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 tanin 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 Henry 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.

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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.

SC: Charleston to Grand Strand

The stillness of the morning and the cool air meant a fog layer grew from the draining wetland marshes.  This predawn hour is the most rewarding for my paddling experience and is akin to a morning meditation for me.

Conditions were perfect for my paddle past Charleston with low winds and a falling tide to carry me out.  I passed the historic homes along the water and waved at the joggers and tourists milling about the park.  Having visited this town a couple times before, I could only imagine the image of myself on the BMW GS touring down this same road and stopping for pictures of the same water separated by time.

Allowing a few commercial vessels to pass in the shipping channel, I venture out toward Pinckney Castle on Shutes Folly Island located in the middle of the harbor.  A view out to Fort Sumter and the Ocean to my east and the ICW and route to my north gives me bearing for the remainder of my push.  Once the tides turned, I had a heck of a fight getting back to the ICW but soon made my way to Sullivan’s Island.The ICW here is seperated from the ocean by miles of tidal marshes that glow golden in the afternoon sun.  Camping at Buck Hall Recreation Area for the night beside  a Boy Scout Troop, the view seems simple but to be above the grasses and not beneath them is a treat after a day of looking at blue and tan.

There aren’t many pictures of the next hundred miles or so as weather was cloudy, conditions nominal and sights mundane.  Daily wildlife accompaniment of dolphins, pelicans and egrets made for an enjoyable excursion though.  On a rainy day approaching Myrtle Beach on the Waccamaw River, a fishing boat was out working on a Marina Sign.  I spoke with the Dockmaster of Osprey Creek Marina who invited me to camp there for the night.  It was only 6 miles away but as a cold rain persisted into the afternoon, I found myself dreaming of coffee instead of miles.  Hauling out on their grassy shoreline, I made friends with Miles and Ellie who offered me a covered and enclosed picnic pavilion to camp in.   Using their facilities to shower and do laundry was a real treat since my last bath was down in Georgia a few weeks back!   If you are ever passing through Myrtle Beach on the ICW, stop in to Osprey Creek Marina for fabulous hospitality.

After breakfast and coffee in the dark, I shoved off at first light into a foggy world again and had the ICW to myself.  The din of traffic grew louder as I traveled through Myrtle Beaches burgeoning development.  Bridges for rail and cars passed over the ICW, some swing bridges still in operation but not a concern for me.

As a humorous break from all the “SLOW – Watch Your Wake” signs…

 

This mansion is just an example of the abundant new construction along the ICW.  Huge stands of timber were clear cut to make way for golf course subdivisions in the name of progress.  It sure is good for taxes!  Rant off, it’s just such a shock to be back in the land of oil sheen, plastic garbage and floatsom after weeks of natural respite.

I did take advantage of the proximity to stores last night by hauling out in North Myrtle Beach at a municipal ramp beside the waste transfer site.  Dragging my boat past the decomposing carcass of an Opossum discarded on the ramp, I put my tent on the flat grassy landing and hope nobody bothers me.  The nearby bridge traffic subsided after 11 and I slept soundly until the morning rain showers began.  Although half the day was spent sipping coffee, avoiding rain and working on my blog at the library, it has been a much needed break.

A few more miles will find me in North Carolina, the second to last state on my journey back to Virginia.  If things match up, I’m going to try to connect with my buddy Mike’s parents in Carolina Beach, NC for a night off the water and some conversational company.  Here’s to making miles and a new state when the weather permits!

 

 

GA: St. Simon’s to Savannah

My folks and I had a wonderful time catching up on St. Simon’s Island.  The abundant sunshine and comfortable conditions allowed us to take bicycle rides around the island, enjoy food and drink at the local establishments and relax in the comfort of the hotel room at night.  The kayak was locked up safe and sound below the pier in Gascoigne Park until the morning of my departure.  I said goodbye to Mom and Dad on the dock as mom christened my boat with a small plastic cup of leftover Virginia wine from the night prior.  I had a sip and it was a pleasant way to start my paddling day.

For most of the Georgia intracoastal region finding a solid campsite can be challenging.  The extreme tides and the shallow tidal marshes meant either slogging through knee deep mud or dragging the boat over sharp oyster shells and grasses.  This small campsite on a cedar hammock appeared too early in the day to be of use.  It was so well appointed, I almost considered stopping for the day to stay overnight.  Not sure if it was private or public, I kept on with hopes for a nice spot that evening.

The tip of St. Catherine’s Island has a nice sandy beach and some wonderfully done signs along the way.  Clearly this is a frequent day spot of the Savannah boat crowds.  Along St. Catherine’s, a private island home to a select few mansions and secluded histories, I met a Savannah College of Art and Design student from Saudi Arabia working on a documentary about the island.  He gave me a slice of pizza and some water as I bobbed along their fishing boat and was filmed with his large camera.

The following night found me on the shores of Green Island.  I was pretty sure this was a private island but there was nobody around and I had a long day.  Driftwood along the beaches made for dramatic sunset shots.

An old Civil War era parapet, part of the historic occupation of this island.  In Voyage of the Paper Canoe Nathan Bishop camped on this same island and was in great company with the island’s owner and inhabitant at the time time (1875)

Most days this is my get-up.  Just paddling along in mid 60’s weather wearing all the UV and bug protection as possible 🙂  Having to only apply sunscreen to my nose and cheeks makes things easier and less messy.

The relative comfort of the ICW means many calm mornings paddling along rice paddies or areas once flood controlled.  Remnants of the old canals, wooden walls and mechanisms still line the shores.  The warmer temperatures here meant afternoon bugs were a possibility but the winds often blew enough to keep the no-see-ums at bay.

The many larger docks, mansion homes and the like signaled my closing on my birthplace of Savannah. One night I made it a boat ramp in Chatham County just as the sun set.  Bucking the tide and a 20 mph headwind all evening meant I was pooped!  I set up my tent out of the wind behind the bathroom building and was just settling in when a bright LED flashlight illuminated the scene.  It was the fuzz!  Emerging from my tent with both hands out, I made it clear I was no threat and offered to walk with the officer to my kayak for ID.   While walking, I briefly explained my adventure to the young officer and knew by his enthusiastic response that I’d probably be alright.  After running my ID in his computer system while I twiddled my thumbs on the curb, he handed my ID back and told me he’d keep an eye on my boat through his 12 hour shift.  I was cleared to camp in the boat dock park for the night 🙂

The following morning I made serious miles and soon found myself crossing the south channel of the Savannah River.  I had to wait out an oil tanker and cargo ship which were both crossing the main channel ahead of me.  Their combined displacement actually drew down the river level a few feet before the bow wake returned with a curling lip to flood the shoreline.  Once the tall waves quit beating against the falling tide, I crossed the channel quickly and angled my way back to the ICW and into South Carolina.