Activities for your visit

Kayaking the Off-Season Waters of Pamlico Sound

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!