Vestiges of Winter in the Marsh

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It has been over two months since I have written a post on my Crystal Coast Life website. It happens ever now and then that you just need a break from writing even if writing is something that you enjoy very much. If there is a good time for some time off from writing, it is winter and if there is a good place to restore yourself, it is the marshes along the North Carolina coast.  I am back now and refreshed from the break and hopeful that we are seeing the last vestiges of winter.

The winter of 2016-17 has been an easy one so far in the Raymond’s Gut marsh on the edges of the White Oak River. We had one serious cold spell from January 7 to Jan 10. We experienced 15F, the lowest temperature in our ten plus years on the Crystal Coast. Fortunately for those of us along the coast there was no frozen precipitation to go along with the very cold temperatures.

Winter brought our usual cast of characters including our most famous visitor, Frank 29X and a new friend, an otter who has been named Emmet. Frank 29X is a great egret born in Canada who first visited the Raymond’s Gut marsh in December 2012. He is a true snow bird with his trips south each winter. He has not missed a winter since 2012 and is somewhat famous in birding circles.  Emmet is a young river otter who seems to have developed a fondness for our marsh. There was one stretch when he was around for almost two weeks. I am guessing that Emmet is one of the otters that were born here in the marsh last year. The marsh did get iced over during our one cold spell but that is long gone and the duration of our cold spells is shorter and shorter as we get closer to spring.

As winter slowly releases us to spring, we can still expect some cold nights but often the brilliant North Carolina sun can make you forget about cold temperatures well before 10AM. Winter winds often linger and become spring breezes which given the length of time that it takes for the waters to warm up are only marginally warmer than the cold winter winds.  It does not take much to change the quiet inlet in the post picture to a wind whipped inlet.

Another part of winter that takes a long time to change is the reddish brown of our mostly centipede lawns. This area by our boardwalk is green in the summer but stays brown until April usually. While it is not unusual to see green grass in central North Carolina in early March, it takes much longer for our brown centipede lawns to turn green. If you see green grass at the coast early in the spring, it is likely that someone over-seeded their centipede yard with annual rye grass. We actually hope the centipede grass does not turn green until into April. A late March frost can turn a centipede yard brown and it has to start greening up all over.

The roller coaster weather that we have on the coast also keeps our area waters which were cooled by the winter’s cold temperatures from warming up quickly. Cool water temperatures are the most maddening vestiges of winter. The warm days of spring often tease us but experience has taught us that the beautiful waters of spring are often deadly cold. We might end up being lucky this year with the water temperatures already in the mid-fifties, but I am not counting on it yet.

All it takes is for the northern half of the country to be snow covered and for those cold north winds to sweep across the fields of snow to keep our spring damp and cool. Still we know that spring is drawing nearer by the day. We have already picked up almost an hour of daylight. Our daffodils have responded with beautiful blooms. And in what might be a surprise to many people our wagon train tomatoes are still producing ripe tomatoes. We already have tomato seeds planted and it will not be long before we are planting cold tolerant plants.

It will take a while for those last vestiges of winter, the brown centipede grass, the cold winds, and cold water to disappear but we are on the downward slope to better weather. We will soon be thinking about spring festivals and walks along the beach.

Our most recent Crystal Coast newsletter, Paddling Into The Holidays, was sent out on November 17.  The previous one before that was Back to the Beach, which was emailed out on September 12.

Our books are especially useful if you are planning a visit to the Crystal Coast in 2017.

The sign-up form the Crystal Coast Life Email Newsletter is below.  The first newsletter of the new year is late but should be out late in the week after Valentine’s today. It will just in time to provide information on the first spring festivals.

Life by the Waters of the White Oak

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The White Oak River

The White Oak River

Another November has come and gone and somehow I am not surprised that once again the weather has been unpredictable but beautiful. That this fall has been yet another great coastal fall is undeniable.

The nearly perfect weather has been an interesting contrast to the cold weather of November 2014 when we saw temperatures drop to 24F and the high for one day only reach 42F. We got through November 2016 without a killing frost along the edges of Raymond’s Gut. The narrow channel of Raymond’s Gut runs behind our home and out to the White Oak River. It is a great place to garden, fish, and enjoy life.  That is especially true when we have more than our fair share of summer-like fall days that have been the gift of November 2016. Our temperatures were well into the seventies on this year’s first day of December.

Fall 2016 unlike last year has been dry since early October. Hurricane Matthew dumped three inches of rain on western Carteret County on October 8. In the almost eight weeks since then we have only received 1.72 inches of precipitation. November 2015 was much wetter. We got 7.1 inches of rain just on November 19, 2015. On December 2, 2015 our rain total since June 1 stood at 59.4 inches. This year with a total of just 40.2 inches precipitation since June 1, 2016, we are over nineteen inches behind last year’s total. No one is complaining. It is the first time in a while that we had a chance to thoroughly dry out.

Variable weather comes with living along the coast. When water is at your doorstep there are some benefits like later frosts and extended spring weather. Each year the waters are slow to cool in the fall and sometimes not so quick to warm in the spring. We are also on the doorstep of a huge weather machine that often spawns storms just off our coast. We sometimes either get brushed by storms or watch them spin up and head north to clobber New England or the Canadian Maritimes.

Life along the water has other benefits. The cast of characters that frequent our marsh is entertaining to say the least. An early morning walk along the marsh is hardly complete without seeing some kingfishers swooping along the surface of the water. Sometimes we watch them capture a meal and proceed to tenderize it by pounding it on a piling. It is not unusual to see loons and otters and of course lots of ducks from mallards to mergansers. Our most famous visitor is Frank 29X, the great egret from Canada, who first visited the Raymond’s Gut marsh in December 2012. If Frank makes it back this year, it will be his fifth straight year to visit Raymond’s Gut.

This photo album taken during the winter of 2013 provides lots of bird and creature pictures along with shots from my kayak trips. More water and some beach shots can be found in this fall 2014 album. With great Crystal Coast weather, the choice of what to do is only limited by your free hours. Now that we are into December my kayaking will be much more limited with few if any more trips to the center of the river as the water cools. December 1, would have been a great day for a beach hike but we were scheduled during our too-short December daylight hours.

A body of water like Raymond’s Gut which stretches from the White Oak into the marsh is like a watery game trail and those of us living by it have ringside seats. Beyond the gut there is the superhighway of the White Oak River where anything from bottle nosed dolphin to blue crabs and a shark is possible. It is hard to believe that I took our skiff down the river almost a week ago and I was still wearing my standard uniform of shorts.  On that trip we saw kingfishers, great egrets and a great blue heron.

We are blessed to live by waters that delight us with a new window into the natural world each day. If you ever have a chance to park yourself along the water for a few years or even months, do not miss the opportunity. It is a wonderful way to watch the seasons pass. We have seen things from our kitchen window that some folks will never have a chance to see.  How many people have seen a great egret stand down a great blue heron,  a great blue heron go ice skating or an otter eating fish like a Popsicle? You cannot ask for a better place to appreciate our natural world than the shores of a place like Raymond’s Gut.

There will still be some warm days here on the coast, so come for a visit and enjoy the weather while it holds winter at bay.  For each warm day you can enjoy, you banish one day of winter and life seems just a little bit brighter.  Turning our backs on winter is a favorite game for those of us who live here.  We like to cheat winter as much as we can.

Our most recent Crystal Coast newsletter, Paddling Into The Holidays, was sent out on November 17.  The previous one before that was Back to the Beach, which was emailed out on September 12.

Our books make great Christmas presents especially if you are planning a visit to the Crystal Coast in 2017.

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Glassy Water Morning

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Calm water on the White Oak River

Calm water on the White Oak River

There are few things that I love as much as kayaking on the White Oak River. I usually manage to kayak ten months out of the year. With a river as beautiful as the White Oak it is hard to stay off the water.

Raymonds Gut which flows into the White Oak is in our backyard. Kayaking is just a matter of moving my kayak from our dock to the break in the marsh grass and sliding into the water.

Early season or spring kayaking has more than its fair share of wind. Sometime in May after I have had my fair share of choppy water, I usually start dreaming about some glassy water kayaking. Finding those beautiful mornings even in summer is often illusive. That is especially true if you have a full time day job.

This year it has seemed especially tough. I have been on the water by 6AM a couple of times with my skiff but neither of those days would have been special in a kayak. Even July which is usually a good month for water as smooth as glass has not been kind. Part of the problem is that July 2016 has been a particular warm one. The heat has been with us since early in the month and has kept shady spots popular along the Crystal Coast. The excessive warmth has also enhanced the winds.

The heat wave we endured for the last two weeks of July 2016 has been as bad as we can remember from our ten years on the North Carolina coast. While heat can be tolerated if your kayak is in cool water, water in the upper eighties and midday summer heat together enhance the conveyor belt of wind that is part of our lives on the coast. That has been the case for much of July 2016. We have had plenty of 15MPH or greater winds with the White Oak River often whipped up to whitecaps by the midday. That makes it hard if you sometimes sneak a late lunch hour for kayak fishing.

Still people like me who kayak and fish are extremely persistent. A friend recently told me that the fish seemed to surviving the heat by having a feeding spell just as the sun was first hitting the water. Friday evening, July 29, I got all my tackle ready and made plans to get up by 5:30AM and be on the water by 6:45AM. Things went relatively well except as is sometimes the case, the anticipation of my trip kept me awake until 1:30AM which means 5:30AM came quickly.

After springing out of bed, everything went well and I even reset the coffee pot for my wife to 8AM and had the newspaper on her placemat ready for her as I have been doing the last forty-plus years. Then I slipped my kayak into the water through the marsh grasses by our dock and paddled out towards the river. I was not surprised that the heat was still with us. The air temperature was close to 80F even that early in the morning. Fortunately the sun hung behind the clouds and there was no breeze. That was a two edged sword.

No breeze meant that I could count on some calm waters and that I would not be fighting the wind and the current. It also meant there was no breeze to cool me. Still it was a great morning just to be on the river and I did manage to land a short red drum and a short flounder. Red drum or the puppy drum that we chase are magnificent fish. Though you can keep the drum at 17 inches, I will not bring one home unless it is 20 or 21 inches long. Once they get over 27 inches they have to be thrown back.

Besides catching some fish, the reason it was so nice on the river was the paddling was as easy as it has been this year. The sun did come out but the clouds were not quite right for one of those drop dead beautiful days. It was still very nice on the river. The heat unfortunately was still lurking in the air and the river water was far from cool. As I started paddling home around 10AM the breeze that started to pick up was a lifesaver especially since the sun was working hard to get the temperature back up over 90F.

Since I paddling against the tide, the slightly over one mile journey back to my home dock was good exercise and I was happy that I had brought along a bottle of water. When I entered our inlet, Raymond’s Gut, the cooling breeze disappeared and the afterburners on the sun seemed to flip on in an attempt to cook me. By the time I relaxed in the shade under our dock as I waited for my wife to hook up my Acura SUV and pull my kayak up through the marsh grass, there was not a dry thread on my t-shirt.

Even so, I will be plotting my next kayaking adventure right after I have a nap to catch up on some sleep.

If  you are thinking of a vacation, we are now on the downslope of summer.  Of course fall is stunning here on the Southern Outer Banks.   If you need help planning your visit to the Crystal Coast, you are in luck.  Our five-star-rated travel guide, A Week at the Beach – The Emerald Isle Travel Guide, can help turn a vacation into a truly memorable one..  Even if you have been here a number of times, I have some secrets to share about the area beaches. This is a recent review published in Island Review by the owner of the Books and Toys Shop at Emerald Plantation.

The Kindle version of the travel guide is $3.99 but it is free if you have Kindle Unlimited.  The Kindle version includes over 100 pictures and extras such as printable maps and a few of our recipes. Our completely updated 2016 version went live in late May.  Amazon also has the full color, 142 page 2016 paperback version for $19.99 and it is prime eligible. There is a black and white version available for $7.95.  In order to make the paperbacks more affordable, we limited the pictures to sixty-six and the maps to nine.  There are no recipes in the paperbacks. However, if you buy one of the paperbacks from Amazon, the Amazon matchbook program will let you get the Kindle version for only $1.99.  If you want to purchase books locally in Emerald Isle, the Emerald Isle Town Office sells both versions and the black and white ones are also available at Emerald Isle Books and Toys in Emerald Plantation.  Color copies are $20 and black and white ones are $8.

Our last newsletter went out July 3 and it can be read on the web, Beach is Summer’s Heart.  We hope to have our next newsletter out in early August.

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Another Beach Fourth of July

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Shallow waters near Swansboro, NC

Shallow waters near Swansboro, NC

This is our tenth year living on the North Carolina coast. The Fourth of July is pretty special on the coast. If you have a place already booked, you will likely spend some time on the beach, maybe watch some of the area’s fireworks, and have some local seafood. Most of those things are easily accomplished once you make it across the bridge to Emerald Isle or one of the other Crystal Coast beach or river towns.

With so many coastal Fourths under our belts, we have seen all the fireworks we need and tend to stay fairly close to home. Like many area residents we have a pretty good idea about what to attempt this weekend and what might not be worth the challenge.

Even many of the people who live here and should know better are drawn to put their boats in the water this coming weekend. When I took a run down the White Oak to Swansboro on June 29, I was struck by the lack of boats. The Intracoastal Waterway, Swansboro Harbor, and the White Oak River were all pretty well devoid of boat traffic. The picture at the top of post was taken June 30 in area where there is usually some boat traffic.

My skiff, a fishing buddy, and I were out early the morning of June 30th fishing the marshes near Swansboro. We saw almost no boats.  It will be our last trip to Swansboro until at least the middle of the week after the Fourth. The Fourth of July is when you will find the most boats on the water all year long.

I have learned that the closer you get to the Intracoastal Waterway in Swansboro this holiday weekend, the more boats that you will find. The boats are not the biggest problem. This next week is also the peak of the jet ski season and you can almost guarantee that someone will be hurt. So if you find me on the water, it will not be in the Intracoastal Waterway.

One of the places that rarely gets crowded even on the Fourth of July is the White Oak River. We also fished there this morning and managed to find a trout that came home for dinner.  If I can find a few hours without a lot of wind and with some blue skies, I will likely be back on the river this weekend in my kayak. There is nothing better than being on the water and if I fish the oyster rocks, I will have a natural barrier between me and any power boats and jet skis that happen to wander up river.

A remarkable stretch of beach weather stayed with us during the first three weeks of June. The only wrinkles during that time were some winds strong enough to get the ankle-defoliating sand moving one afternoon and some showers that cleared the beach late one afternoon last week. A little less than 6.2 inches of rain has fallen in June. However, all of it but .70 inches fell on two days between June 1 and June 7. The three weeks since have been dry with almost no rain in the last ten days except the less than one quarter of an inch of rain we got on June 28. That barely settled the dust. Last year we were much wetter with 7.75 inches of rain spread through June.

The seven day precipitation forecast continues to hint that at least part of this year’s Fourth of July week at the beach will be wetter than our recent stretch of dry weather. That does not mean the week will be a rainout. The way our weather works, we could get 2.5 inches of rain in an afternoon and the rest of the week could be dry. Coastal weather is even less predictable than inland weather.

Given the potential rain in the forecast, I have some things in mind that will still let me still enjoy the Fourth. My Saturday morning will be planned around the Emerald Isle EMS Pancake breakfast and the tides. I plan to be heading across the bridge before 8AM for my pancakes. If I can get back and on the river by 10:30AM on Saturday, I will be set to fish the falling tide. The winds are also forecast to be light on Saturday morning before picking up in the afternoon. The forecast is also calling for almost no chance of precipitation on Saturday morning.

After I am done my kayaking, I will likely take it easy for most of the day, but if the bridge does not get plugged up, I might try to go back to enjoy the grand opening of Goose Creek Growler Company located at 200 Mallard Drive on Emerald Isle. They make beautiful growlers (reusable beer containers) and have wonderful beer to go in them. Both our daughters were visiting this past weekend and we managed to polish off a couple of growlers. I know they are expecting a crowd, but a special cold beer on hot summer day is nice touch to the holiday.

If some rain does visit us this weekend, one place that I will likely avoid is Emerald Plantation Shopping Center. Check-in traffic will swamp the Food Lion parking lot anyway and experience has shown that people take shopping to another level when it rains at the beach. Last week we had some showers one afternoon and I let myself imagine that we might be able to have an early dinner at Shark’s Den restaurant in Emerald Plantation. I had wings on the brain since Tuesday is their wing special day. All it took was one pass through the parking lot near the restaurant to determine that there were no parking spaces at the Emerald Plantation Shopping Center. We reconsidered our foolishness and headed back to Swansboro and the Highway 55 Burgers and Shakes restaurant. It is one of the places we often retreat to when there are crowds on the beach. After I enjoyed a shrimp po’boy and my wife had a burger, we stopped by Piggly-Wiggly for some groceries. If you must have groceries this weekend, you should consider a visit to the Piggly-Wiggly in Swansboro. While it will be busy, it will not be as chaotic as either of the Food Lion stores or the Lowe’s Grocery store. If we go out to dinner on Saturday, we will likely drive twenty minutes to Fat Fellas in Newport instead of waiting in line at a local restaurant.

Sunday will start with church service at Cape Carteret Presbyterian Church. The Men of the Church are cooking hot dogs and hamburgers and visitors are welcome.  Drop by to worship with us and have lunch and some fellowship with one of the friendliest congregations around. If the weather is good Sunday or Monday, I will likely be back in my kayak on the river. If not there is always plenty to do around the house or in the garden between showers.  If the weather turns good, I might try to escape the crowds by going for a Point hike either early in the morning or late in the evening.

It is time for summer vacations and if you are coming to the Crystal Coast, do not forget our five-star-rated travel guide. Even if you have been here a number of times, I might have some secrets to share about the area beaches. We have a lot of changes in the restaurant scene and not everything new has great food.  Our Week at the Beach, the Emerald Isle Kindle version is $3.99  and includes extras such as a few of our recipes. Our completely updated 2016 version went live in late May.  Amazon also has the full color, 142 page 2016 paperback version for $19.99 and it is prime eligible. There is a black and white version available for $7.95.  If you buy one of the paperbacks, the Amazon matchbook program will let you get the Kindle version for $1.99.  If you want to purchase books locally in Emerald Isle, the Emerald Isle Town Office sells them and the black and white ones are also available at Emerald Isle Books and Toys in Emerald Plantation.  Color copies are $20 and black and white ones are $8.

Our next news letter will be out before just before July 4.

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The Winds of March

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bouguesoundwm

It is the time of the year when the winds rule North Carolina’s coastal counties including where I live along the Crystal Coast.

The winds that we get in March and April are no surprise. In fact it would be much more surprising if there were no winds in spring. The bigger the temperature differential between the water and the land, the stronger our daily dose of wind will be.

The land warms more easily than the water. That means as the air over land warms it rises. Conversely the air over the water cools and falls towards the surface of the water. Of course the rising air over the lands sucks the falling air over the water towards the land.  It is like a conveyor belt for wind. The conveyor belt reverses at night and the winds go towards the water.  When the water and land have greatly different temperatures, the effect is magnified and we have strong winds.

Understanding the scientific reason for our winds does not make the river any less choppy. I have taken a couple of new-to-our-area boaters down the river recently. Because I went out on the river at 10:30 AM and came back around 1 PM, I can testify to the midday warmth having a great impact on the winds on the White Oak River. The river became noticeably more choppy the closer we got to noon as the air temperature warmed. Very early in the morning, the river was much calmer.

In spite of the winds, it was nice on the river, but those of us who love the water will say that even when we have almost frozen our fingers off.  Thankfully this early March trip required no gloves.  I managed to survive in shorts and short-sleeved tee shirt. I am glad that I stayed out of the water since it was still a bone-chilling 54F.

As much as I love the water, I will not put myself as risk by kayaking in 54F water. The enticing look of the water has little to do with its temperature. Besides the ride in a kayak in water as choppy as we had today can be damp and pretty challenging. The wind has been blowing straight into our inlet during daylight for the last two or three days. Just the paddling against the wind would wear you down. There will be plenty of calm mornings for kayaking. I will never forget one early spring day when I moved out of the channel to let a neighbor by with his skiff.  The wind was really challenging me  and he offered to throw me a rope and tow me out to the river.  I declined mostly because I knew if I was working very hard going out, the trip back in would be an easy ride with the breeze at my back.

The wind does not just slow down the beginning of boating season, it also can make walking on the beach a good way to exfoliate some of the skin on our ankles.  When the wind is up to 15 MPH it tempers my desire to go for a long hike over the Point on Emerald Isle.  As you can see from this YouTube video, the blowing sand at the Point can be formidable.

Back when I was newbie to gardening on the Crystal Coast, I remember having to buy bales of pine straw to protect my tender tomato plants from the wind.  I have gotten better at growing strong tomato plants but the wind never diminishes for very long until summer when the temperatures between land and sea equalize.  The wind is not all bad.  It keep us cooler when summer comes early to North Carolina’s coastal plain.  We get to turn off our heat pumps and enjoy open windows until the pine pollen explodes.

Wind, low water, and cooler temperatures than what our inland brethren enjoy are all part of the signatures of spring here on the coast as we ride the temperature curve to summer.

Our most recent email newsletter, Happy New Year from the Coast, was published on December 31.  The previous one, Changing Coastal Seasons, was sent out on October 29. Our next email newsletter should be out in late April

It will not be long before it is time to make vacation plans for this summer’s trip to the beach.  Do not forget our travel guide. The Kindle version is $3.99 and Amazon has the full color, 180 plus page paperback version for $24.95.

Updates to our travel guide are coming. Our target date for the new 2016 versions is the end of March.

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Glassy Water Dreams

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A Calm Day on the White Oak River

A Calm Day on the White Oak River

February can be a teaser of a month and sometimes a very cruel mistress for those of us in love with the water. It is hard to say where February 2016 falls in that scale, but it has not been one of those months when it is easy to fantasize that our waters are ready for boating.

Whatever warmth we have enjoyed has been more than balanced by cold temperatures and rain which almost make spring seem like a fantasy. On the Crystal Coast by this time of year, winter is usually on the run. At least this year, we have gotten through the winter without Raymond’s Gut being completely iced over like we were in January 2014. I also did not have to use my skiff as an ice breaker like I have in the past.

I was disappointed when I dropped my skiff in the water for a late winter test this last week of February. I found the water temperature a cool 49.8F. While it could have been colder, the fisherman, boater, and kayaker in me was hoping for warmer water. It is one of the challenges of this time of year. The water looks enticing but it can be dangerously cold. Between the cold water and the shallow tides of early spring, reality sets in quickly for most of us boaters in the spring. It only takes a few minutes on the river to remind you that even if the air temperature on land is 65F, the air just above that 49.8F water will be pretty close to 50F and that is without the breeze from running down the river at 30MPH.

Beautiful sunsets like the one I used in this post help but as much as I like sunsets, I would rather be dreaming of warm water. Certainly our February marsh diversions are far better than a blizzard or storm up north.  Still time on the water is so close that we can taste it and it almost hurts.

With the water and weather teasing us we have to enjoy what we have which includes a fair number of winter visitors to the marsh. That means otters and our standard fare of great blue herons, great egrets, kingfishers, pelicans, cormorants, grebes and even some random ducks that have escaped to live another day.

While sneaking up on ducks is good entertainment, it is easy to confess that I really want warm temperatures that stay around long enough to start that sometimes long spring process of warming our waters. I say long process but often the waters here warm quickly. That is especially true in our shallow, dark-bottomed marsh which can sometimes warm very fast once we get to March. I have joked about charging for the warmer marsh waters that we send down the river.

Even with our still cold water, our soil which has had something of break from the intense rainfall of January and early February (over thirteen inches) has warmed enough to allow planting of lettuce, onion sets, spinach, and other other cool weather crops.

It is a good start towards spring and I will soon start thinking about a late winter hike over on the Point to see what changes winter has brought. Usually a hike on the beach will make me remember that it does matter where you live and the place where I live lets me say that I am living my dream here in a Coastal Paradise.

Our most recent email newsletter, Happy New Year from the Coast, was published on December 31.  The previous one, Changing Coastal Seasons, was sent out on October 29. Our next email newsletter should be out in March.

Vacation plans for this summer’s trip to the beach should be on the horizon.  Do not forget our travel guide. The Kindle version is $3.99 and Amazon has the full color, 180 plus page paperback version for $24.95.

Updates to our travel guide are coming. Our target date for the new 2016 versions is the April.  New versions are always free to Kindle purchasers and Kindle books work on anything including iPads and iPhones.

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