profit Roanoke River Partners.

One of the group’s first projects, the Roanoke River Paddle Trail, was a huge success. According to the group’s website, more than 1,200 visitors stay overnight on the trail each year. The overnight stays are something unique to the endeavor.

The Roanoke River Partners were responsible for the construction of 16 camping platforms placed throughout the basin. The furthest upriver is at the Tusca Landing near Halifax — a screened-in platform and an open camping platform in the middle of a bend in the river. Two other camping platforms are between Halifax and Williamston.

Once you pass through Williamston, the Roanoke takes a new persona. Surrounded by low-lying swampland, and is fed by many tributaries and rivers such as the Cashie, a northern branch that joins the Roanoke just upstream from Albemarle Sound.

If you look for campsites along the river, you will find few. However, if you paddle into the swamps you will locate platforms such as the Beaver Lodge and Beaver Tail, 25-by-16 campsites joined by an 80-foot bridge hovering over the water. Just as the name implies, be prepared for the explosion from a passing beaver’s tail as it slams the water. 

Each platform has its own character and blends into the environment beautifully. But the paddle trail is not all about camping. The Roanoke holds many more treasures.

Birdwatchers delight in the different species attracted to the river, and the silence of a stealthy canoe or kayak can put you in close range of the many feathered friends. Typical birds such as herons and various ducks and other waterfowl are abundant. If you are fortunate, you may even spot some of the great raptors such as osprey and bald eagles.

Along with beavers, river otters, nutria and muskrats may swim by. Raccoons and opossum call the river home. Especially on the Cashie portion of the paddling trail, black bears may be seen. It is recommended during overnight stays to adhere to special rules regarding the potential presence of bear. Whitetail deer are abundant in the area also.

Of course, the river is not all about what is above the surface. It is considered one of the nation’s premiere striped bass fisheries during the spring spawning run. Extreme care should be taken by paddlers from the middle of April to the middle of May as boaters will fill the river in search of stripers. Both American and hickory shad also spawn upriver and are the prime source of food for the stripers.

A true adventure living on the river on an overnight float trip does not require a lot of fishing tackle. A basic hook, line and bobber with crickets or earthworms can provide all the panfish you need for a meal. Largemouth bass can also be caught along the river if you know where to look.

Catfish prey on the river-bottom’s inhabitants, and it would be worth your while to toss your line in the water when camping overnight. Be sure to anchor the pole well, as it is possible to hook into a citation-sized trophy.

Hook into a bowfin in the swamps of the lower Roanoke and be prepared for a tremendous fight that will have you think you are fighting a bass of twice the size.

Take a weekend, grab some friends and family and head out on a different trip to remember. The platforms are rented for $25 from the Roanoke River Partners, and reservations and payments can be made at www.RoanokeRiverPartners.org. You can also view the different camping platforms, learn about the habitat in which they are located and get the GPS coordinates to help you find them.