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Three Epic Days: Day One, June 4, 2012

This summer at Pamlico Sea Base we've got an awesome crew of guides.  A few weeks ago we set off on our staff sea kayaking trip. Every year we take our new guides out on a sea kayaking trek along our usual route. The goal is to show them around so they won't get lost getting from place to place, teach them how to manage a group of kayakers, become a pro at beach camping and get the hang of predicting the weather. Our summer trips usually start in the south- at Harker's Island, head south to Cape Lookout or Shackleford Banks, and then turn to head North along Core Banks toward Cedar Island. Most weeks, if luck holds, the summer wind is South-West- at our backs pushing us North East along Core sound and island chain of Core Banks.
Unfortunately for us, the winds hadn't shifted yet when we left for our training trek. NOAA was calling for South winds on Monday followed by gentle North-East winds the rest of the week. The gentle headwind we scoffed at turned into a full blown Nor-Easter.
Sunday we spent prepping for our trip- packing gear, going over the route, showing the guides how to load a kayak trailer and trying to get a good night of sleep before our trek. Monday morning we had strong south winds- 18 knots in the morning- so we stalled and got on the water a little late because the forecast said the wind would die down a bit in the afternoon. The plan was to visit Shackleford where the wild ponies live and then paddle on to camp at Cape Lookout. The wind was south around 12 knots- enough of a headwind to be annoying and choppy but we managed to make decent time to Shackleford. After pausing near the picnic shelter, we headed on to charge Barden Inlet and head to Cape Lookout. We anticipated the crossing would take longer than usual because both the wind and tide were against us- a scenario we like to call "kayak treadmill."

We ended up making great time to Cape Lookout- landing less than an hour after leaving Shackleford. It was still early afternoon when we finished eating lunch and we were still eager to put more miles behind our blades. 5 miles to our north sat a pavillion where we have stopped many times with our groups. With the stiff tail wind we had, we could probably be there in a little over an hour. Ominous clouds to our North made us hesitant to leave until we checked the radar. There were two storms to our North- both moving East one next to another. The one we could currently see had some high winds and rain, and possibly a little thunder and lightning- it was green, yellow and orange on my radar and sitting right over our destination. I could tell the following storm, which we couldn't see by eye yet, was much weaker. The gap between the storms was at least a couple of miles- enough distance to embolden us to "thread the needle"- a phrase we use when we try to time our departure and speed to squeeze through between storms and make it to land before the next storm hit.

We made great time, but the storm we were trying to beat made better. We were right beneath it when it blew through. The wind at the edges of storms are very strong- we had to paddle hard to break through the sudden head wind and into the wall of light rain. If we rested too long, or paddled too slowly, we ended up back in the invisible zone of wind.

Tony approaching the edge of the storm- the "high wind zone"

Drew pushing to calmer seas beyond the back edge of the storm.

We paused as the storm passed on a marshy island to check the radar and our location. Drew climbed up on a duck blind to look for the pavilion. The only rooftop we could see didn't look right. When I looked at it through the binoculars, it looked mostly like a rooftop but it was partially covered in green grasses. I wasn't sure I was actually seeing a rooftop. We wasted lots of time paddling around looking for the entrance to the cove.

We grew frustrated in our inability to spot the rooftop, and started looking at our other options. We had access to a house in Gloucester, directly west across the sound. We could be there in no time- definitely before sunset, but we felt like we were loosing mileage in the long run by paddling across the sound to get there because we would have to paddle all the way in tonight and then back out tomorrow.  We could keep looking for the pavilion, maybe we would find it soon. Or we could press on to Great Island Camp- a place we knew very well.

We decided to take a risk and press on to Great Island Camp- about 8 miles or so further North. We knew that this would mean we would be making landfall in the dark. Because we had noticed it the night before, we knew that the moon would rise early that night- very soon after nightfall- and that the moon would be full. Tony was sure we could find our way with just the moonlight, but I didn't want to be paddling around in the dark unable to find our landing spot. I wanted the park ranger to turn a few lights on for us. The problem was, the ranger station on the island was already closed. I did know that the family-run ferry service that runs from mainland to our destination would probably be have after-hours numbers for the park rangers out there. A couple of years ago that ferry service came to pick me up when I was sick on trek and let me stay in their house until Reggie came to get me, so I felt sure they would answer and help me out. I was right. The mother of the family answered the phone and remembered me. She still had my cell phone number saved in the phone! She called the park ranger and filled him in on our dilemma, gave him my number and called me back to let me know. People in Core Sound take good care of each other. Soon the ranger- Jesse, called me to let me know he would not only leave the lights on for us, but would stay awake and in contact until we landed. 

With the confidence that we would definitely find Great Island Camp, we set out again. The 18 knot tail wind had died with the storm. We enjoyed a relaxing sunset paddle in calm seas. 

The boys paddling behind me: Drew front left, Tony front right, Phil back left, Dave, in the very back, and Mike hiding somewhere.

Paddling at sunset

The fire of sunset dwindled into twilight, when everything turns into shades of purples and blues that get darker and darker until suddenly we looked around to realize it's deep dark night and we couldn't see each other. The clumps of marsh grass on the horizon that were visible at twilight became as black as the horizion they sat against, which was as black as the water we floated on. We pulled our emergency boxes from our cockpits to break out the glowsticks. My headlamp got strapped around my head, but I used it only when I sensed I was about to run into something. Bright lights ruin night vision and the need for us to be seen by motorboats was nonexistent.  I glanced at my deck compass once in a while to make sure my sense of direction was still on point, and we kept paddling. It seemed like just moments after we cracked our glowsticks the moon began to rise over the island. It rose right in front of us, and for the time that it hovered near the horizon I felt like that auspicious and glowing orange moon was my destination. I have launched many times in the darkness before dawn with glowsticks on my kayak pausing in the middle of the sound to paddle directly in the center of the blinding reflection of the sun as it rose. This was the first time I paddled through sunset and on into darkness and the first time I floated squarely in the shining reflection of a Harvest moon.  My attempts at capturing the moment with a camera were fruitless as I would have needed a tripod and a wide angle lens so you'll have to be happy with the description. (I looked it up, sunset was at 8:17 pm, twilight ended at 8:43, moonrise was at 8:44, so literally, right after the sun went down, the moon rose)

We soon discovered that we would have been very blind had the ranger not turned on the lights for us. The features of the islands- the silhouettes of buildings and squat trees are already difficult to identify in daylight, and are completely invisible in the dark. As we paddled and time wore on, the moon rose higher and the glowing windows shifted from being arranged in a cluster to a long string. In reality, the cabins are set in a row, long and narrow, along the length of the island. When you approach from the South West, they appear clumped together at first until you get close enough. Now which light was the ferry landing? We took a guess and started paddling toward one of the buildings only to hit marsh grass and still seem over a mile from the building. We turned away, back out toward the sound and tried to resume our North East bearing. Because we couldn't see ahead of us, we couldn't tell how far out we needed to go to get around the marsh grass. I started to worry that we would end up having to drag our boats through mud and muck to whatever building was closest. I called the ranger to see if he could drive his ATV over to the ferry landing and turn his lights on. He did us one better, he drove to the landing and put his flashing blue lights on. There was no mistaking where the ferry landing was. Much to our surprise, we saw his lights streaking through marsh grass. We were too far south by about 100 yards and there was a giant stand of marsh grass between us and him. We would have to paddle out and around it to get to the landing. Then Tony had an idea. The moon was full- causing a spring tide and very close to the earth- making the  spring tide much higher than normal. To our delight we could paddle through the  marsh grass directly to the blue lights and the landing. 

When we landed we were immediately assaulted by mosquitoes and no-see-ums. Phil was cussing and swatting as the rest of us were dancing and stomping to try to evade them. We all grabbed what we needed as fast as possible and ran. We ducked into the front porch of an empty cabin to escape the bugs. It was 9:30 and we still had to cook dinner. Sitting outside cooking in the swarm would be miserable, and we would probably eat a good number of bugs in the process, so we decided to covert cook dinner on the porch.  We listened to our radio while we cooked. The forecast had changed. There would be strong North East winds in the morning- 15 to 20 knots. Our late night would end in an early morning. We would have to hit the water early to make sure we had enough time to reach our destination before nightfall. After shoveling food into our growling stomachs we hastily set up our tents and fell asleep around midnight. 

We had a very eventful day- a headwind and the tide against us, an encouraging tailwind, exciting but harmless storms, confusion and frustration at our feeling lost, a breathtaking sunset and moon rise, a mad dash to cook dinner accompanied by the ominous forecast for the following day.
Lessons learned:
On the pavilion at Codd's Creek: I'm still convinced we weren't far enough north during our search and had we been at the right spot, we would have found it. After our trek we asked a park ranger and he told us that the pavilion was mostly destroyed in the last hurricane and is now very hard to spot from the sound side. If I had downloaded GoogleEarth onto my phone before our trek, I would have easily been able to tell if we were too far south of our destination or not and have a better idea where the entrance to the bay was because google earth puts a pinpoint on the map at your current location. I now have google earth installed on my phone which will probably come in handy some day. 
On paddling into nightfall: Paddling at sunset is pretty gorgeous, as one would expect it to be. Making the decision to paddle into the darkness can be scary- but we made it because we knew the area well, there were no storms on the horizon and we had the park ranger to light our way. Without these assurances we would not have taken the risk. It's easy to start to panic when you think you're paddling to your destination and all of a sudden you run into land and you aren't where you thought you were. I felt a bit of panic myself when we realized we were unable tell the buildings apart by their lit windows. Paddling into the rising harvest moon was the highlight of our trip and really magical. I think it would be a really awesome experience to re-create for adults on treks in the future.