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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Treats from the Sea

It is easy to take for granted the wonderful seafood that is caught along North Carolina's Crystal Coast. Not long ago we were heading back to the mountains and an evening dinner party. I checked with one of the local seafood markets and was told their shrimp boat was coming in on Friday evening. The next morning I showed up at around 9:00 AM and bought three pounds of shrimp with the heads off. I packed them well in ice, and at around 11:00 AM we headed for our second home in Roanoke, Virginia. We arrived about 5:30 PM, and I started cleaning shrimp a few minutes after getting the car unpacked. It took me a little over thirty minutes to clean the shrimp. My wife started cooking them about a quarter after five. It took her about fifteen minutes to cook them, chill them, and pack them back in ice for the trip to the party.
The event we were attending was an annual party of a luncheon group where the husbands are invited once a year. There were something over twenty people in attendance. They had been eating appetizers for several minutes before we got there and started pouring shrimp into a dish.

The shrimp were absolutely perfect, and not surprisingly it took less than ten minutes for all three pounds of them to disappear. People kept asking where we got the wonderful shrimp. I told them that they were fresh from a boat on the North Carolina coast.

This was not the first time we had shared some of our special shrimp with folks in the mountains, and it probably will not be the last. I am never surprised to hear people say that these shrimp do not taste anything like the ones from the grocery stores.

We are extremely lucky to live in a place where fresh seafood is part of everyday life. With my luck at catching only flounders that are fifteen inches or less, about once a month I will head off to one of the local fish markets and find a nice flounder for dinner. While I enjoy traditional fish house cooked flounder like that at T&Ws, I think my home pan fried flounder is far superior to anything you can get in a restaurant.

I seem to have much better luck catching bluefish or Spanish mackerel so we usually have a mess or two of those during the summer. Once in a while I will splurge when I am in one of the fish markets and buy some scallops. While everyone has their favorite way of cooking scallops, I grill mine. It is quick, and grilled scallops are hard to beat as an appetizer.

One of our favorite local dishes to serve for company is crab cakes. We have found that a pound of lump crab meat will make enough crab cakes for four people. We just follow the recipe on the Old Bay box. One of the tricks we have learned is to keep our crab meat packed in ice until the cakes are made. I have been told that the ideal temperature to store crab meat is just above 32F.

A personal favorite of mine from our local waters is the soft shell crab. My wife and kids go nuts when I eat them, but they are so good that I do not even hear them. I usually get mine at Captain Willis in Emerald Isle. You will find a cookie sheet on the counter with live soft shell crabs. I get them to clean them, and I take them home and either saute them in a frying pan with a little oil or grill them on our gas grill. The only seasoning I use is paprika. Fried soft shell crab is hard to beat.

Of course I have saved my favorite fish, grouper, for last. It is a fish which we enjoy in a multitude of different dishes from fish tacos to grilled with a fancy sauce. I am also not above enjoying a grouper sandwich like the Smitty's Big fish or a grouper basket at Ballyhoo's. My favorite grouper is served at Riverside Seafood and Steak, but I invite everyone to let me know where they have enjoyed grouper which is what I consider to be the best of our local fish. I know there are a lot of restaurants out there where I need to sample their grouper.

I am pleased that our fishing industry still provides us with a wide choice of seafood. I do not mind paying a little extra to get quality seafood from our North Carolina fishermen. Commercial fishing is one of the industries that we need to support. I hope that our fishermen never face a future as bleak as the fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Friday, June 25, 2010

Emerald Isle's Changing Sands

A vacation along the Crystal Coast is often remarkable for what has not changed. Year after year the waters are still emerald colored and as clear as crystal. No matter when you come, there is still plenty of room on the beach, and the fresh local seafood always tastes great. While the Crystal Coast portion of the Southern Outer Banks has far more dense vegetation than many strands of sand, still along the shores and at the ends of the beaches, water and wind can make some substantial changes in a short period of time. When I was a teenager back in the sixties, I first visited the Point at Emerald Isle with my Uncle Austin. We had to take my old four wheel drive Bronco a few miles down the undeveloped beach just to get there. In 2007 I bought my first beach driving permit from the town of Emerald Isle. I wanted to go fishing once again on the Point. Within a week the access to the Point was closed and the Point had practically disappeared at least at high tide. Over the past few years things have definitely changed again.
If you walked the beaches to the east of the Point in the last couple of years, it was pretty easy to notice the wide expanse of sand building in the area. These beaches have become very impressive and perhaps some of the best on North Carolina's coast.

By December 2008, a build-up of sand brought the Point back above the water even at high tide. The access was repaired and things started looking more normal. Last summer the sand continued to grow along the edges. To the east a shallow arm of water had formed. It turned out to be a favorite spot for small and big children.

Unfortunately further accumulations of sand cut the water off from the ocean, and it needed to be filled in with sand from dredging. Still the Inlet seemed pretty stable last summer. We had a great time fishing in it and enjoying the boat accessible beaches.

I have walked on the Point a few times during the last year, and while I knew the sand was continuing its progress toward the Inlet, I did not realize the extent of the growth of the Point until we made our first boat trip out in May. Another trip or two has confirmed that the next challenge is not keeping the Point above water but making sure Bogue Inlet stays open for boat traffic.

When you are riding out Bogue Inlet's channel, and you can see people walking not far from the boat channel, you know things have changed massively. From the number of people we can see enjoying the new sands of the Point, it is clear that Mother Nature's changes are very popular with visitors and long term residents.

As a boater and fisherman I have not decided yet. The sands of the Inlet change every year. Last year we found some great structure and had a lot of fun fishing in the Inlet. So far this year, we are still looking for those magic places. Winds and hot weather have limited our explorations so I remain hopeful that the fish will show up, and we will soon figure out the new topography of Bogue Inlet.

One thing that I know for sure is that about the time I have it all figured out, it will change once again either from a storm or just normal winds and currents. That change is just part of life along the Crystal Coast.

Links to more pictures and information about the Point can be found in this article, Big changes at the Point.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

How To Enjoy a Coastal River

There are some things in life that are just plain fun. Taking a boat down an empty coastal river early in the morning is on that list. Actually it is probably in the top ten small pleasures in life. I feel fortunate to be able to make that river run whenever I have a few extra minutes. As long as the tides and winds are cooperating, it is a great way to start a day off with some wind in your face. North Carolina's large coastal rivers are wonderful places for boats and pure fun. Our neighborhood river, the White Oak, which separates Onslow and Carteret Counties, is a great backyard. I keep my boating gear ready to go at any time. All I have to do is grab a couple of water proof gear bags and our throw pillow. The bags contain our GPS, registration, cell phone, and a few other emergency items. When I step on the boat, I mount the GPS, put the plug in and cast off the lines.
Then I lower the lift into the water until the skiff floats free, start the engine and back it off the lift. It only takes three or four minutes to idle out our inlet to the river. Once in the river, I  pick up a litte speed to maintain control of the boat as the winds and current increase.

We have a well dredged channel in Bluewater Cove, but I still pay attention to the depth of the water that shows on the depth finder. As I approach red buoy 16, which is the first one outside our cove. It marks the start of my journey down the channel to Swansboro, At Red Sixteen, I make a left turn and give the boat enough throttle to bring it up on plane.

Once the boat is up on top of the water, I just enjoy the ride down the river.
It is a wonderful trip, you can get something of an idea of the scenery by checking out this virtual tour. There are just enough turns to make the trip a lot of fun. With no one else on the river, I usually run at close to 30 miles per hour.

With the water glassy smooth, you sort of slide around the turns. Of course that is even more fun than going straight. When I get to the bridge in Swansboro, I will slow the boat down to where it is not making any wakes.

I actually enjoy poking along the harbor. Not much changes, but it is still fun to see everything from the water. Once I have checked everything out, I will turn and head back to the bridge and eventually up river.

Usually the trip back home takes about ten minutes. If I have gotten out early enough, I will still have the river to myself. Running back up the river will be just as much fun as going down the river. My whole adventure usually takes about thirty minutes.

If you get a chance, do not pass up the opportunity to have a big river all to yourself. You will get hooked on it. More pictures of boating on the river and sound are available at my Picasa web albums site.

Taking a ride down the river is a nice diversion from all the dry, hot weather we are enduring.

(Note- I am slowly migrating over my 2010 posts to Blogger- you can read them now at another Crystal Coast Life site which is hosted on one of my domains)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Life Is Simpler at the Beach

One of the most appealing things about living along the Crystal Coast is that life is simpler here. While it would be impossible to remove all the modern annoyances that can make life so challenging in this century, where you live does make a huge difference. We just had visits from our two daughters. One lives near Charlotte, NC, and the other lives near Washington, DC. The younger of two delayed her departure from the area as much as possible. She told us that she wished that home was just a street or two away. We were talking about it after she left, and we decided there was more to her wanting to live here than just being close to family. Life in a small town beach area strips away some of the modern day distractions. I like to think it is intricately related to four things which are very important to life here on the Southern Outer Banks.
The people living along the Crystal Coast set the tone for the area. It is an open question as to whether the inhabitants are a product of the environment or the area just attracts friendly people. It is probably a combination of both, but I know we have found people here in Carteret County to be incredibly friendly and helpful.

It makes a huge difference if you are dealing with people who are basically easy going and happy to see you. If you have ever been in an environment where people are always too busy to see you, you will immediately notice the difference.

Along with the citizens of the area, three other elements play key roles in our lives here on the coast. The first is the water which is often the reason most people have come to live in Carteret County. In a place where there is more water than land, it is fairly obvious that water has a huge role to play in our lives.

From providing income to some commercial fishermen and recreation to countless sport fishermen and boaters, water has a huge impact on our life here on the Crystal Coast. We often end up structuring our lives around good days on the water.

With no large population centers, our clear, clean waters make a wonderful playground which most of us are devoted to enjoying. Recreation is never far away, and for the most part if someone needs to take time for a great day on the water, people in the area understand. After all, the chance to enjoy the water is one of the reasons we all came to the Crystal Coast.

When you have days like last week when the water takes on a deep emerald color, and you could pilot a bathtub down the coast. it is really hard to be mad at anyone.

After our clean waters, sunshine is also critical to our simpler life. Having lived in Nova Scotia where fog can linger for weeks, I know all too well how much fog and clouds can mess up your outlook on life. Eventually things just grind to halt. With the extra dose of sunshine that the Crystal Coast gets in the winter, we usually have little trouble maintaining a positive outlook on life. Just the fact that it is usually warm enough to spend time outside in the winter is a big boost. Of course there are winters like last year's that challenge even us on the coast.

Along with sunshine, blue skies also play a role in the more relaxed environment of the Crystal Coast. When you wake up to one of those beautiful Carolina blue skies, the day just seems to go better.

My oldest daughter would argue that we have other things which distinguish us from the more harried metropolitan areas. She lives in Northern Virginia, and I had to laugh when she wanted to go to our Ace Hardware over on Emerald Isle. She wanted to buy four screws and about three square feet of screen. She told me that she would never attempt something like that in the ultra-busy Home Depot in Reston, Virginia. At our Ace, she had a couple of people taking care of her needs.

She also maintains that even our parking places are at least twenty five percent bigger than they are in Northern Virginia. My comment was that we have some even bigger ones designed for boats.

Finally I think she was completely won over by the unhurried breakfast that we had at Ballyhoo's on the Island. Breakfast in most cities is a speed contest to see who can do it the quickest with the least impact on their day. Thursday she was surprised to find her favorite Yana's pancakes on the plate at Ballyhoo's. She said it was a real treat to enjoy a relaxing, unhurried breakfast that took away the need for lunch.

As Bluewater's billboards have often said, "Life is different here." Much of the complexity of modern life stays out of Carteret County as we focus on friends, emerald waters, enjoying the sunshine, and blue skies.

If you are burning the candle at both ends, we can make it easier to give that up. One of the first things to disappear after we moved here was the tan line for my watch. I quit wearing the watch because it seemed that time flowed a little differently. My life seemed to remain orderly without any need of a watch.

As I am fond of saying, Carteret County is a special place, but it is also a secret to share.with those whose lives have become too harried. Even in the heat, there is nothing better than summer in the South along the coast.

(Note- I am slowly migrating over my 2010 posts to Blogger- you can read them now at another Crystal Coast Life site which is hosted on one of my domains)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Best of Both Worlds

June can be a really stellar month along the Crystal Coast. There are days when both the air and water are warm, and the humidity is low. It is like having the best of fall and summer in one day. While you do get used to the humidity of coastal North Carolina, it is nice to have an occasional break from it. With clear blue skies, warm temperatures, and no humidity, you are close to a perfect day. That other factor is the wind. Most of the time when you get low humidity, it is when a front has crossed the area, and with the front often we see winds. Still it is possible to have an absolutely perfect day with light and variable winds the day after a front goes through the area. The humidity might began creeping back up, but it will still be much lower than normal. If it sounds like nuances in the weather are important, they are.
When visitors come to the Crystal Coast, they often do not realize that many people living here just consider the out of doors another room to their homes. It is also not unusual to see chairs and even a table in people's garages. A well positioned garage which has a breeze blowing through it can be a very comfortable spot.

Our home has double front porches, one over the other. In the morning when our oldest daughter is visiting, she likes to sit on the upper one and read. On a nice day with a breeze, the front porch is a great spot to be until around noon when the sun starts to hit it.

We also have an upper back deck. Usually in the very early morning, the dew and dampness is enough to keep you off of it. However, by nine AM the upper deck can be a very nice spot. When I am working in my upstairs office I will often go out and enjoy the view while our inside cat prowls the deck looking for adventure. In the winter, there is less moisture, and I often go sit on the steps and soak up the warm winter sunshine.

When I am doing yard work our garage is often my cooling off spot. With both the garage door open and the back door which leads to our stamped concrete patio where we have our propane grill also open, there is almost always a cool breeze pulling through our garage. It becomes a wonderful place to work or cool down after mowing the yard.

I have a couple of my male neighbors whom I see in their garages so much that I am almost convinced that they live there. It is just a function of how nice it can be here on the Crystal Coast with a little shade and a breeze.

Recently I attended a family reunion in the central part of North Carolina. Getting together under the shade trees is a time honored North Carolina tradition. Unfortunately for our reunion the heat index when we started was 104F. We had a great shady yard for our event, but we certainly could have used some coastal breezes.

The changing weather along the Crystal Coast is one of the things that makes it such a great place to live. You can wake up to a very cool morning or sometimes a very warm morning. Occasionally we get fog which usually burns off by ten in the morning. There are days with you wake, and there is very little wind. Yet often well before noon a breeze will kick up. Most of all I love the one thing that rarely changes, our beautiful blue skies.

When the sun rises here on the coast, I feel blessed to have an opportunity to enjoy whatever weather might be headed our way. As my friend Ed is fond of saying, somewhere along the coast, the wind is not blowing, we just have to find that spot.

With the dry weather that we have been seeing, even a little rain might be nice once in a while, but it is really nice to have one of those best of both worlds' days where the humidity is gone, the warmth is here, and the winds are light and variable. Now that is the kind of weather we live for here on the Crystal Coast along North Carolina's Southern Outer Banks.

(Note- I am slowly migrating over my 2010 posts to Blogger- you can read them now at another Crystal Coast Life site which is hosted on one of my domains)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Dazzling Day on the Water

I emailed a friend a picture of his boat taken as we were turning from the Bogue Inlet channel to the Intracoastal Waterway. He emailed back and asked when I found a day that the wind was not blowing. I laughed because that can be a challenge this time of year, but last Wednesday my mind was set on lining things up for a day on the water. I quickly struck out with both my partners for Thursday. Refusing to give up, I slipped out anyway for a short sunset cruise that evening, but I felt very fortunate when I got the call that a fishing buddy's schedule had opened up so we could hit the water on Friday. With the weather cooperating, we started making plans to go out. High on my list was to see how the Inlet came through the winter. I had also heard that some fish were being caught in the Coast Guard Channel, so that was also on my list. I went to bed dreaming of blue skies and calm emerald colored seas.
Morning dawned with very little wind and perfect blue skies. After breakfast, my errand to get bait and ice took less than an hour. I had the ice loaded, and most of the gear on board when my buddy, Brian, arrived.

We were pulling away from the dock at 10 AM, but the waters were so smooth that we were wishing that we had gone out early for some Spanish mackerel. Given this was our first real trip of the year, our choice was to first head out to the Inlet and figure what had happened over the winter.

Our trip to Swansboro was a quick one with no traffic and only light chop on the river. We were surprised to see the harbor empty. I guess the boats that spend the night here had already left for the day. Still, we usually see a boat or two.

The trip down the Intracoastal to the turn for Bogue Inlet was even smoother than the White Oak River, but as we turned to go out the Inlet, we got into the really nice water. While it was not as slick as glass, you can see from the picture which was taken from the Inlet looking towards the Point at Emerald Isle, we had very smooth boating.

The run from the Intracoastal to where the Inlet really meets the ocean is one of my favorite boat trips. The scenery is some of the most spectacular on the east coast. From beautiful open expanses of shimmering water to the green marsh grasses and temporary sandy beaches that show up at low tide, this area captures the meaning of living on the Crystal Coast better than any spot that I know.

It is an area with waters that are bound to delight anyone who has the luck to make it out on a day like last Friday. Whether you are walking one of the almost deserted low water beaches, fishing one of the cuts or some of the structure along the Inlet, or just sitting in a beach chair staring at the water, this is a place that is meant to be enjoyed, cherished, and protected.

Ask anyone who has ever enjoyed the beaches in Bogue Inlet, and they will tell how special it is to feel like you have your own beach in a world of spectacular beauty.

As we passed the beaches, we nosed our way out the Inlet into the ocean and could see only a couple of buoys and a dredge working in the channel. We wanted to work our way down Bear Island a little, anchor, and perhaps fish just offshore. A couple of really big swells changed our mind, and we headed back inside the Inlet. Our conclusion is that the Inlet has changed a lot since last year. It will take a fair amount of exploring to find some new fishing spots. We went almost back to the ICW before turning up the Coast Guard Channel and heading toward the backside of the Point.

It was warm and beautiful in the Channel, but there was no keeper-sized fish that we could find so we headed over to fish some waters bordering the marshes near Swansboro. Our luck was not much better there, so we gassed up at Dudley's Marina and headed back up the White Oak River.

The river waters had calmed and the ride back up the White Oak was even smoother than the ride out the Inlet. We pulled up to fish off Silver Creek Plantation, and within minutes of joking that we only needed a Sea Robin and Lizardfish to have a grand slam of trash fish, I reeled in a Sea Robin.

Fortunately, the spell was soon broken, and the next two fish were bluefish which is all we needed to hook us for another dazzling day on the water. By then we had been on the water for five hours so we headed back to the dock and started planning our next trip.

Now we just have to get the weather to cooperate once again. The good news is that summer is just starting, and the last couple of weeks here on the Southern Outer Banks have been pretty special, but there will be plenty of time for getting out on the water this summer. Then there is always fall behind summer.

Some pictures of a White Oak River trip can be found at this link.