Tropical storm Bonnie was predicted to hit the NC coast that same week, with near constant rain and winds gusting up to 30 mph. I nearly cancelled the trip, but Terri talked me into not wimping out. I am glad she did. When I got to the beach the storm had made landfall a day or two before in South Carolina, had mostly come and gone and had almost no impact on NC.
The drive down on Monday and back on Thursday had both delightful and difficult experiences. Delightful were the views of Spanish moss, corn fields and cypress swamps. Also pleasant were the fragrances wafting in my open truck windows of magnolia blossoms, freshly mown hay and ozone from the many short rain showers. Difficult were the smells of barbecue joints, fried fish camps and the sights of roadside stands selling pecans and fresh strawberries. I wanted to stop at each place and sample the wares. But I am on a diet to lose 25 pounds before my backpacking trip to Grand Teton National Park this August, so I had to pass them all. [That is, all but one - I did stop at a place and get peaches for my shore supper.]
The diet also affected my camp menu. Instead of the usual mixture of fresh, dried and freeze dried food, I took only NutriSystem breakfast, lunch and supper packets. The packets were easy to plan, pack and prepare. They were light, small and required no effort to open and eat. But after a couple days of taste and caloric deficit, they were not satisfying. All my other senses - sight, sound, smell and feel - were stimulated and rewarded with what I was experiencing outdoors. But my taste buds felt short changed. On my next trip I hope to be far enough along in my diet that I can afford to eat meals on the road at the local diners to get the native flavor; and to take enough fresh food to cook over a campfire and enjoy bacon, eggs, tomatoes, hamburgers and baked beans.
The first night I stayed at Cedar Point campground in Croatan National Forest, near the local villages of Cedar Point and Cape Carteret. For years I have stayed there and enjoyed that each site had electricity, so I could plug in my CPAP machine to treat my sleep apnea. For decades the rule was no reservations were allowed - each camp site was first come, first served. When got there this time I learned that the rule had just changed - sites are now only by reservation, with the exception of a couple spaces held back for last minute drive-ins. Fortunately, on a weekday like this night, there was a drive-in site available.
The next morning I loaded all my camp gear in my Perception Carolina 16 foot kayak to paddle off shore. I spent three days and two nights at campsite 14 on Bear Island, a barrier island that is part of Hammocks Beach State Park near Swansboro, NC. The campsite number 14 is critically important. There are about 17 camp sites on the island, but only two - 12 and 14 - have trees nearby with any hint of shade and dirt ground (instead of loose sand). The rest of the sites are miserably hot and sunburn prone to live in and painfully difficult to set up a tent or keep the tent floor clear. I knew this data from several prior exploratory trips (including one memorable single day paddle out and back with Dan Bumgarner).
Paddlers are warned by the rangers to watch the wind and tides, and to travel out to the island as the tide is falling, and to come back in to the mainland as the tide is rising. Also, hopefully, have the wind at your back. Trying to plan for these factors got me to experiment with my DeLorme GPS, and I learned how to use the tide chart function. But, since it takes a half day or longer for the tide to shift, it is impractical to wait that long to start paddling. And, the wind is completely unpredictable in both direction and strength. I have also learned that the tides through the estuary in this part of the world are mild. So, I don't worry about these issues and plan paddling times around other factors. Of course, if a real storm blew up, I would simply not go out. Can you guess which direction were the wind and tide on this trip? Yep, paddling out and then back, on both occasions, the wind and tide were directly against me. Oh, well. I could feel the tug of both forces but they were not insurmountable.
A bigger problem is that the paddling trail winds through a maze of sea grass islands. If you don't stay strictly on the trail, then it is easy to get lost and end up in a swampy dead end. Simply dragging your boat out of the water and walking across a grass island to the next open body of water is not feasible. The grass islands are pure mucky swamps, with endless beds of sharp oyster shells mixed in. The grass islands are basically impassable. Another problem is that the trail is not marked on any map. The paddler has to follow markers set on a curvaceous course across the estuary. But the markers are too small, too far apart and too often obscured by algae, mud or grown up grass. Unless you are directly lined up with the next marker, and know where to look for it, you will not see it and go off on a bad tangent. Exacerbating these problems on this trip were the contrary wind and tide. Any pause in paddling to drink some water or check the GPS usually means drifting off course, not being able to see the next marker and getting lost. The result is that you can never rest - the entire paddle has to be an hour and a half non-stop slog.
Fortunately, I have a strong stroke. That facility comes from years of paddling canoes through white water rapids on pushy rivers. Once, years ago, I was paddling alone in a solo canoe on Great Lake in the Sheep Ridge Wilderness of Croatan National Forest. While in the middle of the lake about a half mile from my truck, a tornado appeared. It did not touch down on me, but I could see it. The wind on the lake was a steady 30 miles per hour. Guess which way it was back to the parking lot? Yep, directly against the wind. I could not simply wait out the wind by letting it blow me to the closest shore, because there was no shore. All sides of the lake end in impenetrable jungle. If I blew into the jungle, most likely my canoe would catch on the brush and over turn. After about an hour of frightening struggle, I finally got back to the truck. Anyway, on this trip, the strong paddling needed did not hinder me. I was pleased how efficiently my kayak knifed through the water, how well it handled the load of gear, how straight it tracked and how easy it was to steer into the wind and waves with the foot operated rudder.
On the island, all the camp sites but one are invisible from the water. Unless you happen to know what the take-outs look like, and which way the site is from there, then you are out of luck. Fortunately, site 14 is that one visible from the water. To get to site 12, you have to paddle most of the way to the end of the canoe trail, enter the bay at the east end of the island, watch for a tiny, 2 foot wide muddy space in the sea grass, pull out there, then explore around through the scrub brush to find a clump of big live oak trees with a tent space underneath.
Once on the island, things went fairly smoothly. The sky was mixed sun and clouds, scattered rain showers, few biting bugs and best of all, the bay water was warm. I took regular baths to enjoy the luxury. I soon reverted to island time: up at sunrise about 6 a.m., to bed at dark about 8 p.m., eat whenever I feel like it and explore as I pleased. One morning I took a hike on the un-marked trail that circles around the southeast end of the island to explore the other camp sites. Another afternoon I paddled to the end of the canoe trail, hiked across the rest of the island to the Atlantic Ocean and then traipsed up the shore to the state park pavilion in the center of the island. When it is open, the pavilion has water spigots, a shop that sells snack food, showers and bathrooms, and in a concession to modern times, a place to plug in your electronics. This day it was closed. After about two days I had pretty well acclimated to the environment; I no longer noticed the few bugs in the air, the sand on me or the high humidity.
One day I was sitting in camp and a small fishing boat puttered up and threw out their anchor right in front of my take out. A young couple with a quite young boy and their big dog jumped into the shallow water. I came down and started a conversation. It turns out the lady played mandolin and, wonder of wonders, she had just played at MerleFest the month before! What are the odds? We shared blue grass festival stories while her husband, son and dog explored the bay and my camp site.
After three days on the island I headed back to the mainland, little worse for the wear. The trees at my camp site and my usual attire of light weight, long sleeve shirt and pants , wide brimmed hat and sandals (except for when I was skinny dipping in the bay) protected me from sunburn and most biting bugs. When I was unloading my kayak and loading the truck I got to play Ranger Bob twice! About 15 minutes apart, two grizzled old salts came up and asked me about conditions on the island before they launched their boats. One asked if the tide was rising or falling and the prevalence of the sand bars; the other asked about the severity of the bugs. So I answered both. Once back home I did find a few chigger bites and one tick. No mosquito or black fly bites. I hope to return to the island again with some friends.