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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Land and Waters That Stretch the Mind

After many years of travel, your mind has wonderful images of beautiful places that you have visited. I have been lucky to have traveled to many scenic spots around the globe. From Alaska to New Zealand to Switzerland and Germany's Bavaria, I have enjoyed many postcard perfect scenes. Beyond that I lived on the shore in Nova Scotia and more recently on the side of a mountain in Virginia. From our Nova Scotia home I used to watch the sun set over the Bay of Fundy. From our Virginia home, I could roll out of bed and capture the sun as it climbed above the mountains surrounding downtown Roanoke. All of those places have left me with wonderful memories, vivid images, and thousands of pictures. As wonderful as all those places are, my mind ends up being a blank slate when I get out on the water here along North Carolina's Southern Outer Banks. It is nearly impossible to describe the beauty of this area in words. Only photography offers the chance to share some of the beauty with people who are unable to actually make a boat trip.
I often talk about the wonders of living along the water. Here along the Crystal Coast a water view is highly prized. Yet as wonderful as it to live by the water, the appreciation of the water and the beauty of the surrounding land deepens greatly when you are actually out on the water.

Something truly special happens when you make a turn, and you see nothing but sky, water, and amazing marshes filling the horizon. It is almost like the scenery just washes over my mind's eye and clears out any old images.

Understanding that you can be swallowed up by the beautiful scenery around you explains one of the great mysteries of being out on the water. Often we go out and find a spot to fish and enjoy the beauty around us only to discover that time has little relevance for us. What we thought was an hour, possibly was actually three or four hours.

If we are lucky enough to have escaped any cell phone calls, then it is very easy to suffer time dis-orientation. We have no idea what time is, and sometimes we end up forgetting even when we left. Fortunately hunger usually shakes us back to reality, but it is truly amazing how our area's scenic beauty can lull you almost into another dimension.

What is even more fun is that the images from the water stick with you. I can easily remember many wonderful water trips while I have a hard time recalling any of my road trips even though I have driven around the United States three times. It is almost like the best images from my water adventures are burned into my brain. I can flip through almost at will. Time hardly seems to dim them. I remember the water on a trip that I called Mackerel Morning almost as clearly as it was two weeks ago instead of over two years ago.

As good as the pictures might be, there are times when you can only appreciate the true beauty of the moment by being there. The wind on your face, the smells of ocean water, and the warmth of the sun all contribute to special moments. While our minds can record those feelings, it is the rare photograph that can do justice to one of those special moments.

Even this evening, I spent a long time deciding what picture could best capture a sampling of the beauty of this area. I came close to picking a special ocean wave or perhaps a view of Bogue Sound from the Emerald Isle Bridge, but in the end I went with this recent shot taken as we turned towards Bear Island from the Intracoastal Waterway.

It highlights the expansiveness that often captures our eyes and imagination. The clouds, the water, and the marshes are all part of the equation that ends up equaling scenic beauty that pulls many of us to choose the Crystal Coast as our permanent homes.

We are the really lucky ones. We wake up to the beauty of this area every day. It is literally on our doorsteps. I know that I am not the only resident who can lose himself by enjoying just a few hours on the water.

The good news is that many of those wonderful views that have so enchanted me are very accessible by boat. Some can even be seen while riding the pontoon ferry over to Hammocks Beach State Park. We live in area where kayaking and boating are a big part of life so it is not very hard to find a boat ride in Carteret County.

Now is a great time to visit.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Enjoying Your Beach Visit

Sometimes getting across the bridge at check-in for your beach vacation can be a challenge. With a short window on both Saturday and Sunday for people to pick up their keys, traffic can get backed up at the bridge. The good news is that we rarely see other traffic problems after the weekend. Our peak traffic season only last a few weeks. As we get away from the Fourth of July, traffic decreases, but even later in the season, there are some challenges. With that in mind, I have some simple suggestions that might make your visit more pleasurable. Some are gleaned from what our family used to do before we became permanent residents. Others are based on applying the local knowledge which you develop as a resident. In the end just a little planning and some minor changes can make a huge difference in maximizing your beach time and having the most fun possible.
One of the easiest ways to reduce first day stress is to pack a cooler with enough food at least for the first evening meal and breakfast of the next day. In the Emerald Isle area there are four grocery stores. There are three more in Morehead City and another in Atlantic Beach. Even with that many stores, most grocery stores in the area get very crowded on Saturday and Sunday, both in afternoons and the evenings.

While our stores are generally very good at moving people through, if you have a huge cart full of stuff, you can expect to wait some length of time to check out if you shop on Saturday or Sunday later than the morning. If you make that same large shopping trip on Monday morning, you likely will breeze through the checkout. Bringing some food and basics with you can greatly smooth your entry into beach life.

You do not have to completely avoid the grocery stores on the weekend, you just have to pick your battle. I am actually a pro at going to the grocery stores on Saturday and Sunday during the visitor season. My first secret is to never get more than what will fit in one of those small hand baskets. Then the real key to getting in and out of the store quickly is to use the automated check out systems. Usually the attendant will use their affinity card if you are trying to save on the specials and do not have one of the cards. However, you do not need one of the cards to use the automated machines.

You can also save a trip to the grocery store by stopping at one of the local produce stands. Winberry's in Cedar Point is one of my favorites. A stop there, and then at one of the local fish markets is a good way to come up with ingredients for dinner without hitting the grocery store.

Almost no one comes to the beach without eating out a few times. The problem is that most people want to eat out at the same time. Hence the few restaurants over near the beaches can get crowded at the most popular times. There are two solutions to this challenge. One is to pick a time that is enough out of the ordinary to let you beat the crowds. The other is to try some of the very good restaurants over on the mainland or lesser known island ones.

Sometimes the choice when trying to dine out is an hour wait in line, or twelve to fifteen minutes in the car. I have been both at Jordan's in Emerald Isle and the Crab Shack in Salter Path when the waits were well over an hour. Both times we got in the car and drove to T&W's Oyster House up Highway 58. My humble opinion is that their fried seafood is as good or better than the two island based restaurants. It is also a very big restaurant, and it is unusual not to be seated almost immediately.

I offer up this list of restaurants as suggestions to making dining out a little easier. Many of them are on the mainland, some are less well known island restaurants. All are ones where I have enjoyed good food. Since I created that list, Nicky's has opened between the bridges in Swansboro. I have enjoyed some really nice seafood there. Even more exciting is that it did not come out of the deep fryer. However, just to prove that I am impartial when it comes to cooking seafood, their fried clam strip appetizer is also a favorite of mine.

Another suggestion for saving time and money is to use the automated free standing ice machines instead of making a trip to the grocery store. I am a big fan of getting my ice in the cooler without having a plastic bag which ends up in the landfill. The automated ice machines give me more ice, twenty pounds instead of sixteen, when I do not ask for the ice in a bag.

If your accommodations on the beach still require you to drive to get to the beach, you might find the Western Regional Access crowded at times. There are other places you can go to avoid the crowds. Most days there will be fewer people at the Eastern Regional Access about eight miles farther down the beach.

If you want even less people and want to be very close to the beach, Third Street Beach is a good choice if you can get along without a restroom and water to wash your feet. I sometimes find it almost deserted. There is also a great beach access with parking at the Roosevelt Natural Area in the Salter Path area.

If someone in the family is willing to do a little walking, you can sample some of the best beaches on Emerald Isle like I did recently on a nearly perfect Crystal Coast day. Just use the CAMA access points on Inlet Drive and park in the small parking lot on Coast Guard Road. It is easy to drop the family and gear at one of the access points and circle the block back to the parking area. The walk back to the beach is five to ten minutes.

There are lots of wonderful things to do at the beach. Just learning a little about the local area will greatly expand your options and perhaps save you some time when things get crowded on the beach.

You might even run into a special treat like a Bogue Sound watermelon if you get off the beaten path. Vacations have changed over the years, but when summer is in full swing, you can still have great fun here at the beach. Some planning and hints from us locals can make it even easier to have that fun.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Heat Is On

Those of you who like me complained about last winter's cold temperatures are going to get another chance to soak up some extreme warmth over the next few days. This weekend we will see some temperatures over at the beach in the low to mid nineties. That is about as hot as it normally gets around here. In fact in the few years that we have been living here along the Southern Outer Banks, we have only seen temperatures that high a few times. You know that it is going to be a hot spell when the nighttime temperatures barely get below eighty. It is usually August before that happens, but this has been a very warm summer so far in many places. The only good news about the heat is that this spell is only going to last a few days. To help matters even more, our temperatures have been reasonable for the past few days. We even had a mostly rainy day on Sunday. Our recent weather will help us get over this hot spell.
First, since we are just now going into a new hot spell, the area waters have cooled back to a reasonable level. The unofficial surf temperature reading Tuesday morning was 81 degrees Fahrenheit. As I can tell you from my wading around in the ocean waters Tuesday afternoon, 81 degrees is very pleasant temperature, but it will still cool you off. I suspect we have the winds to thank for keeping the waters a little cooler than they might be.

Of course the winds have made playing in the ocean a little more challenging. Most people I saw playing in the surf today were staying close to shore. That is always a good plan when the surf is stirred up, and the winds are blowing. Still it is nice to have a world of waves when it gets this hot.

We will only be blessed with cooling winds for another day. Starting Thursday the predictions are for much lighter winds which will come at the same time as the hotter temperatures.

The only real ways to escape the heat when it gets this hot are to get in the water or be on the water and anchored where you can get a good sea breeze. Aside from that, it will be a good time to stay in the air conditioning during the heat of the day.

Those of us who live here adjust our lives for the heat. If we want to work outside, we do it early in the morning. If you can finish a chore by 8:30 AM, you will face a lot less stress than if you finish just before noon. On a hot day, if I want to go to the beach, I usually go after 5 PM when the worst of the heat is over.

By Thursday afternoon, you can expect the sand on the beaches to have warmed up enough to require either sandals or some fancy dancing to get to the water. It really is amazing what water can do for you. Often after mowing our yard, I will take a shower and by the end of the shower, I have practically turned any hot water off. In the summertime, our water comes out of the faucets fairly warm.

After the quick shower has cooled me, I will often walk across the cul de sac and take advantage of the swimming pool that we have in Bluewater Cove. With the recent cooling, the pool is very pleasant temperature. A quick dip in the pool is a great way to cool your body further.

That usually works except in August. Then I have been known to get in the car and head straight to the beach. I consider the ultimate cooling experience to be an ocean wave hitting me right in the middle of my back. I can almost guarantee that will take the heat right out of your body.

Summer is one of those things that we long for in winter. Then sometimes the reality of the heat is a little intense. I actually have adjusted fairly well to the heat considering I lived in Canada for many years. There in Atlantic Canada our home did not even have air conditioning and a jump in the ocean waters would likely turn you blue.

One of my tricks for hot weather is that I often have a cooler full of ice in my car. Twenty pounds of ice makes a big difference when you need a cold drink or have some groceries in the car. The thought of it just makes me feel cooler. Of course another great cooling secret is to enjoy an ice cold piece of a Bogue Sound watermelon.

I do take some consolation from the fact that starting just a few miles inland, temperatures will be much higher than ours here along the coast. While the heat in Emerald Isle will likely peak at 93 or 94 degrees on Saturday and Sunday, Raleigh is supposed to hit 98 on Wednesday and face three straight days of 99 degrees after that. That is seriously hot.

I am thankful for whatever cooling Bogue Sound and the ocean might provide over the next few days. It will be a time when making some intelligent decisions about when to be outside will be important. Likely the more of your body you have in the water, the more comfortable you will be. Still there are lots of great things to do at the beach even in the heat.

It will also be a good time to think back to February when we had some snow all over the area. At least the picture of the snow will provide some mental relief. 

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Betting on Beach Weather

Our family has a long tradition of beach vacations. I am told that my first trip to the beach happened when I was less than a year old. Many beach trips in the early years were for two weeks. While two week vacations were the rule in the fifties and sixties, I know that one of the reasons we came to the beach for two weeks was to outsmart the weather. Usually we would get a rainy day or two. Sometimes a break from the beach was welcome since youthful exuberance occasionally wore down the best of us. Still two weeks almost always gave us plenty of great weather. I can only remember one really rainy vacation at the beach, and it was one which was only a week long. It was also after I had become the paying adult. We were staying on the sound in Duck. The whole crew was there including a couple of grandmothers and our Labrador Retriever. Even with the challenging weather and lots of family, we managed to have some great fun.
Yesterday the rains started late in the afternoon. Today they were much earlier. Still when I went over to the Eastern Regional Beach Access, there were four cars in the parking lot. Also people were in the water enjoying the ocean.

While playing in the ocean in the rain is not my idea of fun, I suspect that I might have done some of that in my earlier years. With today's beach houses, entertaining yourself is not much of a problem. However, hanging around the house on a rainy day is just not my idea of fun.

There are actually some pretty neat things you can do here on the Crystal Coast when the weather is not perfect. The Maritime Museum in Beaufort is one of my favorite places to go when it is too hot, windy, or wet for quality beach time. It happens to be one of the few museums in the world that excite my son. He really loves poking around in the Maritime Museum, and I never tire of going there.

Of course one of the most popular things to do when the weather does not cooperate is to visit the NC Aquarium in Pine Knoll Shores. Fortunately I live here, so I can go in February on a sunny day when fewer people are trying to see the fish. It is a great spot, but expect to have plenty of company on a rainy or very hot day.

There are also a couple of smaller museums, one at Hammocks Beach and the Core Sound Museum up on Harker's Island. I think both are interesting museums and worth visiting. There is also the History Place in Morehead City.

And if museums cannot be sold to the ones needing entertainment, there is always MAC Daddy's in Cape Carteret. There is plenty of bowling there and lots of games.

Of course if you are from a large city, we cannot match the huge city stores of your hometown. However, both Swansboro and Beaufort have some interesting shops in a setting where you can easily duck out of the rain from one store to the next. You can take a break and have lunch in town.

You will often hear the saying that if you do not like the weather, just wait a few hours, and it will change. That is a fairly accurate description of our weather. Getting a complete washout day in the summer is rare. At our place near the White Oak River, we only had one quick rain in the month of June. The total amount of rain for the month was about one quarter of an inch.

Of course we are making up for it in July. With today's rains, we are over six inches for the month. This time of year it is fairly standard for us to have blue skies in the morning and thunderstorms in the afternoon. You should get out on the beach early and be prepared for any afternoon surprises.

While you are out there on the beach, be mindful that it is better to miss some time in the water than it is to risk being in the water when it is unsafe. The same thing goes for boating. If we locals are not out on the water, there is probably a really good reason. Our world of waves can be a challenging spot even with all its scenic beauty.

The good news is that the forecast for the rest of the week, which takes us well into the second half of July, has more sunshine than anything else. I hope everyone gets a chance to enjoy some blue skies, emerald water, and nice beach breezes.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A World of Dazzling Water

Many people come to the Crystal Coast year after year just to enjoy the beaches. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Our area beaches are some of the finest in the country. However, a significant number of folks come to enjoy the waters beyond the beaches. Those who launch a kayak, skiff, or bay boat get to play in one of the greatest boating playgrounds on the east coast. We have miles and miles of water suitable for boating. You can pretty well find water to suit your boating tastes. We have large coastal rivers, broad open sounds, intricate marshes, and all the ocean you could ever want. This is also a safe area to boat. While the waters of the Intracoastal Waterway are sometimes crowded during the weekend, often during the week, there are very few boats out on the water.
I have enjoyed kayaking for many years, but I am relatively new to power boating. One of the reasons that we picked the Southern Outer Banks as our new home four years ago was my intuition that the area would be a great place to learn how to boat.

That turned out to be exactly the case. In the fall of 2006, I took a boating course from the Coast Guard Auxiliary. That winter I spent a lot of time figuring out what kind of boat and the best place to buy it. We ended up with a 20 ft. Sundance skiff with a 90 HP Yamaha motor.

It has a slight V in the hull so it takes well to choppy water. It also draws very little water, and with a four stroke Yamaha, it is easy on fuel.

At the time we purchased the boat, I hired a local Captain to take a couple of trips with us. That was three years ago, and now I have over one hundred hours piloting the boat. I feel very comfortable boating in our area. I boat enough to know that our channels can change quickly so you need to be careful when you are out on the water.

We often combine fishing with boating, but sometimes we just go for a boat ride. This past weekend I took some friends on a 36 mile boat ride. We actually went ten miles up the White Oak River beyond Stella. In that case the boating was just part of a wonderful Crystal Coast kind of day that also included swimming, biking, and a beach walk over by the Point.

There is something special about going up the river beyond the railroad trestle in Stella. You enter a different world of marshes and Bald Cypress trees. It is a neat spot to get away from it all.

Boating is very weather dependent so the very next day, the weather looked promising so another friend and I set off on another adventure. We took the ferry channel from the Intracoastal Waterway over to the dock at Hammocks Beach and then followed the channel to the end of the vegetation on the backside of Hammocks Beach-Bear Island. Just as we were trying to decide how to navigate the shallow water we had run into, a fishing guide boat came along, and we ended up following him through the short stretch of shallow water. It was a great trip and I have the pictures to prove it.

Other great boat trips include visiting Shackleford Banks down near Beaufort. It is a long ride but well worth the trip. We have seen ponies every time that we have visited. These are pictures from a 2007 visit.

I have only touched on power boating in this post, but I can tell you this is an absolutely wonderful place to enjoy a kayak.

If one of your dreams is becoming a boater, I do not think you can find a nicer place to do it than North Carolina's Southern Outer Banks. You will find everything here to be successful in boating from un-crowded waters, to people willing to help you learn about your boat and boat friendly subdivisions like Bluewater Cove.

Living where you can drop your boat in the water and go for a quick morning boat ride while the river is smooth as glass is what I wanted to find, and I found it in Carteret County. 

Saturday, July 10, 2010

No Other Water Like It

Salt water is a very sensual pleasure. Usually I can smell the richness of the ocean long before I actually see it. Often as I cross the dunes, I am amazed at the subtle colors of the waters along the beach. Depending on the day, sometimes I can hear the crashing waves well before my skin reacts to the water temperature. Then if the temperature is just right, and my whole body makes it into the water, it is normal to get a taste of salt water. When you put all this together with the anticipation that builds as we near a beach, it is understandable that salt water evokes intense feelings especially when the water has the clarity and color that is common along the Crystal Coast. It is no wonder that people have a hard time leaving our shores and cannot wait to visit again.
I wish that I could remember back to my first beach visit, but all I have are the stories from my mother. It is much easier to recall the wonder experienced by our granddaughter who will turn two this August. Since we live here at the beach, she has been blessed with a number of opportunities to sample salt water at an early age.

Our granddaughter's second visit last summer was just before her first birthday. I still remember the amazement in her eyes as her mother and aunt held her hands as she walked into the surf for the first time. The next evening, she had traded the white sundress for a bathing suit. She enjoyed just sitting in the sand and letting the gentle waters splash her legs.

This year she brought her own beach chair, and I watched her taste the salt water as he molded sand figures. The vastness of the ocean must have been hard to take in since she preferred her chair turned towards the beach. Maybe she enjoyed being surprised as the small waves washed around her feet.

When I was over on the shore this past week, I knew what to expect as I pulled into the parking lot at Third Street Beach around three PM. First I knew the sun had baked the sand to the point that sandals would be required to cross over to the damp sand. Even with sandals, I did a little dance across the hot sand.

I had read a Facebook entry from a friend that the surf temperature was around eighty degrees, so I knew that the water would feel pleasantly cool on my skin. My feet definitely needed some cooling.

The one thing that I could not predict was the color of the waters. I had a sense that my visit might coincide with one of those afternoons when the water color almost defies description, but there was no guarantee until I crossed the dunes and saw what the sky had painted on the waters.

It turned out to be a very nice time to be standing in the waves taking pictures. Even with the thousands upon thousands of wave pictures that I have taken, I managed to take a few new favorites.

These water pictures will help trigger pleasant thoughts of my early July 2010 beach walk. It will be memorable just as many others have been.

Maybe the memories stay fresh because salt water got in my veins during those early visits to the beach with my family. Perhaps that is why I love those moments on the beach in the warm salt water. The beach brings back thoughts of family members long gone.

Still sometimes I could use an explanation for why I never seem to lack an excuse for making a trip a cross the bridge and up the Island. Mostly I just fall back on the truth. I love the salt water, beaches, and all that goes with a trip across the dunes.

Seeing water like I captured in the attached photo is one of life's great pleasures, and no one charges admission. It is even possible to indulge yourself more than once in a day. Two trips in one day makes for an especially nice set of memories.