Thursday, February 27, 2014

Big things around Beaufort

Huge specimen pond pine on Tuttle's Grove Rd - preferred MST route parallel to NC101 for a mile

Today's hike was mostly on busy roads because I was hiking in the vicinity of the port town of Beaufort.  There were big trucks but not big shoulders on the road, a big traffic jam at a bridge construction site.

There was a big pirate--perhaps meant to represent Edward Teach - Blackbeard - who frequented the sounds around Beaufort.

The big estuary of North River was my constant companion most of the way:

North River even has its own sandy beach:

And to cap it off, another big specimen tree - this one a juniper.

I hiked eleven miles and biked eleven under the big blue sky.  Now I have to take a few days off trail for a family gathering up in MD.  Can't wait to get back, though, because next I'll be hiking a portion of this big off-road trail through Croatan National Forest.

Kiosk at the southern terminus of the 20+ mile Neusiok Trail

Happy trails.


Here's the GPS track and link to slide show of today's hike:

MST Day 12 - outskirts of Beaufort, NC at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in North Carolina

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A hike through NC's 'Down East'

The eastern part of Carteret County, NC consists of a string of waterfront communities fronting Core Sound and collectively called 'Down East'.  The locals are mostly watermen, which is not surprising since I was rarely out of sight of the many bays and estuaries and wetlands as I hiked through the heart of this special place.  The beauty is abundant, the pace is laid-back, and the people have their own unique dialect and accent - a combination of a heavy southern drawl and old Elizabethan English.  To hear them speak, a 'high tide' is a 'hoi toid'.

Of the many quaint little communities that I walked through on this 14.5 mile day (biking one way and walking the other), I found Stacy to be the most attractive and most colorful.  I'll stick to the colorful: their somewhat run-down welcome sign:

... and a country store that had seen better days.

Yes, it's definitely Air Conditioned :-)

Then there was 'Action Man' at the helm of his air boat.  This is the most distinctive (and flawlessly working) wind vane I've ever seen.  The propeller spins, the boat smoothly swivels to keep itself facing into the wind.

As I said, water views were ubiquitous.  Here's just one more, taken from the bridge over Williston Creek:

The wildlife was abundant also.  Beyond the gulls on the posts in the top photo, I got a decent shot of this snow-white Great Egret on the outskirts of Stacy:

... and of fiddler crabs doing what they do - foraging in the mud flats with the males carrying their gigantic cumbersome claw (for display to females and for male-to-male contests only).

 At the end of the day's excursion I came to the main entrance to North River Farms.  The interior of Down East NC is a huge area of low flat ground that has been cleared and ditched and drained and is under the ownership of vast industrial farming companies (agribusinesses).  Open Grounds Farm (Italian owned) is by far the greatest of these with 70 square miles of farm land that is barely 3 feet above sea level and is serviced by 250 miles of private road like this one stretching arrow straight for twelve miles from the Main Entrance:

But the more modest North River Farms has been acquired by the environmental coalition called the NC Coastal Federation.  They are in the process of restoring the farm to its natural condition.  And they are planning a good long off-road section of hiking trail and boardwalk that will someday be the route of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.  I can't wait to come back and hike it when it's ready.


And as always, I'm providing a full GPS track for this hike, and with it a link to a slide show with many more photos:

MST Day 11 - NC's Down East at EveryTrail
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Hiking Cedar Island Nat. Wildlife Refuge

It was a road walk that didn't feel like one - six miles through an unspoiled sea of marsh grass on a sunny, breezy, cool day.  The photo above is a 180 degree panorama taken in the middle of this ocean - an amazing alignment between a perfectly straight, lonely streak of cirrus and the direction of the perfectly straight road.  Here's another view from fifty feet up atop the bridge over the straight that separates Cedar Island from the mainland.  Even from that height the grass seems to stretch on forever.

I did thirteen miles of Mountains-to-Sea Trail today, all on very quiet NC highway 12.  It's way out at the end of a lightly populated peninsula here, so traffic was very sparse.  Still, it would be nice if the Wildlife Refuge people built a boardwalk through their amazing grass ocean.

I have to point out how special this place is to be unspoiled.  Humans have come in and criss-crossed most wetlands like this with drainage ditches in hopes of making them more productive (for humans, not for wildlife).  Here in the refuge - (besides the ditch they made to elevate the highway) - I saw only one such 'abomination'.

Of course there were trees on either end of this six mile stretch of road: Here's the first 'island' on the south side of the 'ocean':

Today's hike took me from the Ferry Terminal where this welcome awaits the disembarking traveler ...

... to an interesting curved bridge over Salters Creek.

And though I certainly didn't need any cheering-up, this little roadside resident did bring a smile to my face.  There it was in the middle of a vast ocean of grass, making its little statement--"Welcome to Spring!"  Did somebody plant this?  Did the bulb fall off a truck?  Sometimes in this great big world the littlest things can make the biggest impact.


Here's the GPS track of today's walk.  Click the title for a slide show with more photos.

MST Day 10 - Cedar Island Nat. Wildlife Refuge at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in North Carolina

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Ocracoke Village hike and the ferry ride to Cedar Island

Ocracoke lighthouse with the keeper's house and a truly picturesque old Juniper tree
It was a nearly calm late winter day, and that lack of air motion intensified the sense of off-season stillness in the quaint little island tourist town of Ocracoke.  The only traffic on the summer-bustling main street in center-town was this waddling troop of pedestrians:

Early in the morning, before I got to Ocracoke, I had a little unfinished business on Hatteras Island, scouting the alternate for the beach to ferry landing MST route:  Here's the new route, now deemed 'official' after consultation with MST executive director Kate Dixon.  No bureaucracy needed, it seems, for such a 'no-brainer' improvement.  Here's the National Park Service beach access and paved parking area near the ferry terminal:

The view of sunrise from this public access point was a great way to start the day:

But back to Ocracoke.  After hiking the MST route from beach to ferry landing, I had some time to check the Ocracoke lighthouse, as shown above, and to visit with its resident keeper:

Then it was onto the ferry and out of the harbor for the two-and-a-quarter hour ride to Cedar Island.

I kept myself occupied on this ride simply by watching the 26 miles of Pamlico Sound pass beneath me, often literally mirror-smooth in the calm.  I wanted to watch Ocracoke Island disappear beneath the horizon, but to my surprise, on this winter day with no sea spray and low humidity, it never did disappear.  It was visible as a thin line of black between calm sea and a flat gray overcast sky even 26 miles away on Cedar Island.

From the ferry landing I headed back to my home on Topsail Island.  Initially it will be a long drive each day, but for the coming few weeks, I'll be commuting between home and the MST.  111 miles today, and back that far tomorrow, but each day it will be less, and it will be good to have a familiar bed each night.


Here's the GPS track for the short hike and the long ferry ride, with link to a slideshow with all the photos:

MST Day 9 - Ocracoke and the Cedar Island Ferry at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in North Carolina

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Ocracoke Island - the perfect hiking beach

I know I posted a similar photo two days ago, but this one makes a better contest entry.
Ocracoke Island's beaches are wide and gently sloped and smooth and firm and unspoiled.  Critics might complain that Ocracoke is inferior (compared to America's great resort beaches) because it doesn't have a tiki bar.  But for the pure natural beach hiking experience this is it.

I live on the beach.  I have logged more than a thousand miles of beach walking on all sorts of sand conditions from quicksand soft to pavement firm, from high tide to low and back again.  So I ought to qualify as a bit of an 'expert'.  For me the 12.5 miles of Ocracoke beach strand is the best, most consistent (high tide to low) beach hiking experience I've found.

The only drawback: there's not much to show for it.  The photo up top tells the tale of the entire 12.5 miles.

At each end you cross to the beach via a vehicle access ramp.  My west-bound Mountain-to-Sea Trail hike started today at the north/east end of the island where the trail route reaches the beach after a short road walk from the ferry.  As you come onto the beach look to your left, back toward Hatteras Island, and if the visibility is good you can see the Hatteras Village water tower across the inlet (you have to squint - it's between the two middle signs):

Along the beach, the one human presence is a set of mileposts erected every half mile.  The numbers are from the overall Outer Banks Milepost system--numbers increase from north to south starting in Kitty Hawk where US 158 comes onto the beach across the Wright Memorial Bridge from the mainland. The markers are always at the base of the dune and a few of them are missing, but somehow I found this enhancement to the natural setting to be a very hiker-friendly 'luxury'.

Then the trail leaves the beach on another vehicle access ramp, passes the Ocracoke airstrip, and then turns left onto a wide, smooth paved bike path that leads you into town and on to the ferry to Cedar Island.  I'll do that part tomorrow.

But for today, it was all beach all the time.  I was smiling as I hiked.  But perhaps I was feeling a bit of sensory deprivation near the end of the day after too much 'wide and gently sloped and smooth and firm and unspoiled'.  Because suddenly I found the beach smiling back at me.


Here's a map of today's hike including a GPS track and some more photos:

MST Day 8 - Ocracoke Island at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in North Carolina

Farewell to Hatteras Island

They say trouble comes in threes.  Since 'they' say so, it must be true.  So I'll try to fit today's story into that theme.

Trouble number one: Stranded 8 miles from my van and finding that my bicycle's front tire was going flat.

I don't usually dwell on the logistics of my self-supported hike, but today it became part of the story.  I started out this morning by stowing my bike at the official MST dune crossing point, used to get from the beach to the Hatteras ferry landing.

An aside: as you can see from the 'for sale' sign, this access seems to be across a private undeveloped lot.  It's 'official' because it's the route shown on the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail's online interactive map. There is a public access point on National Park property near the Ferry Landing, but it's a little further down the beach, so perhaps a half mile more hiking.  I suspect that that will (or ought to) be the official trail route in the future.  Here's an annotated screen shot of the interactive map, showing the situation graphically:

Red and black lines are the official MST route

But now back to the story..  After stowing the bike and taking a GPS waypoint so I could locate this crossing sight-unseen from the beach, (dune crossing shown at left) I drove back to the NPS Frisco campground, parked my van and resumed the hike where I left off yesterday.  I hurried down that last 5.6 miles of beach walking on Hatteras Island - passing the storm damaged and now abandoned Frisco Fishing Pier (photo below) in order to get back to my bike in time to catch the 10AM ferry to Ocracoke, and I made it on time.  Having not yet discovered the flat tire on my bike I was now confronted with Trouble number Two: no 10AM ferry.

The official published NC-Ferry system on-line schedule (as I had accessed it just a few days ago) showed that there was a 10AM ferry.  The change had been posted only on the Ferry System home page.  When you're searching for 'NC Ferry Schedule' you bypass the home page.  Ironically, they've now changed the schedule page, so I have no 'proof' that the mistake was theirs and not mine.  No big deal - I'll take the hit.

So ... I had no boat to ride.  The new schedule was an emergency change because dredging was needed in the normal channel they use, so there was a temporary reroute across the inlet that adds 15 minutes to the crossing.

If I wanted to continue my 'hike' on the ferry, I would have to take the 11AM boat.  And with the round trip taking two hours I wouldn't be back to Hatteras Island until after potential Trouble number Three: a Severe Storm watch (which turned into a Tornado watch) for the afternoon,  I wanted to get across to Ocracoke Island, hike just a short little piece of road walk out to the beach, and then return on the next ferry and bike back to my van before the storm hit.

Okay, I changed plans.  I would bike back to my van, then drive it to the ferry landing and cross over in my van--a safe haven if the storm does hit.

Back to the bike.  Flat tire.  In retrospect I'm sure that I got the puncture yesterday when I used the bike on the return trip through the Open Ponds trail - plenty of prickly stuff potentially lurking there.  And because the flat didn't manifest itself until I got on the bike (tire wasn't fully flat), it was obviously a slow leak.

Damage control: slow leaks can often be fixed with the liquid aerosol 'Fix-a-Flat' stuff.  When I stowed my bike this morning I had seen a good sized gas station and store just a block down the road from the ferry.  So I headed there, and the angels who's job it is to look after hapless travelers smiled on me, because they did have 'Fix-a-Flat' and 'Fix-a-Flat' worked--seems to have sealed the leak.

Biked back to the van without further trouble (no Trouble number Three yet), drove back to the ferry and got the 12 noon boat, which looked like this: very expansive deck space and an almost ridiculously tiny 'bridge'.

Got to the island at 1PM and so I had just enough time to do the less than one mile road walk to the beach and get back in time to take the 1:30PM return ferry (the same boat).

But now came Trouble number Three from an unexpected source: As soon as I got off the ferry I noticed them loading an ambulance (look closely at the photo below).  And then the boat immediately took off for Hatteras, stranding me on the island until the next scheduled crossing at 3:30.   It was a medical emergency, I was told - surely someone else's much more dire Trouble Number Three.

So since 'Trouble comes in Threes' seems to be some sort of cosmic law that overrides even 'Murphy's Law', I no longer had to worry about the Tornado Watch.  The weather was still sunny, so I did the mile long road walk out to the beach.  I passed this hunter shooting at gulls, despite being forbidden to do so:

And then I had time to relax while waiting for the 3:30 boat.  The weather got cloudy but not threatening, and in the end I got back home (staying in a modest but wonderful motel) just minutes before the skies opened up with a deluge of rain and whipping winds.

Of course I avoided that trouble.  I had already used up my allotment of three for the day :-)


Here's the GPS map for today's adventure, including the odd looking ferry route that they were using to avoid running the ferry aground.

MST Day 7 - Frisco to Ocracoke Is. at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in North Carolina

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Hiking Hatteras Light and the Open Ponds Trail

What a beautiful day for a hike!  It was in the mid 70's, sunny, light winds.  And what a perfect hike venue.  Half of it was on the beach, the other half through verdant maritime forest.  In between was the iconic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, complete with its Lunar companion.

On a day with such variety and visual magnificence, I don't need to write much.  I can let the photos and their captions tell the tale:

First the beach portion, north of Buxton:
Trekking the pristine beach
Wary onlooker - probably a Broad-Winged Hawk
Hatteras light was moved 2900 feet in 1999, viewed from its original foundation
And then the woods walk along the 4.4 mile Open Ponds Trail west of the Lighthouse:

Dwarf Palmetto is a common native in the understory
Live Oak, near the northern end of its range
Open Pond, the trail's namesake
Rugged section of trail through soft sand over steep dunes
The western half mile of trail walks a woods road thru more forest
And finally, passing briefly through Frisco Campground, the westbound Mountains-to-Sea Trail returns to the beach:
Starting on this boardwalk through a last bit of forest ...
... and ending by passing through this deep, narrow gap in the dune.
It was one of those days that just overflowed with memorable experiences.  The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is surely one of the most diverse long-distance trails in the world--surely the most diverse trail contained within a single US State.  Today's diversity was just a small part of the total.  I feel blessed to be out here, and can't wait to show you what's next.


I took many more photos than the ones shown above.  For the full slide show click below:

MST Day 6 - Hatteras light and the Open Ponds Trail at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Virginia