I launched from the foot of Castle St. at the Public Water Access (just beneath the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge) and rode the incoming tide ~6 miles to Rat Island with the Geezer and his friend Pete this morning. The temperature was perfect, about 70 F, which burned off the light fog we launched in pretty quickly. There was almost no wind for the first half and conditions were super glassy. We checked a few side creeks that ran into cordgrass marsh and cypress stands that have been killed due to the increasing salinity in the river in the last few decades (due to dredging and blasting the channel for shipping). During our lunch stop just north of Rat Island the wind picked up substantially (sustained 15 mph w/ gusts to 20+) out of the SW, which made for a stiff headwind the entire paddle back. When we got back to town we did a little loop around the battleship, which was neat, and then crossed the river, which was a little hairy due to the opposing wind/tide and boat traffic. There were a lot of turkey vultures, a couple of red-tailed hawks, gulls and terns, pelicans, kingfishers, and an egret/heron or two. When the osprey get back there are several excellent places to sit and watch them in the nest at the top of dead cypress on the edge of the river. Sitting under the battleship gives you a great feeling for the sheer size of those ships. My favorite perspective was sitting under the bow. It's amazing how much stuff is rotting on the edge of the river: boats, old factories, piers, etc.
Aimee and I ran section 9 of the South River with friends today. We couldn't have asked for nicer weather in mid-December, with highs in the lower 60's. There was a little wind, but you'd never know it on the water because of the protection afforded by the forest and banks. This is the same section that we did for the BFE 1 last February, though the water level was roughly double this time, which sped things up and reduced our time on the water to roughly 4 hours including a 30 minute lunch stop. Soup in a thermos, btw, makes an excellent lunch on cool winter paddles. The put-in (on NC Hwy. 41 near 210) was much better than it was in Feb. (due to the higher river level) and the take out (Ennis Bridge Rd Wildlife Ramp) was excellent; shuttle minor. There were a couple of little strainers, but we never had to portage. We saw a young deer swim across after we flushed him out of a canebrake and I saw my first white-breasted nuthatch. There were occasional turkey vultures perched in trees, waiting for a kayaker to go keel up I guess, and red-bellied woodpeckers darting around, but little visible wildlife otherwise. I'm sure we scared plenty off, but that's to be expected with a group of ten. I'd like to do some of these blackwater (it's actually rusty red from the tannin in the leaves, but super-clear) trip with a smaller group for better nature watching. I'd kill to see a bear out there sometime. Still, it was nice to paddle with familiar folks as well as meet a few new people. Thanks to the Geezer for setting this up. The man is an encyclopedia of local knowledge and an adept at picking proper trips for given tide/conditions.
I had big plans to paddle today with pals around Eagle's Island in a big loop that starts and ends at the foot of Castle St. in downtown Wilmington. Sadly, however, I'm laid up with sore throat, cough, congestion, and lethargy. So I had to bail on a paddle that I'd been looking forward to, but that's the way it goes. Better to rest up and get healthy than push it and end up in a bad situation.
So, I've been thinking more on being on the open water in a kayak. It's a little funny that I don't feel more comfortable with it, given the amount of time I've spent wave sliding and playing on the edge of our continent. Both times I've been out, I've been struck with a feeling that is something akin to helplessness. The knowledge of one's own skills and the ability to perform self rescues and otherwise deal with dicey situations is important, especially when paddling alone. This is true in the calmest waters, but still so much more so when we venture into the ocean. There is a proverb in Hawaii: Never turn your back on the ocean. I'm not scared of it, but I have a healthy respect for its power. That's part of the allure, I think. She (the ocean) is vast and full of life, and she can be beautiful and placid one moment, and your worst nightmare the next. She's moody and fitful, and willing to humble just as soon as you feel the slightest bit over-confident. A couple of years ago I was surfing a favorite spot in Carolina Beach with a friend. It was mid-July and we were trading thick, glassy, head-high waves at the end of the day with just two other people out. It was idyllic. We watched a big cloud march steadily towards us from the north. It looked like a giant grey burrito in the sky, and it curved in a gentle arc from land to sea. When it finally got to us, I watched a line in the water. On the south side of the line there was no wind; it was calm and peaceful. On the other side, there was a 35 mph gale. It was like walking out of your house into a storm; there was a visible and obvious demarcation that separated the two weather types. With the wind came rain and the sky turned grey and ominous. It took all my strength to paddle in and then fight my board 100 yards up wind to the parking lot. I remember thinking that we'd better get into the cars or we would be struck by lighting. I was running, I thought, literally for my life, because I just knew it would start any second. I'm glad I had that experience, because I can look to that as an example of how quickly things can change, and how I need to stay on my toes out there. Or, to use a nautical phrase, we all need to keep a weather-eye open.
In closing, I offer a little unrelated workplace anecdote. I work in a bicycle shop. Yesterday I approached a middle-aged man and, as I customarily do, asked if he was finding everything OK, and if he had any questions. He assured me that he was fine, and that everything was "explanatory." "Self-explanatory?" I quiped, to which he could merely nod. It's going down in my favorite moments in customer service history.
I paddled with three friends into the ocean on Thursday. It was my second trip out. It's funny how different it is from paddling in the marsh or on local creeks and rivers. I never feel out of my safety parameters on the other side of the barrier islands, but once you round the end of the jetty holding the inlet open, it's just another world out there. It makes me feel small and helpless, which is both scary and exciting, which is why I wanted to go out there in the first place. I've been keeping my eyes peeled for light wind days with little to no swell. The first time I went out (some 3 months ago) there wasn't much wind, but there was about a 3' swell registering at Frying Pan Shoals and the chop at the mouth of the inlet was pretty substantial. There's so much water moving in several different directions that even with the light wind and relatively small seas, the chop was big enough that my friend and I couldn't see each other at times if there was a wave between us. This most recent day looked promising, with a meager 1' @ 8 second S, and little wind predicted. So I gathered the troops and we met up for the paddle on the backside of WB. As soon as we hit the water it was evident that there was a lot more wind than I expected. We headed up to the inlet and hid behind the southern jetty wall on the paddle out. As soon as we rounded the end (roughly a half mile out) the wind was a major issue. The chop wasn't so large as last time, but there was a consistent 15-20 mph with gusts higher. www.surfchex.com had the max gust at 27. We headed south into the wind and saw northern gannets and pelicans diving for fish out ahead of us. I'm by far the least experienced paddler in my group, so I was grateful for the companionship and comfortable that we could handle whatever, but I felt on the edge of my skill level also. After about 30 mins of heading into the wind and chop we spun around and made our way back into the safety of the inlet. Following seas feel so much different than taking them in the bow, but I got used to it and even started to play a little and ride the swells. Afterwards we did a run through Hidden Creek to extend the paddle a little. It's amazing how diffent conditions can be with so little geographic seperation between two points. The ocean was a choppy windy mess; the marsh was perfectly glassy and clear. That's what I love about water, it changes all the time. More to come.