How the White Lake Water Festival began

The annual event has become the traditional kick-off of the summer season for this community in Bladen County.
Published: May. 15, 2023 at 7:28 AM EDT
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WHITE LAKE, N.C. (WECT) - The 2023 White Lake Water Festival begins on Friday, May 19, with two days of events marking the start of the busy season for this picturesque community along Highways 53 and 701 in Bladen County.

“Having that Water Festival is an important part of White Lake,” said Jake Womble, the fourth-generation owner and operations manager of Goldston’s Beach. “It gets everyone in that summer mood. So, I think it’s a very important part, I hope it never goes away.”

The festival dates back to 1979 and was born in part from the actions and talents of The Ski Heels. This group of young water skiers would entertain friends and family with their extraordinary talents on the clear waters of White Lake, performing jumps, stunts and other moves while being towed behind speedboats. Cathy Kinlaw, who lives at White Lake and is the author of White Lake – A Historical Tour of the Nation’s Safest Beach, says several members of the Ski Heels later took their waterskiing talents to professional levels.

“We have eight water skiers from White Lake that have skied all around the world for professional teams, like Sea World, Disney World and Cypress Gardens,” said Kinlaw. “We had two skiers that went to Okinawa for the World Expo [in 1975]. [The lake] has launched careers. It’s changed lives.”

During the 1970s, after the area’s Blueberry Festival came to an end, the Ski Heels began to introduce hang gliding to White Lake. The sport had started to gain popularity across the country, and when gliders would launch into the air from boats on the lake, then glide over the water before coming back down to a smooth landing, Kinlaw says it became an attention-getter.

The actions of The Ski Heels wowed crowds on White Lake in the 1970s, and led to the formation...
The actions of The Ski Heels wowed crowds on White Lake in the 1970s, and led to the formation of the town's water festival.

“From 1974 to 1979, the kids on the lake started tow hang gliding, pulling hang gliders behind boats,” Kinlaw remembered. “Well, it was really fascinating to watch. People would stop their boats to see what was going on and come out to the end of the pier to see the hang gliders on the lake. From that, the businessmen in the area said, ‘You know, this is really drawing a crowd of people!’ So, the goal became to start a water festival, based on the hang gliding.”

The Ski Heels hosted several hang-gliding competitions on the lake in the late 70s. In 1979, with assistance from the Chamber of Commerce, the White Lake Water Festival was born. It has become the jump-start for the summer tourist season, benefiting the many locally owned and operated businesses in this community.

“That’s the big thing about this festival is everybody has a part, everybody’s involved,” said Terri Dennison, Executive Director of the Elizabethtown-White Lake Chamber of Commerce. “If you’re part of White Lake, you’re involved in this festival.”

“Everybody has their little niche,” Womble said about the festival and life around White Lake. “We work with the marina constantly. We’re sending business to them, they’re sending business to us. We work with Camp Clearwater all the time. What we’ve got truly is a special thing. They’re not many places you can go to and enjoy such a beautiful view and a family-oriented environment.”

Goldston’s Beach will once again be one of the centerpieces for the festival, with a stage on the property and concerts scheduled for both Friday and Saturday. His great-uncle, H.P. Goldston, bought the land back in 1921 and soon began providing a place where families could enjoy a waterfront getaway. Although the businesses have changed and modernized through the years, the idea of welcoming visitors to this corner of Bladen County is still the same.

“What really touches me is when I have people that say how much this place means to them,” Womble said. “And they continue to come back year after year, and they’re so thankful.”

To see a schedule of events for the 2023 White Lake Water Festival, click here.