Wednesday, July 27, 2011
We must have turned a few heads as we headed east on Interstate 40.
With two 17-foot fiberglass kayaks strapped to the top of a 1982 Mercedes, we cut a different profile than most cars on the road as we made our way toward the Outer Banks.
The idea was to spend four or five days paddling around the Cape Lookout National Seashore—camp on the beach, visit the lighthouse, see some wild horses, lots of sea birds, and maybe a vivid sunset or two.
My boyfriend, Don De Bona, had experience kayaking around the Core Sound, and had recently bought the two “previously owned” British-made kayaks along with all the requisite gear, planning a trip for the two of us in early July.
A night at my sister Brooke’s house in Wake Forest broke the drive into manageable parts—and by the time we left the Raleigh area early on a Thursday morning we were more confident the kayaks were not going to be flung off the car by the massive headwind driving at 60 mph creates.
For, just like the car and one of the kayaks, Don’s Thule roof rack was vintage 1980’s—solid, no doubt, but not as confidence-raising as those sleek new models.
As for my sea kayaking experience, it basically came down to a single day in Kauai about 15 years ago on a tandem kayak with my sisters—when Brooke lived on Oahu.
Other than the amazing experience of swimming with sea turtles that day, I only remember that getting on that kayak was a great cure for the hangover I had woken up with.
I didn’t plan on testing out this boat as a hangover cure, but wished I had had time to try the boat out in some sort of water before leaving for the Banks.
I had a slight but nagging fear of what I would do if the boat capsized—but Don assured me he would be there to help me if that unfortunate circumstance should arise.
Trusting that I would be safe, and relying on my yoga-strengthened arms and core muscles to see me through, I decided to accept his assurance.
Pulling into the parking lot at the Cape Lookout Visitor Center, the sound came into a full, expansive view, sunk under a massive stack of offshore clouds.
The Core Sound is the body of water between the slim strand of marsh, dune and beach of the Core Banks and the islands off the mainland of North Carolina.
I could see the banks spanning the low horizon, at the center of which the lighthouse beamed.
The Cape Lookout lighthouse looked pretty distant from this vantage point on Harkers Island, like a toy from a miniature display.
It was good to know it would basically remain within view from wherever we were on the banks or the sound—a handy orientation tool, just as it had been to anxious sailors in the past.
The Core Sound is quite a bit smaller than the neighboring Pamlico Sound to the north, but Don said it would still take a couple of hours to get to the banks by kayak.
That didn’t surprise me—it was hard to make out anything but low trees on the banks, as they sit about two and half miles off Harkers Island.
Loading the boats in full sunshine at the Visitor Center picnic area and boat put-in was relatively simple—much easier than packing in the first place, thanks to Don’s expertise.
By the time we set off from the little harbor around 2 p.m., however, strong winds had begun to blow—there were even whitecaps on what was now turning into foot-high swells.
Once in the open water, I thought I heard Don say, “Let’s turn back!” but it took all my concentration to keep the boat going forward.
He seemed to be making a beeline for the banks, so I soldiered on.
The thing we didn’t plan for—it hadn’t even entered our heads—was “what to do in case we got separated.”
Don and his boat were getting smaller and smaller in my vision as I struggled to keep the boat from heading north—the direction the wind, and possibly the tidal current, were going.
After about a half-hour, he was completely gone from my vision, and the lighthouse was looking even more remote.
Land was in relatively close view, however, so I decided to make it to the beach, and look for him once I was out of the boat.
The kayak was handling pretty well—just frustrating me that I couldn’t turn it into the wind to head south—I was a cork bobbing out there, too light for the crossing.
An hour later, I made my way into a marsh and set foot on land—in the form of the deepest mud I’d ever encountered.
After strapping on my hiking sandals tight enough so they wouldn’t be sucked off my feet, I realized how unwise it was to leave the boat.
I could move faster on the water—besides, the tidal marsh was a lot easier to paddle in than the open sound.
I knew Don was south of where I was, and more importantly, would be looking for me.
Honestly, I did panic a little bit—what if I didn’t find him?
The tent was in my boat, so I could set up camp, but I thought about how awful it would be if I didn’t know where he was once it got dark.
Don had the dry bag that held both of our cell phones in his kayak, so calling wasn’t an option—though at the time I didn’t know there was full reception on that remote section of the banks.
The sun was still high in the sky, thankfully, and about 20 minutes later we did find each other.
Don said he had been worried I had taken on as much water as his boat did in the crossing (it hadn’t—though I was the one with the bilge pump) or, even worse, that I had capsized.
Another 10 minutes of not knowing where I was and he said he was prepared to call 911.
Relieved to have found each other, we headed south along the bank, enjoying some unhurried paddling—first spying an osprey on its nest, then a congregation of egrets beginning to roost in a low tree.
Unloading the boats in the marsh was exhausting as we began to feel the effects the crossing took on our muscles.
On the beach, the waves were grey and storm-tossed—it didn’t look like the weather would pass quickly.
Once we set up camp on the beach we were too wiped out to cook.
It was too windy anyway to run the camp stove, so we ate a supper of bread, cheese and fruit in the tent.
By the time we finished, the light had faded and the first rain of the all-night thunderstorms started pounding on the tent.
Deciding to take a break the next day to explore the beach and let the weather blow over, we walked down the bank a few miles, almost reaching as far as the lighthouse before lightning threatened.
We probably saw more sea turtle and shore bird nests than people that day.
I did appreciate the wide-open wild nature of the banks, but didn’t as much like the wind that sent sand into every corner of the tent that night.
In the morning, it was a choice to paddle to the lighthouse—before a 12:30 rainstorm was due, or simply return to Harkers Island.
I truly wanted to see the lighthouse up close, and camp in its relatively protected environs, but once we got the boats ready at about 9:45 a.m. it looked so far away compared to the mainland.
In low tide conditions, we first dragged then were able to paddle the boats in the shallow water of the sound, which was an exasperating effort.
We decided to head for Harkers Island—the dark clouds coming in near the lighthouse being the deciding factor.
Escaping the rain that lasted into the evening was a good call, though it was frustrating to see the next day dawn bright and flawlessly sunny, with calm waters on the sound.
The idea of getting in the kayaks exhausted us, so we indulged in a ferry ride to the lighthouse, where we swam and lounged on the beach for the entire day.
While relaxing, we started planning our next trip—with all the lessons we’d learned, it’s sure to be a breeze.