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Trip Reports - Two Barrier Islands



(Very long, but I love barrier islands)

October 28 – November 1, Hammocks Beach North Carolina

I wanted to spend at least 4 or 5 days at Hammocks Beach, but the narrow window of visitation I had saw inopportune timing for the tides. The paddle in was against the early stages of an incoming tide, so possible without undue effort provided I didn’t fart around getting in.

The long range weather forecast though was near perfect: Light NE winds Mon-Tue-Wed-Thur, with highs in the 70’s and lows in the 50’s. Friday’s wind prediction shifted to SE 10-15. Perfect for a sail back to the mainland.

Bear Island was deserted but for a single canoe beached in the distance behind the Atlantic dunes. I have my favorite site, #12 in the grotto of stunted live oak, for the next 4 nights. The day hammock is the first thing to go up, and there is some immediate lazing about there even before the tarp or tent comes out.

There follow days of camp dawdling, with paddling side trips to the Atlantic beach and maritime forest. In camp there occurred several odd fauna encounters. The marsh marigolds were in bloom and the butterflies were amazingly abundant; Monarchs (or Viceroys, I can’t tell) as well as Orange Sulfurs.

Sitting motionless in the chair reading I noticed something moving fast in my peripheral vision and glanced up to catch a glimpse of a small accipiter, Sharp-shinned or Coopers, coming in on a glide path at 12 o’clock, aimed straight for my head. He (she?) pulled up at the last second and landed a few feet behind me in the live oak grotto.

I knew the instant I lifted my head it would take flight, and it did, but it is the closest I’ve been to a wild hawk since mist netting in the 70’s.

That would have been the bird highlight, even with the constant view of something aflight, osprey, marsh hawk, eagle, egret, heron, and sundry warblers. But at one point I heard a splashing and crashing of water and arose from my hammock recline to look down the low tide inlet.

A mixed flock of everydamn thing – gulls, cormorant, egrets, herons and etc – has gathered into a dense mass and is driving a school of small fish up the inlet into the shallows.

The cormorants were the herding pros and would line up 6 or 8 abreast across the shallow inlet in front of the rest of the flock, beating the water with their wings, driving the school of fleeing fish further and further into the shallows until it looked like the water before them was boiling.

Idyllic day followed idyllic day. The weather was near perfect. There were no bugs (remember that). Few people – one tripper who paddled out from the beachfront, two guys in a flat bottom skiff who beached in the shallow water inlet to forage coon oysters and two daytrippers who came in toting surfboards to ply the waves between Bear Island and Bogue Inlet.

Too soon I needed to be gone. Too soon in days and too soon in tidal flow. There was a peculiarly high tide in the early AM and a morning departure is necessary. I am destined to hit peak tidal flows. Peak outgoing against me tidal flows.

The long range prediction for Friday’s wind fortuitously held true, steady at SE 10-15. Instead of following the serpentine canoe route back to the mainland I opted to paddle south behind Bear Island to the main ferry/boat channel where I would have the wind at my back and more depth of water.

Paddling against a strong outgoing tide was a chore. Paddling at about 80% of max capacity I was making less than 1mph, judged GPS-less at about half a normal walking pace as the spartina grass slowly crept past.

Even that slow slog necessitated a few breaks, during which I began to question the wisdom of paddling against a strong tide in a narrow channel and began to contemplate finding a sandy beach, getting out my wind chair and sitting for a few hours until the tide slackened.

I struggled on to the ferry channel and turned into that straight shot northwest. The wind is now, out from behind the shelter of the Bear Island dunes and trees, steady southeast at 15.

I upped the Spirit Sail on the Penobscot, rested comfortably on a long double blade rudder and, even in the shallows outside the channel, didn’t take a stroke ‘til I reach the landing. At one point a motor boat crept up from behind in the channel, pulled alongside and matched my speed.

The driver called “We’ve been watching your sail, you’re making 3.2 knots against the tide”. Doing zero work.


Slideshow (This was part of a much longer trip to coastal NC, with the usual shop playtime and incomplete endeavors at the Tortoise Reserve):

http://s1285.photobucket.com/user/CooperMcCrea/slideshow/NC October November 2013

November 17 – November 22, Assateague Island, Maryland

There’s no place like home…there’s no place like home…all I have to do is click my Mukluks together and I’ll be home at Assateague. No place is as familiar and as at-home as paddling the Chincoteague Bay backcountry behind Assateague Island.

Up with eager anticipation at 3:30am, coffee’d up and pick up trippermate Joel a little after 5am. I’ve brought the newly refurbished 1977 Hyperform Lettmann Optima (AKA Opie) and we rack Joel’s spanking new still-resin-smelling Current Designs Nomad HV. Yes, a 19’ solo sea kayak is high volume.

So is Opie. I had test packed the new hull in the shop and kept adding gear until it was full.

This will be my first trip of the season shifted into winter gear packing mode, which always increases the volume: tent, winter bag and pad, two tapered dry bags, two 55L drybags, tarp, pole and stakes, two 3 gallon food buckets, seven days worth of water, two 10L drybags, a 48 can soft side cooler, two canteens, two sails, two paddles and the ever-present wind chair and accessories.

A lot of gear, and in a test pack it all fit inside Opie’s deep hull except for the sleeping pad strapped to the back deck.

The drive east towards the coast is pre-dawn easy, although the further towards the shore the foggier it gets. Arriving at the NPS Ranger station a few minutes before it opens we secure our permit and find that other than one oceanside permit, due out today, we will be the only folks in the backcountry.

I expected that vacancy to continue. The wind forecast for the next few days would be enough to dissuade me from paddling Chincoteague Bay.

We launch into the fog and immediately realize that we will be compass navigating, blind of any shoreline or landmark. No problem; I know the two-tangent compass route like the back of my hand from previous trips, especially those under sail – out to Great Egging Island, 180 due south outboard of the Tingles Tump, come 30 east to the Pine Tree Peninsula.

Except that we didn’t paddle all the way out to Great Egging, as I feared it was a miss-able target in the fog and that we’d end up across the bay in Public Landing. Which wouldn’t have been a bad thing a few years ago.

A light tailwind allowed me the first chance to sail Opie, and a rare opportunity to use the full sized Spirit Sail. Maintaining a compass heading in the fog is wayyyyy harder than when heading point to point with visible landmarks. My natural inclination was to slowly veer more eastward, towards the comforting sound of the Atlantic surf.

It was a zig-zag path south was made all the more crooked by the fog mirage of looming peninsulas and islands. As long as we keep any land spit off our left we’re fine, but many of those misty peninsulas turned out to be shimmering mirages of wave riffled water, and we would try to paddle out around them to no avail.

Eventually we recognized our location in the Tingles Channel, we spent some time investigating up the High Winds Gut to the sneak route, where the incoming tide was rapidly filling the impoundment.

Not rapidly enough to make the sneak passable. This did give us an opportunity to see how the new boats performed in attaining against the tide as we paddled back out the High Winds channel.

The fog lifts a bit and we arrive at the Pine Tree landing to find that the Assateague mosquitoes are still active. Despite nighttime temperatures near freezing and high winds the skeeters were a presence in the shelter of bayberry and wax myrtle over the course of the next 6 days.

300 miles south on Bear Island in North Carolina there were zero bugs, but Assateague mosquitoes area hearty breed. During breakfast preparations a cloud of mosquitoes would gather around the stove, necessitating a quick dash-and-grab to make coffee.

A palatial camp was quickly established – two tents, two hammocks, tarp and goodly fire.

Unlike the mosquitoes we did not suffer for lack of warmth. The loblolly logs that required three days of fireside drying to burn in back in March will now blaze more easily. So easily that we after we lit Monday’ fire we kept it going day and night until Friday.

Sunday’s full moon rise coincided with sunset, and even without that coincidence dawn and dusk views were barrier island spectacular as always.

The loblolly knocked down in hurricane Sandy has already begun to decay in contact with the ground, so the time to burn it is now. Every time we stepped away from the fire we made it a habit to return with yet another log, excepting those that harbored dusky salamanders beneath.

The abundance of Duskies was new to me at Assateague. Other wildlife was more familiar. An immature bald eagle circled over camp every day, expressing considerable protest at our presence. The weird warble at night that sounds like elk bugling is in fact elk bugling – sika deer are elk, and can be quite vocal about it.


Having a birder with binoculars and Sibley guide in hand means that most birdlife is readily identified; golden crowned kinglet, seaside, savannah and swamp sparrows, myrtle warblers (they will always be myrtle warblers to me, I don’t cotton to this newfangled yellow-rumped name).

The wind chair continues to evolve winterizing accessories. Joby gifted me with a folding hammock pad (or he may have just shown it to me and I kept it), which happens to fit perfectly across the back of the chair, providing a fully insulated seat and backrest. Sweet, and it works in the hammock too.

Other gifts arrived later in the trip. We encountered only two other people during our stay. One was a park ranger in a small motorboat who approached Joel while he was out day paddling.

I’ve never even seen a Ranger while afloat, and coincidentally this was Joel’s second encounter with the same ranger, the first having taken place a few years ago when Joel met him lost during a remote hike in the Grand Canyon (the Ranger was lost, not Joel).

The second human was Brian, my post-retirement boss, who hiked in for a visit bearing gifts; a bottle of bourbon, a resupply of beer and the day’s Washington Post. Best boss ever.

Eventually, and always too soon, it was time to pack the palatial camp, douse the ever present fire and paddle out. Although our permit was good for a few more days the wind forecast on Friday was perfect for a sail back to the ferry landing, southwest 10-15.

Without the weather radio forecast we might have stayed, but a strong and very windy cold front approaches on Saturday, with a prediction of gusts to 40 knots over the weekend. Nuh uh, god bless the weather radio and time to go.

We dawdled long in breaking camp, eeking out the best part of the day, paddling out on a rising tide.

Well, Joel paddled out. I paddled a hundred yards out into the bay, put up the mid-sized Spirit Sail and didn’t take a stroke until I was 30 feet from the ferry landing. With visible landmarks I held a steady course, moving the rudder but once, due south outboard of the Tingles Tump, come 30 east straight to the landing.

Opie needs but a few minor outfitting changes to be complete and sails beautifully, settling into the waves rock solid enough that I stored both paddles and simply sat, looked and listened.

By the time Joel arrived I had most of my gear in the truck and we were racked and packed and on the road as a light rain commenced.

Timing is everything.


http://s1285.photobucket.com/user/CooperMcCrea/slideshow/Assateague November 2013

http://s1324.photobucket.com/user/JoelBeckwith/slideshow/Assateague Nov 2013




One of my bucket list things has long been to watch a rocket launch from my canoe. I missed viewing a shuttle launch from the Ula May Wildlife Sanctuary just outside the Cape Canaveral exclusion zone years ago when we were there, boats on the van ready to go, and the launch was scuttled due to a fuel leak.

NASA and the private rocket companies now launch with some regularity from Wallops Island at the southern end of Chincoteague Bay. I had been watching the launch schedule and skipped two launches in late summer, knowing the mosquitoes would be intolerable.

I did not look at the schedule before the November trip. I am a stupid, stupid man.

NASA launched a Minotaur Rocket with a science payload at 8:15pm on Tuesday night while we were there. We were 15 miles away, on a cold clear night, with open views south to Wallops Island.

And, I presume, watching the fire, not the southern sky.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Jun 12, 2012
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Appleton, Maine
Hey Mike,
I went to the local library to view your pics, (a few weeks away from high speed here at home), very nice. I was amazed at the pics of the birds herding the fish, didn't know that happened. I used to watch for birds over bait while surf fishing, live and learn. I really liked the ocean pics, growing up on Long Island I miss the surf, but knowing tides and inlets, I would be very wary to paddle in the areas you do. Thanks for the memories.


I was amazed at the pics of the birds herding the fish, didn't know that happened.

I had never seen that behavior before either. I’ve seen mixed flocks diving on schools of fish in the shallows, but never that type of obvious herding behavior.

I was coming out of Assateague a few years ago and kept noticing what looked like waves crashing in the distance. OK, Assateague waves and wind, not that unusual, except that the waves were against the sheltered side of a shoreline. As I got closer it turned out to be a dense flock of birds diving on fish, a dense enough flock that they were throwing up spray and froth.

I really liked the ocean pics, growing up on Long Island I miss the surf, but knowing tides and inlets, I would be very wary to paddle in the areas you do.

Wary in those types of places is good, but both Assateague and Hammocks Beach are doable in open boats. For the first 25 year I paddled Assateague I did so in open canoes. What I did not have for the first couple of decades was a weather radio or knowledge of the tides.

Barrier islands are notoriously windy, and now I would not visit without a weather radio. Truth be told, if my weather radio died I would paddle out at the first favorable opportunity rather than leave things to chance. The last trip for example – we had a permit good through Sunday. Friday’s wind and weather was perfect, but we had food and water enough to last a couple more days.

But the forecast for Saturday and Sunday was beyond fugly – strong cold front blowing in with temps dropping radically with “blowing” being the operative word, gusts to 40 knots. Had we stayed into Saturday we would have been there into Monday at the least.

I’m still learning about tides and tidal action. At Assateague the actual tidal flow is negligible out in Chincoteague Bay, but the bay is so shallow that paddling near high tide is preferable. Paddling one of the more wind protected sneak route absolutely requires high tide timing, as well as the knowledge that high tide (and low tide) back in the marshes is hours later than high tide out in the bay.

At Hammocks Beach the proximity to Bogue Inlet makes tidal timing even more critical. Paddling against the middle twelfths of the tidal flux would be difficult if not impossible.

With a weather radio catching favorable wind and weather conditions is as easy as listening.

Getting the tidal timing right is trickier. Just knowing the timing of high and low tide is good, but experience with the actual impact of the tides – how delayed the level and current might be in various areas, how strong the flow is in narrow channels, how the mixmaster runs at the confluence of the inlet and the inter-coastal – is even more important, and the tide charts can’t tell you that.
Sep 13, 2013
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Long Island, NY
Thanks for sharing. I love the photos. I'm glad that boat you retrofitted is working out so well for you.