Monday, November 2, 2009

An Interview With Mike Holland - Haw River Trail

I had the recent pleasure of exchanging email questions with Mike Holland, Haw River Trail Director. Mike is a long time kayaker, conservationist, and grant writer for the Haw River Land and Trail Association.

Durhamblogger (DUAC): "Give some of your paddling background and experience. When did you get started? What got you interested in paddling?"

Mike Holland: "Paddled canoe for 5 years, then a kayak for 10, realizing the canoe got heavier every year, as I got 40-er. Besides, the 90's were the decade of the kayak... before they, like mountain bikes, fell off their pinnacle due to... well, testosterone. It's hard for a family to get jazzed about a 100 foot waterfall plunge and class 5 whitewater in their individual kayaks. Paddling? As a camp councilor in 1980, I got to ride in a raft, then a canoe, on back-to-back trips and found I like paddling over floating... Now that's a Nealy conceit, so I should say I got interested by reading Nealy guides. If it was half as funny and fun as his comics, I was ready. Mainly, it was scary, so there you have it... I paddle, cause it sometimes scares the shit out of me... and of course, once your boat is paid for, it's pretty much a free amusement park ride, 24/7, with free admission. Also, it got me to environmental study sites for graduate school, so that was a plus... finding non-accessible land is difficult in a city or near one, but in a boat, you have miles of it at your disposal. "

DUAC: "Have you rescued or participated in a rescue of paddlers on the Haw River? Can you give some details? What did the paddlers do "wrong" that got them in trouble?"

Mike Holland: "A group I ran for the Haw River Assembly, the Water Dogs, saved a cat, once, while the news took photos. Thing was stranded on a rock in mid river. Kitten, really. Stuck it's claws into our single inflatable boat, we owned, and didn't pop it (Innova boats of Seattle, WA). Rescued some boats, minus their occupants... that's even more fun that hearing the real details... you can make up the story... and you get a free boat. I did, once, rescue 7 sheriff's divers in a motor boat... A militia group had brought an 18 foot long air boat to our yearly river clean-up, in Saxpahaw, and launched on the Reservoir... They practiced before hand and the day of the event, with 800 kids in the water, strung out across 30 miles of river, I had my hands full and figured they could handle ferrying a few boy scouts up and down the lake... When I came to the pier, at the end of the clean-up to brag about the 40 tons the kids had picked up in 3 hours, there was a tension, but I didn't find out why, until the two television station cameras were running and my honored guests, Rep. Allred, County Commissioner Sharpe and Sen. Hugh Webster, were lined up against the river backdrop and ready to speak... That's when the motorboat... not the airboat, limped ashore with 12 wet scouts and some sheepish looking militia boat drivers. Allred screamed at the lot of them, telling them to be quiet, and we carried on, oblivious to the fact that they'd just be rescued from flipping the 18 foot long air boat at the flooded river portion of the impoundment, where it promptly sank in 15 feet of water... When the Guildford county dive team came out a week later to re-float the boat as a training exercise, I begged a kitchen pass from my wife and as I went out the door she handed me a disposable camera, to which I rolled my eyes, but pocketed it, anyway.

I paddled out to find them attaching buoys and diving to find the boat. Once we'd found it, and all had a turn at sitting in the drivers seat, in the cold and dark, they re-floated it and my wife's camera helped me catch a front page of the paper photo.

My rescue came later that day, as we slowly toed the semi-submerged boat a couple of miles downriver to the pier... their motor quit just as the wind picked up and they started drifting toward a beach less cliff, with 10 foot deep water. No one could push off the bottom, and they had no paddle, so I paddled my kayak across the wind and asked for a toe rope... taking off for the opposite shore, when I got to the end of the rope and it tightened, my only plan was to hold the rope end with my teeth and paddle across the wind... which, surprisingly, worked, even though we had an overloaded dive boat, with gear and too many crew (why they did not jump in and paddle their own boat away, I'm sure they only know). Then the other towed boat's rope went taunt and my fillings got a work-out towing two boats at the same time. They scooted past the rocks and got the motor going and we were off to the next phase of the boat recovery... getting a water-logged boat onto a trailer and out of the water. I'd say that was the only rescue I've every really made. What did they do wrong... I've done it myself on a sail boat... didn't take along an extra paddle. "

DUAC: "What do you want folks to know about the Haw River Trail? Maybe some little known facts about how it came into existence? Special events that take place on the river? Other things?"

Mike Holland: "The Haw River Trail is designed to get people onto the water and the banks to become the eyes and ears for the river to alert the state should problems such as dumping, riparian clearing, development, etc. occur. I was watching trail efforts get started in the 1990's and decided that at the rate they were going, there would be no access sites left to acquire if we continued to plan and not to act, so after asking several cities, companies and individuals to donate access I was honored to inaugurate the trail in 2000 with William Nealy acting as our river Marshall for the first paddle and open the trail with 8 access points. Today, the trail development and management (and liability) has been adopted by a 5 county 3 city Haw River Government Partnership which is hiring staff and promoting the river as an eco-tourism destination. My goal is to combine recreation with conservation, so folks will have a vested interest in voting to invest in and preserve this wonderful asset, right here in our backyard, where the Triangle meets the Triad.

It came into existence because a few land owners and conservationists were willing to take the liability of opening a trail, putting up 1000's of dollars for land acquisition of their own money and planning for a future when the counties, cities and state would see it as a viable trail that could be adopted. Grunt work like securing a grant from the National Parks Service was done by fly-by-night trail groups... the Haw River Land and Trail Association was one example of a group running a grant app up the flag pole and having someone bite. I was happy to write the grant but needed a group to run it through. Same with our Alamance Chamber... the river was a toilet for most industry supporters, here, for years, and it was hard to get them pointed down river, but with visionaries like Kelly May with the Tourism Bureau, we were able to pretend to be a non-profit, put in a grant application, and worry about details like Federal ID numbers once the check was in hand and the brochures were printed. With a tri-fold in hand, a Department of Interior grant in pocket and 8 access points open it was pretty easy to get the NC State Trails office to allow us to submit a grant application for access development... Success breed success, so that grant led to 3 more $50,000 grants and about then the state said they would take it over, so we held a ribbon closing ceremony in Saxpahaw in 2006 to do the handover (except for the website and Haw River Trail name, of course). Oh, I forgot to mention that Ralph Kirschner graciously provided 1000's of dollars in pro bono time to develop our new website from his agency, and that Vic Vickers took the risk of running our initial site on his own, from 2000-2006, so that too helped us develop critical mass toward a "thing" that exists.

In the past, we've held yearly Nealy Memorial Paddles, but today, there is a yearly paddle run by the government partnership... as they promote the Haw River Land and Paddle Trail, which will be a part of a series of braided trails, one day; we already have a Haw River Wine Trail and a Haw River Heritage Trail in place, and it seems natural to pull all these strands of eco-tourism into one cloth, under the name Haw River Trail, in the future, to make it more easily marketed to the public."

DUAC: "Safety tips when paddling the Haw River? What to bring with you? Areas / conditions to avoid?"

Mike Holland: Here is a slightly less than serious look at safety, from a few years ago... so the phone numbers may have changed:

Paddling in Alamance County for Beginners by Dr. Mike

Saturday is coming up and your children, and patient spouse, are looking to you for a plan. Lucky for you there is a unique family recreation trail that runs for 35 uninterrupted miles through the heart of Alamance County. Well, a trail of sorts... one where you'll never dip your toe into in the same place twice. The Haw River rises near Kernersville and enters Alamance County close to Altamahaw in the County's top left corner. After leaving the County south of the Greensboro Highway Bridge it flows through 12 miles of beautiful white-water to form 80% of the flow into Jordan Lake. The Haw then becomes the Cape Fear a few miles below the Jordan Lake dam, at the confluence with the Deep River, and empties into the Atlantic below Wilmington.

So, for BIG FUN you could step into your boat a few blocks from the Graham Cinema and end up at the beach two weeks later. But, if you don't have a boat or two weeks of extra vacation, why not have an afternoon adventure right here at home. To help get you started on your adventure, we have compiled a list of paddling locations on the Alamance County Haw River trail (see separate flyer).There are 6 official river access points to date, which will be unveiled on October 6"' at the Hwy. 54, Graham Access. Come join us at 1:30 as our special guest, William Nealy, leads us on a paddling trip several miles to the Powell-Bason Access in Swepsonville.

Before you hit the water though, it's customary to have a few things. Primary, in my opinion is a boat. My Grandmother always said "Boy, there's nothin' like going down to the river an just messin' around in boats" about the time she wanted to get my Grandfather out of the house. Renting canoes and kayaks in Alamance County used to be difficult, until Melody Wiggins joined the Graham Parks and Recreation Department. For got-to-have-it-right-now rentals and paddling information, I recommend Great Outdoor Provision Company and Haw River Kayak and Canoe Company.

Now that you have a boat, ask yourself "do I need help?" If you are an 'average guy' your answer is probably "No way! Guys don't ask for directions!" Here, I offer a word of advice; get some. The learning curve is very steep for paddling and the early mistakes can be fatal. Try to resist rising to the challenge when your neighbor's little girl says, "You're going where? My Brownie troop just went down that section". The solution to this male quandary is simple; get directions in the form a book and no one will be the wiser, except you. The book I recommend is "Kayak", by William Nealy (Menasha Ridge Press). Before you say "$12!" try to picture your family upside down in white-water sandwiched between a rock and a flooded canoe. Reading about what can go wrong on an "easy"intermediate run should help encourage you to start on flat water, with easy currents, and practice as a family. You'll be ready to shoot class II rapids in short order. This is good because the Haw River has dozens of class II, "family level" white-water runs, throughout the County. Just remember, wearing a life vest isn't "unmacho", it's just plain smart. If you want advanced classes, Rock Rest Adventures, The Carolina Canoe Club (919-403-8543), and Pro Canoe and Kayak are several local sources of expert advice.

You are almost set. Boat, book, advice, river guide; and now a sample of what you have to look forward to. There are some sections of the Haw River, below Saxapahaw, that will make you think twice about coming back to civilization. This wild and isolated feeling is undisturbed (on weekends) by traffic, industry or suburbs. Miles of wooded banks will slide by without a sign of human habitation. What you will see, are Blue Heron, King Fisher, Osprey, Canada Geese, ducks, Bald Eagle, Snowy Egret, beaver, otter, turtles, Bass, Carp, Brim, and the endangered Cape Fear River Shiner. You should have the river to yourself till around Bynurn, since the beauty of this stretch of the Haw is a closely guarded secret. Now that the secret's out remember to help keep it clean! If you see pollution that needs to be reported call the Haw River Assembly (HRA) River Watch coordinator, Kirn Colvin, (336-376-3313).

Now you're ready. Before you hesitate and decide to visit the theme park instead of paddling Alamance, remember that there are no rules on the river; no signs, no speed limits, no lifeguards and no passing lanes. The minute you step into that boat you are the captain of your own destiny. Although this means if you get hurt there will be no one to blame but yourself, try and capture that same feeling standing in line at the local Slip 'n Slide.

The Alamance County Haw River Trail was developed by the City of Graham and the NC Big Sweep of Alamance County. For information about paddling or questions about the Haw River contact: Melody Wiggins, Director of Recreation and Parks, City of Graham, 336-570-6700 or, Michael "Dr. Mike" Holland, PhD, Vice President of BioQuest; Environmental Evaluation, Education & Expeditions, Alamance County Coordinator for NC Big Sweep, and on the Haw River Assembly Board. (336)376-9322 or

DUAC: "What 5 tips can you give to persons who are interested in getting started in kayaking? What gear is essential? What research you should do prior to purchasing a kayak?"

Mike Holland: "Tips for kayaking? don't be tense... so, go to a shallow area and capsize... get back in and move while you capsize. Learn to shun the roll and just get the hell out of the boat... on the upstream side, of course. Once you've vanquished your fear of falling over by continuously and in a fun manner, falling over, then you can later go worry about rolls... So many kayak instructions talk about technique... the only technique you need to practice is a quick exit.

With that confidence you can move onto to how to recover from being pinned in a low-head dam, impaled by a river-wide fish trout line, being shot by angry morons, etc, etc.

Also, if you have a friend, practice trying to ram each other... you'll learn all the paddle technique you can hope for, and yet you won't know one stroke from another, but you'll be able to add the nomenclature, later. Let's see, that's 2..

Tip 3. Carry a knife, yes, cause it's de riguer, but also, more importantly carry your weight on your hips and not your shoulders. Try to practice paddling with your hands, which will force you to inch your way around with your hips... plus you'll definitely watch your paddle float away, one day, and you need to be confident in setting out after it with just your hands.

Tip 4. Get a pair of water-proof ski-gloves for the winter, gauntlets designed to keep out slushy snow and not ex-vaginate every-time you take them off with wet hands... Keep your hands and feet warm in the cold and you'll survive (oh, heads too). But, take a complete change of toes to head dry stuff in a bag, cause if you get splashed in the cold and creep ashore, you will be numb and need to start dry, again, to move on down, or you will be so numb you will crash, worse, a second time.

Tip 5. Get the smallest, lightest boat you can find and the stiffest, lightest paddle you can find and put metal tips on the paddle and you can push your self just about anywhere, up or down river. The light boat will move anywhere you want and the paddle will be forgiving of poor technique (boy, that's me, alright). The kayak should take you just about anywhere. We surf ours in the ocean, cross the sounds, run rivers, and ski down the snow covered slopes in the winter... Sized right, you can even take a nap it one. Good luck. End of tips.

Essential gear... Balance is essential; sit out a hangover... don't paddle. Hell, it's safer to paddle with a beer in you than the day after a couple of six-packs. BEER is not essential to paddling... Water is; Hydrate. Don't go if you have diarrhea, so Lomotil is so essential. EGO is absolutely NON-essential... it will get you maimed and killed in a kayak... Trust me, I've tried taking my ego along and it really is a sucky idea. Confidence is a must, so do some scouting and map reading, and let people know where you are going and when you will return; essential. Keeping water out of your boat is not essential. You can simply think of it as ballast then dump it later. Don't go nuts on suits and gear, as you won't need it till you are really good and when you are really good, you won't need it. Don't paddle white water alone; partners are essential... It is essential never to leave your partner, mad or otherwise. You'll need some rope. Get yourself some 4 or 5 mm perlon about 15 feet long, and a couple of carabiners to hang on your float vest. You can use all this for many things, but it makes a quick Z-line, which you can learn later, for nudging stuck, water-full boats, off rocks... meanwhile, you tie or attach them about 100 times a trip. Get an easy access knife, cause it will be there when you need it, and not in your shorts, which are below your spray skirt. Water. Water. Water.

Research? I've done this so many times and bought and then had buyers remorse. You have to take the boat to the water and ride it, then ride boat choice number 2, and do it for a while, then you'll feel the difference. Buy local. Great Outdoor Provision Company has a guy, he's at Local company, local expert on new boats. My favorite is an all around touring kayak... it doesn't turn as fast, but it doesn't turn over as easily as well. It doesn't go super fast, but it can still turn quick enough. It isn't super expensive, but you can get one for $400 or $500. Ask GOPC to sell you one used... that's where it's at for the first time buyer. No buyers remorse... you'll learn just what you really need and then you can go back and buy a new one with confidence in a few years. The purchase tip is to buy only what you've paddled and until you are really good, don't sink a lot of money in a boat, unless you want me getting it as a donation a few years down the road."

DUAC: "Thank you Mike for the interview."

Mike Holland: "Hope this covers the questions. Let me know if you want something explained. Thanks again for promoting paddling in our region."

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