Lakes Alive: A Raleigh native discovers there’s no place like home


by CC Parker

illustration by Lane Singletary

Summer again. As a mother of young children, for me, summer means three months of vacation spreading out before us: time to kill, and time to fill. A few years ago, I would have counted down the days to our time at the beach or mountains. Now I know better: Adventures beckon much closer to home.

I learned this the hard way, when my three children were suddenly on conflicting school schedules. What was a mother to do? Some in school, some out – but we wanted to go somewhere and do something. It had to be local.

I am a Raleigh native but found myself at a loss for ideas. My childhood haunts no longer existed. Skate Town had closed years ago; George the Python was no longer at the Museum of Natural Sciences; the Pullen Park locomotive was temporarily out of commission. Johnson’s Drugstore and the Cardinal Theater were long gone… and my children would have been escorted out of the gorgeous new North Carolina Museum of Art within 15 minutes. I needed new leads for in-town family fun.

As most adventures begin with a recommendation from a friend, so did ours. This friend, who had moved here from Connecticut, was such a fan of our local Parks and Rec offerings that she had taken her four children to visit each of Raleigh’s in-town lakes.

Lakes? We had lakes? They are the hidden gems of Raleigh, she told me. I will be honest: This was a surprise.

Not that I didn’t know my Raleigh Parks & Rec Department. Growing up in Raleigh in the ’70s, I spent more than my fair share of time at their various summer camps, Jaycee Center on Wade Avenue, in particular. My young mother would pile us into her green, faux-wood-paneled station wagon bright and early, pick up a handful of neighbors along the way, skid to a halt curbside, and let our unrestrained mass tumble out. Mom would speed off, drinking Tab, while we entered the alternate Jaycee universe.

To my 8-year-old self, the Jaycee staff and facility was a cross between the club workers in the movie Caddyshack and the campground in Meatballs. Back then, most of the Jaycee camps were based on some sort of nature activity. We’d go on very slow (aimless?) nature walks and were as likely to find an empty beer can or joint clip as a Jack-in-the-Pulpit. We drew pictures with crayons in the dingy linoleum meeting rooms. We ran around the Jaycee field, where an above-ground sewage tank sat stinking nearby. Bucolic it was not.

So when my friend suggested I take my family to Parks & Rec facilities for an outing, I laughed. Then, in the next room, I heard the children turn on the Disney channel. Canned laughter violated the summer morning quiet.

Where were these lakes anyway?

Lake Johnson boathouse

This was a delightful surprise. Only 10 miles from my childhood home, tucked in close to N. C. State’s Centennial Campus, the Lake Johnson boathouse is open and attractive, with a full snack bar and breezy views of the lake from porches lined with rocking chairs. The paved greenway skirts the lake for walking or biking. You can rent a fully rigged Sunfish, Jon boats with little motors, or canoes and paddle boats if you’ve skipped your exercise class.

My introduction to Lake Johnson was a mother-son sailing expedition with my eldest child. It was a glorious day with strong breeze, and a Sunfish seemed like just the thing. He was skeptical, unsure if we could manage the boat alone, but I told him not to fear. I had sailed for three consecutive summers at Camp Seafarer back in the ’80s, after all. He didn’t seem convinced.

We were settled into the boat by a staffer who looked less like a seafarer than biochemistry major. “Are there any poisonous snakes in this lake?” my son asked. “Yes, there are,” came the deadpan reply. Straight into the hull dove my son, who didn’t emerge for the rest of the voyage. Meantime, the boat began to veer off in odd directions, but I couldn’t very well maneuver without stepping on my mute son, hiding below decks.

Afterwards, as we ate ice cream on the porch, the boathouse manager came out and apologized. It seemed that the young boat staffer (Mr. Poisonous Snake) had rigged the mast upside down. I was refunded my $8, and my dignity was restored. Not that my son was convinced.

Next time, maybe we’ll take advantage of the lake’s fishing tackle loaner program. Worms, should you need them, can also be purchased at an on-site worm vending machine. You read that right.

Lake Wheeler

We all know that bigger is not necessarily better, and in this case, it’s true. This 650-acre lake is big enough to support the launching of motorized boats and parking for the trucks and trailers that haul them, but it lacks the quieter, neighborhoody charm of Lake Johnson. It’s busy with activity, draws a crowd on weekends, and is perfect for watersports lovers. You can take sailing lessons here or hike, picnic, and generally enjoy the surrounding 150 acres of nature.

My neighbor and I brought our collective brood of six children, arriving just as a wedding was under way on the boathouse deck. We slurped our ice cream and watched the bride and groom exchange vows. The kids cheered when the bride bent down to kiss the groom. He didn’t look too happy, my son decided.

Once the ceremony was over and the DJ started spinning tunes, we wandered over to rent paddleboats, only to suffer through the worst kind of backseat driving from our six cherubs. As my friend and I recuperated on a rather untidy “beach,” the kids splashed in the lake with a large group that appeared to be an extensive family reunion. It wasn’t long, however, before all of them were hauled out of the water. Turns out there’s no swimming at Lake Wheeler: It supplies the city’s drinking water. Whoops.

Yates Mill Pond

Just a few miles away from Lake Johnson and Lake Wheeler is historic Yates Mill County Park, home to the beautifully maintained, historic Yates Mill, which is the last operating, water-powered gristmill left in Wake County, and a gorgeous spot for an outing. To get there, you drive through N.C. State University’s field turf labs, dairy farm, and pecan orchards. The landscape expands before your eyes, and although it’s just a few miles from home, it feels a world apart. I found myself exhaling as I arrived in the same way I do when I’m half-way to the beach. That alone was worth the price of gas for the trip, I decided.

Once we arrived, we saw that the mill and nearby education center are perched on the edge of a 20-acre pond. There’s an expansive park with multiple hiking paths, tables for picnics, and a boardwalk through the marsh where fishing is permitted.

We decided to use the boardwalk for a raucous picnic lunch – let’s just say the fisherman were happy to see us leave – and then ambled around the lake. We admired turtles basking in the sun, poked around the gristmill, and ending up at the Finley Center, where we learned a thing or two.

You can grind your own corn and hear about the history of the mill and surrounding area. My children were enthralled with it all, though their favorite was dressing up in the of turn-of-the-century costumes.

Seeing them having so much fun in these silly clothes brought it all home: Staying home doesn’t mean being bored. As long as you’ve got money for ice cream (two scoops? Sprinkles?), and an adventurous mindset, I’ve learned that “staycations” can achieve what you’d want from any family trip. We’ve made some fun and funny memories, learned new things, didn’t pack a single bag, and were home in time for dinner and movie.