Holiday issue 2013
by Pat Garber
Summer at Ocracoke finds lots of kayakers plying their paddles along the shores of Pamlico Sound, as residents and tourists alike take to the water. As the seasons change, the experience of kayaking changes as well, but there is still plenty to see and enjoy in all seasons. Pamlico Sound, which divides Ocracoke from the mainland, is one of the largest estuaries in the United States. It is home to all kinds of fish, skates, small sharks, and turtles, and attracts numerous species of ducks and other water birds. Its shallow, brackish waters make it an ideal nursery for fish, shrimp, and crabs, and the salt marshes that line its shores are alive with mussels, marsh crabs, snails, and secretive birds.
As you paddle across the water, look for patches of eelgrass waving softly underneath your kayak, or you might see it pushed up against the shoreline. Eelgrass forms an underwater garden which is essential to the health of the sound.
Looking higher, you may see long strings of cormorants flying to and from the reefs. Cormorants are capable of diving to great depths in their search for fish. An occasional loon, dressed in the soft browns of its winter plumage, might be spotted diving and surfacing in the dark waters. Most people think of loons as northern birds, but many of them winter off the coast of North Carolina. Canada geese, brants, pintails, black ducks, and mergansers are among the many kinds of waterfowl that winter in the waters of the Pamlico, easy to sight with binoculars. Brown pelicans glide in elegant formations along the surface of the water, and herring and ring-billed gulls are common.
There is much to see on the open waters of the Pamlico, but the creeks that lead into the salt marshes are my favorite places to kayak. From a distance the marsh looks like an impenetrable curtain, but behind it a labyrinth of creeks open up into a hidden world. The marsh grasses take on an auburn hue in autumn, turning a dark grey in winter. Spartina and black needlerush are the main components of the marsh. Near the waterline ribbed mussels cling to their roots, and on warm days small snails called marsh periwinkles climb up the stems. You might spot a great blue heron stalking its dinner.
Some of the creeks wind through maritime forests, where live oaks, yaupons, wax myrtles, and junipers, or cedar trees, grow together in a lush ecosystem. The bright red berries of the yaupon and the softer blue fruit of the cedars and wax myrtles attract yellow-rumped warblers and other songbirds. Belted kingfishers, piercing the air with their distinctive calls, may be observed diving kamikaze-like from a branch into the dark waters and emerging with a tiny fish.
Diamondback terrapins bury down into the mud when temperatures drop, but on warm winter days they can be observed sunning on logs or popping their heads up through the water. In the early 20th century these medium-size turtles were threatened with extinction when terrapin stew became a huge fad in New York. Still rare in many places, they are relatively common at Ocracoke.
Fall and winter are oyster-harvesting time, so if you are lucky you may find a few of the tasty mollusks for an oyster roast. If you look at them carefully, you can see the many forms of life that make up the oyster ecosystem; slipper shells, snail-fur, tube worm casings, and the tiny pea or oyster crab.
A good place to put your kayak in is at the public docks behind the Ocracoke Museum. Ride the Wind rents kayaks and have their own spot for launching at the edge of Silver Lake Harbor. Driving north along Hwy 12, there are several places you can slide a kayak down along one of the creeks. With 4-wheel-drive you can also drive down one the sandy lanes in the national seashore to the Pamlico Sound and put in. You need to buy a permit to do this. Be careful if you launch your kayak during duck-hunting season; there are a number of duck blinds in the shallows of the sound. Wherever you go, don’t forget your life-preserver, required by law. Happy paddling!
Thank you Pat Steely for suggesting this article to the Ocracoke Observer!