The Lumber River is located in south-central North Carolina in the flat Coastal Plain. The river's headwaters are known as Drowning Creek; the waterway known as the Lumber River extends from the Scotland County-Hoke County border 115 miles downstream to the North Carolina-South Carolina border. Soon after crossing into South Carolina, the Lumber River flows into the Little Pee Dee River, which eventually flows into the Great Pee Dee River and on into Winyah Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
In addition to National Wild and Scenic River designation, the Lumber River is also part of the North Carolina Natural and Scenic River System (it was added in 1989). The North Carolina Natural and Scenic Rivers Act (NCNSRA) was passed to preserve, protect and maintain selected free-flowing rivers and adjacent land for their outstanding natural, scenic, educational, geological, recreational, historic, fish and wildlife, scientific and cultural values. These rivers are protected for the present and future benefit of the people of North Carolina. In 1989, the North Carolina General Assembly created the Lumber River State to be managed as a Natural and Scenic River "to preserve its outstanding character in perpetuity."
Under the NCNSRA, there are three classifications that a river can receive — natural, scenic, and recreational. The Lumber River has all three classifications at some point along its course. The uppermost part of the river from State Route 1412 (Turnpike Bridge) to Back Swamp is the narrowest section of the river, measuring an average of 40 feet in width. This section is classified as scenic, which is defined as largely primitive, undeveloped, and free of impoundments, but accessible by roads. This classification lends itself to wilderness-type experiences, such as solitude and wildlife viewing. The middle portion from Back Swamp to Jacob Swamp Canal is wider, averaging 75 feet, and is classified as recreational because it offers outstanding recreational and scenic values and is largely free of impoundments, but has development and an extensive road system along its banks. The segment downstream of Jacob Swamp Canal to the border with South Carolina varies in width from 30 to 75 feet and is classified as natural, with the exception of the portion within the Fair Bluff city limits, which is designated recreational. A natural river segment is defined as unpolluted, surrounded by lands in an essentially primitive condition, free of man-made impoundments and generally inaccessible except by trail.
The Lumber River is accessible by interstate and other highways and by State and county roads. Interstate 95 crosses the river in Lumberton. Many other State roads cross, run parallel to, or provide access to the river. Highway 74 roughly parallels the river for about 30 miles, running in a southeasterly direction from Maxton to Pembroke and past Lumberton and then to the southeast from Lumberton to Boardman.
The Lumber River is one of the most highly prized recreation sites in North Carolina; recreation varies from active outdoor recreation, to festivals, to passive activities. Among the most popular activities are canoeing and boating, fishing, hunting, picnicking, camping, nature study, swimming, biking, jogging, crafts and fossil and artifact hunting.
One of the best way to experience the unique characteristics of the Lumber River is by canoe. The visitor experiences miles of natural settings that one would normally expect in highly isolated areas. The visitor can choose between a variety of canoeing challenges and trip lengths. Trips can vary from one hour along some river sections to several days navigating the entire river.
The river has been divided into recreation water trails and has 24 canoe access points at road intersections. The river is smooth water with a velocity ranging from less than two miles per hour to four miles per hour. The most popular portion of the river for canoeists is the Lower Lumber River Recreational Trail, a part of the North Carolina Trails System, which has 17 segments. Intensive canoeing activity can take place within the eight-mile stretch of river through Lumberton in Robeson County, ranging from N.C. 72 at McNeill's bridge to its intersection with N.C. 72 at High Hill. This area has good accessibility.
In Scotland County, the Lumber River Canoe Regatta took place between 1976 and 1986 on the Lumber River Canoe Trail. This annual event was discontinued because fallen trees had made that section of the river impassable. The regatta was a popular event, and local officials are interested in reviving it now that most of the obstructions have been removed. The Lumber River Canoe Trail is the designation of the upper Lumber River between the intersection of U.S. 15-501 with the river and N.C. 71 and the river. The Lumber River Canoe Trail was made a part of the North Carolina Trails System in 1978. It was the first official canoe trail in North Carolina. In 1981, the Lumber River Canoe Trail was designated as one of the first national water trails in the southeastern United States.
The Lumber River provides a variety of flatwater canoeing opportunities. The upper sections of the river require greater canoeing skills than in lower sections because of fallen trees, narrow stream widths, and somewhat swifter water. There are serious impediments to passage on the upper portion of the river; the lower river has few obstructions. The meandering nature of the river and the force of unseen currents provide challenging variations in navigability to boaters. The NCWRC tries to maintain a small boat passageway along the lower river by cutting up to a six-foot-wide opening where downed trees cross the river.
The popularity of canoeing is reflected by the number of canoe rental operators in the Wagram, Burnt Island and Fair Bluff areas, as well as at Pembroke and Lumberton, the Robeson County Recreation Department being among them. In addition, canoeing enthusiasts who live along the river have organized clubs such as the Upper Lumber River Association and the Lumber River Canoe Club.
September 25, 1998. From State Route 1412/1203 (river mile 0) to the Scotland/Robeson County lines at the end of the Maxton Airport Swamp (river mile 22) and from Back Swamp (river mile 56) to the North/South Carolina border (river mile 115).
A preliminary natural heritage inventory of the river corridor was conducted in 1989. Twelve Natural Heritage Priority Areas were identified, containing high-quality natural communities or habitat for rare species. There are six natural community types represented in these 12 areas: sand and mud bar, coastal plain levee forest (blackwater subtype), cypress gum swamp (blackwater subtype), coastal plain bottomland hardwoods (blackwater subtype), pine savannah, and xeric sandhill scrub. Sixty percent or more of these areas are represented by coastal plain bottomland hardwoods, 20 percent by cypress gum swamp, and 15 percent by coastal plain levee forest.
One of the results of this wide variety of habitat types and substratum is that numerous rare and sensitive plants exist throughout the river corridor, particularly in the unique Natural Heritage Priority Areas. Among the rare and endangered plants is sarvis holly, a distinctive blackwater river plant that grows mainly along the river banks and is distributed along the river's entire length. This plant is on the state endangered species list as being "significantly rare" and is a candidate for the federal list of threatened or endangered plants. Comfortroot is another uncommon plant found along the river; comfortroot is a candidate for state listing. On the 700-acre Big Sandy Ridge located north of Fair Bluff, there are two significant species: woody goldenrod or chrysoma and threadleaf sundew. Woody goldenrod is listed as endangered by the state of North Carolina, and threadleaf sundew is listed as "significantly rare." Three final scarce plant species known to occur in the river corridor are Carolina bog mint, which is in the process of being listed by North Carolina as "threatened" and is a "species of concern" at the federal level; savannah yellow-eyed grass, which is a state candidate species; and southern bog button, which is listed by North Carolina as being "significantly rare."
The Lumber River is a popular fishing stream and receives considerable fishing pressure from anglers across the State. The river has historically provided excellent fishing for various sunfish, largemouth bass, catfishes, chain pickerel, and yellow perch. The river supports a diverse fish assemblage and a high-quality sport fishery, especially for redbreast sunfish and largemouth bass. Sampling conducted by the North Carolina Water Resources Commission categorizes the redbreast sunfish population in the Lumber River as a high-quality fishery; many southeastern anglers rate the Lumber River as the premier riverine sport fishery for bluegill, redbreast, and red-ear sunfish in the state. American shad, an anadromous species, has also been collected from the Lumber River.
The Lumber River supports two unique fish species designated of "special concern" by the state of North Carolina. These species are the pinewoods darter and the sandhills chub.
The Lumber River has regional recreational value for canoeing and sightseeing opportunities. The river offers visitors an opportunity to experience multi-day canoe trips on an unusually long and meandering blackwater river in a natural and uncrowded setting. The Lumber River is one of few rivers in the region that travels through two distinct physiographic regions—starting in the Sandhills Region and flowing through the Coastal Plain—providing a diverse canoeing setting. Currents and obstructions by fallen trees provide additional variety and offer navigability challenges.
The Lumber River's significance as a canoe trail was formally recognized in 1978 when the upper river was designated North Carolina's first recreational water trail. In 1981, this segment of the river was designated a National Water Trail, the first such trail in the southeastern United States. In 1984, the lower river was included in the list of National Canoe Trails.
The Lumber River also provides numerous recreation opportunities besides canoeing. Sandbars, fallen logs, overhanging branches, and an abundant food supply provide excellent habitat and structure for fish; fishing from the banks and from small boats is popular along most of the river. The species most frequently sought include sunfish (bluegill, warmouth, redbreast), largemouth bass, catfishes, pickerel, and yellow perch. Unusual deposits of fossils and sharks teeth provide a unique fossil hunting activity, although collecting is discouraged and is prohibited on state lands. Other recreation opportunities along the Lumber River include excellent wildlife observation, hiking, photography, and hunting.
The Lumber River State Park provides facilities for camping, nature study, hiking, and picnicking. Additional recreational facilities for picnicking, river access, hiking, and nature study are provided by local governments.
The river possesses a high level of scenic integrity (i.e., the landscape character is remarkably intact and natural in appearance) for most of its length. The river is predominately bottomland hardwood swamp, which is rare in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Only the upland pine forest areas of Pembroke, Lumberton, and Fair Bluff are comprised of significantly developed land. Though other rivers within the region, such as the Black, South, and Waccamaw, rival the Lumber's scenic attractiveness, the Lumber River is unique in providing scenic integrity over such a long reach.
The corridor contains some visual features which detract from the river's natural scenic attractiveness, primarily in the Pembroke, Lumberton, and Fair Bluff areas. Visual intrusions include homes and small businesses, a few canals, farms, and several bridge and power line crossings. Within the vicinity of Lumberton there is a dike, buildings to the water's edge, parks, one significant water intake structure, very short stretches of bank hardening and a small junkyard. However, the duration of these intrusions as the river is being traveled is very short; many of the intrusions, such as the dike, are well screened and/or set well back from the river; and many of the features, such as parks, are attractive in their own right. None of the intrusions significantly alter the river's overall scenic integrity or landscape character; only the junkyard is a significant visual detraction. The Lumber River does have a significant litter problem along much of its course.
Outside population centers, remnants of cypress logging railroad trestles hidden along the river and intermittent bridges are among the very infrequent reminders that man ever played a role in the bottomland swamp of the Lumber River. Violent winds from Hurricane Andrew have made parts of the river almost impassable due to tree blow-downs, contributing to the natural character and a sense of remoteness on the river. Expansive views through a baffle of cypress, Spanish moss, and cypress knees add to the river's swamp-like character. The slow-moving, tea-colored water reflects the vegetation of the surrounding banks, yet is clear enough to allow a glimpse of vigorous aquatic life. Light and dark contrast as sunlight filters through the dense forest canopy and dances on the smooth water surface. Colorful flowering plants and wildlife add variety of scenery.
Seasonal variation contributes to interesting color changes, including the burnt-orange colored leaves of the cypress and the red to yellow colors of the swamp red maple in the fall, as well as the bright red seed pods of the maple and the light green foliage of cypress in the early spring. These spectacular colors are accentuated by reflections on the dark water surface. In winter months, areas of the forest not visible in spring and summer open to deeper recesses of the forests and swamps.
In addition to the topographic and vegetative variation from the upland to swamp areas, variety of landform is provided by tight meanders, varying channel width, white sand point bars, low natural levees, islands, sloughs, and the backwaters of abandoned river channels. A few steep outcrops along the riverbank expose Coastal Plain formations and abundant marine fossils, providing additional scenic variation and complexity.
Other sensory perceptions contribute to the unique swamp like character of the Lumber River, such as the sounds of a variety of wildlife and insects. These include a surprising churning of the water surface by wood ducks taking flight, the crash of the beaver's tail at an approaching boat, or the rare grunt of an alligator. Cicadas, frogs, and birds add more variety to the recreational and aesthetic experience visitors enjoy. Smells of fragrant flowering plants such as the native wisteria add a pleasant touch to the aesthetic experience.
The Lumber River provides habitat for several species listed as threatened or endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The headwaters of the Lumber lie in the Sandhills Region, which is considered one of the best red-cockaded woodpecker habitats north of Florida; the red-cockaded woodpecker is listed as a federally endangered species. American alligators, a federally threatened species in the state of North Carolina, can be found in the river. Other species that are included in the federal listing of "Species of Special Concern" include Carolina crawfish, river frog, black vulture, Cooper's hawk, glossy ibis, snowy egret, golden-crowned kinglet, loggerhead shrike, Keen's bat, southeastern bat, Rafinesque's big-eared bat, and the star-nosed mole. The Lumber River is also home to an elipteo freshwater mussel which is currently being evaluated as a new genus.
The Lumber River functions as a corridor of dispersal for a diversity of species in addition to those having national significance listed above. Black bear have been documented as far west as Lumberton in Robeson County. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, with support from the National Wild Turkey Federation and private landowners, has stocked wild turkeys within its native habitat of the Lumber watershed. Bald eagles are found throughout the river basin. The riverine bottomland forested areas of the river are also important to a variety of species of neotropical migrant birds. Many of these species, which are provided with an exceptional habitat in the watershed of the Lumber, are declining and may receive federal listing in the future.