In Medias Res
Sunrise neon glazes the horizon of the Pamlico Sound in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The water is eerily calm and bath-water warm. Orange rays refract off its surface. Matt, Sherwin, Robbie, Tim Bob, and I are up at the crack of dawn, ready to embark on the last leg of our journey. From Portsmouth Island, we survey our course, simultaneously running from hordes of blood-sucking mosquitoes. We must re-cross the channel in our kayaks and return to Ocracoke Island, from where our journey began the day before…
From the Start
None of us have attempted anything of this magnitude before. Our fearless leader, Matt, is the only one with kayaking experience, and he is certain we can handle it. Yet, even he has not crossed a 5 mile, open channel adjacent to the Atlantic. Our plan is simple enough: starting in Silver Lake Harbor – Ocracoke’s southernmost fishing village and inlet – we will kayak along the western shore, making our way to the southern tip, before crossing the channel to neighboring Portsmouth Island. There, we will make camp and spend the night.
Leaving the harbor is not as easy as one might think. Ferries are constantly coming and going, and boaters must be careful not to get in their way, lest they have a true Huck Finn experience. Needless to say, our exit from the harbor occurs without accident. It is a clear and sunny day. The water, warm and inviting, mirrors the sun’s radiance. Since this is my first time in a kayak, it takes me a little while to get the hang of paddling. Until now, I have only been in a canoe. Soon, we are paddling like pros and gliding straight paths through the water.
We reach a small inlet called “Teach’s Hole,” the spot where the infamous pirate king, Blackbeard, came to his headless end. From here, Matt points to Portsmouth, barely visible on the horizon.
As we carry on toward the tip of Ocracoke, we see other boats in the distance. Fishing boats adorned with sky-high poles, sailing ships streaking across the water, and ferries transporting eager tourists. The Pamlico Sound is alive.
As we arrive at the southern tip of Ocracoke, we disembark and ready ourselves for the trip across. Matt does his best to explain the fluctuation of the tides and how important it is to start across at the right time. Otherwise, we could easily be swept out to sea. So we wait – in retrospect, Matt says, a little too long – but we are ready to make this epic voyage, and we push off from shore.
We soon notice a distinct difference between paddling along shoreline and paddling in the wide open. The wind! It is strong and violent, and it takes everything we’ve got to stay on course. I find myself paddling six strokes on the left and one on the right, just to keep a straight trajectory. To make matters worse, our kayaks are not as seaworthy as we have been led to believe. In hindsight, we should have been piloting vessels at least 14 feet in length for such a journey. But we are in the moment, and we don’t know this yet. And we have to get to Portsmouth!
After much moaning and griping, grunting and rasping, we muscle ourselves to the shore of uninhabited Portsmouth Island. We take a much needed break, re-hydrating, refueling, and resting. I think I’m going to throw up.
Eventually, we all feel better enough to push on. We decide to cruise the coast in search of a better camp spot. We come ashore at a wide stretch of beach. Within walking distance is an old, salty pier, from where we later try to spear fish, and unsuccessfully, I should add. Since it is late in the day by this point (we have traveled between 6 and 7 miles) we get to work making camp. Soon, the mosquitoes are out. They are a plague to mankind. The worst mosquitoes we have ever experienced. Impervious to bug spray, even to deet, these carnivorous insects drive us insane until we finally make a fire. The smoke keeps them at bay, but only if we huddle close and don’t stray from its protection. Poor Sherwin is covered in whelps, the favorite prey among our group. We later learn from Ocracoke locals how these mosquitoes are a different breed…blood-thirsty and practically invincible!
We make a quick freeze-dried dinner, enjoy some down time, and retreat to our tents, where we then spend the next ten minutes hunting and swatting the mosquitoes that got in! The night is long, especially since it sounds and feels as if a storm is coming. Matt can hardly sleep, concerned he has brought us to our premature dooms. Distant streaks of lightning careen from the sky and flash across the Sound. But the weather calms in the night, and by morning, the sea is still.
Onward to the End
We are a sight, I’m sure, running frantically across the beach. The mosquitoes were waiting for us; breakfast is served. Sherwin, wrapped from head to toe in a blanket, struggles to pack his things. Tim Bob swats maniacally, running to and fro, and I desperately jam my things into my dry bag near the water’s edge, where the mosquitoes seem less congested. We tear camp down and load our kayaks in record time. Fifteen minutes! And we are on the water, paddling away from “Mosquito Island,” as fast as we can.
Our return voyage is much easier, and we coast across the channel with the blazing sun rising in the foreground. We stop once to allow a ferry to cross; then we are on our way again. Soon, we are in familiar territory, passing “Teach’s Hole” on our way to Silver Lake. As we paddle to shore, exhausted and burnt and covered in “battle scars,” we feel relief; yet, we glow in our accomplishment. We have kayaked at least 12 miles and explored new territory. We have gone forth and returned.
Photo: Matt McLaughlin