In the past 12 years, I’ve paddled the Neuse River at least two dozen times between Falls Dam and Clayton – a slow, muddy ride too mild to spill a drink. The humble Neuse never offered much in the way of thrills, short of a wild turkey flyover or a duck sighting.
The reason for this: Milburnie Dam – a 15-foot wall that turned the river into a bathtub, creating miles of pudding-thick backwater that flowed slower than a mud puddle.
Starting around Buffalo Road, anyone who paddled the Neuse slogged along by muscle-aching inches and endured a 100-yard portage through poison ivy.
But now the dam is knocked to rubble, releasing the Neuse from its long confinement, changing its nature and adding a new layer of fun. Where the dam once stood, boulders form a set of rapids that is among the biggest whitewater in Wake County .
On Tuesday, I watched my friend navigate this new obstacle, lose his paddle in the churning water and spin around backward – the first time the Neuse had ever quickened my pulse.
This shift in character means Raleigh’s sleepy, overlooked river could play a more meaningful role in city life. Neuse greenways have already drawn cyclists and joggers to the Raleigh’s eastern edge. But a faster, friendlier river could add more floating fun-seekers.
Talk of pulling down the century-old dam – the only stop between Falls Lake and Pamlico Sound – has dragged on since 2010. I will confess that until recently, the idea left me skeptical.
The dam may have been an artificial barrier, but it created acres of rich wetlands that are sure to drain once the stopper gets pulled. Also, pulling down Milburnie means drastically lowering water levels above it. In the lake-like waters above the dam, residents have long enjoyed floating docks and pontoon boats – now impossible to use.
I worried that the Neuse, which often runs dry, would turn to a faucet trickle without the dam. I pictured a moonscape with cracked mud – unlikely territory for any of the shad the dam’s destroyers have promised will swim upstream.
But paddling through that area Tuesday, my skepticism faded.
South of Buffalo Road, the river moves fast enough now to put down the paddle and watch kingfishers and herons fly past. No more lake.
I took this trip on nearly the driest day I’ve ever kayaked – close to how it looked in the 2008 drought. For nerds, the Neuse flowed Tuesday at 44 cfs, less than half the recommended minimum, and I could still make the trip without getting out and pulling the boat. No moonscape.
The pontoon boaters are the only losers on a post-dam river, and I feel for them. But the Neuse is more usable now – not less, as many predicted.
I don’t want a crowd on the river, still isolated and undeveloped for much of its run through the city. But I do want our skinny, shallow river to form a bigger piece of Raleigh’s identity. With this barrier gone, we add a new level of outdoor playtime to our flat, land-locked city – a feature exciting enough to need a helmet.