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.
White Oak River near Raymonds Gut
The colors and the light have changed as we have moved into the fall season. While it is a subtle change, it is still very noticeable especially to photographers.
While we keep hearing that the weather is changing, the slightest taste of fall usually gets overwhelmed by the powerful sun that owns the North Carolina coast during September. The humidity leaves for brief periods then you open your door during midday and it feels like summer all over again.
It is still great beach weather and the water temperature remains close to 80F. Even as September draws to a close, my last hike at the Point on September 8, is still a fresh memory. The pictures that I took remind me of just how beautiful our beaches are here on the Crystal Coast. When you walk over on the Point, you enter a different world. While beach driving started September 15, I got my most recent hike in before the trucks started hitting the beach. That meant that I had the far reaches of the beach almost to myself.
The hike which is shown on this map was a little over two miles. In the fall I try hike down to what is called Bird Island but I ran out of time, daylight, and energy on September 8. I am hoping to get back to the Point the first week in October. The highs are supposed to be in the low eighties or upper seventies. That will be perfect weather for hiking the beaches.
The weather folks keep promising us a front that is going to drop down and sweep out all the humidity. It seems to never quite make it to the Crystal Coast and now we have to keep our eye on Tropical Storm Mathew which has the possibility of swinging up the east coast and bringing more tropical air over us.
We have learned from past experiences to keep our eyes on the water. The last year or so, many areas, some not even on the coast (see Cedar Rapids, Iowa) are getting caught in torrential non-tropical storms that move slowly across the country. Last year areas of South Carolina were swamped. We were luckily only on the edge of that storm. Even with our area not in the bullseye, the storm gave us high waters and put an end to good weather for a while. Recently, Bertie County, which is north of the Crystal Coast, got nearly twenty inches of rain over three days. It caused severe flooding. Now as I write this Washington, DC is under a flood watch and might get eight inches of rain in two to three days.
The good news is that even in years like last year we usually do get a great stretch of weather. In the fall as the tropics settle down, we get to really enjoy the area. Fall is without a doubt my favorite time on the Southern Outer Banks. The fish are biting, the crowds have dispersed, and the humidity is a lot lower. On top of that the water is still warm.
I managed to get out in my kayak last weekend. That is where I took the picture at the beginning of the post. It was great to be on the water. The previous time that I went out, I felt like the frog in a pot of gradually heating water. I was out very early in the morning but as the heat of the day caught up with me, there was no relief since the water was still in the upper eighties. Fortunately those water temperatures are gone and a kayak ride is back to being a very pleasant experience.
If you have the flexibility to visit this time of year, just watch the weather and pick your time carefully to really enjoy the treats of the Crystal Coast. As you can see from the beach pictures, there is plenty of room for visitors.
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 your 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, Back to the Beach, went out on September 12. The one before that was August Warmth. We hope to have our next newsletter out before Halloween.
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I had to resist a title like, Coastal Weather Depends On Where You Are and When You Are There. It is actually not a bad summary of the situation we face on a daily basis. You can drive the 100 or so miles from Winston-Salem to Raleigh and only see the mean July temperature go from 87F to 89F. Drive another 120 miles to Jacksonville, North Carolina, and you will find the mean temperature, and in July it can be mean and hot, will still be stuck on 89F.
Yet you only have to go another nineteen miles to Swansboro to watch the July mean temperature drop four degrees to 85F . Then things start to get really interesting but there is little data that you can put your hands on to show the local coastal weather quirks we know so well.
You cannot live very long in coastal North Carolina before it dawns on you that the water and how much of it is around you has more to do with your daily temperatures than just about anything else. We often escape almost all of the early spring hot spells because our water is still cool. When fall comes we can sometimes wade in the surf into early November. In the spring it can be positively chilly over on Emerald Isle by the ocean but it can be very toasty and warm over on the mainland by some of the marshes that absorb that wonderful North Carolina spring sunshine faster than the Atlantic Ocean.
That is just the start. We have more types of water than Canadians have of snow. Shallow marsh waters with a dark bottom like those around my house warm very quickly but they also cool off very quickly. Deep waters with a sandy bottom stay cool longer. Areas through which the tide draws lots of water see a real mixing action of water and temperatures.
Then you have to factor in the wind. The wind cools the water. The difference in temperature on a part of the river where it is two miles wide and in a sheltered inlet will either start you thawing or bring sweat to your brow depending on the time of year. The areas where the winds cannot blow across the open waters stay warmer most of the year. The change is even more dramatic the closer you get to the ocean.
Just to make things even more interesting, if we get a lot of rain and it is cool rain from thunderstorms, it can quickly change the temperature of the rivers and sometimes even their salinity which matters a lot when it comes to fishing. Then if the rain comes from a tropical air mass, it can feel like we are walking around in rain direct from Florida.
There are some rules to living on the coast in the summer. If you want to enjoy the outside world in July and August, do it early and be home by 8:30 AM before it starts getting warm. If you want to go to the beach and cannot go early, you will find that it is wonderful in the late afternoon and early evening.
We find it also helps if we keep our heat pumps set on eighty degrees. It makes the transition to the outside much easier. When you come inside, you do not feel like you have walked into a meat locker. You know it is really summer here when you can take a comfortable shower without using any hot water. Even the ground warms up pretty quickly and our water pipes are barely buried.
If you cannot hit those times of the day when it is nice outside, you need to be careful because the heat can suck the life out of you. Again that depends on where you are. If you are up the White Oak River where the river is twenty-five feet wide and the water has six foot high marsh grass on both sides, finding a breeze is going to be very difficult.
Those are the times when you head for Bogue Inlet where the water is cooler and there is almost always a breeze. That is a picture of Bogue Inlet at the top of the post. Of course if it is a cold day, it can be mighty cold over at Bogue Inlet. Depending on the direction of the wind, you might want to hide behind Bear Island or Huggins Island. Then there is the difference between being in a skiff and a kayak. If the water is very cold or very warm, you will notice it more in the kayak. However, when we have a hot day in the spring and the river is still sixty degrees, you can be sure that it will feel colder than sixty degrees when you take a trip down the river especially in an open skiff at 30 MPH.
I was out on the river late in the evening on July 17, 2013. The water temperature was in the upper eighties. There was little wind and I could feel the heat radiating from the river. The next morning after a night with clear skies, the river was much cooler and a trip down it was much nicer.
Then there are some mysteries to coastal weather. I often wonder why Ocracoke Island is warmer early in the morning than most other places on the coast in the summer. It is surrounded by water and the water cannot be warmer than our water. I do not know the answer.
The variety in coastal weather is just part of what makes life on the coast interesting. Our hot weather usually does not last more than a few weeks and I will trade that anytime for the moderate weather that we have in the winter.
Whenever I do not like the weather, I either just wait until it changes or drive a few miles to find something different. It is the coastal way.
Beach Traffic at Third St. Beach
When July rolls around, I usually do a post about beach traffic. While most people think of beach traffic as the vehicles on the road trying to get to a beach, I am just as concerned about the number of people on the beach hoping to enjoy the water.
The first weeks of July are our peak time for summer visitors here on the Southern Outer Banks. The annual influx of visitors usually brings out a few complaints from local residents about how bad the traffic is here.
I try to take the complaints about road traffic about as seriously as I do a few grains of sand in our car after a walk on the beach. In 2011 when the bridge clogged up for a few hours during check-in hours on the 4th of July weekend, I wrote a post about it.
No traffic that I have ever seen here on the beach holds a candle to Washington, DC traffic so I am happy to report our number of annual traffic tie-ups still is still just a handful.
My 2011 tour of the island at around 2PM on Saturday, July 1 indicated that we had a very good crowd. In 2012 on Saturday, June 30, the bridge so clogged, I decided to wait a little before doing my beach check. I suspect that means we have a great crowd this year.
Around 5 PM I left for a quick trip to Swansboro where I was dropping off an award for the area’s best restaurant as listed in my new book, “A Week at the Beach, An Emerald Isle Travel Guide.” By the time I drove by the bridge it had already cleared.
By the time I returned to the bridge it was 5:30 PM. I decided to time my trip just to provide some concrete numbers. It took me about two minutes to cross the bridge, and another six minutes to get to Sweet Spot, the ice cream shop in the block before the stoplight to the Bogue Inlet Pier.
The whole trip to what most of us consider the center of town was about eight minutes which is perhaps a minute or two longer than normal. I can think is very bad by any standards. Certainly things were much slower earlier in the day, but we will survive another traffic event on Sunday, July 1. Possibly we will have seen the worst for another year.
There was a slight traffic backup between the CVS and Sweet Spot because of an accident, but it only added a few seconds to my trip. After visiting with the folks at Sweet Spot, I headed on up the island to the Third Street Beach.
Vehicular traffic appeared to have mostly dissipated from the mess earlier in the day. From what I could tell, most people seem to have headed for their vacation homes and disappeared inside to recover from their road trips.
When I arrived at the Third Street Beach parking lot, I was not surprised that there were only two other cars in the lot. I was a little surprised when I walked out to the beach, and my quick survey indicated very few people on the beach. The picture at the top of the post will confirm my beach visitor estimate.
By then it was almost 6 PM and the worst heat of the day was almost gone especially with the nice ocean breeze. I suspect people were inside having dinner or planning their next moves on their vacation. However, I think folks were missing the best time of the day to enjoy the beach.
As I headed back to the mainland, I was a little shocked to see a parking place or two in front of Jordan’s Seafood which is usually packed on summer Saturday nights. Perhaps people were worried about having to wait outside in the hot air. When I drove by Food Lion at Emerald Plantation, I could tell that parking places were a scarce commodity.
My trip from the Third Street Beach to the stoplight at the intersection of Highway 24 and Highway 58 took eighteen minutes which might be a minute or two more than normal. Certainly my quick visit showed that people traffic on the beach was minimal and vehicle traffic on the roads was nothing to get excited about considering this is our busiest week of the year.
Those of us that live here often get spoiled by having almost no traffic to deal with in our daily lives. Ninety-nine percent of the area residents are happy to have our summer visitors. We would have a bleak economy without the annual migration to the beach that is tradition on much of the east coast.
We are blessed here on the Crystal Coast to have such low density housing along our beaches. Even at the peak of the season, it is not hard to find privacy on our beaches if you are willing to walk a little. We have more beach than most people need.
I spend a lot of time walking the beaches of Emerald Isle. My walks are sometimes serious ones at the Point. It is not unusual for me to cover three to five miles in one of my beach hikes. I rarely see more than a handful of people once I get into the serious sand that extends over 1,800 feet from the vehicle ramp at the Point. I might skip any lunch hour visits to the Point this week, but it will be more because of the heat during the day than crowds that I might find.
Human traffic is minimal here when you get into the more remote areas of our beaches. It seems most people walk to the beach and head straight for the water. They spread out like the delta of a river but they rarely go very far from where they first find sand and water.
It is perhaps human nature to enjoy the closest water, but it gives those of us willing to walk a little a lot more beach to enjoy. I know from experience there are lots of crowded beaches in the world, I am happy to live in an area where it is easy to enjoy life without walls.
For tips about the best places for walking and evening some suggestions for avoiding traffic on the roads and grocery stores, check out my book at Amazon. It is available currently in Kindle format, but with free Kindle reader software, you can read it on practically anything including a Mac, a PC, or an iPad. I am working on a native version for the iPad.
Nice morning in Bluewater Cove
Finally we are back to some normal weather. August 15, we got up to a 68F morning temperature. The first thing that I did was go upstairs and throw some windows open to catch the early morning breeze.
When I headed out on my morning walk around the boardwalk here in Bluewater Cove, it was impossible not to notice the change in the air. I don’t know how long it will last, but the muggy air of the last few weeks seems to have disappeared.
Temperatures in the sixties will do a lot for us. First our late season tomato plants can finally set some fruit. Next it will cool off the area waters, and bring back some of our favorite fish. There is already evidence of that. This morning there were schools of bait swimming around our docks. They have been absent in the recent heat.
My morning walk was hard to beat with a full moon over the cove and a light breeze coming from the northwest. The moon was even reflected in the water. I could tell from looking through my telephoto lens that the breeze was much stronger out on the White Oak River.
I also got to see two kingfishers engaged in a dogfight (birdfight?) over the water. By watching closely I figured out where one of them landed and managed to get a pretty good picture of him considering the long distance of the shot.
When I came back to the house, I even convinced myself that the tomato plants looked happier after their rain bath from yesterday and this morning’s cool temperatures.
All in all it was a great morning walk and a fine way to start the day. Likely when I get back from my morning appointment, I will take the boat our for a spin if the winds don’t get worse.
First it is time to pick some more tomatoes and try to sneak them in the house while my wife isn’t looking.
As a side note, on August 14, I updated my PDF map of the area. It has a list of recommended restaurants. After a meal last week that I would like to forget, I dropped one well known local restaurant from my list. The food was so poorly cooked that I was felt the need to cook my own flounder dinner on Saturday night August 13. Jimmy over at Clyde’s suggested we take home the six pound monster that was on ice at the counter, but we settled for one that was just shy of two pounds.
You can download the PDF and try to figure out which restaurant I dropped at my Welcome to the Beach page.