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Paddling Through History

By Patty Langer

In perhaps my favorite assignment to date for Southport Magazine, I was excited to participate in a “Historical Kayak Tour of Rice Creek” offered through the Adventure Kayak Company of Southport. It was a terrific way to spend a cool September morning, paddling along a gentle, forest-lined waterway while learning a bit of local history from guest speaker Bob Surridge of the Southport Historical Society.

The Adventure Begins

Adventure Kayak Company was founded by owner Emma Thomas 23 years ago. With a background in Parks and Recreation and a love of the outdoors, she pivoted into business ownership by purchasing 12 kayaks and a trailer. Emma decided to give her plan a try for one year. Needless to say, it was a good year! As kayaking became increasingly popular with outdoor enthusiasts, Emma’s business grew alongside the trend. Today, Adventure Kayak has a large fleet of kayaks and employs eight part-time guides who run kayak tours several times a week, from March through December. In the off months, Emma plans kayak trips to warmer locations.

Adventure Kayak has something for everyone, whether you are a beginner looking to test the waters, or an advanced kayaker looking to explore more difficult locations.

“I took these tours to see if kayaking would be something I would enjoy as a pastime,” said Steve Montgomery, an Oak Island resident on his second tour with Adventure Kayak.

The great thing about taking a guided tour as a beginner, Emma says, is that the guides are knowledgeable about the water they take kayakers into.

“They know where to go, what to look for, and what to avoid. Guides can cater tours to the experience level of their customers.”

Emma went on to explain how the diversity of environments in our part of North Carolina make it possible to offer tours with many different feels to them. Whether you prefer to be floating through the woods on a freshwater stream or exploring the tall grasses of a salt marsh, Adventure Kayak has a tour for that. And you never know what you’ll see on the water.

“Every day can be so different,” Emma said. “I enjoy the peace, serenity, and calm that nature provides; it’s a totally different perspective. And I am always in awe of what shows up!”

In addition to the Rice Creek tour, Adventure Kayak runs regular tours on Town Creek in Winnabow, the Davis Canal in Oak Island, and tours to Sheep’s Island and Montgomery Slough (both at the west end of Oak Island). The company will also do private tours for small groups. And coming soon, Emma will add Kayak Yoga trips, where people can kayak over to an island, then participate in a yoga class on land.

“It’s another way to connect with nature,” said Emma, once again tapping into a popular wellness trend.

Adventure Kayak also offers bike tours in Southport about once a month, for those who prefer to remain on dry land.

Rice Creek – A Natural Beauty

Rice Creek is a tributary of the Cape Fear River that runs into Town Creek to the north and Morris Creek to the south. It is a wide, slow moving, black water creek that winds its way through an undeveloped forest of cypress, beech, and pine trees. Much of the forest is part of a nature conservancy and remains unspoiled. The waterway itself, which is monitored by the NC Wildlife Commission, is calm enough for beginners, while the scenic wilderness makes it an enjoyable paddle for all levels.

Our access site was a public boat ramp located at 797 Gordon Lewis Drive, SE in Winnabow, not far off U.S. 17. Our tour took us to the right from the launch site, along a narrower stretch that flows toward Mill Creek; heading left is a wider route that leads to Town Creek.

Before hitting the water, we were given a brief safety lesson on things like how to properly adjust your lifejacket and how to get in and out of a kayak without falling into the water. Although most of the group had kayaked before, we appreciated some basic paddling tips:

“Reach past your toes with the paddle, then pull like a knife spreading peanut butter, not like an ice cream scoop” Emma demonstrated. She also advised us to “look out and up” to spot wildlife, including turtles, owls, pileated woodpeckers, herons and ibis.

“And avoid low hanging limbs.”

At that point, I felt my nerves begin to rattle. Despite my love of nature, I was really, really worried about snakes falling out of tree branches or alligators bumping into my kayak. Feeling anxious, I expressed my fear to our guides.

“In 23 years doing these tours, I have only seen snakes twice, and they did not drop onto any kayaks. And we hardly ever see alligators.”

I was relieved, until she continued:

“We tell kayakers not to paddle under the trees here mostly because there can be wasp nests.”


But there was no need to worry, for even the narrow stretches of Rice Creek are wide enough to avoid low-hanging limbs. I did not encounter any snakes, alligators, or even wasps. I did see a very cute yellow-bellied turtle sunning himself on a log, a few splashing fish, several different bird species, and lots of beautiful dragonflies. We learned from Emma that dragonflies are the only insect that can fly forward, backward, up and down. Their amazing aeronautical skills were actually studied in the development of the federal government’s Osprey helicopter.

Both Emma and our other guide, Vicky Muffley, offered interesting insights along our route. Vicky, who has been with Adventure Kayak for a few years, said she loves being on the water and sharing the beauty of nature with so many people.

“It’s great to see all the positive reactions people have when they come here. And it’s not a bad day at the office!” she joked.

Adventure Kayak limits the size of the tour groups so that everyone can hear the guides, as they share facts about the wildlife, the water, the local plant life and trees. Cypress trees are the highlight of the Rice Creek tour. Tall and imposing, many of the cypress trees lining this creek are hundreds of years old. We learned that cypress trees release tannins into the water, which accounts for its dark brown color. The tannins also repel bugs and mosquitoes, which I wish I had known before I doused myself in Deep Woods Off! We also learned that cypress trees have “knees,” or knobby shoots that form around the trunk to provide extra oxygen to the tree.

I was surprised to hear that the Spanish Moss hanging from the cypress branches is not actually moss; it’s an air plant that does not take any nutrients from the trees. Back in the early days of automobile production, the Ford Company used Spanish moss in the cushions of its first cars, until there was an incident with bugs, resulting in the first auto recall!

As knowledgeable as our guides where, they were often quiet, letting us hear the sounds of birds chirping in the trees, crickets humming in the grasses, fish plopping to the surface, and paddles gently stroking the water. Floating along effortlessly, we were treated to the visual delights of early morning sunlight sparkling like diamonds on the water and puffy white clouds floating across a Carolina blue sky, set off by the lush greenery of the forest.

Floating History Class

In a nifty add-on arranged by Adventure Kayak Co, Bob Surridge, VP of the Southport Historical Society, joined our tour to provide a lesson on the “Royal Governors of NC.”

As our group reached a wide clearing after about 30 minutes of paddling, Emma instructed us to form a semi-circle in order to hear Surridge speak. The first thing I learned was that it’s incredibly hard to keep a kayak stationary in moving water! I had to suppress my giggles watching everyone (myself included) try to look inconspicuous while struggling to keep from floating backward or sideways or under a branch!

During the reign of King Charles II (The Merry Monarch), Surridge began, land grants in America were given to eight of the wealthiest and most influential men in England, resulting in the Carolina Charter of 1663. The new colonies were ruled by “Lord Proprietors.” Years later, during the reign of King George II in 1729, these American colonies were “royalized” and henceforth ruled by men called “Royal Governors.” While required to pledge full allegiance to the King of England, their salaries were dependent on the colonial assemblies, which as we know in hindsight, created an impossible conflict of interest.

George Burrington was both a “propriety Governor” in North Carolina and then its first “Royal Governor.” He was equally unpopular in both roles. In 1733 Burrington was replaced by his most vocal detractor, Nathaniel Rice (of Rice Creek fame), who served as interim governor until Gabriel Johnston (of Fort Johnston fame) was appointed in 1734. In all, North Carolina had five Royal Governors until the Revolutionary War ended England’s sovereignty.

Listening to Surridge’s story while floating in this beautiful, undisturbed natural setting, I felt as if I had paddled back in time. I can honestly say that I never enjoyed a history lesson so much!

“I enjoy learning the histories of different places and I wanted to take another paddle. This tour was a perfect combination,” fellow paddler Steve Montgomery said.

All Good Things Must Come to an End …. Just Not Yet!

Our tour was scheduled to be 1.5 hours, but we lingered on the water a while longer, as no one was ready for the trip to end. There was something so peaceful, so calming about this place. So different from the wide-open sandy beaches of Oak Island or the bustling streets of Southport. We had paddled just a few miles, but with Emma and Bob, we were transported to another world and another time.

Montgomery echoed my sentiments, saying, “I am always amazed that you can be near a busy highway and still feel lost in nature. “

Adventure Kayak’s next “Paddle Through History” tour will take kayakers to Sheep’s Island on Oct. 25 at 10 am. To see a full schedule of weekly tours, visit, or call 910-454-0607.


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