Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bear Island

blazing paddle over green water

Cameron and I just returned from a four-day kayak camping trip to Bear Island, a barren (Bare) barrier island off the North Carolina coast near Swansboro. Visited by native Americans as far back as several thousand years ago, it was never settled. In the 18th century, it was owned by Tobias Knight, secretary to Governor Eden, who along with Tobias was friends with Blackbeard, so there must be treasure hereabouts. A local whaler, Hardy, used the island for his whaling works in the 19th century, relying exclusively on beached whales. The island may have been host to a Civil War fort that would have guarded Bogue Inlet, but no trace has been found (there was definitely a fort on nearby Huggins Island, closer to Swansboro). The Coast Guard built a tower here to watch for U-boats during WW II. The prohibitive cost of building a bridge prevented development in the 1960s.

The island is framed by Bogue Inlet to the east and Bear Inlet to the west. Bogue Inlet is nearly impassable, except for small boats, despite a frequently moving, marked channel through the ocean breakers. The sea buoy sounds an eerie, somber horn as it rolls in the waves. Bear Inlet marks the eastern coastal boundary of Camp Lejeune, the largest Marine amphibious base in the country and the source of tireless artillery exercises that thunder even when there are no clouds in the sky.

I have camped there several times, the last being with Beth in 1990. Back then there were no designated camping sites, just sand dunes and maritime forest. There was, and still is, a ferry for people operated by the state and a bath house toward the middle of the island that offers the only shade outside of the stunted wax myrtles and live oaks in the thicketed maritime forest that stretches along the sound side of the island. Cameron and I put in at the new (to me) Park Office, enjoying the kayak dock with its roller-equipped slips that allowed us to get into the kayaks before pulling ourselves along stainless railings to slide into the water. I am more accustomed to almost toppling into the water as I plop into the kayak seat.

Paddling with Lennon (Cameron)

We followed a well-marked paddling trail through the salt marsh, past ancient oyster beds, spooking terns and cormorants and small fish. The trail follows the same tidal creeks that Beth and I bushwhacked in 1990 in an attempt to scout a short cut  back to shore to avoid the roundabout channel used by the ferry that puts you on the well-traveled ICW for almost a mile (where passing motor yachts have a tendency to nearly swamp small unpowered boats with their out-sized wakes). It had been a bit crazy for us to paddle our canoe into that maze of salt marsh islands with no map, but I had had a sense that I could find my way through it all. Luckily, it worked.

East end bluff and tidal slough

At the base of a tall bluff on the eastern end of the island, there is a tidal slough that extends southward into the heart of the island, ending in a lagoon that terminates on the backside of the primary dune line near the ocean. The lagoon used to be quite large and deep enough to support passing dolphins and sharks and other large fish. With the passing of time, the attempted restoration of eroding dunes on nearby Emerald Isle and the occasional hurricane, the lagoon has shrunken and is now only a few feet deep at high tide.

Camp at base of dunes

Cameron and I pulled into a nice sandy camp site on a bench above the high tide line. There was a wooden bench at the foot of a dune, but no other amenities. No picnic table, no tent pad, no fire pit, no pit toilet. No water. Only a sign that warned that the island has animals that carry rabies, like large and aggressive raccoons. Perfect. We knew about the mosquitoes the size of sparrows and the no-see-ums that swarmed into all exposed orifices, but I had not known about the potentially deadly 'coons. It promised to be an interesting sojourn.

Maritime forest thicket

Sand bowl in the interior dunes

Each day the sun woke us at sunrise, which was when the sun hit the tent and steamed us inside. Each morning was, thank goodness, cool with a light breeze. The first day we tried to explore the maritime forest but found the thicket too tangled to penetrate for long. It is perfect habitat for the small deer and other mammals that live on  the island. Then we hiked across the interior of the island, up, down, over and around high dunes and sand bowls; it was much like crossing a vast desert. There was more rough grass than previously, and the cacti had spread. These small, ground-sprawling cactus clusters had spines two inches long sharp enough to penetrate Vibram. We flushed a small duck that had been tending its ground nest where we found four small pale green eggs. At the old foundation of the Coast Guard's sub-watching tower, Cameron saw a corn snake hiding in the shade of a small hole beside a rusty pipe. Then he saw its freshly shed skin. It seemed to take forever to cross the island through the dunes, sliding in the sugar-fine sand as we climbed, but we arrived at the bath house area in time for lunch. Hot and hungry, we ate tangerines at a picnic table in the shade and replenished our water bottles.

Cactus on the island

Cameron impaled above his achilles

After searching unsuccessfully for the Indian middens, we trekked back to camp following the dune ridges closest to the maritime forest. When we sank into our camp chairs, neither of us had the energy to get up again. I had tortured my bad right knee enough for it to become indistinguishable from my thigh. I napped sitting up in the heat and breeze. When I went to make some late afternoon tea, I discovered that the propane canister was empty. I chastised myself for being careless when I closed the regulator, then pulled another canister from the kayak. After dinner, before the no-see-ums found me, the evening had a cool breeze, and I enjoyed reading and writing beside the tidal creek, listening to the marsh birds.

That night, as I made one last trip out of the tent, I made the mistake of opening my tent door and letting in a swarm of no-see-ums. I looked before I opened it, but I had not-seen-um. Cameron was a good sport about the little bugs with the tiny bites that are relatively easy to kill with the swipe of a hand.

The next morning, Cameron found deer prints alongside the kayaks and raccoon prints all over and around as well as inside the kayaks. We also found we were out of propane again. This time, I knew that I had checked and re-checked that the regulator was off when we finished dinner the previous night. The regulator was leaking. Had I known that, I could have removed the canister. No morning tea. Worse, no hot dinner. Cameron and I discussed our options. One was departing a day early, but both of us wanted to spend time on the beach. We had enough food that did not have to be cooked (pepper jack cheese, kippers, an apple and crackers), and we could survive without hot tea if we had to. The park rules prohibit camp fires, but say nothing about small cook fires. We decided to stay. I am not saying we made a cook fire, but I think we have an argument that that would not be a violation of the fire ban. For instance, a small fire set in a sandy pit on the beach beside the water, blocked by a couple of kayaks, a fire that only had to burn about ten minutes to boil water for freeze-dried dinner, was not as risky as a big open spark-spitting camp fire, much as we would have enjoyed the latter.

 While the tide was out, we waded the shallows and mud flats searching for clams. Then we pulled the kayaks into the tidal slough and paddled for the lagoon. There was small ramp for dragging the boats ashore. The beach sand was firm and easy walking, a relief after the soft dune sand of the day before. The ocean water was cool, but not cold, and refreshing as it washed over our feet. We hiked east to the point of the island where it abutted the inlet, the waters tumultuous, rising steeply in the collision of sound and sea. We found some sand dollars, spider crabs and lots of cannon ball jellyfish, no doubt washed up by the heavy waves of the days preceding. We also found a dead puffer or burrfish (there are two types of related fish, one with and one without spines). Spines over soft inflatable skin protecting the savory meat that can easily be contaminated by the deadly poison in the flesh or liver. Some Japanese still risk eating this little fish, partly because its meat is tasty, but perhaps more because it is so risky to prepare it properly. There are still deaths every year in Japan from people who eat puffers.

Burrfish, a kind of puffer

The forecast called for a change of wind direction and potential thunderstorms. Back in camp, just as we tired of the sun's heat on our long exposed skin, we spied an odd cloud moving contrary to the winds. Over the mainland, we could see a large rain shower streaking to the ground. A thunderstorm might have been approaching, but it seemed not. Then the long cloud reached us, and the wind switched to the northeast, immediately cold. 

Weather changing cloud

While we sat enjoying the cold wind, we were also watching a crowd of fiddler crabs between our kayaks. With one claw hugely over-sized like some kind of teenage mutant ninja crab, they danced and waved and jousted and dug. Curious little creatures, they are apparently herbivores, not scavengers like blue crabs.

Fiddler crab in cap

close-up of fiddler claw

I read and wrote outside until about 1930 when I was too chilled to wait any longer before I crawled into our tent. I fell asleep about 2100. Cameron and I both awoke about 0230 when the storm hit. Brilliant and frequent flashes of lightning, ground shaking thunder and torrential rain. I had planned to share the video of the storm from inside the tent, but screwed up the settings. In any case, it was a widespread storm that had people on the mainland talking about it when we returned the following day. Once it ended, I checked the outside of my no-see-um screening for the little aggravating no-see-ums and, once again, did not see them until too late. As quickly as I unzipped the door, I zipped it back. Nature's call would have to wait until morning.

Our last morning dawned dull blue with the wind still blowing out of the northern quadrant. Naturally, that was not the forecast for the previous several days or even as late as 1915 the evening before. But there it was, a head wind to deflate the benefit of catching a favorable flood tide back to the mainland. We had had good winds and few bugs. The marsh across from our camp was an endless series of soaring birds and chatter from nesting birds we could not see. A partial list of animals we saw: mud snails, four types of crab (blue, fiddler, ghost, hermit), anole, corn snake, whelks, willets, yellowlegs, sanderlings, sandpipers, laughing gulls as always, herring gulls and three types of tern (least, common and royal), cormorants and pelicans of course, ospreys, great egrets, geese, black ducks and fish crows. I am sure we saw more that I have not identified successfully. We also saw evidence of other animals: owl pellets galore, deer scat and prints, raccoon prints and rabbit prints. 

Bear Island has changed since I last visited in 1990. But it not only has not been ruined, its changes have been mostly a result of natural events -- the eternal forces of wind and storms, the occasional hurricane and the perpetual tides -- and not man-induced actions (aside from the sand coming from Emerald Isle beach reconstruction, a policy I do not favor).  The marsh seems reasonably healthy with abundant and varied fish roe and nesting birds. The dunes have not been blown away nor has Blackbeard's treasure been found. It is good for some things to stay the same.

Island tree bones


  1. Wow! Sounds like a terrific trip (except for the no-see-ums and lack of propane).

  2. I want to know how long you left Cameron impaled on the cactus while you took the photo?

  3. Cameron was a good sport when I said "Wait, I need a picture of that." It took no more than fifteen or twenty minutes to get the right exposure, sharpen the background...well, really, I was waiting for a little blood to drip. Oh well.
    He did not even mind the no-see-ums, just the sand. But we had a great time together.


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