Sunset at Bellhaven

Sunset at Bellhaven

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First night camping on ICW

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Day 28 & 29, Saturday/Sunday October 6/7 – Days of R&R and a Major Decision

Saturday morning I awoke in my cabin # 11 at the River Forest Marina, and shared my concerns regarding the weather with Axson and his wife Lisa.  She went in and checked the NOAA marine forecast for this part of North Carolina, and came out onto the porch, and confirmed that it does not look good for the next few days through Wednesday.  Later they invited me into the house for a drink, and we discussed various options.  Axson called the TowBoatUS office to confirm that I was a member in good standing, which I was, but he did not think that he could use a boat under the service and take me down the  Pongo River and across the Pamlico River without my being out on the water, and receiving a call from me stating that I could not proceed with out help .  I told him that I was concerned about being able to reach him if I needed help.  I then asked whether there were any young men who might like to earn some money taking me to Oriental, on the Neuse River (the last that I would have to cross in NC), and past 15 miles or so of open exposure to the largest open water in the state,  Pamlico Sound.  Axson called his son, who agreed to take me on Monday for a fair price.  We then agreed to have dinner together at the Farm Boys restaurant in town, where Lisa and I had a meaningful conversation about what is important in life.  I told them they had become members of my club of angels, and they said they wanted to come down some day, meet Grace and see St. Augustine again.  I later called Grace to let her know that a decision had been made, and we both felt very relieved.  My apprehension about these large bodies of water has grown with my experience in paddling down or across them in the Chesapeake Bay and in North Carolina.  There is no question that my paddling skills have improved measurably, but they are not good enough to do a self rescue far from shore.

Sunday broke sunny and with barely any wind.  I attended the St. James Episcopal Church on Main Street at 9 AM, and Father Dan asked me to get up and explain to the small congregation what I was doing and why.  Afterward, we went to the fellowship hall to have coffee or tea, and there I met most of the members and had pleasant talks about my adventure and about their lives in Belhaven.  After a call to Grace, I went to get some food and brought it back to the room before it started to rain.  Actually, most of the day was sunny with almost no wind, but an important decision had been made, and I saw no reason to change plans, especially given that adverse weather report starting tonight.  As I write these words, the sky is becoming darker.  We will see what tomorrow brings.  What I will do once I reach Oriental, and pick up my charts that I mailed to myself from Portsmouth, will depend on the circumstances.  Once I cross the Neuse River, however that is done, I will go down Adams Creek south through another canal that will bring me to Beaufort, NC, a new milestone in this remarkable journey.

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Day 26 and 27 Thursday/Friday October 4/5 – Pushing Through Alligator River – Pungo River Canal to Belhaven

I awoke slowly, enjoying the quiet moments in the hanging tent.  The sun was still coming up, so I lazed out for another few minutes.  I heard an approaching boat coming southwest along the canal, and decided to see who it was.  A nice sail boat powered quietly up towards me, and I went over to where Katie was tied up, and waved to the couple as they motored by.  As is common, the wife took a picture of me with my gear hanging up to dry.  Now that I was up, and the sun up, it was time to get ready.  I heard a wild turkey call, and other sounds of the wildlife located in this very remote area.  I decided to get paddling, and have something to eat later.  It still takes time to take down the tent, pack up the sleeping bag and pad, put the clothes and sleeping bag in the Cabela’s waterproof bag that goes on top of the stern.  Then I went over to take down the 4 food bags (the white general food bag, the rust lunch bag, the black bag with the cooking stove and the green breakfast bag), and could not find any evidence of bear activity below where they were hanging, which is always a nice sign.  It was awkward trying to pack the kayak, as she was sitting in the water off a large set of tree roots, that made stepping back and forth challenging.  Another sail boat passed by and more greetings.  I usually generate enthusiastic responses when I tell them what I am trying to do.  Nearly everyone expresses that I stay safe.

By the time that I am finally all strapped in, the wind has resumed its usual direction, with small wind waves coming down the canal.  I tried to reach Grace to send her a message, but all I got was No Service.  This was now really worrying me, as she expected to hear from me each morning and evening.  This was the second missed contact.  I knew that she would be worried.  Hopefully, access would appear later on the canal.  Two red-headed woodpeckers greeted me as I left that good camping site.  Blue jays called out as I moved through the canal.  There are many snags around, so I try to stay enough offshore to avoid most of them, while still leaving room for boats to pass me.  My rear view mirror serves a very useful purpose here, to alert me to traffic coming up behind me.  The sailboats are not a problem, but the large motor yachts do generate large wakes.  Fortunately, the largest ones seem to be run by professional captains, because they often slow down to pass me.  But when they don’t, they can generate large breaking waves that tear towards the nearby shore where it is quite shallow. Another sailboat passed me, and the two guys slowed down to talk.  They asked me if I had seen the bear that they seen moving back into the woods, and I told them no.  The also told me that they had heard that there were a few alligators around, and wanted to know if I had seen any.  I again said no, and I hoped it stays that way!  I started looking more carefully at the shoreline close by, checking for them, but only saw snapping turtles.  I passed mile marker 110 – which meant at least 17 miles further to go on this straight canal.

At around mile 113, I crossed under a large fixed bridge for highway 94, and stopped by to again try calling Grace.  No Service.  More worries.  Mile marker 115 came and went.  Still nothing but woods and marsh around me, and no sign of any houses anywhere.  I continued to push through the wind and finally passed mile marker 120.  I could see another fixed bridge way ahead of me, and paddled another hour to a beach on the right, where I could eat lunch and drink water at a table.  I again tried to send a message to Grace. No Service.  After passing under the bridge a number of boats passed me and moved into the Pungo River.  I decided because of the wave heights not to follow them down the center of the river, but rather turn to the right and paddle closer to a crossing near a marsh island.  I found some houses along the southwestern shore, and stopped at a beach to check for I-Phone connectivity.  No Service.  I was so frustrated.  But I made up my mind that one way or the other, I would find a way to let Grace know that I was ok, even if I needed to stop at a house and ask the owners to call her on my behalf.  I paddled around the next point, further into the Pungo River, fully into the wind.  Fortunately, the waves were around 1 foot and I could push my way through them.

I pounded my way pass Satterthwaite Point, then Bay Point and saw what looked like a marina at the western side of Upper Dowry Creek.  I thought I could continue and make Belhaven and be assured of a cell phone connection.  That probably was a poor decision.  When I came around the next point, I was confronted with haystack waves from the wooden bulkheads of houses on the right, making progress very challenging.  I moved away from the shore, but that did not make any difference, so I headed back closer to the shore, and just forced my way through these crazy waves.  I finally made it to Haystack Pt., and was dismayed by the large bay in front of me.  The wind seemed to increase, the waves seemed to get higher, and my energy began to fail me. I passed Lower Dowry Cr. to my right, and saw the first of several houses ahead.  I decided to stop one more time to check the cell phone.  Again, No Service.  I could not believe it!  Suddenly, the phone made a sound, and I heard 5 voice mails – mostly from Grace.  In the first one, I heard worry, the second one real concern.   The third one almost a sense of panic.  It so pained  me to hear how much this not being able to communicate with my love could hurt her.  I immediately called her, and while the connection was poor, she heard me as I kept repeating – I am ok, I am ok.  I could hear her tears of relief.  I heard her say she is not sure she can continue with this voyage if there are times like these.  I tried to apologize and explain what happened, but the connection was not good enough, so I told her I was a mile or two away from Belhaven, and that I would call her in the morning upon my arrival.  She agreed, and I hung up.  I paddled 50 yards back away from the first house, and saw occasional trees in tall grass next to a beach.  Perfect site.  I decided only to have some quick cereal and get ready for bed.  I found two trees that would work, one of them dead, but still with some strength left, near Katie.  I pulled her completely out of the water onto the raised bed of grass, secured her to another tree, and prepared camp.  As I ate my cereal, flocks of seabirds flew over me, and a phenomenal sunset ensued, as if welcoming me to my weekend destination.  First bright orange covered the clouds in the western sky, and as the sun dropped lower, the hues turned into a deeper red.  Absolutely spectacular.  Unfortunately, I could not say the same for the evening.  Legions of mosquitoes came out as the wind died down at the end of the evening, and  when I got out to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, they were waiting for me.  In seconds, my legs and arms were covered in the small biting bugs.  I tried to brush as many off before returning into the tent, but quite a few got in with me, and that took about 10 minutes to dispatch them.  In the morning, everything was covered in a heavy dew, and quite wet.

I quickly put on my pants, long sleeve shirt and my towel around my head and neck secured by a cap to frustrate the mosquitoes, and packed up quickly as the sun rose in the east.  There was no wind in sight.  I paddled 30 minutes to the River Forest Shipyard and Marina, the first marina in Belhaven, where I arranged to stay in one of their cabins. The owner Captain Axson S. wrote me up for two nights, and if the weather were not cooperative, a third night. He said I could leave the kayak on his front lawn where I had landed, and I put everything in bags to take to the room.  This would give me time to rest, clean my clothes and get some good food and two nights sleep, with the expectation that, weather permitting, I would leave after church Sunday morning.

I had access to a golf cart, and went to have breakfast after calling Grace.  Cell phone coverage by AT&T remained very poor in the area – apparently, only Cellular had good coverage.  I had to get up two to three stories to ensure better reception.  Axson invited me to his porch to send my  blog written earlier that morning, and signed me up for TowBoatUS.  He has the territory around Belhaven, and there is another representative in Oriental, my next principle stop on my voyage.   I paid over $180 for the membership, which he said would allow me to call at any hour for a tow, should I decide for whatever reason that I could not continue kayaking.  (John O and Bob A. had also recommended me to sign up for this service, given my circumstances – i.e. kayaking alone.  I finally got the message, and was very happy to sign up for a year).

I checked the weather on NOAA and the weather forecast for the next 4 days was going to be challenging, with high winds (up to 20 knots) and waves ( up to 3 feet), and higher in the thunderstorms predicted for Monday and Wednesday evenings.  I shared this news (along with my concerns) with Grace, and we agreed I would review this news with Axson to see what could be done to get me across Pamlico River.  We agreed that I needed to be very careful around large bodies of water, and unfortunately, there were still a number of them to get through until Beaufort NC.  I just want to get to a point where it is more of a canal journey, starting around the NC coast.

I have rated the day that I paddled down the Alligator River a 3, and the day going down the canal a 2, primarily due to the constant frustration at not being able to communicate for almost 2 days.  The last day is a 4, for only 30 minutes paddling and arriving safely at Belhaven, my destination on my itinerary for the end of the 4th week.

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Day 25, October 3 – Tough Slog through Alligator River

I woke up before the alarm clock went off on my I-Phone, 4:55 AM.  There were a number of things I needed to do before JD would come to take me, Katie and our gear around Albemarle Sound and drop me at a marina on the northwest corner of the river, where route 64 cuts across it.  The Waterway Guide states that “traveling south, Albemarle Sound is the first of the few sometimes-challenging bodies of water on the Norfolk-Miami section of the ICW.   The 14 mile long crossing can be very sloppy because winds from almost any quarter tend to funnel either up or down the long, straight sound.  Because of its uniformly shallow depth, even a light wind can quickly create rough, confused seas”.  We had therefore pre-arranged for him to take me for a fair price, using a trailer to carry the kayak behind his Jeep.  I checked and rechecked all of the gear, making sure everything was in the correct bag.  There were 4 bags, and two sets of paddles.  I set them out in the dark next to the Coinjock Marina and Restaurant bathhouse, not too far away from the second flow room I had rented the day before when it started raining.

The prior day had been a good day of rest.  After taking the room, I met Bob and Robin Ahnert, who were friends of the owner’s father, and who liked coming up with their camper and staying a few weeks.  They had been two of the people in the bar the prior evening when I had bought a round for everyone.  Bob has been a successful captain, taking boats up and down the east coast, and beyond, and knew the ICW intimately, and now was doing occasional assignments.  They owned a beautiful motor yacht in south Florida, and they opened themselves up to me during that day.  They took me with them shopping, and then we had lunch and dinner together, the latter with the current owner, Lewis, and his wife.  Robin and I had long talks about life, family, and other interesting matters.

The day of departure, both Bob and Robin were up, Bob getting ready with Lewis and some other men to go duck hunting, Robin walking her two dogs and hoping to catch up with me for a few more minutes.  As we waited for JD to arrive, I told them how special it was to have spent this time with them.  Finally, the duck hunters were gone in the dark, and JD arrived without the trailer.  But he secured the kayak on top of the jeep, and we packed up the bags, paddles and water bottles, and we were off by 6:30.  JD is a young man who lives in Elizabeth City, east of Coinjock, and he considers himself fortunate to have a year around job.  (There are three seasons in the area, the two seasons for boats moving up and down the ICW, and duck hunting, which is big business).  The sun came up as we drove down to Kitty Hawk, past Nags Head and west through Manteo.  I had earlier checked with NOAA for the weather forecast, and it indicated strong winds from the SSW, so I chose to go down the west side of the north/south river, which looks more like a sound due to its considerable width.  JD dropped me off at the almost empty Alligator River Marina at ICW mile marker 84.2, and helped unload all of the gear in the bright sunshine, and soon he was off to return to work by 10 AM in Coinjock.

After loading everything in and checking to be sure nothing was left behind, I called Grace at 9:15 to let her know I was leaving.  I left the boat ramp in sheltered water, and moved out into the sound to wind and waves coming at me.  This proved to be a long slog, with not much to say for it except that I tried to use the coves to reduce the impact of the weather.  The side of the river is full of snags, pieces of trees that had been left in the water as the shoreline has eroded over time, and many of them are underwater.  So I would periodically hit one, sometimes glancing over them, sometimes hitting them hard.  During the times the waves became higher, it was easier to spot them, but then it was that much more work to make progress.  From the marina to the Newport News Point, where the river turns west, it is about 17 miles, and that journey was interspersed with cloud bursts that pelted me with rain.  Fortunately, I had put on my splash jacket, and that kept me somewhat dry, but more importantly, warm.  Once I turned west, the wind kept blowing.  I traversed the much smaller width to the south at Grassy Point, and followed the markers into the 20 mile Alligator River – Pungo River Canal, which heads WSW.  Just before entering, I moved aside to allow a barge pushed by a tugboat to pass me.  The wind used this canal like a highway, and continued to blow into my face.  Given the long slog earlier that day, I looked for a good camping spot, especially since I had made adequate distance this day (22.8 miles).  I searched for a grouping of pine trees near the canal, that would allow me to secure the kayak and provide suitable trees for my hammock tent, without a lot of undergrowth.  Two miles up, I found a very good spot, and made ready for dinner.  I was told there were bear in the area, so after dinner I put up high in a tree all of my food bags.  Some old scat in my area looked like it could have been from a bear.  Before entering the tent,  I tried sending a message to Grace, but my phone indicated No Service, so I went to bed, tired and concerned that she would worry not hearing from me, which is our usual custom.  I hoped that this being out of communication would change early the following day, but it would turn out to be a great frustration.  I regretted not telling her that morning that this section of the ICW is one of the least populated areas and most primitive.

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Day 23 – October 1 – Big Push to Coinjock

I awoke to find Katie exactly where I left her – the big barges from last night had not shifted her position.  It was easy to pack up (no dinner cooked) and I decided to eat breakfast later on the road, as it were.  I checked the weather, and the forecast was not a good one for Tuesday, the following day.  So, we would need to make good headway today (Monday) in order to leave as little as possible for the following day.  Monday was supposed to be wet, and the sky looked very gray and somewhat threatening, so I did not want to waste a lot of time getting off.  By 8:30 I was heading again east on the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, its formal name.  This continued in a straight shot until North Landing, where a creek joined the waterway from the north, and I stopped at a small boat ramp to eat.  I continued on the North Landing River, now heading south, as the width expanded with each additional creek joining the river.  More fancy boats, as well as sailing vessels, were going in both directions.  There were several bridges where boats had to queue up, but of course, I just kept paddling right under them.  Several times it started to rain, but mostly it stayed dry.  I could hear gunfire in the Virginia forests and marshes as I passed, and I was told that hunting season had started that day – October 1st.   I passed West Landing, then headed on to Pungo Ferry, location of a defunct marina, but where I landed on a beach next to an abandoned building, to get out of the rain and the freshening wind, and eat some lunch.  (I have found my appetite not so great these days, and it is an effort to eat something to keep up my energy).  While I was eating my apple, I helped an older couple secure their boat – they were waiting for some sailboats to catch up with them on their way back to Portsmouth.  Another large motorboat came by at full speed and caused the first boat to really bounce around – very poor manners!  I realigned my map in the map case when I got back into the kayak, and noticed from my chart that I was approaching the 30 mile mark, and gave some thought to trying to make it to Coinjock by nightfall.  Could I do another 20 miles in the afternoon?  It would all depend on crossing the length of North Landing River, once it opened up into a large bay.

When I got to the open part of the river, I could tell this was not going to be that easy.  I left the channel markers that ran right down the middle of the bay, to stay closer to shore to the west.  At approximately 1:45, I left Virginia and entered North Carolina.  Wow, how neat to actually be making progress!  The bay was becoming more windy and the waves more difficult, coming from my left.  I passed Troublesome Pointe, to my right, from which I followed west towards the far shore.  That took a mile, with the wind behind me, and I was relieved to get to a beach to rest.  The back was becoming more sore, and my right hand was not happy from the previous day’s barnacle cuts.  After the break, I resumed the slog south along the populated shoreline.  The water was very choppy due to the echo waves bouncing off the wooden or rock walls built to prevent erosion.  It became very difficult to stay upright, and so I just kept plotting along, saying not such nice things about the wind and the waves.  These difficult conditions continued for another 5 miles, and I am not sure how we got through all of that.  After mile 40, the contour of the shore turned to the east, where I rested again at a small beach out of the wind and waves.  I refolded the chart, so I could see the last 10 miles.  It was 5:15, and normally I would be looking for a camping spot, but there was only marsh and everything felt very exposed to the weather.  I recalculated the time necessary to get to Coinjock, and there was a possibility I could get there before dark.  An excellent hot meal would be waiting for me at the well known eating establishment at the Coinjock Marina and Restaurant.  I would have to paddle another two miles of wind and waves, then across a part of Coinjock Bay as the conditions should improve due to being in the lee of the other shoreline.  By the time I was back in sheltered water, my right hand was really stinging, and the lower back was in perpetual pain, but I was so close, I just kept paddling, trying to coax every last stroke out of my body .   Finally, at 6:30, back in the North Carolina Cut, I saw boats on both sides of the canal.  I was exhausted, but at the same time elated, that I had paddled 35 miles that day.  And, I would not have to worry about the stormy weather coming on Tuesday.  Furthermore, I would have a day of rest before continuing on Wednesday on the Alligator River.

The owner came out to meet me – they were expecting me today or tomorrow.  I found some low lying rocks where I could empty Katie, and then use my full mesh bags to help her over those rocks to safety.  I decided to put up my tent, and spend $25 for a hot shower and have access to all of the facilities.  After the tent was up (in the dark), I grabbed my bag of clothes, and took a loooooooooong shower.  Finally, dressed in clean clothes, I went to the restaurant, where I ordered a beer and the small prime rib.  I was so happy and relieved to be there, I arranged with William the bartender to buy everyone in the bar (mostly other boat owners that had passed me that day) a drink, in order to celebrate with me my accomplishments of the day.  That gesture was very well received, and allowed me to be introduced to a number of people, who all expressed hope that I would reach Florida safely.

Had I not reached Coinjock that night, I would have rated the day a 2, due to poor weather, long distance and difficult crossing of the wide river. However, because of what had been achieved, the pleasure of being safe and off the water, and after a really good meal, I gave the day a 4.

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Day 22 September 30 – First Day on the ICW

This Sunday was an important day for a number of reasons.  First, it was the end of 3 nights staying in the Renaissance Hotel in Portsmouth, during which I washed my clothes, ate high caloric meals and purchased detailed charts for the next 500 miles or so.  Because these charts were so large (6′ by 40 inches), I sent forward the last 3 and kept the first 2 that I will need over the next two weeks.  I then cut up the two that I kept to make them more manageable.  Second, it represented the start of going down the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), and 750 miles to  Jacksonville.  After 8 AM Mass at a Catholic Church, I got all of the gear from the hotel and used a cart from the Tidewater marina where Katie had been locked up against a white picket fence near the set of dumpsters that served the boat owners.  I had been worried about how to get Katie back in the water, but there was a corner near where she lay, that had some sand above water once the tide started going down, around 11:30 AM.

By noon I was there, easing Katie down into the shallow water, then packed up all of the gear.  The sun was out, with a gentle northwesterly breeze, and after sending Grace an email at 1:15 that I was off, we headed down the Elizabeth River, past large naval and industrial buildings, some with navel vessels clouded in secretive wrapping behind which work was being done even on a Sunday.  Later, I passed what appeared to be destroyers and an aircraft carrier, being repaired.  Eventually the cranes and buildings receded and the landscape resumed a more natural look, still with periodic large commercial enterprises and barge locations.  I headed down the southern branch, past Chesapeake, and eventually turned left into the breeze towards the Virginia Cut, the first of several canals built by hand in earlier centuries.  I was so happy to be in the ICW and off the Chesapeake Bay!  Several large power boats moved passed me, most slowing down to reduce their wake – I continue to be amazed at the amount of money that has been spent on these vessels.  After a couple of breaks, I arrived at the Lock on the western edge of the town of Great Bridge, and as requested, hailed the lockmaster over my VHF radio on channel 13 to announce my arrival, and my intension of going through the lock.

At 4:30, the lock opened, and I thought I should advance ahead of two yachts behind me, but as I entered, I realized that I had jumped the gun, and then a boat was coming out.  In order to avoid getting too close, I headed to the side where the gates were located, and got too close.  I reached out to grab what I could to slow me down, and was rewarded with several barnacle cuts on my right hand.  I had not worn my gloves this day, which ended up being a mistake.  Anyway, I moved to the far right inside the lock, grabbed onto a metal ladder, and soon I was moving into a canal that goes through Great Bridge.  Another kayaker I had spoken to suggested that I stay at the park for the night, but I could not find confirmation that this would be permitted, so I left the kayak with a nice couple fishing off a dock, and ran to find something to eat for dinner.  After 45 minutes, I returned and thanked Richard and Valerie for watching Katie, and resumed paddling down the canal to the east to look for a good place to camp.  After around mile 15, a man in a rowing shell told me about an abandoned Boys Scout camp ahead on the left, and recommended that I camp there.  I continued to paddle on, trying to find a good opening, but in the growing darkness, it was difficult to find.  I decided to head towards a tiny piece of beach, and there, I saw a break in the bushes into a dark stand of trees, beyond which was a bit of a clearing.  I decided what I really needed to carry up the steep bank, which included my sleeping pad, pillow, sleeping bag, clean clothes, toiletry bag and some water for washing and drinking. With my headlight on, I put up the tent and got ready for bed.  I made sure that Katie was secured at both ends, tied to dead trees lying on the beach.  That was a good thing, because twice during the night, two large barges came through pushed by tugboats lit up like Christmas trees, creating a high swell that crashed into the shore.

As I lay there, happy in my tent, I gave this day a 4.  I had travelled 15 miles in just an afternoon, and thought this was a very good sign about how much progress I could make.  I had to be in Coinjock by Tuesday night as I had arranged after speaking with Grace, to have someone take me from that village on Wednesday around the large Albemarle Sound (14 miles across) and drop me in the northern end of another large piece of water, the Alligator River.  There are several large bodies of water in North Carolina, and this was the largest, and one that I did not think I could negotiate safely.  But as the Alligator River goes south, I thought I could follow the shoreline until the next canal.  I had 35 miles to do in two days, but the weather forecast looked threatening, so I resolved to try to paddle as far as possible the next day.  Little did I realize what a challenge that would be.

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