The Road Less Paddled

BY Ashley Talley

Something in the unique storied names of the maritime environments around Wrightsville Beach speaks to the experience of kayaking through and around them. Shinn Creek Money Island Lea and Hutaff Islands Banks Channel Whiskey Creek Cactus Island and the Lollipop are whimsical and intriguing appellations. In the same way the places themselves appeal to kayakers who choose to stray from the beaten path and explore the backwaters of the region.

For adventurous paddlers or perhaps just those in need of a quiet respite there is nothing quite like being surrounded by head-high marsh grass rustling on a warm breeze the call of osprey and terns overhead and the methodical dip and rise of a paddle propelling a kayak forward. When the sounds and sights of motorboats and SUVs fade into the calm of a place devoid of man-made noise or structures a true sense of relaxation begins and the creeks channels and waterways around Wrightsville Beach are the perfect places to experience this serenity.

Robert Smith head instructor with Salt Marsh Kayak Company explains why this region is a particularly well-suited place for exploring nature by kayak. “This area [around the] salt marsh systems in North Carolina is considered to be the second most biologically diverse region in North America ” he says. “There’s dramatic diversity in the nearness of different ecosystems: the open ocean the beachfront ecosystem the dune ecosystem the back of the barrier island dune system — which is a transition from dune to salt marsh — and then the salt marsh itself the tidal creek and the maritime forest. You have all these concentrated within a mile of each other and whenever you put that many ecosystems that close together you have real diversity.”

In a very small amount of time kayakers around Wrightsville Beach can experience all these different environments along with the wildlife and natural vegetation native to each. The choice of routes is endless and half the fun of a day’s paddle can be getting lost in an unexplored region of the local waterways the smaller of which often change with tides and environmental shifts.

People who kayak here regularly use words like meander maze and wander to describe the different possible trips and as George Bland of Great Outdoor Provision Company puts it “As far as kayaking Wrightsville Beach goes there are many ways to skin a cat.”

One of the most popular destinations for local paddlers is the 8.4-mile-long Masonboro Island the longest undisturbed barrier island in this area. Stretching between Wrightsville and Carolina beaches the northern end of the island and inlet is a bustling popular weekend destination during the summer for boaters; the waters there are often crowded boisterous and perhaps not so kayak-friendly. But farther south lie miles and miles of undisturbed undeveloped beach and marshland that are easily reached from put-ins on and around Wrightsville Beach offering perfect spots for quiet picnics peaceful camping and simple relaxation.

Paddling down the Intracoastal Waterway or down Banks Channel to the back of the island provides the easiest access and from there explorers can simply walk across to the beach and the wide expanse of the Atlantic. Many threatened species of flora and fauna inhabit Masonboro Island including loggerhead and green sea turtles and birds such as black skimmers Wilson’s plovers and least terns which all nest on the island.

Because parking is always an issue in and around the beach kayakers have to plan carefully where they will put in their kayaks and park their vehicles. “Along the back side of Wrightsville Beach are several public access points ” suggests Smith. “You can launch at the sandy beach at the public docks or you can launch from the boat ramp underneath the drawbridge ” though he warns that boat traffic near that area is high-volume and inexperienced paddlers should take caution.

“If you go down Waynick every place a street Ts in you’ll see signs that say public access and you can certainly walk your boat in there ” says Bland. “But you still have to deal with parking.”

Creativity and planning ahead may come into play when choosing a launch spot but with a good map most locations should be accessible from any area put-in. Local veteran kayakers have ideas of alternate places where the novice paddler may more easily test his or her mettle.

Bland suggests a new launch spot which has recently been opened to public access: “At the end of Trails End Road where the well-known restaurant used to be there’s parking and easy access to the water and Masonboro Island is directly across from the lot. What’s really neat to do is to paddle just across and north just a little bit and take these creeks almost to a point where you can just walk right across to the beach.”

Chris Tryon manager of Cape Fear Kayaks and Outfitters likes Trails End too because it “will get you out to Masonboro without having to cross the inlet and that main channel where all the big boats are heading out; there’s tons of water down there to paddle.”

Another destination Tryon suggests is along the Cape Fear River itself. “If you want to paddle in the river River Road Park is a great place [to put in.] There are a lot of spoil islands out there from when they dredged the channel for years and years to keep the shipping channel open and all those fossils that were down on the riverbed have been sucked up and dropped out on the island.” He says sharks’ teeth and other diverse fossils are prevalent in the area. “You don’t even need a shovel; you just need to walk with your head down.”

Pete Peleuses co-owner along with his wife Jill of Wild Bird and Garden is an avid kayaker with much experience in local waters. “As far as getting away … Figure Eight is nice if you have access to it but most people don’t ” he says of the private island just north of Wrightsville Beach which is accessible only to property owners and their guests. But Peleuses suggests an alternate trip not far from Figure Eight. “Lea and Hutaff [island] is not really that well known. It’s sandwiched right in between Topsail and Figure Eight and it’s completely uninhabited.”

Robert Smith explains the topography. “Lea and Hutaff were two separate islands but reportedly Hurricane Floyd was the final straw and filled in the inlet between them creating a single landmass. The Hutaff family has given Audubon the rights — or I should say privilege — to manage it as a wildlife preserve and Lea Island is almost completely owned by the Audubon Society. It’s very untouched.”

“That water [around Lea and Hutaff] is pristine ” Peleuses says. “It’s crystal clear. You can look down and see fish and stingrays.” Access to the area can be gained from Scott’s Hill Marina which charges a per-vehicle price for launching from south Topsail Island or from north Figure Eight for residents of that island.

Peleuses notes that climate change and global warming are diversifying the wildlife that kayakers observe on their treks. “There’s a lot more exotic species people are starting to see: roseate spoonbills were around last summer … and another coastal bird that people love is the painted bunting. We are pretty much the northernmost point they come.” Around most areas of coastal paddling kayakers are likely to see beautiful native birds too. Many species of herons egrets willets and terns nest nearby and boaters should be extremely careful in their interaction with the environments they visit.

“Take only pictures; leave only footprints ” Peleuses quotes in a maxim every outdoorsman should live by. “That’s what it’s all about when it comes to these natural areas.”

“Paddling around Wrightsville Beach … is therapeutic and a lot of people do one of the loops every day ” he says referring to the three- or six-mile courses that circumnavigate Harbor Island and the surrounding areas. “It’s a great way to clear your head but if you truly want to get away you’re going to have to work for it.”

But every stroke of your paddle through the waters of Lee’s Cut or around Shell Island to the back side of Masonboro or the north end of Lea and Hutaff is worth the curative soul-satisfying feeling of temporarily removing yourself from the hustle of life to commune with the natural world. Point your kayak toward the sun breathe deeply dig in and let the waters around Wrightsville Beach work their maritime magic.

Want to go?


Guided kayak tours are available through several local companies. Salt Marsh Kayak Company is located at 222 Old Causeway Drive in Wrightsville Beach. They can be reached by phone at (866) 65-KAYAK or (910) 509-2989 and find them on the web at Great Outdoor Provision Company sells gear and conducts tours and they are located at 3501 Oleander Drive in the Hanover Center across from the mall.  They can be reached by phone at (910) 343-1648 and found on the web at Cape Fear Kayaks and Outfitters is located at 435 Eastwood Road.  Call them toll-free at (888)794-4867 or locally at (910) 798-9922 for rentals sales and guided tour information.  You can find them on the web at