Winter in the Cove

Raymond's Gut, January 9, 2016

Raymond’s Gut, January 9, 2016

It is a little strange to think about winter when the temperature is hovering around 67F on January 10, 2016. However, I know better than to pretend that winter will not find us. We all know that the good run of warm weather this year has to end sometime.

As hard as it is to believe, we are still getting a few cherry tomatoes from our garden and some sugar snap peas. I managed to cover the last tomato plant and protect it from the one short spell of cold air that found our cozy spot near the White Oak River. The sugar snap peas made it through without any help like some of our petunias and roses that are still blooming.

It is not unusual to have some nice January weather on the North Carolina coast. We generally get pretty spoiled and complain about how miserable we are if we get some cold days. Our cold days get us little sympathy from our New England and Canadian friends. I almost hesitate to say it, but we consider it a cold day if we do not make it to fifty degrees Fahrenheit.

I can appreciate their feelings since I have endured my fair share of winter weather on a mountain near Roanoke, Virginia and in the heart of a snow belt north of Fredericton, New Brunswick in Canada. Winter is a totally different beast in Canada than it is on the Southern Outer Banks.

While the days and weeks before winter in Canada are usually a mad rush to get everything done before a deep snow suspends daily activities, waiting for winter to come is usually an exciting time on the coast. The months before winter are some of the best on the Carolina coast. We fish, boat, and hike the beaches. There are no crowds, the humidity is gone and the water is often still warm. This winter I saw people in the surf in early December and my daughter and I took a holiday ride down the river after Christmas. I wore shorts and a t-shirt.

Even if the winter turns harsh we will likely only have six or seven weeks weeks of cold weather left.  While it is possible that Raymond’s Gut could freeze over like it did in 2014, it is more likely that we will stay on the weather roller coaster to spring.  That will give us brief periods of cold weather broken up by short spells of ever warming weather as the North Carolina winter sunshine gets its strength back.

Wintering here on the coast can give you a little climatic whiplash, but I would rather have it that way than continual cold or no cold at all. A little taste of winter is fine. However, I did not move to the beach for snow so I am always happy to get to that time in February when I can say that winter’s back is broken.

Maybe I had too many long walks to the barn in the winter to have any desire for yet another snowstorm. The first winter we lived in Tay Creek back in the early seventies, we recorded twenty-three feet of snow. That year the snow came before November 1, and stayed on the ground well into May. On top of that we had just moved from Nova Scotia where my wife had gotten more than a taste of a September snow just after we got married the previous year.

Winter is not so bad at the coast and even now I can almost taste spring. Once again our Canadian great egret friend, Frank 29X, seems to have decided to spend some of the winter with us. Actually he has been in our inlet, Raymond’s Gut, since December 29.  He was behind our home on January 8 and came back to gobble up some fish from the marsh behind our house as we had our lunch on January 9.   The truth is that I would rather have a Canadian great egret as company than a Canadian winter.

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 February.

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Holiday White Oak River Rides

December 27, 2015 on the White Oak River

December 27, 2015 on the White Oak River

It is not unusual for me to be out on the river during December, January or even February. However, it is a little different to be headed down river with the boat up on plane on December 27 and to be wearing shorts and a t-shirt.

On our Christmas boat ride last year on December 26, 2014 my daughter, Erin, and I found the water temperature just under 53F. It does not take anyone long to figure out that the air temperature close to the surface on a big river is pretty close to the water temperature. In December and January we can see some cool water temperatures. On January 4, 2014, the river water was at 43.5F.

What cold water in the river means is that you can have close to 80F air temperatures like we enjoyed on December 27, 2015 but still have a cold ride on the river if the water is down below fifty degrees especially when you add the 20 to 30 MPH wind chill from the moving air of a skiff riding on top of the water.

That was not the case on December 26, 2015. Because my GPS unit is broken I could not tell the exact water temperature in the White Oak like previous years, but I could guess that it was somewhere in the upper sixties. Based on other reliable reports and how comfortable we were riding down the river in shorts and t-shirts, the water had to be close to 70F.

Since the air temperature was very warm at almost 80F around our home just off the river, our December 27 boat ride was even refreshing. That happens to be the whole point of boat rides. You do not get a boat to be miserable riding around in it.

I have written much about the White Oak River, and I get very close to it since I also kayak the river and walk its shores. I find that being close to the river and its marshes lets the peace of nature find me. It is the best way to unwind from the tensions of modern life. Among the many choices here, kayaking is perhaps my favorite way of unwinding. My wife fails to understand how being in a kayak just twelve feet long in the middle of a choppy tidal river close to two miles wide could possibly be relaxing but I guarantee that it is.

December kayaking is even more special and if the weather and water temperature holds, I might even get in some January kayaking which is indeed a rare treat. Our waters can briefly freeze over in January and it takes a long time for them to warm. Once the water gets below fifty Fahrenheit, my only trips out on the river are in our skiff since cold water can be deadly if you flip your kayak. Usually the water warms to kayaking temperatures about the time that the strawberries ripen which is sometime from the end of March until the middle of April. That means that normally there is no kayaking for me in January, February or March. I have to make do with a few warm days, lots of marsh walks, some chilly boat rides down the river, and a few magical winter beach walks.

However, each morning sunny or not, I usually manage to walk our neighborhood boardwalk. It gives me a chance to check out the visitors in our marsh.

This year it has not been cold or stormy enough yet for the big birds to need to visit the sheltered area of Raymond’s Gut where we live. It is a little bit of win-lose situation. If our winter is warm, we have fewer marsh visitors and the bird feeder goes begging. A cold winter means there is a big bird around every corner.

Winter will find us soon enough though it is going to be tough to let go of the Romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, and spring onions that we are still enjoying as the New Year draws close. You do not often pick a tomato for a sandwich like we did on Christmas Day 2015 even in coastal North Carolina.

Wintering at the coast is a pleasant adventure and there are always some surprises to keep us on our toes. Just maybe the cold weather will help us get another visit by our famous egret, Frank 29X. That would almost make the cold weather worth it.

Update December 29

There was great excitement in the marsh around Raymond’s Gut this morning.  Frank 29X did show up for a visit.  This is now four straight years that Frank 29X has visited us during December.  It is a long flight from the Ontario marshes where he spends the summer. It was not surprising that we saw Frank 29X on a very windy day and that he was chasing fish in a marsh spot that I call  Where The Egrets and Herons Go To Hide.  You can get a good perspective of Frank 29X’s foraging spot by checking out this photo shot from a drone this past Thanksgiving.

Our most recent email newsletter, Changing Coastal Seasons, went out on October 29. The previous one, Still in Summer’s Embrace, can be seen at this link. Our next email newsletter should be out hopefully around New Year’s Day.

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Great Drying Weather

Pine trees along Raymond's Gut

Pine trees along Raymond’s Gut

It has been over thirty-two years since I cut a field of hay. Even now when a great stretch of perfect drying weather hits, I have the itch to knock down a field of grass and start making hay. The smell of grass turning into hay is something you never forget.

It turns out the same kind of weather is very effective for drying out our over-saturated ground. After the rain that devastated South Carolina and drenched Eastern North Carolina, some great drying weather is very welcome even if I have no hay to make.

We had a wet summer but the rain came in such intense short bursts that we also had a very nice summer for finding your own beach. Such was not the case with our early October storm. It stole our blue skies and hid the sun from us for a few days.

Our yards were too wet to walk on much less mow. Farmers’ crops were stuck in the fields and everything that could hold water was full of it. High water was everywhere.

Then the weather completely turned around. The skies cleared, the sun came out, and the wind started blowing. The relative humidity dropped and things started drying out. We even had a good dose of Indian summer before we got a shot of Canadian cold air across our bow.

As hard as it is to believe I had to water our green beans and tomatoes on October 20. Yes, fall gardening can very successful here. This year we are expecting to harvest some green beans in early November and with a little luck we might also have some Umberto tomatoes not long after that.

That is life on the Crystal Coast, we can have weeks of great weather then some bad weather and before we know it we are back into the fantastic weather.

Even during the amazing rain event that almost washed away South Carolina, we got a break. Saturday, October 3, was a beautiful day here. I went kayaking in the high water and my neighbor went fishing in his skiff. I kayaked in places that are impossible to reach during most of the year. Someone just a few days earlier had asked me about a lot that is for sale nearby.

It is a large river front lot and I often walk on the marsh edge of it during the winter. I told the people looking at it to make certain that they checked it out during high water. Sure enough that Saturday with all the high water and our flooded inlet, I was two thirds of the way up in the lot in my kayak.

In the end the high water receded, our tides became normal and we got the great fall weather that is often the norm here on the Crystal Coast. Now we have not seen in rain in over two weeks and there is no in forecast for the next week.

The waters have cleared and there was even a flounder blitz at the pier this week. The story is that over 40 keepers were caught in one morning and one weighed in at nearly six pounds.

I cannot claim any success like that, but I did get a two pound flounder not long ago and I expect to soon be out in the kayak chasing drum and flounder. Great weather like this should be bottled and brought out in February when we really need it.

The picture in the linked post looks great but I took an even better one on October 20, 2015. Great weather in the fall is a tradition that seems to be well entrenched on the Crystal Coast.

There is more information about our summer at my SOBX Coastal Paradise site.

Our most recent email newsletter about our beach area went out Friday, September 4, and can be seen at this link. Our next email newsletter should be out before the end of October.

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Kayaking Our Big Tidal River


Looking north up the White Oak River

Maybe it is the weather or just the rhythm of life here on the coast but it seems that I often write about kayaking in the middle of July. Last year on July 13, I wrote Saturday Kayaking On The White Oak.

Until I moved to the coast in 2006, all my kayaking had been done on quiet mountain lakes. Kayaking on the White Oak is nothing like those trips that I used to take on Carvins Cove near Roanoke, Virginia. There was little to worry about on the lake except an afternoon thunderstorm.

Kayaking on the White Oak is more complex. The White Oak is a big coastal river that is from one to two miles wide. While the current seems light, it can be amazingly strong when all that water is forced into a narrow channel where that are cuts between the oyster rocks.

Most people have never heard of oyster rocks and you certainly do not want to get acquainted with one at high speed in your boat. While real rocks are not native to Carteret County, we have plenty of oyster shells that compact together to make oyster rocks.

In the White Oak the oyster rocks are long ledges that span much of the center of the lower river. At high tide some are barely covered and others are under water a foot or so. This picture shows a long oyster rock just emerging from the water as the tide drops.

Sometimes just an end of an oyster rock might be sticking up appearing as an island like the one in this picture. There are other times when just a few shells from a massive oyster rock are visible. A close look at this oyster rock should give you a good idea of why I never go kayaking with bare feet.

Oyster rocks which show up as white lines on this map of the river are a big part of kayaking the part of the White Oak where we live. While I respect the rocks, I am pretty much at home on the oyster rocks. The oyster rocks are where the fish are so that is often where I am.

There are other challenges on the river but boat traffic is rarely one of them. The interaction between the current of the river flowing to the sea and the tide which can be enhancing it or going in the other direction makes kayaking on a big coastal river interesting. Then there is the wind. Once in a while you seem to reach equilibrium on the river and you can just enjoy the glassy smooth water and not worry about wind, current, tides, or oyster rocks but that is relatively rare.

Sometimes the wind whips the river up into whitecaps. Since most of the river is shallow this can happen quickly. Because of the oyster rocks and the way they are positioned, there are areas in the river which actually enhance the chop caused by winds and tides. My Old Town Dirigo 120 seems to handle the chop better than my old Wilderness System Pungo 120. It has a higher bow but that also lets the wind push it around a little more.

You have to flexible when you head out on a river like the White Oak. Sometimes when I get out our inlet and into the big river I find conditions that I did not expect. Once in a while I end fishing along the edges in protected areas instead of my favorite area in the middle of the river.

I do go out prepared. I wear my life suspenders, have a small anchor, my cellphone and a flashlight with me. There are areas where it would be hard for a boat to rescue you, but most of those are shallow areas and with shoes you could walk to the edge of deeper water. I used my Pungo 120 for so many years on the oyster rocks that it developed a leak which I have yet to be able to fix. Somehow a couple inches of water in the bottom of the kayak never bothered me but I did take a sponge along because the extra water made the kayak harder to handle.

If you are new to kayaking there are plenty of places in our area to get some instruction and practice before tackling a big river. Lots of folks practice in our quiet inlet and there are some quiet areas in the marshes on the south side of the Intracoastal Waterway near Swansboro. This map has some of the area’s public access points for kayaks. Centennial Park and Hammocks Beach actually have kayak launch ramps. There is a small boat ramp at the Cedar Point Croatan Access. You can also launch at the Wildlife Resources boat ramps in Cedar Point and Emerald Isle. Most of the subdivisions along the White Oak have launch points but you need to have a friend living there to provide access.

With a little practice, the right equipment, and the knowledge of what you might find, kayaking in this area is a lot of fun. While the White Oak might not always be as glassy looking as the post picture, it is always scenic. I have only touched on the White Oak because it is in my backyard and is the easiest place for me to kayak.

Our most recent newsletter went out Friday, July 10, and can be seen at this link. Our next newsletter should be out in August.

If you are interested in visiting the area, check out our free online travel guide to Emerald Isle. If you need more information especially on kayaking and boating, please consider purchasing our extensive fives-star rated Emerald Isle book, A Week at the Beach, The Emerald Isle Travel Guide. The Kindle version which works on everything from iPads to smartphones is only $3.99. We update it each year and during the season there is update information in our newsletter.

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Close to Home Crystal Coast Fourth

Sunset at the Point

Sunset at the Point

For many years quiet Fourth of July celebrations were the rule for our family. We were Americans living in a very rural part of Canada. Fourth of July events would have required a drive across the border into Maine.

Somehow the Fourth has always been about being close to home and Maine was never our home so we stayed in Tay Creek and enjoyed the holiday on our own. The holiday parades of my youth in Lewisville and East Bend, North Carolina, are still alive as memories and I know East Bend continues with the tradition. As with most small town parades, sometimes there are more people in the parade than watching it.

It is not hard to find a Fourth of July event here on the Crystal Coast of North Carolina. The whole world seems to come our way to enjoy the Fourth of July and the towns respond with lots of fireworks. This is no surprise since this happens to be the peak of the beach season.

Peak of the season means we typically have some crowds but not to the degree that you likely would find in more developed areas. Since most of us who live here are spoiled by having the area to ourselves for most of the year, Fourth of July means that most residents tend to stay home during all the traffic and hoopla.

As I started this post on the night of July 4, fireworks were going off all around us. We live three miles up the White Oak River from Swansboro and it seems to be an area tradition for the subdivisions on the river to have some fireworks. This year our subdivision on Raymond’s Gut decided not to have a Fourth of July party. There is so much happening in the area this weekend, it is hard to build enthusiasm for another party.

Sometimes we get creative and try to enjoy the celebrations without getting caught in the crowds. A couple of years ago, a neighbor and I took my boat and his family out on the river to watch the fireworks. It was a nice experience and there was almost no boat traffic but it was not so nice that I have tried to repeat it.

Our first summer here, eight years ago, we actually went over to Emerald Isle and found a side street where we could park and watch the beach fireworks. The normally ten to fifteen minute trip home from the beach took such a long time that we have not attempted watching the island fireworks since then.

As I wrote in an earlier article, “…it is no accident that a local would write a Fourth of July beach article and feature a picture with no beach in sight. The weekend around the Fourth of July is the least likely time for those of us who live here to go over to the beach.” We invited another family in the subdivision to have dinner with us one July 4. They made the mistake of going to the beach that day in Salter Path. A thirty minute return trip turned into three hour journey.

Normally I will at least sneak out on the White Oak in my kayak on July 4, but I just had cataract surgery on my right eye so I am not supposed to get wet or sweat for a while. When I kayak on water that is 84F in almost 90F heat and very high humidity, it is difficult to not instantly sweat. The result is that for 2015 I had to give up my tradition of kayaking on the Fourth.

Summer boating is also very popular here but the weekend of July 4, is not the best time to boat as the boat traffic is very impressive for an area where sometimes I do not even see another boat when I am out in mine. A couple of times I have taken our skiff down the river and into the marshes early on the morning of the Fourth just to see what the traffic looks like.

Boating on the Fourth of July is never as quiet or uncrowded in the harbor and on the Intracoastal as it is the rest of year. This trip which I take regularly is my favorite but I would only try it on July 4, if could I get back to our dock by 8:00 AM.

Even a quick trip to Swansboro like that could also involve getting wet, so this year I just followed the doctor’s orders and just stayed at home and counted my blessings. After all I enjoyed that same boat ride and visited the marshes on Wednesday before July Fourth when there was only a handful of boats around the harbor.

A neighbor who did take his boat over to Bear Island on July 4, 2015, told me that the area was packed with boats. It was also so windy that there was little fun to be found. He confirmed that I did not miss anything by staying home. Holidays are often hypnotic enough to draw sensible people who are trying to escape crowds into a huge crowd.

While our crowds are nothing like they are in many areas, they are a challenge for those of us who moved here for the peace and quiet that is life on the Crystal Coast for ten months out of the year.

Fortunately one of the benefits of living here is that you can easily make the decision that there will be better times to enjoy the area’s beauty than the weekend which draws the most people to our waters each year.

This made me think about how lucky we are to live in a place where people will drive hours and fight considerable traffic and crowds just to spend a week where we get to live all year.

While our visitors barely get to taste life here on the coast, we get to live it to the fullest twelve months of the year. Almost everyone who lives here agrees that the best time is the fall. One neighbor was talking to me the other night. He started out, “Well I sure do not want to wish away our summer weather, but I am certainly looking forward to fall.”

In 2014 we had a wonderful fall. Our falls are so nice that it is not unusual to have weather so nice here on the coast that you wish that you could bottle it. With that in mind, I picked a picture of a sunset on the beach in early September for this post.

Just thinking about being on the beach might help me get beyond the heat and the crowds. I just read an article which said your body cannot tell the difference between visualizing something and actually being there. Of course I do not believe that and will be back on the beach as soon as I get a chance. We have some beaches that touch you each time that you visit and another visit is always just around the corner.

Our most recent newsletter went out the end of May and can be seen at this link. Our next newsletter should be out before the middle of July.

If you are interested in visiting the area, check out our free online travel guide to Emerald Isle. If you need more information, please consider purchasing our extensive Emerald Isle book, A Week at the Beach, The Emerald Isle Travel Guide. The Kindle version which works on everything from iPads to smartphones is only $3.99. We update it each year and I always provide instructions on how to get the annual update in our newsletter.

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Memorial Day On The River

White Oak River near Bluewater Cove

White Oak River near Bluewater Cove

Memorial Day 2015 has come and gone. By all reports it was an overwhelming success. The flag was out at our home and it was a great holiday.

By a twist of fate we were in Raleigh on the Friday before Memorial Day so we got to sample 34 miles of stop and go traffic on Interstate 40. It reaffirmed my belief that there are better ways to get to the Crystal Coast. We needed to stop in Beulaville so the better routes that we include in our travel guide did not make sense that day but it was a good reminder of how bad traffic can be on the wrong route.

My other measures of success are the volume of traffic heading over the bridge to Emerald Isle and the number of boats that I saw on the river.

By both those measures there were plenty of people visiting our piece of paradise during this amazing stretch of weather. Our “sunny forecast” looks like a broken record but everyone is enjoying the extended period of nothing but sunshine.

With Memorial Day being the official kick off for summer, there are plenty of choices of what to do all through the summer.  I took advantage of the holiday to catch up on my work around the yard, attend a subdivision cookout, and spend some quality time on the river.  My barrier island beds (because they are shaped like barrier islands) continue to get more and more interesting.  It has been a great season for spring flowers. Our amaryllis clump had over thirty-six blooms this year as it finished out the spring with these last few blooms.

The neighborhood pool while tempting even to the last moment was still a little cool for me and there was too much traffic to Emerald Isle on Saturday and Sunday to attempt a beach walk. Perhaps we could have slipped over late in the afternoon but that was just when the tides were right for kayaking and fishing on the White Oak and fishing comes first in my book.

I had high hopes of catching a drum out on the oyster rocks like I did last year in the same time frame but it was not to be. In two afternoons of fishing I hardly got a nibble but I did get all my gear in top shape and get my paddling muscles limbered up.

As is always the case, the river was stunningly beautiful. It was also fairly easy paddling. My new Old Town Dirigo kayak handles heavy chop better than my old Pungo 120. One thing you learn on a coastal river is that the water fifty yards away can be very different. Depending on the wind and tide, you can find some choppy water almost adjacent to smooth blue water. Sometimes I paddle over to the edge of the river and fish the water by the marsh grasses to get out of the wind and current. Still no matter which way you look, the water is always beautiful.

I usually spend a couple of hours out on the river exploring my favorite oyster rocks. People sometimes have a hard time visualizing an oyster rock but it is simply a pile of oyster shells that have come together like a rock. Oyster rocks are impressive at low tide and dangerous to boats when hidden by a high tide. However they are great spots to fish especially when there is a cut through the rock.

Though at the last moment our neighborhood pool was tempting, I stuck with my plan for fishing.  These days you have to earn your fish so sometimes I fish with the knowledge that I will not catch any today but I will likely start catching them soon. Paddling back happened to be very easy both days and we have a good system for getting my kayak up a little hill and out of the water. We actually pull the kayak in with my SUV. It builds trust with my wife since it would easy for her to do me in by pulling the kayak into our bulkhead.

All the traffic on the bridge and the many boats and jet skis zooming around the Intracoastal Waterway really mean very little when you are out on the river.  It is a different world on the White Oak River.  It is never very crowded.  My time on the river was very peaceful in spite of the crowds only a few miles away. The peace and quiet of the White Oak was just what I needed.  I also got to visit with an oystercatcher which is always a special treat.

Our most recent newsletter went out the first week in April and can be seen at this link. We are running a little on next newsletter, but it should be out by the end of May.

If you are interested in visiting the area, check out our free online travel guide to Emerald Isle. If you need more information, please consider purchasing our extensive Emerald Isle book, A Week at the Beach, The Emerald Isle Travel Guide. The Kindle version which works on everything from iPads to smartphones is only $3.99. We update it each year and I always provide instructions on how to get the annual update in our newsletter.

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