On the sunny but chilly afternoon of January 9, 2023, I went on a hike on the Flanners Beach campground trail in Croatan National Forest overlooking the Neuse River. Since moving to New Bern near the coast last year, most of my outdoor activities have been tennis, kayaking, canoeing, biking, and camping. Today's trip was my first hike since the move.
The hike through the forest was pleasant and fairly short. Of course, it was completely flat. Hiking, camping, and backpacking near the coast is feasible, but cannot compare to the much higher quality of trails, scenic views, freshwater springs, and campsites in the mountains where I was raised and spent 70 years recreating. The coast makes up for this deficiency by offering 10 times more opportunities to canoe and kayak in creeks, rivers, estuaries, swamps, sounds, and sea grass beds.
For many years I have owned several generations of handheld GPS's to navigate in the wilderness. My current model is a Garmin Montana 700i, which is packed with so many powerful features that it would take me many pages to describe. Among other things, it will provide your location by accessing satellites where there is no cell phone signal. You can send live, real-time SOS messages to official government rescue agencies. And, you can even exchange texts with family and friends using their cell phones. After about of year of non-use, today I pulled it out of its padded fleece case and got some good use with it.
But the big news is that for several years I have researched and compared many iPhone app's which provide trail information and navigation assistance. Today was the first time that I actually used one. I had read many good things, and a few bad things, about All Trails. I put it to the test and was greatly satisfied to see that it worked wonderfully. The icons and map features were easier to see on the screen than the Montana; it was intuitive and user-friendly. It clearly showed me which way to go at several forks that were not marked on the ground, It was astoundingly accurate. I could see on the map if I strayed off the trail as little as 5 feet. Best of all, you can program a route on the app. Reassuringly, if you miss a turn or go some other way wrong, it posts a warning message.
On the weekend of October 14 - 16, Ranger Bob and daughter Allison Harris with her husband Steven and children Luke, age 12 years, and daughter Josie, age 9 years, went camping in Croatan National Forest at the Neuse River Recreation Area. I may be a little biased, but Luke and Josie seemed to be smart as whips. Allison and Steven were naturals with outdoor procedures. This was the first time that I had camped with her family, and the first time her family had camped together as a foursome. Some of the gear I had donated to Allison over the last year; and some she had acquired for them at the REI store in Raleigh.
I was (and still am) suffering from arthritis in my left hip, leading to my hip joint replacement surgery, hopefully in the next few weeks. The pain flared up badly during the trip, so I skipped the main family hike through the woods around the recreation area on Saturday morning. Steven located the trail on his All Trails iPhone app. Allison said they went about four miles. All the hikers did well, except Luke did not have enough water. They also encountered a poisonous snake (copperhead?) on the trail. It would not move, so they had to encourage it with a stick.
The highlight of the trip was Allison and Steven's delicious and filling menu of homemade food, and Steven's masterful management of the wood fire, which he used exclusively to cook. We had beer cheese fondue with Polish sausages, turkey and vegetable soup, Monkey sweet bread, fresh sandwiches, multiple styles of eggs, and S'mores. After this trip, I am going to recommend Steven for three merit badges: trail navigation, fire building, and camp cookery. Allison should get several badges for tent setup and kid wrangling. I mostly sat around on my fat butt, traded scientific questions and answers with Luke, and enjoyed things.
I have sleep apnea and sleep with a CPAP machine. It runs off either plugged-in electricity or portable batteries. I had two batteries that were rated to last for three nights. I only needed two nights. The advertisement lied to me. Midway through the second night, the second battery died. I spent the next 5 hours tossing and turning, unable to sleep, due to waking up from my own snoring.
When I retired and Terri and I moved to New Bern, I sold or gave away most of my camp gear and re-arranged my equipment to accommodate my 70 years of age, stiff joints, weak muscles, less balance, and warmer weather activities. This trip was the most experimental with equipment of my life. The majority of my gear was new, or old gear used in a new way. A few things I had never tried before - like a folding chair and cot inside my tent. Fortunately, everything worked well (except the CPAP batteries).
The weather was pleasant, sunny, dry (except for overnight dew), and moderately warm. A good time was had by all.
Somewhere around mid-August 2022 Terry and I went on our second honeymoon. When we got married in February 2022 we were in the middle of selling a house in Wilkes County, NC; moving into an apartment in Johnson City, TN; putting Bob’s stuff in a storage building; buying a house in New Bern, NC; moving both our stuff to New Bern; and all the other projects connected to setting up a new house. Our original honeymoon was one night at a nice hotel in Johnson City. This time, we went to a bed-and-breakfast facing the estuary on Harkers Island, NC, near the Cape Lookout National Seashore Ranger Station.
This trip was my first time seeing Shackleford Banks. Camping there has been on my bucket list for decades. Now that I know the logistics to get there, I plan to go back soon with my overnight equipment.
Our main travel activities were taking a ferry to Cape Lookout with a picnic lunch; visiting downtown Beaufort to tour the waterfront and historical village; and going to the beach to collect shells. We had a wonderful time and expect to spend many more decades together.
On a long, summer weekend in mid-July 2022, Ranger Bob traversed from his new house in New Bern, NC, back to his home territory of the Blue Ridge Mountains, to visit his friend Eustace Conway and to help Turtle Island Preserve operate a camp for boys. There were many other volunteers there who assisted with teaching the outdoor skills programs and preparing the food. In general, I mostly hung around and enjoyed being there. My most glamorous job was hauling all the camp trash in the back of my Jeep to the county dump. Turtle Island recycles almost everything, so there is rarely trash to take. But occasionally, some kind of big plastic or metal device must be disposed. Because of so many campers, the Preserve was short on living space, so I stayed in my tent in the forest in front of the old office, beside the former covered bridge, at the east entrance to the Preserve.
For those of you who may not know Eustace, do a Google search. He has been featured in hundreds of magazine articles and television shows over several decades showing his outdoor philosophy and extraordinary wilderness and farming skills. He is a master horseman and set two world records for riding and driving a horse across the USA. He is one of the main characters on the Discovery Channel TV show Mountain Men. Some years ago, a famous author, Elizabeth Gilbert, who was an editor of Esquire Magazine, wrote a book about Eustace called The Last American Man. You may know Elizabeth as the author of the book Eat, Pray, Love, which was turned into a feature movie. Elizabeth also made a deal to turn Eustace’s biography into a movie, but the deal was squashed by Eustace’s brother who was featured in the book, and he declined to have his character displayed on the big screen.
In the accompanying photos, I’m sorry for the foggy, halo effect on the pictures. The problem was I used my iPhone for the camera, and I got some greasy fingerprints on the lens, which distorted the pictures. To solve this problem in the future, I have developed a system of carrying a small piece of chamois leather and a lens cleaner liquid bottle in my pocket.
Turtle Island is in transition. It has recently converted to a federally recognized, 501 (c) (3) charitable corporation. It has officers to help manage the business aspects. I have recently been appointed to the Board of Directors and I am in the process of being elected Treasurer. This framework will be a new way of operating that will require close coordination between all the people involved. I will keep you posted on the progress.
A few days ago I learned a lesson about down Eastern NC mudholes. They are different than good old, Blue Ridge Mountain mudholes. The western mudholes have certain defining characteristics. They are usually wider than they are deep. The sides slope downward at a gentle angle. The bottom has some kind of firm material - like rocks or dirt.
Since Terri and I moved to New Bern, I have been exploring the ponds, creeks, estuaries, forests, and swamps in the surrounding several counties. When I find a boat launch, campground, or trailhead I add it to the GPS app on my iPhone. One of the places I have explored most is the Croatan National Forest. The further you drive into the forest, the more remote it gets. I got to the center of the Forest, at Catfish Lake, which was desolate. There were no improvements or infrastructure, no trails, no campgrounds or boat docks. The only signs of civilization were the roads, which got progressively worse. In the center of the Forest, the vehicle paths became narrow, one-lane tracks full of mudholes. The forest areas surrounding the roads were actually swamps, with the trees growing in standing water.
I got to a place with a stomped-out area where I could launch a kayak into the Lake. There was one other vehicle there, an old, beat up, and completely rusted-out Ford Bronco. It was blocking the track. To one side were trees and on the other side was a big mudhole. I squeezed through between the truck and the mudhole with my mirror ticking the Bronco's mirror. After looking around, I got back in my Jeep to leave. The truck owner got out of his junk heap, and he was standing between his vehicle and the mudhole. He looked like he had trouble relating to society. He later told me he was an ex-Marine, had PTSD, had no income, and was bumming around the USA living at free Forest Service campgrounds. Rather than me waiting for him to move out of the way, I drove around him through the mudhole.
Big mistake. This mudhole was part of the swamp with no defined bottom. The sides were steep and slick. As soon as I started into the hole, my Jeep immediately slid sideways and downwards into the center of the hole. The only thing that kept the Jeep from sinking further is the foot rails under the doors hit something, and water came up to my door handles. I put the Jeep into 4-wheel, low, drive; but as soon as I gave it gas, the spinning wheels dug down deeper into the swamp. By now the Jeep was tipped over almost onto its side. The photograph accompanying this article is not of my Jeep, but it's similar to the way mine looked. I was too concerned about getting out to take pictures.
I climbed out of the uphill door and the weird guy asked if I wanted him to pull me out? I said yes. Then he volunteered that his tow strap was broken and he wondered if I had one? For several months, I had made room in the back of my Jeep to haul other items, and I had put the duffel bag with my strap in my garage. By extreme good luck, I had replaced the duffel bag that morning. I said yes, and climbed over two sets of seats to get my strap from the back. Then he admitted that his truck had a bad starter, and the only way to make it was to push it off using hand and foot power. We got it going twice, but both times, before we could hook up the tow ropes, it conked off. It never started again.
Then by more extreme good luck, a big, new Dodge Ram pickup truck came by with a nice young fellow driving. He only had the Ram for about a week, and wanted to test it out by giving me a tow. I said great! From that point on the adventure was over and I drove home. The lesson I learned is not to drive into an eastern mudhole without testing the sides first. I need to gingerly put in the first wheel. Then, if the Jeep does not slide down into the middle of the hole, I may be able to get through.
In late July 2022, Terry Rich with the Twin Rivers Paddle Club lead a kayak trip around the Oriental, NC, harbor and up one of the feed-in rivers. We put in at the NC Wildlife boat launch on the harbor shore. When we got upriver we explored a couple of small side creeks. The large group of about 15 paddlers was mostly familiar with each other and convivial. Many of the more experienced paddlers came up beside me and asked me about myself. There were lots of across-water conversations. The pace was nice and mostly casual but not lollygagging.
Our leader appeared to be the only paddler who had a spray skirt. He did a few Eskimo rolls for practice. I was immediately jealous. About 40 years before I had borrowed a friend's whitewater kayak and tried to learn to roll. I may have made it over once or twice. But I failed dozens of times. On my last try sprained my back so badly that it took me about 9 months to fully recuperate. I never tried again. Now, I am paranoid of turning over in the middle of a big waterway and having a devil of a time getting back in my boat, even with my paddle float; or having to swim a half mile to shore while towing a swamped boat. Since then I have signed up to take a roll class with the trip leader at the YMCA pool this winter.
This trip was my last one with my old roto-molded plastic kayak. It was inexpensive, not very good quality, did not fit my frame well, and was not sleek enough to go fast or to roll. The seat back brace was short and uncomfortable. Any paddle over 15 minutes gave me a backache. Fortunately, down here around New Bern, kayaking is the main sport, so there were lots of options for upgrading. I met a nice guy in the paddle club, Bill Webb, who buys used kayaks and professionally renovates them. The one we settled on is world-class quality, slender, long, and sleek: a 2013 Nigel Dennis Kayak Romany Excel. The hull and deck layup is proprietary fiberglass. It cost new about three times more than my old boat. To my relief, Bill was able to sell it to me used at a wonderful discount. And, I sold some other outdoor gear, including my old kayak, to help pay for it.
Before and after the trip we had breakfast and lunch in a cute little coffee and pastry shop called The Bean, right on the waterfront. A good time was had by all.
On a comfortable, sunny Friday in mid-September, 2022, my good buddy Peter Blackburn and his son William joined Ranger Bob on a planned kayak trip in the estuary around Cedar Point, just east of Swansboro. The water trail was from the Cedar Point campground boat launch in the southwest corner of Croatan National Forest, then into the White Oak River and upstream to the Tideland hiking trail.
Unfortunately, the wind was high, and the Coast Guard had issued a small boat advisory. The wind alone was worrisome and probably would have prevented me from leading the group onto the large, exposed body of water. But in addition, the advisory prevented our boat outfitter from renting Peter and his son their reserved boats. We went to the Barrier Island Kayaks outfitter store on the causeway just east of Swansboro only to find the shop closed. Peter's call to the owner educated us about the advisory. I had my canoe with me on my Jeep roof rack.
In the process of figuring out these changing situations, William proved his brilliance by frequently using his iPhone and Google prowess to find information and alternatives. Peter came up with our Plan B, which was to hike the Cedar Point Tideland Trail. So we did. It was scenic, educational and beautiful. On our way home we stopped at the Bojangles in the village of Cedar Point for a late breakfast / early lunch. Scrumptious!
On an early, cooler morning in September, 2022, Terri and Ranger Bob went to one of the beaches on Bogue Banks to collect miniature sea shells. It was after Labor Day so the credit card payment machines had been removed from the parking lot. The beach was nearly deserted. Terri has an unbelievable talent for spotting microscopically small shells from among all the sand, broken shells and detritus on the beach. Today was no exception. She found her normal quota of about 15 shells. We saved them and headed home fairly early. We stopped at the usual gas station to refill our coffee mugs and get some snacks to tide us over to lunch back at home.
On a blazing hot day in July 2022, Ranger Bob tested his kayak equipment and paddling skills in the down-east black-water of the several connected River Bend marinas, which creeks are a tributary of the Trent River, which is a tributary of the Neuse River, which feeds into the Pamlico Sound, which leads to the Atlantic Ocean. For the last several trips I have been having trouble keeping my balance getting into and out of the kayak. This time I fell into the river only while exiting. The fall was a good thing because I was pouring sweat. The cool water was refreshing, and I was just as wet either way.
At this point, I was still getting my “sea legs” and trying to re-acquaint myself with the kayak, since for the last few years most of my paddling had been in my Dagger solo canoe. The kayak seat back was only barely adjustable and was not tall enough or far enough forward to properly support my back, so I was getting a backache in the middle of every trip. The rudder foot pedals were also not long enough to accommodate my long legs, so my position was somewhat cramped.
Between this trip and publishing this article I have sold that kayak over Facebook Marketplace to a nice lady in Little Washington, NC. She is an example of the aphorism not to cuss somebody, because you may be talking to their kinfolk. This lady in a rental cottage on the Pamlico Sound and her landlord is Rosie Poore. Rosie’s older sister Lisa was the last girl I dated in Raleigh before I met my first wife Kimberly.
I will go back when I get my replacement boat. I am getting a Current Designs Solstice GT, which is a sleek, hard-hulled, fast, open ocean-going sea kayak. My Internet research shows that it is the most popular (most units sold) of any manufactured kayak in history. It is also full of cool features which make it expensive. A fellow Twin River Paddle Club member and a new friend who buys used boats and renovates them is selling it to me for 25% of the new price.
The trip was pleasant but fairly short. I went under several bridges and wandered through the waterways of several creeks and harbors throughout my River Bend community. Many of the neighborhoods have canals and docks behind the houses. It was a fairly solitary adventure since I passed only one other group of two teenaged boys in kayaks.
Ho, hum! Another day of beach life by retired Bob and Terri! Another day in paradise! On a pretty, sunny, warm day in mid-August, 2022, Terri and I went to Indian beach on Bogue Banks [called by the Chamber of Commerce types as Emerald Island]. Our last several trips to the beach have been hindered by blazing hot temperatures and high winds. Today was better, with less heat and wind.
Indian Beach has become our favorite one, so far, due to uncrowded parking, a short walk to the beach, clean bathrooms and an uncrowded beach. We have not yet tried Salter Path beach, but it may be the best since it has all the Indian beach attributes, plus free parking that is partly in the shade.
Terri has had good luck at each beach finding teeny, tiny, whole shells that look like conch, scallops, oysters, and other briny denizens. She collects these and at home displays them in nuatiucal-looking glass bottles and shadow box wood frames. Today her hunt went well.
The day ended unfortunately when Terri was knocked down by a wave in chest-deep water, she fell on her foot and broke a bone. We packed up camp and shuffled slowly home. Terri saw a doctor who said she can skip surgery and put her in a walking cast-like boot. We may not be going back to the beach until she heals.