2019 Ruckus Trip: SE New Mexico

The wind is howling through the damp cottonwoods and pecans bordering Stephen’s Lake in Eunice as the latest Arctic cold-front sweeps the nation. Like a ship riding out a storm, La Tortuga is pointed head in to the cold NNE blow to prevent being blown over by a gust. Although just a machine, I wish I could keep it warm and garaged for the night after all it has done for me. It should start in the morning like it did the day before.

Although I didn’t ride far to reach New Mexico, the lack of sleep in busy downtown Andrews and the windswept wintery conditions on the oil patch highway sure took it out of me. I kept humming the Marty Robbins lyric “…wild as the West Texas wind”. The municipal park in Eunice functions as a fishing pond, picnic area, campground and shooting range. The ducks who reside on this lake were quite friendly, no doubt accustomed to handouts but decidedly on the other side of the fence from the shooting range. The only shelter from the relentless cold bursts from the North was between a barbed wire fence and a maintenance power building. The occasional truck pulled in over the course of daylight hours and the highway noise remained downwind. I observed 6 different species of bird including a quail, foraging ducks from the pond and at the graying of dusk, a small herd of cattle spooked by a tent zipper.

I’m thankful to have had shelter from the rain last night and the wind today. Sometimes in the desert, it’s the lee of a brick wall that can change one’s disposition

The following day was cool but not nearly as windy which made a big difference. It was a pleasant ride through the Oil Patch over to the Hackberry Lake OHV area. Well as pleasant as an industrial highway smattered with Poisonous Gas signs. Deep breaths of the sweet Hydrogen Sulfide…

Gas flares and equipment littered the horizon as commercial activity of the Permian Basian stretches well into New Mexico. Greg, a fellow camper at the BLM site, suggested I check out the dunes up the road.

It was warming into the 60s and sunny as I explored the wet sandy terrain. The Ruckus really doesn’t handle this well with so little power and CVT.

Back at camp as the sun went down I cooked up some potatoes on the mesquite fired twig stove and added a can of chunky stew.

The colorful sunset meant a clear day tomorrow. Sipping a black cup of coffee, I enjoyed a chocolate bar given to me by the Eunice librarian and listened to the coyotes yip.

2019 Ruckus Trip: Alabama to New Mexico

The first frost of Autumn met the morning sunrise as wisps of smoke drifted from the chimney. Sipping my favorite blend of coffee and glancing at the thermometer outside, I had to dig deep for a solid reason to leave my home behind. The tiny house I built from reclaimed materials over the summer was now a cozy abode but the open horizons of the west drew me from the comforts and out into the crisp air. It is the preparation for leaving that is often the most difficult part of any journey so it felt natural to twist the throttle and leave projects for my return.

The cannonball effect was in full swing as I pointed La Tortuga westward through the coal-rich hills of north Alabama. The two lane roads twisted along overgrown railroad tracks and the remnants of coal and timber extraction. These east west highways had narrow shoulders and were frequented by thrumming log trucks. Crossing the Tombigbee River on an interstate was a challenge that soon left me cruising along flat farmland west to Starkville, MS. That evening I pulled off and camped on a freshly surveyed and cleared lakeside subdivision.  Other than a bald eagle that cruised past, nobody was around to complain.

The following morning after another frosty few hours on the dark pine-lined highway, I reached the small village of French Camp along the Natchez Trace Parkway. The quaint downtown was busy for a Saturday morning with the thrift store putting out a table and a small coffee shop opening it’s doors. The Lost Gringos Coffee Shop was having a soft opening in their newly renovated location inside 100 year old bank building. The family run business has a mission to Nicaragua and every two months returns with roasted coffee from a fair trade source. The claws that once resembled my hands slowly thawed around the hot cup of coffee that shook slightly from my trembling. Sometimes it feels cooler once I stop moving than if I had just stayed on the bike. It was a great 30 minute warm up break despite there being no heat on.

With my belly full of coffee and Tortuga full of fuel, I proceeded southbound on the Natchez Trace Parkway with a big smile on my face. The sun brightened my spirits and the day warmed comfortably as the ribbon of flat smooth pavement wound on. The smooth route and few stops meant an average of 125 miles-per-gallon! In Jackson, a detour tried to put me onto an interstate which then led me down a back-alley exploration to return to the trace. An hour later, I found myself below bridge underneath the trace with no connecting road up to it. Fortunately, the Ruckus is capable of off-road travel and I bounced and crunched through the forest and up the grassy embankment to summit onto the parkway again. Following the detour, it was a quiet day’s ride until sunset forced me to start looking for a campsite. As if I had planned it, a rough dirt trail exited the grassy roadside terminating in a 15 acre lake. Below the farm field on the opposite bank, the white speck of a snowy egret dotted an overhanging sycamore. The moon was already high as the sun set with pink and purple clouds to the west.

Come morning I was surprised at how much warmer I felt until I noticed frost on my tent. I must be adjusting to the conditions. Finishing the 20 miles of Trace remaining, I fueled up in Natchez and took the early Sunday morning lull in traffic to cross the Mighty Mississippi River. Glancing over my shoulder, I could see the shoreline where I hauled my canoe out in 2015 while paddling the length of the river from Lake Itasca, NM to New Orleans, LA. Cotton plantations and tall grass-covered dikes lines my route westward through Louisiana. Passing the Frogmore Plantation, I recalled three past journeys through this same section of highway. A brown sign in the distance read “El Camino Real” and showed a line from Louisiana to New Mexico, a familiar route I’ve followed many times before. Keeping roughly to this route, I scooted on with favorable winds and warm conditions in the mid-70’s. The Kisatchie National Forest offered a comfortable bed of pine needles to pitch my tent for the night at a hunt camp off Hwy 472.

Monday morning reared it’s head at 6AM when through the darkness came the hum of diesel equipment and the hollow thud of trees falling as the nearby timber operation got to work. The National Forests truly are the “land of many uses”. As frustrated as I felt with the logging and truck traffic, nature always had a way of brightening my day. I unexpectedly emerged from the dense pine forest along a smooth pond, disturbing three wood ducks who took flight at my arrival. The reds and golds of autumn shimmered on the water’s surface against an azure sky.

Later that morning I arrived in Natchitoches along the Cane River and visited my friend Kammie. Initially I had planned to arrive two days later and with time to stay but the abundant sunshine and warmth in November led me to ask for a rain check. We had a delightful lunch and then I bid goodbye with my sights set west. I knew she’d understand the wanderlust. Following Hwy 6 west of town, I picked up the El Camino Real again and breathed in the dust and debris of logging trucks for hours. Crossing Sabine Lake with a gusty southern breeze made the narrow bridge that much more harrowing. Later that evening I made camp along the Rayburn Lake at a Corps of Engineers boat ramp. The lake was drawn down a few feet but I had a private beach and great view of the water.

Overnight lows were in the 50’s so I awoke before sunrise and was riding at first light with a belly full of coffee and peanut butter toast. The day disappeared In a blur of pine forests and grasslands as I made miles across Texas. I noticed the slight changes in sightline to the horizon as it grew flatter and more arid. Oak and Mesquite soon replaced the towering pines while moving south of Dallas. Road weary with almost 300 miles under my wheels for the day, I pulled off behind the old 1930’s school in Ridge, TX and made macaroni & cheese + tuna fish from a box I found along the Natchez Trace. The rather lousy meal was made more memorable by the rosy hues of sunset and the moo of nearby cattle.

The following morning found me headed west again before sunrise. I misjudged my fuel and wound up out of the way in Brownwood, TX – a town bisected by a set of railroad tracks with few crossing points. After escaping the rough and bumpy streets after multiple loops of one neighborhood, I climbed out of the valley and up to a rise where mesas stretched out to the horizon. The day was spent heading ever west climbing and falling down mountain ridges into the dry river bottoms below where a town usually clung to existence. The small town of Bronte brought back memories from three years ago on a cold February morning when I sat below the shuttered theater and wrapped my hands around a mug of coffee. Today however it was 73F and the blustery southeast breeze aided my mileage. Oil derricks and large equipment began to burden the highways until nearly every road was filled with 75mph semi’s and white work trucks of the west-Texas oil fields. The smell of crude oil wafted on the breeze as I pressed my comfort with the miles. At over 300 miles for the day, I rode through dark and sharp clouded cold front that plummeted temperatures to 45 in a matter of minutes and reversed the winds to NNE. Struggling along against the sand, wind and occasional showers, La Tortuga rolled into the crossroads town of Andrews, TX. The iOverlander suggested camping spot was nothing more than a paved lot behind the Chamber of Commerce with RV plugs and water. It was 5:15pm and the sign outside said “Failure to register campers during regular business hours results in $80 penalty fee”. With 40 mph winds, hail and thunderstorms on tap for the night, I thought I’d take my chances. Securing my tent to the picnic table and scooter below a metal carport awning, I rode out the night’s rough weather and miserably loud highway noise from open exhausts on jacked up diesel trucks popular in this region of Texas.

The feels-like temperature was 24F when I packed up my damp tent and went in search of the nearest hot cup of coffee. The gusty rain splattered my visor blurring the bright traffic lights and streetlights against the glare of oncoming LED lights. I splashed through two very deep puddles formed in the highway due to inadequate drainage before I reached the warm and extravagantly lit travel plaza. The sea of white trucks from the many oil industry workers offered no parking out front so I rode up the handicap ramp and parked in the lee of an ice machine. White plastic bags and napkins flew like ethereal ghosts of consumerism on the northerly cold front gusts. Inside, I sipped my coffee and talked to a local woman about the one time her husband crashed a motorcycle with her on it. “Be safe out there”, she offered. The sign on the motel flashed “37F – 8:15 AM” when I departed Andrews on Hwy 176 for New Mexico into a stiff crosswind. The low line of clouds ahead and occasional flashes of lightning made me wish I had made some other kind of decision to leave me in the comfort of a warm bed or library. Top speeds were around 30 as I sucked it up and completed the hour and a half ride into New Mexico. Coffee, wifi, fuel were my goals and I soon found the first two at B’s Coffee and More. Wrapping my paws around a steaming cup of coffee I dripped a small puddle below me and soon sat up from the oak chair to see it whitened with a wet butt print. An elderly woman had been inside earlier speaking with “B” and as I exited the door, I watched her drive out of the parking lot and directly into the side of a passing Cadillac Escalade. The crunch of plastic and hiss of popped tires ensued as both vehicles careened across the highway. After running to both SUV’s to make sure the drivers were uninjured, I held the elderly woman’s hand and talked to her while she was in shock. I then thought better of it since my hand was slightly cooler than hers! The wind blew gusty and cool as I shivered on my scooter waiting for the police to take my report and info. So much for a quiet morning. Eunice, New Mexico is a small town in the oil-field region which also boasts a scenic lake and municipal park on the west side of town. Once the blustery winds move on this afternoon, I’ll scoot on over, stretch out my tent and relax into another night camping on the cheap. It’ll be warming again for the coming few days and I’ll soon reach my good friend Ara in Alamogordo for a much needed R&R.

I’ll try to take more pictures as well!

NC/VA: Dismal Swamp to Norfolk

Departing Elizabeth City on the Pasquotank River, I enjoyed the continual narrowing while paddling past cypress swamp and islands of pine above tidal levels. The cloudy skies eventually blew out offering me mostly dry and comfortable paddling weather.

The protection of the cypress forest kept the gusty winds from becoming too much of a nuisance and by days end I happily settled in at a raised camping platform off Northside Rd. The disrepair and neglect of the camping platform evidenced by the accumulation of leaves, downed trees upon it and holes of rotten wood made portions dangerous. After dragging the kayak up to the 4ft decking, I was content to have all my gear high and dry rather than trying to fish it out of a floating kayak.

The intracoastal waterway travels through a rich history of America’s earliest canal projects. Begun in the 1700s and surveyed by none other than first homie George Washington, the first canal was dug with slave labor. I cannot imagine the challenges of digging the mud, chopping stumps and battling the hoards of insects for these unfortunate souls. Continual widening and dredging over time has made it a dream to paddle.

The name may be misleading as the Great Dismal Swamp is a true natural paradise for kayaking. The swampy areas depicted on older maps were marked as “Dismals”.

The Lake Drummond Reservation has an excellent paddle in campground with screened shelters and a boat tram that, when working, electrically ferries canoes to motorboats from the canal feeder ditch up to the stunning cypress lined waters.

A stunning landscape by which to enjoy the skies.

The tannin rich waters that pour through the dam form a frothy layer of foam. In the freezing morning air, the foam grows thicker and extends almost a half mile down the ditch. A reddening sunrise warms my soul as the coffee vapora swirl from my metal cup.

Where roadways or railroads cross the canal, low bridges won’t let much through other than a kayak.

The commercial and industrial area after the Deep Creek canal blossomed into the Norfolk Naval Yard and Portsmouth watetfront. The din of diesel equipment and shipbuilding echoed off the steel superstructure like waves off the rip rap shore. Tug boats maneuvered the large cargo ships through the narrow corridor as Marine Patrol boats with 50 cal machine guns kept a close eye on the goings on. Armed guards atop the battleships seemed to be looking only at me, the yellow plastic boat bobbing in the waves. The water taxi came barreling down on me between the pier and the ship pictured below. A quick sprint to safety allowed me to just barely escape his swamping waves and I offered a friendly salute as the captain waved.

Passing the Norfolk waterfront, I continued on toward the mouth of the Elizabeth River where the swell had already built to 2 – 3 ft with a stiff 20kt NE wind. Conditions were forecast to be rainy, cold and windy for the next days. Out at Fort Monroe the buoy reprted 5ft seas and the winds hadn’t even freshened to strength.

Reflecting on my trip so far, I had to weigh the choice of tackling the open and exposed coastline of the Chesapeake or culminating my journey in safety here in Norfolk. After all, I had made it back to VA and was content with the scope and completion of the trip. A call to my buddy Loftus found me at his waterfront condo and a warm and safe hermitage from the wind. It just happened that he was planning to drive back to the Shenandoah this weekend so I offered to pay gas to haul me and the kayak. Wisdom got the better of me as I chose the path of least resistance and safety by not tackling the Chesapeake.

Thousands of miles have passed beneath it’s hull and I intend to add many more in the coming years.

Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds

Leaving Morehead City, a winter storm blew in the following morning and I awoke to the metalic clicking of sleet on the tent. Outside a fog hung over the warmer waters swirling on the chilly wind. Temperature rose slightly above freezing and it turned to rain making for a wet and chilly paddle up the icw. Sailboats in a marina along the ICW on a cloudy winter day.

My friends Mark and Iris weren’t home in Oriental but offered me use of their home there. Climbing out onto the 4ft tall wooden wall would have been a sight but the low horizontal support acted like a step and I just pulled the boat up 4ft and onto their grass. Here is their sailboat! Daffodils in the neighborhood may have been a bit early as the following morning was 23F! I am so thankful for having had a house to sleep in that morning. The sunlight warmed the air quickly but I was the only kayak out that morning.

The larger bodies of water such as the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds can be treacherous. It is evenings with red winter sunsets like this that make me glad for a red sky at night, the following day’s delight.

There were some days where I only managed 2.5 miles due to high winds and other where I traveled over 30 miles. The wind and swell can be quite powerful in this corner of NC and I’d often begin paddling early hours before sunrise to make the most of lower winds. Shallow waters near shore populated with sharp cypress stumps often harbor breaking waves and chop. (Not choppy in pic)

Morning sunrises on the sound are fabulous. The undulating mercurial colors were mesmerizing and dynamic as the wind and tide bobbed me up and down the sound.

As a reminder that I’m back in black bear habitat, these larger prints made me stash the food and sleep with an ear open. Pardon my paddling glove tan.

After three days, I finally made it to the relative shelter of the Pasquotank River and to Elizabeth City, NC. Passing the TCOM blimp and the USCG Air Station was enjoyable with the many planes overhead.

The local college boat and canoe club has a clubhouse and small beach on the water where I took to shore. Hopefully they don’t mind.

Here I’ll resupply and should have a sheltered couple days winding northward up the canal back to VA. I’m looking forward to visiting my cousin Brian and family in Chesapeake before continuing north toward the Potomac.

NC: Southport to Morehead City

It was quite the memorable visit with my friend Mike Steven’s folks Mike and Marilyn in St. James Plantation, NC.

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After filling myself on burgers and  chowder one day and a steak, chicken and apps party spread with the neighbors, I felt well fed and ready to tackle the ICW again. The hospitality shown to me was top notch and I cannot thank them enough for their kindness.  While rounding up my gear from the garage, I realized my worn out old hat that I had washed was missing. Mike accidentally gave it to the landscaper yesterday thinking it was his. Lost in translation, he felt really bad about it and I thought back to all the sentimental memories it had, from my Mom giving it to me at the start of the journey and the many rain storms and sunburns it kept me safe from. On the way to the boat, we stopped at the Golf Shop and he found me a hat with the logo of their community on it. Styling with my new clean hat, I waved goodbye and thought about how I had a small piece of clothing to remember the Stevens by.

The Cape Fear River was placid and the tide helped carry me upstream all the way to Snow’s Cut by sunset. At Carolina Beach State Park, a picnic area and bathroom looked prime for camping as the sun set.Nobody bothered me and I was gone by first light out into the fog of the ICW. Many mornings here started with clear skies but as the sun came out, a dense fog would settle against the water. In the distance the roar of surf could be heard from the beach, never that far off. The relative comfort of the ICW was magnetic and as long as the current was favorable, I could reach 25 miles a day!  After a hard day’s paddling, sometimes the view from the spoils island is worth it.

Spoils islands along the ICW meant it was usually easy to find a campsite by the end of the night with some shelter from the cedars and scrub oaks. This time of year the traffic is relatively light so most days I had the whole ICW to myself. Watching large traffic move up and down the ICW like this dredge was an interesting sight.

Last night, I knew a big storm was inbound. After sunset, the wind blew the chop on the water into a frothy whirling mass of white water. The scrub plants down along the frequently flooded shore wooshed and whirled in the turbulent and shifting winds. My tent was staked into the decking platform that washed up here and I just hoped that the tent would hold together as the gusts flattened it to my chest. After each big gust, it would pop back up with a splash of spray blowing under the edges. A 3 season tent in this 4th season isn’t ideal. Below me, a cricket chirped its happy song under the dry shelter of my tent and the decking while outside thunder crashed and lightning lit the water in a brilliance of silver. After midnight the winds finally blew out and I knew the bottom of my sleeping pad was soaked through but luckily my sleeping bag and myself were relatively dry. A short night but by 5:30, I was up and at-em again heading to Morehead City for groceries and the library for fresh Charts to the Alligator River.

NC: ICW to Southport

 

20190222_151856-01-726139682.jpegIt remained windy and rainy for the first couple days of North Carolina’s ICW.  It was still a bit early in the season for much boat traffic through Myrtle Beach, something I was quite happy for.  Leaving the development of the beach behind, I crossed into North Carolina and promptly found myself a shipwreck!

Appropriately named “Sum Day”, the wooden fishing boat has cast its last net and now gave me protection from the wind gusting to 25mph.  Camping on oyster shells can be terror for tents so I collected a bunch of foam from the bushes and built a soft pad.  What a difference!  The tide rose 5 feet from the above pic leaving my boat just barely out of the water at 10PM.

Each day dawned in an  ethereal fog which obscured the opposite shore of spartina and oyster shells.   The gentle waves on the oyster shell beaches produces a song of clinking calcium and soothing trickle as the water recedes.  Shoving off into those early morning fogs remains one of my favorite comforts in paddling as though the moist dense air is a cocoon from the coming stresses of the day.

Large marinas in this region store boats on towering racks with industrial fork lifts.  The sight of a fishing boat perched 60 feet above the ground isn’t something I see daily. From a distance, it looked as though someone was sport fishing in the live oak canopy!

Upon reaching Southport, NC my friend Mike’s parents offered to show me around for a few days.  Using the St. James Plantation kayak launch in their park, I easily hauled out and am relaxing in the loving arms of friends.  Here I hope to repair some gear, wash some salt from the freshly brined garments and resupply on groceries for the next leg of the trip up the ICW in NC.

SC: Low Country

The larger rivers and sounds of the SC low country meant some open water crossings but most of the paddling here would be in the relative comfort of the ICW and narrower rivers.  The sound of machine gun fire echoed over the water from the Marine Corps training base of Paris Island.  The beach there looked desolate and barren but I didn’t want to run into any “jarheads” on operations overnight.  Crossing the Beaufort River, I made my way over to historic Fort Frederick.  The WW-II era casement was now nestled beneath a grove of live oaks in the setting sunlight.  I explored the area for a bit before erecting my tent along the shoreline.

Come moring, dense fog blanketed the river, one of my favorite settings for paddling.  Consistently wiping the dew from my glasses each time I stopped to sip coffee, I continued up the river with the rising tide.  Using my charts and compass I was thankful to my boy scout courses for allowing me to navigate to the opposite shore without reference points.  Having the islands appear from the fog just where you’d hope is a real joy.  Across the dense air, cadences and shouted orders can be heard from Paris Island’s Marine recruits.

The day had warmed significantly once the fog burned off and I spent a brief time getting water and wifi in Beaufort, SC.  The expensive downtown area and historic homes were charming but not my idea of how to spend an afternoon while the tide was falling.  Winds increased as I set out into the open waters of the St. Helena Sound and a quick but strong storm blew through creating breaking waves and wet conditions.   A following storm was right behind it turning the setting sun green on the horizon.

I wound up paddling two miles back to the  southern shore for protection from the wind and a private but quiet beach to set up camp for the night.  Come morning, the wind had turned from the north and was really hauling but I made up my mind to paddle and worked back to the safety of the ICW.

Rice plantations line the low country shoreline with many of the sites out of operation or converted to wildlife preserves.  Around sunset, a derelict dock and large open park-like clearing beckoned be from the water.  Hauling out on rip-rap and concrete is never my idea of a good night (or morning) but I scratched and scrambled my boat up 10 feet to the grassy landing and celebrated another happy day with a remarkable sunset and Spanish Moss draped live oaks.  The sound of deer snorting and birds squabbling overnight were my only chorus.   No highway noise could be heard but the occasional creaking of the weary dock echoed into the marshes.

For every rough morning lowering the boat into blackness by my headlamp, there’s a night on a sandy beach with a picturesque sunset.  Each morning I rise with the goal to paddle and enjoy myself no matter what the conditions.  It is the fortitude of mind and intention to make the best of the conditions that keeps this trip going.  The extremely difficult moments make those of comfort that much more rewarding.