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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Rewards of the Crystal Coast

Last night I got a call from someone living in South Dakota. If you have been following the weather, you know that blizzards and flooding have been dealing alternating punches to the northern plains. After talking for thirty minutes, it was pretty clear that the weather was not the problem. My new friend wanted to live in a place which felt like home. He was looking for people who accepted him as a neighbor. He was tired of being an outsider in his own town. The blizzard might have been the straw that made him pick up the phone, but the desire to feel part of a real community certainly was more important than how much snow was falling. You can live in an area where people are very friendly, but for a number of reasons it never feels quite like home. My wife and I lived in Canada for several years. We had wonderful friends there, but it just was not home.
After Canada we moved to Columbia, Maryland, but it just was not us. Finally we ended up in Roanoke, Virginia which felt much more like home. That is hardly surprising since we both grew up just a little over one hundred miles from there in Mount Airy, NC.

Still each time we visited the Carolina coast, I felt like I was going home. I doubt that I can adequately explain it, but the secret lies somewhere between how people greet you and the honest concern they have for your well being.

Perhaps caring for each other happens a little easier out here on the edges of the beach. While we live in a very temperate climate, we also live close enough to nature to know that we are far from invincible. No one here on the coast believes they are a master of the universe. We have seen what the waves and storms can do. That makes you humble.

You can take the same people and put them on a New York sidewalk, and they will probably avoid making eye contact. Yet here on the Crystal coast, people walking the beach will often stop have conversations with complete strangers. It is certainly within accepted behavior to walk up to a solitary fisherman and ask if the fish are biting. You are likely to find out about the fish and a little more.

While our pristine beaches are a reward in themselves, it is even more special to be able to share those beaches with people who enjoy them just as much as you do.

I have often said that the reason Carteret County is such a great place to live and visit is that there is a magic self selector operating. For some reason, we have never been trendy enough to get the always annoying folks who have to be first to enjoy every hot trend.

We are just enough off the beaten path that people have to think about coming here before they come. For years the Crystal Coast has been a secret that was shared from friend to friend.

A family would discover the area and vacation here for a few years. Then they would buy a second home and perhaps eventually retire here. Eventually their neighbors would start visiting, and soon another couple would find a home that they liked.

While the Crystal Coast never saw explosive growth like many areas, we have managed to grow through the addition of people who really wanted to be here and who also fully appreciated the many wonderful things about the area.

While a lot of people come for the beach, many people stay for the peace and quiet and the friendliness of the area. You do not have to live here very long before the waitresses and shopkeepers start to remember you. Yet this is an area where individual privacy is truly valued. For the most part people tend to their own business unless they see someone who needs helping.

This is also an area which enjoys getting together and having a good time. The community festivals seem to bring out the best in people. Whether it is eating barbecue, steamed oysters, or mullet, people have a great time just getting together and talking even if the talk is only about the weather.

As you talk to residents, you find that people are proud of living here on the coast. I interview students for college so I often get a bird's eye view of how the next generation views our area. I am happy to report that there are a lot of our young people who also think the Crystal Coast is a special space.

That is a good sign for the future. This is a special place which will need some protection if the next generation is going to enjoy it as much as we have. Still as my tee-shirt says, Carteret County is a secret to share.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

All Stirred Up

If you live on the coast, you get used to the weather changing quickly. We have had some nice warm weather recently, and I have enjoyed getting back into some shorts. For the last few days we have been getting some warm, much needed rain. I would much rather have some rainy weather now so the vegetation can turn green and diminish the risk of spring brush fires. Today the weather changes came quickly. This morning when I walked out to get the Sunday newspaper, it was warm with a little fog. While we were having breakfast, rain lashed the south side of the house. My commitment to attending church was beginning to waver, and then the rain became just a light mist.
Just in case we got a quick downpour like we did yesterday afternoon, I stuck an umbrella in the car as we headed off to our church, Cape Carteret Presbyterian. The drive from our house in Bluewater Cove is only seven or eight minutes.

By the time we got to church, the sun was trying to come out. A little over an hour later when we came out of church, the skies were blue and the wind was blowing. It was as if someone had switched our cloudy weather from the last few days for something completely different.

We went straight home, and I noticed the temperature was getting pretty close to seventy degrees. As we pulled into our driveway, I saw my neighbor walking in his backyard in shorts. It did not take me long to get out of my church clothes and into shorts.

With the wind blowing straight up the river, I decided to raise the lift holding my boat up a foot or so just in case we got some high water, but before I did that I dropped our skiff into the water and ran the motor for a few minutes. I try to do that at least once a week. If nothing else it is a great opportunity to imagine that I am out on the water. Today, however, I could see the whitecaps on the White Oak River from my boat so I was happy to be sitting on the lift.

After lunch we had a few errands to run. One required a trip to the Ace Hardware on the Island to buy some screws for a sign to go in the yard of a new listing. I noticed that when we got over on the island that the wind was even more impressive than it was on the mainland.

We made a stop in Lake Arthur Estates just off Bogue Loop Road. I placed the for sale sign and noticed that the wind was hardly blowing back in the forest. We headed off to take some pictures of a waterfront listing on Goose Creek Loop Road. I was surprised to see the water in that inlet quieter than it was in the White Oak. It is all in the wind direction. What is a windy spot one day will be quiet the next.

After getting some pictures of the cute waterfront home, we headed off to Belks in Morehead City for some quality shopping time. Any shopping time over five minutes is usually too much for me unless the shopping is taking place in a fishing tackle store. However, my wife wanted my opinion on some clothes she had looked at the previous day. I traded my opinion for an agreement that we ride back down the beach after the shopping.

The shopping was relatively painless, and we were soon heading across the high rise bridge from Morehead City to Atlantic Beach. If there is one place that you can feel the wind it is on one of the bridges over to the beaches. I have no doubt that we experienced the twenty to thirty miles per hour gusts while on the bridge.

I wanted to swing into OBX Outfitters Store which is having a going out of business sale in the Atlantic Beach shopping center, but it had already closed for the day.

As we headed out of Atlantic Beach, I started trying to decide where might be the best place for wave pictures. The waves looked pretty impressive as we drove by Iron Steamer Beach Access, but I wanted a higher perspective so I decided on the Roosevelt Access Point in Salter Path. As it turned out, the light was not right for wave pictures there. However, I did get some great live oak pictures. We also got a serious dose of wind when we walked out the board walk to the beach.

Not only was the wind strong, but the air coming across the water had something of a chill to it which is not too surprising since the water temperatures are still in the mid-fifties.

We drove on down the beach to the CAMA vehicle access just past where Squatter's Restaurant used to be in Salter Path. The picture in this post was snapped there. After that we headed home. It was a nice afternoon made even better by the wonderful aroma of the beef stew cooking in the crock pot when we walked into the house.

When I came upstairs this evening to write this post, I found the sun had warmed our upstairs to almost eighty degrees. I ended up opening several windows, With the temperature outside at fifty-nine degrees, things have cooled off nicely in my office.

I wonder what the weather will have in store for us tomorrow? My guess is more wind. It is the time of year for it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Siren Call of the Waves

Now that the weather is warming enough to go for beach walks, it is time to admit that I am addicted to watching the waves along the Crystal Coast. I have thousands of wave pictures, but I continue to snap new ones each time that I visit the beaches. I long ago decided that there is no perfect picture of a wave. However, there are many that are worth enjoying over and over. A beautifully colored picture of a wave crashing on the sandy shores can transport me right back to the middle of summer. I can feel the heat of the sand and the warm breezes. In early spring I have to be careful because I have gotten carried away, changed into shorts, and headed to the beach only to end up wondering what convinced me that the temperature on the shore had warmed enough for shorts.
After what most people are calling the coldest winter on the coast in six years, I think the anticipation of spring is building among all of us Crystal Coast dwellers. We all want to be on the beach feeling the warm water from the waves on our feet.

My wife and I recently took a trip to the mountains of Virginia. One would think that the mountains would be behind the coast when it comes to spring, but just as it is this year, it usually turns out that spring comes quicker to the inland areas and foothills of the mountains.

When we left on our trip, we had only gone a few miles inland before we noticed that the Bradford pear trees were close to full bloom. By the time we got to Raleigh, they were in full bloom.

This weekend when we were heading back, we stopped in Mount Airy, NC and visited our family's former home which is now a bed & breakfast. I was amazed at how many trees and flowers were blooming.

Seeing those beautiful flowers reminded me that we are less than a month away from the gardens at Tryon Palace hitting their peak. Last year we were there on April 20 and really enjoyed our visit. Only the tulips were past their peak. The flowers were just amazing.

As I look at the wave picture with this post, I am also reminded of our friends from Boston who visited us in April a couple of years ago. They made a long trip down through Assateague, Nags Head, Hatteras, and Ocracoke before ending up on doorstep. They had faced forty five degree temperatures and high winds until they got to Ocracoke where it warmed to the fifties.

We were lucky and managed to provide them with three consecutive days in April with the temperatures over seventy degrees. Their frozen northern souls could not get enough of the beaches. They were even wading in the still chilly April waters.

The same friends were amazed that were getting fresh strawberries in April and that our tomato plants were already in the ground.

As this week warms toward the seventies, I am keeping that wave picture in my mind while thinking that spring is getting here slowly but surely.

I checked the other day and the strawberry plants are blooming.

I know for sure that it will not be long before I am dancing on the hot sands of the beach while trying to take more wave pictures.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Beach Walks Are Back

Wednesday was a magnificent day here on the Crystal Coast. This morning after the fog burned off, the skies turned a deep blue, the sun warmed the air, and the winds dropped to almost nothing. It was one of those days where everyone has to sneak a little time outside to restore their soul. I was lucky since I had worked yesterday morning and could spend most of the afternoon outside. After fighting cool temperatures, dark skies and winds, March 18 restored my faith in Carolina weather. Thursday is supposed to be even nicer before we have a cool weekend. I am making a promise to myself that I will somehow get to enjoy some of the great weather. If I can just soak up enough heat, I can survive one more cool weekend.
When I went out to get the paper Wednesday morning, our house seemed to be lost in the fog as I turned to come back. However, the air smelled like spring, and by eleven AM, we were rewarded with sunshine.

I had a number of things to do before we could sneak away from the house, but before 3 PM we were on our way to the beach. We were not expecting really great weather over on the beach since recent trips have made our sweatshirts feel very cozy.

So I was very surprised when I walked down an access road to the beach, and the first thing I saw was someone walking by in a bathing suit. I will admit to being a little shocked, but as I walked onto the beach, it became clear that while the guy in the bathing suit was a little optimistic, I could have gone with shorts and a tee shirt and still have been comfortable.

There were several people on the beach including some very young children playing in the water. I noticed a few college age young folks sunbathing. There were some dogs being walked, and even someone with a fishing pole stuck in the sand.

It appears the beach is open for business once again. Now we will have cool days and probably more wind than we want, but this wonderful warm March interlude makes winter seem like a distant memory.

After a short beach walk, we headed home, and I took advantage of the warm weather to go for a bike ride. Due to travel I had not been on my bike in about ten days, so it felt great to get some exercise and enjoy the warmth of the sun.

When I got back to the house, I calculated that I had time to paddle my kayak out to the White Oak River to catch the sunset. When I got out there, it was so peaceful that I had a hard time coming back. In fact I made it back about five minutes before dark.

Wednesday, March 18, was one of those days that I will remember for a long time. Here are some slides of my perfect March day.

Friday, March 13, 2009

St. Patrick's Day Festival & Swansboro Steamed Oyster Roast

My two favorite spring festivals for our area of the NC Crystal Coast are scheduled for the next two weekends. The first one on tap is the Saint Patrick's Day Festival (pictures of 2007 event) sponsored by the town of Emerald Isle, and it takes place this weekend. it is a fun afternoon for a whole family The next is the Annual Oyster Roast sponsored by the Rotary Club of Swansboro, and it scheduled for Saturday, March 21. There is no better place to eat steamed oysters.
The Saint Patrick's Day event is always a great time to wander through the booths which take over Emerald Plantation's parking lot for this one day event. Some years it is a little cool and damp, but you can be sure that everyone still will have a great time. In 2007 it was cool enough that they had outdoor heaters, but I have found the crowd helps to keep everyone warm. There are plenty of crafts and lots of festival food including some of the best barbecue that I have ever enjoyed. It was chopped right in front of my eyes.

There are also a number of exhibits by local organizations. The Saint Patrick's festival is just a good way to get our on a Saturday afternoon and enjoy some family oriented fun. Parking is along Emerald Drive and side streets. The walk to the event is a good time to enjoy early spring.. As I remember from the last two years, there should be a beer and music tent for adults and lots of rides for the kids. Last year there was a bagpipe band from Wilmington, There was also a climbing wall and plenty of interesting uses of green on the human body. The event runs from ten to five pm this Saturday, March 14.

Next Saturday starting at 5 PM is the Swansboro Oyster Festival and Pig Out. It is held in the Swansboro Rotary Civic Center across from Highway 24 from Mills and Thomas. Tickets are $40 before the event and $45 at the door. You can expect a large line already in place even if show up at five PM, but the good news is that the line moves quickly, and the food is well worth any wait.

Until my first Oyster Roast in 2007, I had never been in a room filled with tables designed to eat steamed Oysters. I took a lot of behind the scenes pictures of how the Oysters got from the bags, to the steamers, to the tables, and back to the front end loader bucket and on to the dump truck where they'll eventually go back to the water. The photos are on a website, "Swansboro Oyster Roast & Pig Out." In ranking great community parties, I would have to rank this one high on the scale. I ate some of the most delicious, huge, plump Oysters that I have ever had the pleasure to enjoy.

They were wonderfully salty and in my humble opinion did not even need butter or any kind of sauce. I had more than one perfect steamed Oyster. There was plenty of other food, including Barbecue, Hot Dogs, Fried Flounder, and Clam Chowder for those who don't enjoy the challenge of prying the treasures of the sea from crusty shells. There was even a dining room with chairs for the regular plate food.; It is helpful to bring your own Oyster shucking knife and rubber coated gloves t0 handle the steamy oysters. A hand towel also makes a nice accessory as does a non-oyster eating wife who can act as a beer runner. You can buy the tools for shucking at the event. They also have some great tee-shirts.

I met some really nice folks who had just moved to the Swansboro which happened to be where the wife grew up. Her father had even driven 120 miles from Lumberton, NC to act as a guide for their first Oyster Roast. I even met someone from Mount Airy, North Carolina which is my home stomping grounds. I got some great advice from the father who told me to stop eating Oysters at the moment that I felt like I could eat just one more. I know in 2008 that advice allowed me to leave the event feeling great.

It takes a tremendous amount of community effort to pull off events like the Oyster Roast or the Saint Patrick's Day Festival in Emerald Isle. All the community spirit just adds to the spirit of the festivals.

Events like these mark the turning of the seasons, the time when the earth and sea are awakening with the warmth of the sun. I saw bait fish in the channel behind our second home this week. With that and the Bradford Pear trees along with other spring trees showing their blooms, I guess we have made it through another winter, and it is time to celebrate.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Driving Into the Sun

Lots of people get really confused about directions on the Crystal Coast. People have a very hard time understanding that the beach is south and not east. When the sun comes up way up the coast and not straight out in the water, it seems as if it is a huge mystery. Since I am also a photographer, it actually makes my job a lot easier. I actually can catch a very nice sunrise and sunset like the one above from almost the same spot for much of the year. I might be a little prejudiced, but I think that having the sun rise at one end of our beach and set at the other end makes the Crystal Coast special. It is almost as if the earth's orbit is perfectly aligned to let our beaches get the best sun coverage. Still it is a challenge for newcomers to remember that the beach is to the south. There is one way to have that burned into your mind.
It is actually something that we do a lot, but you should not try it without some patience and very good sunglasses. My wife and I often spend the last thirty minutes before sunset driving west on Highway 58 from Atlantic Beach to Emerald Isle.

Though we are on the highway, we refer to it as driving down the beach. This time of year is a great time to do it because traffic is very light.

The temptation is to take Highway 24 and its four faster lanes back home after visiting Morehead City. Since we long ago converted to beach time, it is usually easy for me to resist the faster route because by going that way you end up only smelling the water at Gales and Broad Creek.

Actually I prefer the more leisurely and scenic way of driving. By going back by riding down the beach into the sun, we are by the water the whole route.

We also rarely make the journey without stopping a few times for photographs or just to get out and smell the water. By May we are often wading in the water which means we sometimes lose track of time completely.

We did our most recent trip into the sun this past Monday after a stop at Staples and the new Harris Teeter grocery store in Morehead City. After I practically dragged my wife out of the grocery store, she figured out that I wanted to take some pictures along the shore before the sun disappeared.

Getting over to the beach from Morehead requires crossing Bogue Sound. The view is always stunning from the big bridge. On Monday it was almost blinding from the bright sun to our right as we crossed over to Atlantic Beach.

As we turned right at the stoplight onto Highway 58 and headed west while leaving the center of Altantic Beach, the sun made visibility almost impossible. Once in a while a twist in the road gave us a little relief, but most of the time we were driving right into the sun and the wonderful haze of the early summer that surrounded it. While it was not easy, it certainly made me forget the recent cold days. I felt like summer was just around the corner.

The skies were so clear and the sun so bright, that it was impossible to take a direct shot of the sun. I kept driving thinking that if my timing was just right that I could catch the sunset from a beach access that I often use for sunset pictures. However, the driver of the car in front of me seemed to have trouble driving into the sun, or perhaps he also was just enjoying the ride. His speed of five miles per hour under the speed limit slowed us some and the sun dropped behind the clouds just enough that I did not get the sunset shot that I wanted.

I did get a nice shot of Bogue Sound while crossing the bridge at Emerald Isle, and it was still a fun trip down the beach. The great thing about sunsets is that they roll around fairly regularly so it will not be long before we give chase again.

I seriously doubt that any who drove the almost twenty miles or so down the beach with us would have any trouble instantly telling which way is west. It is likely burned into the backs of their eyes along with the memory that south is toward the beaches, and north is towards Bogue Sound.

This past Monday was a driving into the sun experience that none who were there will forget.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Remembering some great boat trips

I doubt that anyone on the Crystal Coast complained very much about today's weather. We certainly made it well into the sixties. It we could have gotten through the day without the strong breezes, it would have been a perfect early spring day. Still considering my snowy yard earlier in the week, today was a huge improvement. Certainly having the temperature still hanging at fifty three degrees Fahrenheit at 11 PM this evening is a good start to warming up our chilly area waters. We were on South Water Street in Swansboro today when I snapped the picture looking east up the Intracoastal Waterway to Cedar Point. Seeing all that blue water made me start thinking about some of my favorite boat rides.
It is a little early for me to do much more than think about long boat rides given the open nature of my skiff and the cool March waters.

The cool waters actually encourage me to think back to our Shackleford Banks trip in late June of 2007. We made the trip just after we had purchased our boat. It was my first long trip piloting the skiff, and it was a perfect day for it. I had hired a guide from Morehead City just so we could not miss any of the sights. We ended up doing everything from watching ponies to finding sand dollars. It was a perfect glassy water day for a trip down the Intracoastal.

One of our next trips was up the White Oak River past the point where it turns to fresh water. The White Oak is a great coastal river but it changes very rapidly from being nearly two miles wide where we are to being fifty feet wide or less above Stella. Folks who have traveled far above Haywood landing tell me that it is like visiting another world when you get to the point that the river is hardly as wide as a small skiff is long.

Of course some of favorite boating trips have been out Bogue Inlet when we go fishing for Spanish mackerel. Whenever I am feeling the need to be on the water and cannot get there, I play this slide show called Mackerel Morning.

It shows a trip from our home dock in Bluewater Cove down the White Oak, past Swansboro, and out Bogue Inlet and then down the shore by Hammocks beach. Not only was it a beautiful trip but we also caught both bluefish and Spanish mackerel.

One of the great things about Carteret County is that almost anyone can boat here if you are careful. There are plenty of well marked routes to follow, and usually there are lots of folks to answer questions and help if there is a problem.

In addition, there are always boating classes running somewhere here along the coast. As someone who has only been power boating since 2006, I can attest to the value of the courses. I took a one day course given by the Coast Guard Auxiliary in Morehead City to get my start in boating.

When I think back to this summer, my favorite trip was the one where we anchored the skiff just off a small island in Bogue Inlet and surf fished for an afternoon. The trip and having our own private island was very special.

It the weather holds this weekend, I am hoping to get my kayak in the water. It is a different kind of fun, and I find it very relaxing. I plan to watch the winds, but if it looks good my next post might have a nice picture of the White Oak from my kayak.

I am just excited that we have flowers blooming, warm weather, and the hope of even warmer weather. After this winter, I think we all deserve it.

Getting out on the water instead of just dreaming about it will be icing on the cake.