Nature’s Peace Will Flow Into You

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Fall in the Raymond's Gut Marsh

Fall in the Raymond’s Gut Marsh

John Muir once said the following.

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

I wish that I could have invited John Muir to join me in a walk along the salt marshes of North Carolina. I have seen my share of mountains from those in Alaska to the Canadian Rockies, the Tetons, the Southern Alps of New Zealand, and the Alps of Austria and Switzerland.

No mountain has ever brought me the peace that I feel walking or paddling the edges of the salt marshes. The sounds and beaches of North Carolina that surround the marshes are part of that world that I love so much. It is a world that has helped me renew my soul and achieve a balance in life that had escaped me for so many years.

I do not disagree that the redwoods and the tall mountains of the world are wonderful cathedrals to nature. However, I think marshes are even more important to our lives and what they give back to those who treasure them is priceless.  The marshes have certainly given me a new outlook on life.

The wonderful thing about the salt marshes and the waters that touch them is that they are alive with creatures that touch our existence in so many ways.

It is easy to fall in love with the beautiful feathered friends that I find on my trips through the marshes. However, it goes far beyond that. The other day I saw a fox chasing something along a marsh pond. I have watched river otters play on the shores of the marsh. I have been lucky enough to have an osprey dive straight into the water just yards from my kayak. I have caught fish in the marsh. I have seen an osprey  eat mullet in the trees along the marsh edges and watched great blue herons and great egrets stalk their prey in the shallows. I have stood in awe as fish and crabs fight over scraps we feed them.

The marsh is a world in itself. Birds and fishes live and die in the marsh. Nothing is wasted in the marsh. Whatever falls there is always recycled. An area of marsh which has been either undisturbed or repaired is a powerful source of life, food, and even healing for the soul.

Walking through the marsh, I see swirls of bait fish, ducks and other birds feeding in the marsh, hawks and osprey hunting for food, and sometimes from the edge of the marsh, I can even see bottle nosed dolphins feeding on fish that were born in the marsh.

The marsh can be covered with ice, stirred up by a strong wind, or nearly sucked dry by a strong storm, but given time it will recover. I have seen it flooded with over twenty inches of rain. Hurricanes have whipped it with winds, but the marsh is always there unless man attacks it and tries to drain it.

While I will always enjoying seeing mountains, I will always feel at home in the marsh. The salt marsh is a much more hospitable place even when winter finds us. You can live on top of a mountain, but you have to work very hard during three months to survive the next nine months. In the marsh there are only a couple of months a year when life is difficult. Much of the year our salt marshes are producing food that we can take advantage of relatively easily. Some years we have harvested vegetables from the salt marsh almost twelve months out of the year.

So if I had to pick a place to live, it would be here on the salt marsh. My odds of survival are much better and the peace that I have found is better than I have found on any high mountain.

If you want to find out more about this special area, we send out an almost monthly newsletter. Our most recent newsletter was sent out on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It is available here on the web. You can read our October newsletter online at this link.

We hope to get our next newsletter around New Year’s Day.

If you are interested in visiting the area, check out our free online travel guide to Emerald Isle.

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Mixing Traditions With Waves

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White Oak River

White Oak River

North Carolina is an interesting place to live for more than just the spectacular scenery and friendly people. It is a mixing pot of traditions and people that is never boring.

That North Carolina is an attractive, diverse area was confirmed by “Which of the 11 American nations do you live in?,” a recent article in the Washington Post.

You will find North Carolina to be one of the few states to have three of the nations within its border. Greater Appalachia, the Deep South, and Tidelands are all well represented in North Carolina. Beyond that we have a healthy representation of people who have moved in from Yankeedom and the Midlands. More people are moving in here than are leaving.

Our area, the Crystal Coast, is more than just a popular vacation area. It is a home to many of us and a place where we enjoy the mix of traditions that are North Carolina. While there are some unique holiday traditions like Christmas Flotillas here on the coast, many like neighborhood caroling are familiar to everyone. We do have some interesting food traditions that have a long history.

The cultural tidbits we see the television show, A Chef’s Life add weight to my view that people just don’t come here for the pleasant weather. The Chef and the Farmer Restaurant tries to make use of locally grown food prepared with an eastern touch. North Carolinians have a long history of great food which I like to think comes from being close to the soil. Some of those old traditions come out in the television show and many of them are part of our family’s life.

Much like some of the characters in a Chef’s Life, I still have cousins in their late seventies who continue to grow and preserve food much like their parents did at the turn of the last century. Almost everyone that I know grows a few tomatoes. While none of our older relatives are still killing hogs in the fall like I remember from my youth, they still enjoy their country sausage and sugar cured country ham.

In a certain sense we are defined by the traditions that we treasure and often in a place like North Carolina those traditions go through a lot of cross pollination.

Our family grew up in the western part of the state with most of our family history centered around Yadkin, Surry, and Forsyth counties. Even in the days when that was area was a long way from the North Carolina coast, my father used to enjoy a barrel of oysters each Christmas. My wife’s father used to enjoy salt fish from the coast. As soon as I could drive I was making summer pilgrimages to the coast and returning with fresh shrimp and flounder.

Now that I live here on the Crystal Coast, I enjoy attending oyster roasts. An oyster roast is coastal tradition where you feast on all you can eat steamed oysters. The last steamed oysters that I enjoyed came from the Boiler Room, a sister restaurant to the Chef and the Farmer. While oysters are popular and shrimp are never far from our plates, there are many other Southern foods that form the basis of our family holiday meals in North Carolina.

One of the holiday traditions in our family is to have country ham for one of our breakfasts. It goes back to the days when a treasured ham was cut to celebrate the season. We also try to have some country sausage during the holiday week. This course is a throwback to the days of killing hogs in the late fall. Instead of killing hogs, we usually we settle on Neese’s Sausage as the closest thing that you can get to homemade sausage from a grocery store. It is appropriate that Neese’s is a North Carolina company and the distribution of Neese’s does not go much farther north than southwest Virginia. I have killed hogs but not since I left our Nova Scotia farm many years ago. However, I still make my own sausage regularly.  I was never successful in curing my own bacon, but I certainly know how to cook it.

During the Christmas season my mother always made some sugar cake which I suspect had something to do with all the Moravians in the Winston-Salem area where we lived. My wife and I had our sugar cake early this year. We bought one from Dewey’s Bakery in Winston-Salem.

We try to do something a little different each year, but it usually revolves around pork and sometimes beef. They were the cold weather meats in the early days. Chicken was hot weather food.

Along with all the meat, our meals always have plenty of vegetables including either Irish potatoes or sweet potatoes. Each area has its favorite greens, but it turns out that collards are enjoyed in both the east and the west. There appears to be something of a cultural divide on green beans. Few folks in eastern North Carolina have even heard of white half runner beans, but many folks from the west will not eat anything but white half runner beans. Greensboro seems to about as far east as you can buy them.

There is no doubt that cornbread probably united the whole state and any corrupting sweet cornbread probably has a Yankee origin. Then there are grits. I grew up in western North Carolina and was unfamiliar with grits until I went away to high school in Tennessee. Grits are a staple in the east and I enjoy them with any dish but they are especially tasty in shrimp and grits.

I would be remiss to not discuss one of our comfort food winter favorites, Chicken and Dumplings or Chicken and Pastry as it is called in the east. There is a fair bit of disagreement on whether western Chicken and Dumplings has flat noodles or puffy biscuits, but I will live by the rules put down by my mother who called the chicken dish with flat noodles Chicken and Dumplings. Life is simple on the coast, the dish is without debate Chicken and Pastry.

I like to think that one of the most unifying treats is peanut brittle. It is a great challenge to make in the east but in the west with its colder temperatures and slabs of granite, candy making is a natural thing during the holiday season. Peanut brittle made in the mountains would not be the same without those fresh peanuts from eastern North Carolina.

I could talk about how the western chicken stew is roughly equivalent to an eastern chowder party, but it has been so long since I have been at either that I will let that topic pass until I can attend some to refresh my memories.

Our state is very ecumenical with its hush puppies and rolls. Hush puppies go with barbecue or fried fish and rolls go with everything else.

North Carolina is a wonderful spot for enjoying some great holiday traditions beyond food. We have even shipped a few crab pot Christmas trees to the west where Fraser firs seem to reign supreme.

As Christmas 2014 slides away, we will remember some wonderful meals and family time. Maybe we even added a new tradition, the flying of the drone. My son gave himself a drone and we got some amazing pictures of our beautiful area with it. The one included with the post is courtesy of my son’s drone.

The Crystal Coast is a wonderful place to spend the holidays. You can even back off your social media activities a little since you will be surrounded by friendly people and scenery that is hard to top. If you are lucky you might be eating some of our traditional holiday meals.

Several more of our family recipes including one for shrimp and grits are in our Emerald Isle Travel Guide available as a Kindle book for $3.99 or as a color picture filled paperback for around twenty dollars.

We also send out an almost monthly newsletter. Our most recent newsletter was sent out on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It is available here on the web. You can read our October newsletter online at this link.

We are a week late sending out our next newsletter but we hope to get it out the week before the New Year.

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December On The White Oak

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Headed Out Raymond's Gut To White Oak River

Headed Out Raymond’s Gut To White Oak River

When you live next door to the spawning ground of Nor’easters, life can be interesting especially if your home borders some water like ours does.

We just had another storm form off the coast. We did not get a lot of rain from it like the folks farther up the coast and even into Canada but we had plenty of wind for a couple of days. We are used to wind here, but sometimes it even surprises us. This time the wind was strong enough to push one of the heavy chairs off our patio. It only took a minute or two to locate it and return it to its spot, but I should have taken the missing chair as a warning to check around the house.

Instead of doing that, I went on my normal morning hike around the boardwalk that surrounds our neighborhood clubhouse. Much to my surprise I saw a kayak paddle floating in the edge of the marsh grass on the other side of the water from the boardwalk. I knew without thinking that my spare kayak paddle had blown off our dock into the water. I also knew that if I did not retrieve it pretty quickly, it would likely head down river.

Seeing the paddle in the water sent me scurrying home. I quickly let my wife know that I was going to put the boat in the water and retrieve my paddle. Fortunately our skiff is on a lift just behind the house.

It took only moments to put on my life jacket,  load my gear, get the boat in the water, and head over to where I spotted my paddle. Retrieving it involving cutting the motor off, drifting over to it, and fishing it out with the boat hook.

I was happy to have my paddle back but since I already had the boat in the water, I decided to ride out to the river and check the water temperature which I try to do regularly. There are only a handful of weeks, usually in January or February, when I do not make it out on the river.  Even during the winter is river is good for your soul.

Last week when I went out on the river, the water had warmed back almost to 60F. On this December 10, trip I had my suspicions that it might be a lot colder. On the day before my trip, our high temperature was 42F.

Most of the time the water that is close by us is a moderating influence to our weather. The ocean takes the longest time to cool down as we approach winter. Then there is our neighbor, the White Oak River, which cools down faster than the ocean. Finally there is the water in the marsh or the gut that leads to the river. The water temperature there fluctuates more than the river or the sound because it is the shallowest water. It can warm quickly on a sunny day but cool quickly on a chilly night.

Since I expected my trip to be a short one, I did not bother to track down my gloves which I have not used since last spring. The stainless steel wheel on the boat was definitely cold, but I managed get out the inlet and take a quick trip at 31 MPH trip down the river. I did not go far before I was quickly reminded that out on the river your air temperature in a boat is pretty close to the water temperature.

Our average high temperature for December 10, is 57F. When I went out on the river, I found the water temperature to be just under 46F. I am guessing today’s high of 55F was probably a little cooler because of all the cold water that is around. It was certainly cooler out on the water.

In the winter the water around us makes our air temperature a little cooler during the day, but it also helps us stay a little warmer during very cold nights.

The river is a quiet place in the winter. The fish have either gone up the creeks or headed off shore.  That being the case the fishermen have followed them.  About the only sign of life on the river would the water birds and the occasional commercial fisherman checking his crab pots.

While it is easy to tarry out on the river for much of the year, usually December through February does not offer up much weather that invites you to relax out on the water.  We do get some ice sometimes and with the river already this cold, the right conditions could bring us a skim of early morning ice any day now.

Even when the water is cold, the river still is a powerful attraction. I will often leave work a little early and go out and enjoy the sunset. Sometimes I will bundle up and make the ten minute run down to Swansboro where the river meets Bogue Sound and the Intracoastal Waterway. There is something really nice about zipping down the river if you can manage to keep from freezing while doing it.  An open boat at over 30MPH creates its own windchill and if you add a cold north wind, things can get frosty quickly.

Still as you can see from this slide show of a White Oak River boat ride from January 2013, it is not unusual to see water temperatures in the fifties instead of the forties.

Living along the White Oak River not far from the Emerald Isle beaches gives us lots of options even during the cold part of the year and one of them is to enjoy some winter boating when the sunshine, winds, and temperature cooperate. I have found that some time on the water even when it is chilly helps make winter just a little shorter.

If chilly water is not concern and you are ready to visit, you will find some great information in our free online guide to Emerald Isle.  It is a great time of year to visit and enjoy the peace that comes to our Crystal Coast waters.  If you think you might be interested in living here, try visiting The Crystal Coast, Saltwater on my feet.   There are 129 posts there.

We also send out an almost monthly newsletter. Our most recent newsletter was sent out on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.  It is available here on the web.  You can read our October newsletter online at this link.

We will be sending out our next newsletter the week just before Christmas.

Sign-Up for monthly Crystal Coast Life Email Newsletter