Modern-Day Huck Finn
Story By Bryan Stange
Photography By Wendy Hunt
Randy Merritt is channeling his passion for paddle sports into a thriving kayak and canoe business on the Waccamaw River.
Randy Merritt gets fired up about kayaking. The owner of Waccamaw Canoe and Kayak, he has a healthy obsession with the sport and all the experiences that come along with paddling a river. Merritt sells kayaks and canoes and charters kayak trips along the Waccamaw River from his shop in Ash.
Merritt’s passion for the paddling sports has developed over the course of a lifetime, starting when he was about 9 years old and living in Portsmouth, Va.
“We were like Huck Finn out there,” says Merritt. “We used to take wood pallets and pack them with Styrofoam. We used to go out (paddling on the wood pallets) into the shipping lanes, and we got pretty close to some really big ships.”
Merritt also recalls making trips to a favorite crab house in Portsmouth, which was on the other side of a seedy neighborhood.
“It was too dangerous to go through the neighborhood,” he says. “I used to run paper routes through that neighborhood early in the morning, but if you went through during the day or evening you might get mugged.” So Merritt and his buddies would launch the wood pallet and paddle upriver to circumvent the bad neighborhood, pull right up to the dock at the crab house, enjoy a meal, and then sneak back home via water.
After moving to North Carolina at the age of 15, Merritt paddled as much water as possible, spending time on bodies of water such as the Pamlico Sound, Black River, New River around Sneads Ferry and the Cape Fear River. But the Waccamaw River won him over.
The section of Waccamaw River that Merritt kayaks, and the section to which he takes his clients, is easy to navigate. The river is largely undeveloped and is rarely visited by power boaters. Merritt and his clients routinely see wildlife such as deer, raccoons, wild turkey, feral hogs, bears, all types of birds and even the occasional bobcat.
But the things that are not found on this river are just as important to a kayaker’s enjoyment.
“There aren’t any bugs on that river for some reason,” Merritt says. He even discourages his clients from putting bug spray on before setting out on their trip. In all the time that Merritt has put in on the Waccamaw, he can only recall getting four mosquito bites. Sand gnats are not an issue either.
According to Merritt, this section of river is not good habitat for alligators. Merritt has seen lots of alligators on other local bodies of water, including a 13-footer that followed his group of kayakers for 4 miles, due, he believes, to the fact that one of the kayaks was carrying a cocker spaniel.
“If you’re scared of gators, you don’t have to worry,” he says of this particular stretch of the Waccamaw.
Merritt has owned numerous boats over his lifetime, including power boats of various sizes, but the kayak is his favorite.
“I have had every kind of boat you can think of, but in a kayak you can get into places other boats can’t,” he says. “And it’s good exercise…and you can get into stealth mode.”
Merritt describes silently paddling toward deer and turkey as they drink from the river, getting very close before they disappear back into the brush. On one occasion, he even got within 20 feet of a deer, which actually got into the water and began swimming before discovering Merritt’s presence.
At Waccamaw Canoe and Kayak, Merritt is able to match paddlers with the kayak or canoe that will best suit their interests and intentions on the water. He describes, for example, that for long trips, like the 5-20-mile trips on which he takes his clients, a touring or crossover kayak 12 feet in length or above is best. “Anything shorter and there’s too much wasted zig-zagging motion. You’ll wear yourself out,” he says.
All of the kayaks that he carries are polyethylene for durability, since he caters to those who paddle in coastal waters.
“Whatever you do don’t get a fiberglass one,” he warns. “If you launch on a concrete landing or go onto an oyster bar, you’re going to poke a hole in it.”
Because the Waccamaw is so easy to navigate, Merritt is able to offer self-guided kayak and canoe trips, in which he drops clients off in the river and then meets them several miles down the river to haul them and their gear back. Clients can bring their own kayaks and canoes or they can rent them from Merritt’s shop.
Other clients like to have Merritt come along to paddle with them and tell them about the river as they travel.
Camping is also an option for those paddlers who are interested in an extended trip. Merritt’s shop carries some camping gear, including tents.
“A lot of people don’t realize it, but there are pure, white-sand beaches on the river to camp out, especially if the water is down,” he says.
Merritt has a lot of experience with camping on the river and is eager to pass on pointers that he has learned along the way.
“I like to live off the land while I’m camping,” he says. “I try to catch what I eat. … I also use a ceramic filter to purify the river water, so I really don’t have to carry very much in with me.”
Waccamaw Canoe and Kayak
150 Whiteville Road NW, Ash