Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bear Island Camping

In mid October, I went a group of guys on a sea kayaking and camping trip on the coast of North Carolina. We planned to go Hammocks Beach State park near Swansboro, North Carolina. The main feature of the park is a barrier inland called Bear Island. It was originally spelled "Bare" island since it doesn't have much on it but sand dunes and sea oats (there have never been any bears as far as anyone knows). You can only access the island by boat: either the park's passenger ferry or by kayak.

Most of us met at Scott's house and we planned to take one vehicle (gas was around $4/gallon at the time). But could we fit ALL of that gear and people in/on one vehicle even with a trailer for the kayaks? The only way to take everything was to put a car carrier on top of Scott's mini van. We fumbled in the dark trying to figure out how to get the roof rack cross bars on (there's a front and back, but they weren't labeled or were labeled and we couldn't see the labels in the dark) and then had to move the bars around to accommodate the car carrier.

In our group that morning we had Scott and his son Alex, Luis, Ed, and myself. Brad and his son Troy would be joining us on the island later in the day (bad plan since we were going there at high tide, they would be arriving at LOW tide).

It's about a 2.75 hour drive to Swansboro. On our way there we passed numerous turkey farms. The turkeys were packed in so tightly in the barns, they couldn't move. I said, "HEY, that looks like a staff meeting." From the back, someone says, "NO, it's an all manager's meeting!".

We went into the park office to get our camp sites. Camp sites at North Carolina state parks are first come, first serve (a reservation system is supposed to be in place in 2009). We got the park rules and safety information from two very grumpy park employees. However, it was important to know that there's a $100,000 fine for disturbing sea turtles and to NOT use white lights at night since white light confuses nesting turtles. And don't use the emergency phone on the island to call for help unless there IS an actual emergency. False reports result in another huge fine.

We unloaded all of the gear. You need to bring everything you need to the island except water: tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, sleeping bag liner, pillow, clothes, food, etc. I never had my sea kayak loaded up with with so much stuff. Everything was in dry bags and either in the boat's holds or strapped on top. The gear was in dry bags, but dry bags don't float. Therefore the gear had better not fall off or I'd better not roll the boat over. The kayak was low in the water, but handled fine.

We paddled the four miles to the island, following the ferry route. The salt marsh can be very shallow, but we were going out close to high tide. Alex was in the lead a lot of the time (follow the channel markers Alex!). The trip took a little over an hour, but we weren't in a hurry. Once we arrived at the island, we had to go a half mile or so into a lagoon. Even at high tide, it was very shallow in spots and I had to push myself forward at times.

We found our camp sites, which were right behind the dunes on the beach. There were heated bathrooms and water, but over a half mile away down the beach. We walked down to the facilities for lunch since there are also gazebos with picnic tables. While walking down the beach, we saw numerous porpoises jumping out of the water.

Then we set up camp. Luis advised us to bring plastic shopping bags to load with sand to hold down the corners of the tents. There's no dirt to drive the tent stakes into, and wind would blow your tent away if it isn't staked down. We got three camp sites, but we easily could have fit on one site. It wasn't a big deal since each site was $9/night (Scott did grumble though).

Luis wanted to go geocaching in the afternoon since there was a cache on a nearby island ( geocaching is a sport in which you use a GPS to find hidden caches, which usually contain a notebook where you can log that you found it). We paddled over to the island. As soon as we got off the beach and into the trees, we were swarmed by mosquitoes. Ed found the cache in a tree and everyone quickly went back to the beach.

At this point we split up. Ed and Luis were going to meet up with Brad and Troy, who called and were at the put in in the park. Brad decided to get a tandem kayak (otherwise known as a divorce boat). Scott, Alex, and I were going to play in the ocean surf with the kayaks.

The tide was going down and huge sand flats were exposed. Brad and Troy were going to have a tough time getting to the camp sites.

Scott, Alex and I played in the ocean surf. I had a spray skirt on my boat. Alex had one but didn't know how to use it. Scott didn't have a spray skirt, and didn't configure his boat to fit him properly. So, I was able to ride some big waves (I haven't tried to roll the big 15' long boat, and didn't want to try now). Scott got his boat filled with water and it nearly sank to the bottom.

Hours went by. Brad and Troy finally showed up. I still don't know what took them so long to go the four miles.

We all set up for dinner. I had a Jet Boil, a small stove that can be used boil water, as did Scott. I didn't want to haul a bunch of cooking gear, so I had organic mac and cheese in a pouch from REI. I added boiling water to the bag, mixed it up, waited a few minutes, and it was dinner. The weather that day was beautiful, but rain was in the forecast. When it started to sprinkle, we all ran for cover.

It poured throughout the night. It was pitch black from the storm and from the fact that there were few lights on the island. You could see the lights from Swansboro and on Emerald Isle across the Bogue Inlet.

We woke up to a gray day, but it wasn't raining yet. Ed walked by and said that there's a 100% chance of rain. We packed up as quickly as possible to get the gear into the dry bags before the skies opened up. We loaded gear onto the kayaks. Then we waited. And we waited. And we waited. Scott and Alex hadn't broken down camp yet. Scott asked if we were going to have breakfast. I already did, I had an oatmeal to go bar and an apple. I was ready to go.

We were finally on our way and the tide was rising. When we were coming out of lagoon, we had to go against the rising tide and a strong headwind. It started to rain on and off. I was very thankful for the waterproof/windproof paddling jacket I had on AND for the spray skirt on the kayak. Once we got out of the lagoon, it was easier going since the we were riding the rising tide towards shore.

We all made it back to the parking lot, loaded up the gear, then the rain really started coming down.

We went to the next campground (Cedar Point, which is in the Croatan National Forest) and had to set up camp in the rain. This time we picked a site directly across from the bathrooms/showers. The showers did have warmish water, but they were navy showers apparently. You only got water for 20 seconds or so, then had to press the button to get another 20 seconds. It was pretty cold out, so I kept pressing the button to keep the water flowing (bam bam bam bam bam ...).

Now what could do for a few hours in the pouring rain? That evening we were going to a shrimp boil dinner, but we had to find something to do for a few hours.

We needed lunch, so we went into Swansboro. Luis had recommended a local restaurant, but they had a 45+ minute wait. We could wait in a knick knack shop (oh, the kitsch) since there was no room in the restaurant. The building the shop occupied predated the Civil War. I got to overhear the owner explain how the Union troops tried to burn down the building because they were looking for liquor and were upset when they couldn't find any (and you could still see the char marks). I led a small group over to a coffee house nearby and waited there with a latte. Troy got a hot chocolate, so he was happy. It was a COLD rainy day, so hot beverages and heat were wonderful. For lunch I had a great clam chowder as well as a huge burger. We all shared onion rings and fries.

The dinner that evening was a BYOB affair, so we went to a grocery store for malted beverages. We still had hours to kill and it was still raining. Luis suggested that we could go bowling. But where's a bowling alley? Scott gets out his Blackberry (crack berry). There's a bowling alley right behind the store! I said a sports bar would be better, but they don't allow kids. Brad loved the idea and said: yes they do. Scott does another search on the crack berry. The place that is a bowling alley is also a sports bar AND an arcade. We were going to Mac Daddy's.

When we got to Mac Daddy's, Brad, Luis, and Ed plopped onto a couch in front of a large screen TV with a football game on. I played pool with Scott, Alex, and Troy. We also played a game of bowling (I do better with Wii bowling). While bowling, I saw a teenage girl yapping on her cell phone WHILE throwing the ball. They also had bumpers on their bowling lane. Seems like cheating to me.

We then went off to dinner. Dinner was held at home of one of the Raleigh Sail and Power Squadron members (Luis is a member of the Raleigh Sail and Power Squadron, a boating club). It was a very nice home on the White Oak River. It has a large dock, and a large boat of course. Dinner consisted of boiled shrimp (with Old Bay seasoning and I assume local shrimp), potatoes, corn, key lime pie, and brownies.

Troy, who claims that sushi is his favorite food says, "Ewww...aren't shrimp SEA BUGS?" I said, "So are lobsters, and both are DELICIOUS".

We then had another night of camping in the rain. In the morning, the sky was clear since the front moved through. It was cooler and a bit windy. We loaded up the gear and planned to kayak on the White Oak River for awhile before heading home.

The White Oak River is very wide and tidal near Swansboro (but shallow due to sand that built up behind the Swansboro bridge). It has salt marshes, which we explored. It's not easy to navigate around in the marsh since may channels dead end. Several times we had to turn around, and other times the channels would only be as wide as your boat or would be so shallow you had to push yourself through the mud. We finally got through and headed back into the main channel of the river. Brad and Troy had a bigger an heavier tandem kayak, so they had turned around and met back up with us later.

By now the wind is really creating whitecaps on the river and making large waves. It was a lot of fun bouncing in the waves. Somehow I missed seeing the porpoise that was in the river.

We loaded up one last time and headed home.

Click here for more pictures from the trip.

One of the funny things from the weekend is that it seemed that every time Scott used his Jet Boil, it would rain. So we asked him to NOT use it any more.

This is an annual trip that Luis organizes and my second year on the trip. I'll try to fit it into my calendar for next fall. We'll want to move it back to September so that the weather isn't as variable (unless there's a hurricane), but September tends to be a very busy month.

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