I had purposed in my mind to spend the winter outside, no matter how cold, gloomy, rainy, or dreary. There are, after all, excellent benefits to getting outside during the cold weather months.There are almost no bugs, particularly mosquitos and ticks, which are thick here in eastern North Carolina in warmer months. There is less overgrowth to make our way through when hiking. And, the threat of animals is far less as many are tucked away until spring.
Jones County, lying just a few miles northwest of my home, is largely agricultural, its southeastern end comprised almost entirely of forest, specifically the Croatan National Forest and nearby Hoffman Forest. It is a pass-through on the map for many, on their way into Jacksonville of Onslow County, a military hub, or the beaches of the Crystal Coast in Carteret County, each with such differing personalities but sharing one well-protected natural treasure.
The White Oak River, which the Algonquian Indians knew as the Weetock, touches the three counties and actually forms a portion of their border. Western Carteret County is separated from Onslow County to the southwest by the 48 mile blackwater river. Traveling inland along the river, Carteret turns into Jones County, until the gap of the river closes and Jones and Onslow meet.
The White Oak and the 160,000 acre Croatan Forest, which hides much of the waterway from the rest of world, is currently my favorite getaway spot of all three counties.
As you drive north along HWY 58 from Emerald Isle, about two minutes after crossing into Jones County, a left and then a right will take you down a long forest road to Haywood Landing, a quiet, forested boat launch with a large parking area and bathrooms. I used to bring the kids out here to play along the riverbank trails, to make chalk pastels of the moss hanging thick from the cypress, pines and oak, to craft fairy furniture for a hollowed-out tree on the water’s edge, to try our hand at fishing, to run, to discover, to be outside our typical daily limits, to be free.
It was years of living so nearby before I ever put my kayak in here. I don’t know why I waited so long to round that bend beyond the launch. Perhaps I thought it wasn’t meant for me, it’s beauty and secrets saved only for the most serious fishermen and locals. Whatever the reason, once I did I couldn’t get enough. The exquisite silence, the completely untouched raw beauty…is breathtaking. The impression that you have an entire body of water and forest to yourself, except for the animals who call it home. The space in which to be quiet, to reverent, to be in awe…it’s something you want to come back to again and again. And again. So I took the kids, and we spent late fall exploring the river by kayak.
After late December’s incident on the water, however, we took to admiring the mostly quiet river from dry land and checking out surrounding features, like the Weetock Trail, nestled between the White Oak to the west, Hwy 58 to the east, Hunter’s Creek to the south, and Holston Creek to the north. The trailhead is just off of HWY 58, almost immediately after making the turn to Haywood Landing. The northern most end is 3.5 miles long and is reminiscent of a western NC hiking trail, with streams, valley and hills along the way. It seems the more populated section, though sparsely at that.
The next section can be accessed from the road near the boat launch or behind the restroom, where it seems to lead deeper into the forest, low-lying and wet at times, with charming foot bridges, and a few glimpses of river at its start. This section is about 3 miles long and comes out at the Long Point forest road. The trail continues for about six more miles in a third section all the way to HWY 58, making something of a horseshoe of the total trail.
A bit further down the highway, near a motocross facility is Dixon Field, another favorite spot. The water access is a shallow entry and the river is considerably more narrow as it moves inland. It winds its way toward Maysville, the knobby knees of old cypress abounding among its nooks and crannies. Beaver dams can be spotted and, if you approach quietly, turtles sunning on fallen logs. I have been told by those who frequent the White Oak and know it much better than I do that alligator, bear and snakes also make themselves known from time to time.
Primitive camping is permissible and the surrounding area is a forest playground. Fallen trees are plentiful, each original in its own design, offering a new challenge from the last. Hollow trees, the rises and dips of the landscape, streams in need of a makeshift bridge, nature art displayed in the intricate design of trees and vines over time.
When the limits are few, the imagination and body are open to possibility, free to reach their full and natural potential. This is what I want, for myself, for my kids. And this is why, on many a winter day, we finished what indoor schoolwork was necessary, layered up and headed outside.
“There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still.” Henry David Thoreau
*These winter outings enabled us to add three counties on the map in our quest to experience each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Part II of Winter Along the White Oak will include more about the Weetock Trail’s longer last leg and a fun get-really-dirty spot my kids love. For more lovely prose on NC waters, I highly suggest UNC professor Bland Simpson’s new book, Little Rivers and Waterway Tales: A Carolinians Eastern Streams.