Haw River Above Bynum Dam by Canoe and Kayak

By Ginger Travis

Overview: The banks of the Haw today look more remote and wild than they did 50 years ago, as riverside industry and farming have declined and the land has gone back to woods. This section of the river is as beautiful as any in the entire North Carolina Piedmont. Wonderful place to look at birds from a boat.

Where to put in: If you're going south on Hwy. 15-501 -- away from Chapel Hill and toward Pittsboro -- you'll see a parking lot on the righthand side of the road just before the Haw River bridge. This parking lot was constructed by the state in conjunction with the widening of 15-501 and the building of a new Haw River bridge to carry an additional two lanes of traffic. You will see a path leading from the parking lot into the woods along the river. Follow the path upstream past the dam. About 30 or 40 yards beyond the dam there's a well-trodden spot where the riverbank is low and bare. Launch here. Avoid if possible stepping into the water – you’ll sink shin-deep in soft silt, which is deposited upstream of any dam. Once launched, keep your boat well away from the dam. The Haw River put-in may be improved in the future. At present it's rough and muddy, but once you're on the river the worst is far behind. Enjoy what lies ahead!

Coordinates for Google Earth/Maps: 35 46 35.4 N, 79 08 45.5 W

Where to go: The Haw River flows under Hwy. 15-501 near the mill village of Bynum between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro. An old hydroelectric dam of impressive size spans the river just north of the highway bridge. The dam backs up a pool for about two miles upstream, and this short stretch of quiet water is one of the wildest-looking and most beautiful places to paddle in the Triangle. The banks are wooded, and there is not a single house to be seen. The water is also blessedly free of power boats and jetskis. In the first three-quarters of a mile above the dam, the river is divided by several long, narrow parallel islands. The channels between the islands are very intimate places to paddle, reminiscent of swamp creeks down east, where the forest canopy closes over your head and you slip over and under fallen trees, wherever your boat finds a gap. After a mile the impounded river gets shallower, and you'll see large subsurface rocks. Finally, at two miles north of the dam you run into a wall of rock across the river, which is the end of the pool. (This same rock wall is the downstream end of a series of rapids run by novice whitewater paddlers, who put in upriver at Chicken Bridge. From their point of view, the pool described here is just a tedious stretch of flat water to slog across before taking out at Hwy. 15-501. Different strokes for different folks!)

What to look for: Birdlife all along the two miles of impounded river is typical of rich bottomland Piedmont forests, particularly with resident woodpeckers and raptors, but you can expect a few extras: you're likely to see a Bald Eagle up from Jordan Lake (5 miles downstream) and you're sure to see Osprey, Great Blue Herons, and Belted Kingfishers. There are also plenty of warblers during spring and fall migration. Other kinds of wildlife will be present, too, depending on the season: large turtles sunning on fallen trees, an occasional water snake on a rock in midstream, and deer swimming across the river. Botanically, the riverbank and islands are rich, with interesting small trees such as Pawpaw and Bladdernut, and surprising combinations of plants such as Mountain-Laurel growing on rock bluffs just yards away from sandy banks that support Overcup Oak and Water Oak. There are also two large Baldcypress trees (with knees!) on the east bank just above the rapids two miles upstream from the dam; these are out of their natural range so were either planted or grew from cones that floated downriver from a planting. The natural riverside trees include several species of oak, American Sycamore, Black Walnut, River Birch, Boxelder, Red Maple, elm, and ash. Lush vines contribute to the rich production of fruit for birds during migration -- Virginia Creeper, Poison-Ivy and wild grape. And shrubs, grasses, and forbs fill every last available spot on the ground. On Sept. 15, 2001 I saw Cardinal Flower, Trumpet Creeper and Jewelweed still in bloom at the time when late-migrating hummingbirds could use them. Horsetail (Equisetum) grows on the islands near the dam. The Haw is the first place where I ever saw this primitive-looking plant in the wild.

When to visit: Spring and fall -- same time that birding is most pleasant on foot. Along the river you may occasionally see people fishing from the bank and from canoes, but you'll never feel crowded. On occasion, you may not see a single other human being for hours -- which is remarkable in the Triangle.

USGS map: Bynum


  1. The dam is dangerous because of recirculating currents below it. Stay well away.
  2. Poison ivy grows thick along the river. Watch what you grab!
  3. High water. If you're a flatwater paddler you don't really want to be on the Haw right after significant rain. Wait till the waters subside.
  4. Large subsurface rocks are not a hazard to you but they could do damage to the finish on an expensive fiberglass kayak. If you paddle plastic, you won't care!

Credit where due: Dave Murdock directed me to the stretch of river described here. I can't thank him enough!

See also: Notes on birding Jordan Lake by canoe and kayak

Revised 12/29/2008 cwcook@duke.edu

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