Grab your gear and mark your calendars to join a free paddle trip on a nearby section of the Dan River.

On Sept. 7, the Dan River Basin Association is hosting an outing that includes paddling 6.5 miles of the river from Milton Access in Milton, N.C., to the public access at Leggett’s Bottom where U.S. Highway 58 crosses the river in Halifax County, Va. The trip is part of the association’s “First Saturday Outings,” a tradition started in 2002, according to Wayne Kirkpatrick, the group’s vice president.

“One of the goals of the First Saturday Outings is to introduce individuals to the outdoors, the natural resources of the basin, by providing a safe, friendly, group setting so that they can appreciate and enjoy the beauty of the basin,” Kirkpatrick said. “The natural and cultural resources of the basin, our streams, trails, vistas, clean air, rural landscape, municipal amenities and deep history are important assets that contribute to the quality of life and to the local and regional economic activity.”

The association plans an outing that offers paddling of local rivers and lakes on the first Saturday of each month from April through October, and hiking trips from November through March. The most recent trip marked its 200th First Saturday Outing.

The group’s service area is the Dan River watershed, a 3,300 square-mile footprint, extending from the Dan River’s headwaters in Patrick County to its tail waters in Halifax County. Each month, the outings are held somewhere within the basin, including on the Dan River, Mayo River and Smith River, as well as at trail locations at the Danville Riverwalk, Haw River State Park and Mayo River State Park.

Kirkpatrick, an expert paddler coordinating the upcoming trip, said a variety of boats are usually used, including sit-in or sit-on-top kayaks, single or tandem, as well as canoes and paddle boards.

“Dan River Basin Association has hosted paddlers and hikers from the very young, usually age four and above, but younger children have been carried on hikes ‘papoose’-style or tucked in the lap of an adult paddler,” he said. “All are welcome.”

The upper age range for paddles or hikes has been well into the 80s.

“The Class I section (for September’s First Saturday Outing) offers smooth waters and high banks, making it feel like a float through wilderness,” Kirkpatrick said.

There is a small rapid under the Route 62 bridge.

“From then on, flat but moving water extends the entire float, making it very novice friendly,” he added.

Three impressive stone piers from the Milton and Sutherlin Narrow-Gauge Railroad, built in 1878 to connect Milton to the Richmond and Danville Railroad, will be visible about halfway through the trip. Participants may also observe songbirds, hawks, turtles, ducks and herons along the river.

Exiting up the steep bank at take-out is made simpler by a boat slide alongside steel steps.

Kirkpatrick, 67, and his wife took up paddling in 2004 after retiring from owning a dairy for 31 years.

“As my wife and I wound down our main careers, paddling was a low-impact, fun, relatively inexpensive, outdoor-oriented activity we could do from a physical ability perspective, and we found we both loved it,” he said. “Getting started with an organization like the Dan River Basin Association made it easy, safe and loads of fun.”

While most of their paddling is done in the basin, they also have paddled the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, a number of lakes and rivers in Virginia and North Carolina and the Mangroves in Key West, Fla.

Kirkpatrick joined the association’s board in 2004 and coordinates several outings each year.

“I consider it a great hobby that is made even more enjoyable by the wonderful people who go on the outings and by the opportunity to be outdoors in beautiful areas of Virginia and North Carolina,” he said. “The board and staff are very, very proud of successfully hosting First Saturday Outings since 2002 and helping people enjoy and appreciate the natural and cultural resources of the Dan River Basin.”

The desire, he added, is for that appreciation to grow into caretaking.

“Clean water, clean air, a variety of trails to hike, infrastructure to access lakes and rivers and public access to these assets are not rights but privileges to be worked for, nurtured to maintain and protected for the future,” Kirkpatrick said. “Dan River Basin Association is an organization that is dedicated to those goals and invites support to continue this work.”

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Jennifer Atkins Brown writes every other Sunday for this section. Contact her at jennifer.brown@greensboro.com.

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