ROCKINGHAM — Summer is officially here and people are flocking to Richmond County’s outdoor attractions for cool water recreation — but use of the Pee Dee River and the Hitchcock Creek Blue Trail brings a host of hazards that boaters from near and far should be aware of.
Mari Bennett, owner and operator of LMO Rentals of Rockingham, said while the city is fortunate to have a relatively safe and entertaining place to paddle kayaks at the blue trail, basic water safety should not be ignored.
“When the water’s down, the biggest thing is that you’re going to run into rocks and damage equipment,” she said. “There’s a possibility that wildlife will be seen. They are there, and you might see them more.”
Bennett said the most commonly encountered wild animals on the creek are birds and fish, owls and the occasional deer along with the spiders and snakes that usually stay on the banks. She advises that people should try to keep their kayaks in the center of the creek to avoid both hangups on limbs or other natural debris as well as the wildlife along the banks.
According to Bennett, the rapids of Hitchcock Creek are fun to navigate and mostly benign, but they can still be surprising for boaters if the water is higher than normal.
“There are several rapids along the blue trail,” Bennett said. “The beginning and end of the trail are the most likely areas for people to capsize, because you’re taking this curve at the end maybe a little too sharp and not keeping to the middle. And at the very start you’re just getting your water legs. The biggest thing is to have your equipment correct and know what you’re paddling with.”
She said a kayak should be the right size for the one paddling it, that people should wear a life jacket and that they should have protective gear for any belongings such as cell phones.
“Longer kayaks and tandem kayaks on some of the curves tend to be a little harder to maneuver and therefore people tend to get stuck or they may even flip over. For a single person, 8-foot through 12-foot is about as large as we go. If you are in a sit-on yak and it capsizes or flips over, you can flip it back over and hop right back on. If you are in a sit-in — and some people are more comfortable with that — and it flips over, then you’re talking about having to drain the whole unit.”
Her tips for having a successful outing on the blue trail include making sure you are with at least one other person or a group of people, stick with the people you are kayaking with and make sure that everyone in the group stays safe.
Rockingham Fire Chief Harold Isler said that another component of water safety many people fail to consider is proper hydration — even while on the water.
“Kayakers should know their limitations,” he said. “If you are planning to travel the whole trail, make sure you take breaks at each access point, especially during the hot months of June, July and August. Stay hydrated. Kayaking is rigorous and people may not realize they are dehydrated. That can be an emergency on it’s own.”
Isler recommends kayakers who are unfamiliar with Hitchcock Creek should consult the maps located at every access point while they stop to rest.
“The city planner, John Massey, has been a tremendous help to us in numbering those points,” he said. “People call and we ask, ‘What marker are you at?’ This is especially true as we get people coming from other counties and areas. John’s put a lot of hours into that and I commend him for a job well done.”
Isler agreed with Bennett that kayaking alone is a bad idea, and urged people to stay in groups of at least two or more people in case anyone runs into trouble.
“You could have an emergency and no phone and potentially be stuck out there for days,” he said. “And also you need a life jacket. It doesn’t take much water to drown. When that water is up, that creek moves pretty swift, pretty fast. I’ve seen it up to the (Steel Street) bridge. When the water gets that high then we might have to perform a swift-water rescue.”
Isler indicated that cell phones should be fully charged and kept dry when paddling or tubing the blue trail because when people underestimate the distance or the velocity of travel along the creek, and it gets dark before they finish their trip, a phone call can mean the difference in keeping a cool head and losing it to panic.
“Make sure you get to an access point before night fall,” he said. “If you just look at that map and stay mindful and it is getting close to dark, go ahead and call 911 for assistance and tell us what marker you are at and we’ll come get you out.”
People who are inexperienced at paddling a kayak are at greater risk for getting into trouble on the water, according to Isler, but there is plenty of safe fun to be had for those who familiarize themselves with the surroundings and remain mindful of water levels and changing conditions.
“We haven’t really had any real big emergencies up there,” he said. “I think the worst thing was someone slipped on a rock one time and broke an ankle. I hope we don’t have to go back up there. But as more and more people find out about the blue trail and come from out of town, the more rescues we are potentially going to have. That’s where 911 comes in. We are here to help.”
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin. Visit the Richmond County Daily Journal’s Facebook Page for a video clip of Bennett kayaking the blue trail while offering safety tips.