Middle Tennessee Personal Watercraft Club (MTPWC) headed east to the Old Dominion to explore a couple lakes nestled on the Roanoke River: Lake Gaston and Lake Kerr (locally known as Buggs Island Lake). These two beautiful lakes straddle the Virginia/North Carolina state line. Home base for our trip was Americamps located in Bracey, VA just off of I85 and right on the northern shore of Lake Gaston. The accommodations were single room cabins furnished with bunk beds and A/C; that is all we would need, and the folks that ran the campground were extremely nice and accommodating.
Day One: Lake Gaston is over 20,000 acres and 34 miles long, and at its widest point is one and a half miles wide. We launched our skis from the park’s ramp at 9am. “It was gorgeous weather,” chimed in club member David Parker. “80 degrees with low humidity, calm water.” We headed east from the launch ramp with a plan to ride the entire lake end to end. We were not on the water for 10 minutes before we were stopped by the North Carolina DNR (Dept. of Natural Resources). It’s not uncommon for us to get pulled over on group rides – many areas are not accustomed to seeing a large group of PWC riding in tight formation. He gave us a quick rundown of the laws and departed with a “This is your one and only warning.”
We continued our journey looking at the various homes along the shoreline enjoying something new around each sweeping turn. We passed under the Eaton Ferry Road Bridge, continuing east until we arrived at the Gaston Lake Dam located in the small town of Thelma, NC. Built in 1963, it created the lake and is used for power production and flood control. Here we took a short water break. Afterwards we headed back west about a mile to catch a large branch that extends to the north. It was well worth the trip. Passing under several small bridges, we rode until we ran out of water, ending up behind a small farmhouse on a beautiful piece of property.
This was great place to stop and reflect. MTPWC member Tom Hill said, “The water is smooth and warm. Sightseeing is a plus on a new ride and Gaston didn’t disappoint.” Our next stop was lunch at The Pointe in Littleton, NC, a full service marina. We sat outside on the covered bar overlooking the water. The staff and food was welcoming; one thing shocked us: fuel prices where over $2 bucks higher than on land. Club member David Parker asked, “Is there an embargo or something?” After lunch, we backtracked west to our starting point and continued upstream to start covering the western end of the lake. We immediately noticed the river was much narrower here and less populated.
As we came closer to the dam the water was moving at 3 knots. We approached cautiously as you could look down and see large boulders just under the surface; also there was a strong smell of sulfur in the air. We closed in to within 300 hundred feet before calling it close enough. We spent the next hour drifting downstream enjoying the surroundings before returning to the launch ramp. A good ride today with 105 miles under our hulls!
Day Two: We trailered our skis 30 minutes west from our location to the nearest launch ramp on Lake Kerr, affectionately known here as Buggs Island Lake (or as we would later name it Mud Bottom Lake). We arrived at our launch location at North Bend Park in Boydton, VA around 9am. What a difference 24 hours makes. It was an overcast day with temperatures in the mid-70’s with a brisk wind and light rain. However, the ride plan remained the same, ride it to the bitter end!
We headed southwest from the ramp to take in a huge finger that stretched all the way down to Henderson, NC. It was less than perfect water with 2-to-3 foot chop, windy and the water was white capping. We tried to hug the west bank and use it as a wind block, which worked out pretty well. We stopped several times down this branch to let everyone regroup. When we reached a small bridge near the end of the branch, we all had to lay flat on our skis to make passage. We continued on to the other side until up came bubbling mud. We knew we had reach the end.
Going south, we headed back up the branch to the main river channel. Along the way, a rider lost a hand grip so we had to make a stop for repairs. It might not be a big deal for most but he had a prosthetic arm and needs a custom grip for him to be able to hang on. We were able to cut a piece of yoga mat and wrap it around the handle bar end. We secured it with a few tie wraps and we were back underway. (Little did we know this was just the start of his adventurous day.) We proceeded west still dealing with the heavy chop trying now to ride close to the north bank of the river, but it was fruitless, the lake was whipping and there was no escaping.
The ride – although rough – was beautiful. The overcast skies and dark water had an eerie vibe. There weren’t many boats out save a few fishing boats. A DNR officer watched us pass from a distance through binoculars but we heeded their warning from the day earlier and he made no effort to stop us. When we reached the Hwy 58 bridge we knew this was our queue to stop for fuel as there would be no other chance to do so from here until the end, and we did not have enough fuel to get back. We followed the bridge to the north end to Occoneechee Marina. At the state park, shockingly fuel prices weren’t that bad. There we each put in $20 bucks to get us to the end and back to the ramp.
We proceeded upstream to the confluence of the Roanoke and Dan Rivers. It was a tough to find deep water, the rivers were flattened out, almost marsh-like. Later, while talking to a local, he said, “Y’all are lucky. You have to know the river up there!” We took a branch off of the Dan called Flat Creek. We rode it until we reached mud. As we headed back out, continuing up the Dan, we found a really beautiful area that was very narrow and grassy with several choices to make for passage. A few miles farther, once again three of us were high and dry in the Mud! We spent the next thirty minutes freeing the stuck skis from one foot of water and two feet of mud. “Enough of this crap!” we proclaimed and decided to head back downstream to the Hwy 58 bridge.
There we came up on a small town on the south side of the bridge named Clarksville. We were told it was a “must stop” for us. We arrived and tied up our skis to an old wooden dock. From there we walked up a hill into town. It was a quaint little town with a touristy feel to it. The looks we got walking down the street with our riding gear on – many of us quite muddy – were interesting. Locals said Pizza Pub was “the place to go” so that’s where we went. After lunch we hit an ice cream parlor and a souvenir shop. A few of us got Bugg Island Lake shirts and told the locals it should be called Mud Bottom Lake!
From here the plan was to ride back towards the launch ramp, taking in a few of the bigger branches along the way. Up the first branch we went, and once again we landed up in the mud. After freeing several skis, we followed an absolutely beautiful branch called Bluestone Creek back several miles. This is what we lived for and made everything before OK. Passing under an old abandoned railroad bridge with absolutely gorgeous water, we stopped before anyone got stuck in the muck.
Only when we went to leave did one ski decide “enough was enough” and refused to proceed. The battery had died for good! It was becoming late in the day and we thought the best plan of action was for us to tow him back to the ramp about 15 miles away. We made it back to the dock with no further issues; our road trip to the Old Dominion State was coming to a close. Back at the ramp we loaded our skis and discussed the ride: we covered 125 miles that day. “It’s all about the journey with great friends,” Tom concluded. “Exploring the rivers and creeks was fun until you ran out of water.”