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Legend of the Dam
by Eric Barcley, Contributing Writer - all photos by author

How a Dam Removal Project near Raleigh NC Created a Kayaking Playground

After remaining cool for a majority of the spring, summer-like temperatures showed up in eastern North Carolina this year just around the time that the COVID restrictions were being lifted.

Carolinians from all over flocked to the coast and any other hidden beaches where they could bask in the sun and cool off in the refreshing water that hadn't yet reached late summer bath water temperatures.

One of these little hideaway beaches near the states capital lies along the banks of the Neuse River at a spot where the Milburnie Dam stood for over a century. I was headed back east on a Saturday morning with my Dagger Pegasus on the roof of my car when I decided to stop and play in the small rapids that were created from the removal of the dam in 2017.

The site is now known as Milburnie Falls. The dam removal was a part of an environmental project to restore the natural flow of the Neuse and allow for shad, striped bass, and other fish species to spawn in areas of the river that were previously unreachable.

Like many other dams, Milburnie was also a serious danger to boaters, fishermen, and swimmers, claiming the lives of at least 15 people over the years. Low head dams can create a dangerous hydraulic at the bottom, where strong currents recirculate powerfully enough to trap even the strongest of swimmers. Often, these dams don't look threatening, and it can be a simple mistake for a recreational kayaker to think they can easily paddle over the dam and continue downstream. photo right: Milburnie Falls, Rst. 2017

Low head dams should always be viewed as a mandatory portage. With the dangerous Milburnie dam gone, the Neuse River now flows freely from Raleigh all the way to the Pamlico Sound. And with just the right amount of rain, Milburnie Falls becomes a fun, albeit small, whitewater playground.

When I arrived on that Saturday in early June, I already knew that the water was flowing at an optimal level. The American Whitewater website showed it at 1,230cfs (cubic feet per second), a level I had seen before. Under normal flows, it's down under 300cfs and bony. After too much rain, when it flows at over 3,000cfs, the rapids are washed out entirely. I was there at the right time, and eager to cool off in the fast, free flowing water.

On both sides of the river at Milburnie Falls, there are sandy beaches where people lay out, grill, and enjoy the fellowship of good company. A pedestrian bridge crosses the river and offers access to the Neuse River Greenway Trail, a 27.5 mile long paved trail that is a hot spot for runners, walkers, cyclists, etc. It's easy to see why this hidden gem is such a popular location on a hot, sunny day. I arrived to find sun bathers, tubers, kayakers, and even a photo shoot happening on the bridge. Families on both sides of the river were picnicking, and at least one person was throwing a cast net into the shallow water. photo left: The rapids at Milburne Falls, 1230cfs

Milburnie Falls can be ran as a short downriver run by ferrying across the river to the bank on the North side and hiking with the kayak along a short, rocky trail that allows access to put your boat in above the whitewater features. The rapids are extremely forgiving, and they offer a few waves that can be easily ferried to without having to hike the kayak back upstream. I spent a considerable amount of time surfing in the Pegasus, and thought a lot about how Milburnie would be an excellent spot to practice whitewater SUP as well. The surfing opportunities are really the highlight of Milburnie Falls, as it's easy to get right back to the waves after being pushed off. I remained upright during my Milburnie session, but there's plenty of opportunity to either roll (something I've yet to be able to successfully do with the Pegasus), re-mount, or swim to the bank if you were to capsize while moving through the rapids.

The Milburnie Dam may not have been removed with the intentions of creating whitewater features, but other dams have been. All across the country, dam removal projects have taken place that have resulted in the creation of a whitewater park. As of 2015, Iowa had three whitewater parks that were created from dam removal projects.
photo right: ruins of the old dam

The idea of taking a dangerous dam that is no longer in use, and creating a recreational hub that improves the overall quality and safety of the river is something that so many communities are starting to realize is achievable with the right help and direction, and in some cases it is cheaper to remove the dam than to continue to maintain it. The "River Restoration Movement" as I've heard it called is bringing many rivers back to their natural state, allowing fishes to once again migrate to locations that they haven't reached in decades, and in some cases centuries. The fact that the Milburnie Dam removal happened to create a small whitewater playground just outside of the Raleigh city limits is just an added benefit for us avid kayakers.

About the author: Avid kayaker Eric Barcley has written for TopKayaker since 2018. He favors ocean kayaking and paddling in up to class 3 whitewater. A resident of Greenville North Carolina Eric works for the Operations Engineering organization at an aircraft manufacturing facility with a background in composite fabrication for the aerospace industry. Outside of kayaking, he loves fly fishing, mountain biking, running, writing, and building things out of fiberglass, carbon fiber, bamboo, and wood.

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