The Kayak Chronicles ©
by Darren Caffery
Paddling the Outer Banks of North Carolina
Roanoke Island (Northern Portion)
Tuesday May 21st, 2002
This is the story of a circumnavigation that started as a three hour tour. On our second day in the OBX, Jersey Shore Sea Kayak Association members Tom Kelly, Ray Brower , Bob Smith and I launched out of a remote public launch site on Bowsertown Rd. in the town of Manteo on Roanoke Island. We arrived at around 9 am and it was a warm sunny day with a mild northeast wind. It seemed like a great day for kayaking, however there were no other cars at the launch site. The launch site was in a wooded and remote area and when we arrived, we could hear the chatter of quite a few song birds.
Our plan was to paddle out of the ¾ mile canal, into the Croatan Sound and then north up along the western side of Roanoke Island. The north side of Roanoke Island is famous for it’s desolate and secluded white sand beaches. When I paddled this area last year, although the creek was very calm, the Croatan Sound was raging with wind and whitecaps and as a result, I didn't stay there very long. Calm conditions this year made the sound seem like an entirely different place. The Croatan Sound was fairly flat and we could see the new 7 mile bridge to the mainland being built in the distance. It looked much more complete than it was last year. Interestingly, there were Black Pelicans on the same pilings as last year. Maybe they hadn’t left, and given the peacefulness and beautiful view of the sound, one could understand why. Since the Croatan Sound was like a large lake, we just planned to paddle as far north as we wanted before turning back. We stopped within the first five miles at a small sandy beach to take a small break near the Dare County Airport and the North Carolina Aquarium. On the beach in the distance, we saw some cormorants and a few rather large vultures eating a small carcass. After our break, we decided to take advantage of the beautiful day. With excellent marine conditions in our favor, we paddled further north, up past the aquarium, under the Umstead Memorial Bridge (I64/264) and to Northwest Point of Roanoke Island.
At the point, with still excellent paddling conditions, we decided to continue around the point. After rounding the point and northern portion of the island, we made our way into the Roanoke Sound past the Fort Raleigh National Monument and the Elizabethan Gardens on the shoreline. On this side of the island, we had the wind picking up and now behind us. We started to dread the thought of turning around and going into the wind since we had already paddled close to 10 miles. We were now on the east side of the Island which had been heavily eroded by the waters and wind of the Roanoke Sound. As a result, it had some steep sandy cliffs with fallen trees and exposed roots. At around noon, we found another white sandy beach to land on and have lunch. Lunch was relaxing and we had a panaoramic view of the large sand dune of Jockey’s Ridge almost 3 miles across the sound. We evaluated our options for the duration of the trip and after looking at our maps of the area and conducting a small meeting of our crew members, we decided to continue to paddle southward along the eastern shore of Roanoke Island. We planned to take out in a small canal right after passing under the Washington Baum Bridge which connects Roanoke Island to the Outer Banks. Ray called his wife Sue on his cell phone who kindly agreed to pick us up at the canal and shuttle us back to our vehicles later in the day when we were done. (nothing like the convenience of cell phone technology…and a very supportive wife!)
After lunch we paddled on south toward Baum Point and decided to paddle into another little creek that Bob had explored the previous day. The creek led into the historic village of Manteo and we paddled right up next to the historic Elizabeth II ship. Winds were progressively increasing in the afternoon and as we exited the creek into Shallowbag Bay, we encountered some very choppy conditions and confused waters. We landed again at another beach and decided the best course to take would be through the bay and back into the Roanoke Sound. We had no option of avoiding the headwind out of the bay to Ballast Point, but once we reached the point, our maps told us that we would have the choice of cutting through a long sheltered lagoon to avoid a mile or so stretch of open water on the Roanoke Sound before our landing site. We gathered our energy and blasted through the Shallowbag Bay in the slowly increasing wind and chop. As we approached the point and assessed the waters in the sound, we paddled within consulting range of each other. After realizing we would have the wind behind us and a following sea, we decided we wanted the excitement of going around the point and into the open water of the Roanoke Sound, instead of the more sheltered lagoon.
As we paddled our way around Ballast Point, our cruising speed increased to about 4 miles per hour as we rode the wind and current towards the Washington Baum Bridge. As we passed some areas of bulkheaded shoreline we encountered some very confused waters and refractory waves. These conditions were fun, but made a challenging ride back. As we approached the bridge, I chose the path closest to the shore line and away from the channel to pass under the bridge. The pilings of the bridge near the shore end were spaced very close to one another, leaving only narrow passages beneath the bridge. I thought if I positioned myself and entered correctly, the current would push me through with ease. Unfortunately the waters were too confused and although I entered the middle of the narrow passage with little trouble, I was quickly tossed to the side by the confused waters, banging the side of my boat into a huge wooden piling with great force and scaring me pretty good as I was about to capsize. I had no room to brace as the narrow passage would not allow any maneuvering of my paddle, so I instinctively braced with my arm and hand towards and onto the piling. Luckily there were no dangerously sharp barnacles or splints on the piling. I still almost capsized but managed to keep my balance as the swift current finally shot me through the passage and into the safety of less confused waters beyond the bridge. After I was finally through, and less than 100 yards from the takeout, my heartbeat slowed down some, and I thought about the danger I almost encountered in those last few moments of this trip. I later realized that going through the narrow part of the bridge was not a wise decision! I turned my boat around to see wait for the others. Although I could see the passage somewhat, none of my crew was coming out. I started to get more nervous after a few more minute passed and there was no sign of them coming through. I wondered if they had also so encountered some difficulty beyond my sight of the passage. As I started to paddle back to get a better view of the area, I was relieved to see the rest of the paddlers coming under the bridge towards the middle, which was much wider and easier to navigate through. When they caught up, Tom told me the rest of the crew agreed that my route of passage was not very wise. I have a rather large and deep gouge in the plastic of my hull to remind me of this incident. I'm just glad the gouge was in my boat .... and not in my head!
We all managed to land safely at around 4 pm, and after 15 miles of paddling. It was an action packed day of exploring white sand beaches, paddling some calm waters, navigating confused seas, ... and my near capsize. Looking at the map, we realized we had actually navigated the entire northern portion of Roanoke Island. We met for some Mexican food later that night at La Fogata. Over dinner and a few potent margaritas, we discussed plans to complete our circumnavigation by paddling the southern half of Roanoke Island!
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