Going South to Find Birds
After a long winter, we decided to drive down the coast in mid-April to look for birds, explore refuges and enjoy some warmer temperatures. We packed up our bikes, binoculars and maps and on April 13, in the pouring rain, glanced at the dingy snow banks in our driveway and hit the road.
Our first stop was in Cape May, NJ, where we hoped to camp at one of the many campgrounds and look for birds in the coastal wetlands. We arrived late in the afternoon and discovered that none of the campgrounds were open and the gray skies were still spitting rain, so we checked into a hotel. We are nothing if not adaptable. Still, we were determined to walk the beach. The wind was blowing hard and cold along the coast, but we persisted down the beach admiring the salt air and sounds of the gulls and waves and getting totally and completely drenched. Later, snug in dry clothes and a warm hotel room, we decided to move further south.
Thursday, April 14th, dawned bright and clear, with temperatures in the high 50s. It felt very warm! We biked around the Cape looking for birds (there weren’t many) and checked out the interesting shapes and sizes of the houses (there were many, many). We had tea and warm cinnamon buns at Uncle Pete’s Diner on the ocean (highly recommended) and then took the ferry to Lewes, Delaware to continue south. Gannets, laughing gulls, ring-bills followed the boat and dove for fish in its wake. There ability to hover and dive was pretty impressive and kept us mesmerized for the 90-minute crossing.
Camping with Cowboys
The temperatures rose and as we drove down into Maryland. We suddenly noticed that the tree buds were popping and the grass was no longer dull brown, but a brilliant green. We found an open campground near Assateague, called Frontiertown, that had sites near the water. It was clean and spacious though we were one of the few intrepid souls in a tent. Though we didn’t take advantage of the campground’s wild west show, water slides or horseback riding, we were vastly entertained by the main office’s décor. Done up like an old west brothel, it was complete with paper cut outs in the upstairs windows of ladies of the night and their customers. We chose a tent spot all alone at the edge of the coastal wetland. Osprey called and great egrets landed in the tall sea grass. A warm breeze blew off the ocean and there was not a mosquito anywhere. It was heaven.
We rode our bikes out to the middle of the bridge to Assateague and surveyed the island. It was too late in the day to make the trip out there, but we would be back in the morning to explore. That night the temperatures dipped into the low 40s and I shivered all night, annoyed that I had not brought our winter sleeping bags.
Wild Horses and Other Wild Things
Then Friday morning came, clear and warm and all thoughts of frozen toes fled as we rode down the deserted road on Assateague Island. A myriad of songbirds darted and called among the thick coastal shrubberies. Wild ponies grazed here and there and ignored us as we stopped to take pictures. We explored the island and identified birds in the wetlands – tri-colored herons, egrets, red-winged blackbirds, royal terns, sandpipers, killdeer, and on and on. Then we dropped the bikes and made our way up to the beach, which had soft, white sand. Richard looked at tracks (seabird, fox and mink) and I picked up small shells, skate casings and pieces of horseshoe crabs — taxonomy treasures. The sand, with its give, was a little tricky with my bad ankle, but we kept the walks short and spent most of our time on the bikes. Later, as we biked back off the island, we passed people feeding the wild ponies and taking pictures way too close for safety. They were not far from the signs that warned against this with pictures of the wild horses kicking and biting. We didn’t stop, hoping to avoid seeing the impending confrontation.
The Camping Lifestyle
Later, back at camp, we sat in the sun listening to the birds call in the wetlands. Suddenly I heard a familiar call and sat up scanning the sky. Then I saw them — two bald eagles flying low over us and calling to each other in what I liked to imagine were terms of endearment. That night, as the temperatures dropped, I broke down and went to the “camp store” and bought another blanket (not the one with bucking broncos on it). It was worth it for a warm night’s sleep.
We had explored the campground thoroughly in the afternoon and were curious about the different lifestyles that brought people to places like this. There were motor homes of all shapes and sizes, some looking more or less permanently parked with little flower gardens. Then there was the “wilderness” tenting section in a thick, dark, forested area where there were also some permanent looking sites with piles of disheveled gear under rain tarps and bands or barefoot, wide-eyed children. It was a human experience that I didn’t want to examine too closely as I made my way back over to our quiet, pristine campsite by the bay.
Saturday morning, April 16th, the clouds came in and the weather report called for rain and wind. We packed up and drove down to Virginia Beach. Crossing the Bay Bridge was impressive as we came upon the giant cargo ships anchored off the coast in a long line. They were huge — like skyscrapers on their sides. Along the bridge, flocks of pelicans dove for fish. Twice the bridge dove underwater into tunnels that allowed those large boats to make their way across the bay to Norfolk and up into Chesapeake Bay. I could hardly watch as my husband navigated these narrow tunnels.
Finally we came out into Virginia and made our way down to Virginia Beach to join the small pre-season throng of tourists. We checked into a small motel on the beach and rode the bikes the length of the boardwalk in the growing, fierce wind. Dark clouds thickened and the smell of a storm churned the ocean into a frenzy. From the safety of our hotel room we watched with fascination as the news reported tornadoes tearing up the coast toward us. The wind was howling and rain came down in sheets. Lightning flashed and cracked every few seconds. We heard screaming from out on the boardwalk and ran to the balcony in time to see some crazy kids on spring break running around in the storm soaked to the skin (some wore mostly skin). We wondered vaguely if the second floor would be high enough in a tsunami.
Cypress and Copperheads
On Sunday morning we watched the sunrise over the ocean, the sky washed clear and bright blue. There was not a hint of the storm, except for some puddles and debris washes ashore. We took the bikes inland to First Landing State Park and rode through miles of cypress swamp. It was lovely, with the cypress and swamp oaks cloaked in thick sheaths of Spanish moss. All the deciduous trees had young leaves unfurling bathing the forest with shining green light. We saw a large copperhead on the trail and turtles sunning on logs in the swamp. Osprey nested on snags in the pines. At the north end of the trail we came out on First Landing Beach (that was literally the first landing spot of European explorers). Kite surfers set up their giant kites and surfed the waves (in wetsuits). The wind was cold and we sat bundled on the beach eating a picnic, staring out at the giant ships, seabirds and surfers feeling pretty contented. By the time we finished the 15-mile ride at 3 pm it was 80° with a cool wind off the ocean – perfect.
Later that night we ate seafood at an outdoor cafe on the ocean and watched the full moon rise red over the ocean. It was pretty amazing and we toasted the perfection of that moment. Then, just as I’d taken a large sip of wine, the man at the table next to us announced loudly to his family – “Look, there’s the sun setting over the ocean!” and he pointed (to the rising full moon). I almost choked, my eyes watering as all those young faces looked east over the Atlantic at the “setting sun.”
The Outer Limits… um… I mean… Outer Banks
Monday, April 18th, we were ready to leave the city and drive down the coast toward the Outer Banks. The trees in North Carolina were in full leaf and there were fields knee high deep in lush, green grass. We passed an area hit by Saturday’s tornadoes and marveled at a roof blown into the farm field next door and a large couch perched on its side on their front lawn. These were dangerous storms and we hoped those folks we’d left in Frontiertown Campground had sought cover.
It was a long drive to Cape Hatteras with just one, traffic-packed road running the length of the barrier island. We rented a room in a beach side motel and for the first time it was actually hot – 85° and not too windy. We stayed in the shade with our books (being pale-skinned redheads from the far north) until late afternoon and then rode our bikes around the island exploring the beaches and wetlands.
The coastal shrub habitat was home to whitetail deer, cottontails, fox, Canada geese, blackbirds, snakes and seabirds, but, in general, I was not impressed with the houses crowded together, traffic and lack of hiking or biking trails on the Island. The whole Outer Banks was one long strip of hotels, motels and housing developments crammed together on a tiny spit of land. It was a suntan-on-the-beach-with-a-crowd-of-people kind of place. We decided to get off the Outer Banks and head over to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge the next day.
Fog and Dolphins
Tuesday, April 19th, we got up early and walked the beach shrouded in fog. Dolphins swan along the coastline as we walked down the beach watching the sunrise — the mist swirling around us. Sunrise just never gets old. Richard went on as I walked back, my foot sore. Still not 100% since breaking the ankle two years back, I wanted to save my ankle for the climb up the Cape Hatteras lighthouse when it opened later that morning.
At 9 we biked out to the site and climbed the 12-stories to the top of the spotlessly maintained lighthouse. The view was, of course, amazing, but more significantly we chatted with the ranger and another couple about our disappointment with Cape Hatteras. They all recommended that we try Ocracoke Island before giving up on the Outer Banks. So we packed up and drove down to catch the ferry over to the tiny island. This proved a challenge as about 1,000 other people had had the same idea. We waited for almost 2 hours and finally got on one of the ferries to the island. We wondered how that small island could hold all these people. The ferry ride was entertaining, with dolphins swimming off one side of the boat and kids feeding the gulls off the back raising a cacophony of screams and acrobatics (by both the gulls and people).
Once on Ocracoke we drove to the National Seashore campground and picked out a spot to tent for later, then drove downtown for lunch. We parked and biked around the cute little downtown, exploring the whole area — which seemed to be an artists colony of sorts with every third house advertising a “gallery” open to the public. We ate lunch at an outdoor cafe on the pier which, when the wind died, smelled a bit like dying horseshoe crabs, but had a pretty view of the bay. We looked at the maps while we waited and made the decision to take the 3-hour ferry to the mainland the next day rather than drive all the way back up the traffic jammed Outer Banks highway. That decided, we made reservations for the 6:30 am ferry and drove back to the campground.
As we set up the tent that afternoon, we suddenly met the most unpleasant Ocracoke natives, black clouds of large, aggressive, mosquitoes. Scrambling for the bug dope, we moved the tent into a windier spot and quickly sorted through what we would need before dodging the campsite for the beach where a stiff wind was blowing.
My New Career
We walked the beach, now at low tide, an expanse of hard, wet sand. I had brought my umbrella to protect myself from the sun and was lazily etching lines in the sand with its tip as we walked along. Suddenly I stopped, staring at the squiggle I had just drawn. The sand was a perfect moisture level between low and high tide for etchings. I ditched my shoes and with my umbrella as a quill, went to work with fervor. I drew whales, dolphins, sharks, octopus, squid, stingrays, tuna and jellyfish. It was amazing. Richard took pictures and suggested I try more performance art — drawing them right above the wave line and trying to finish each one before the waves erased them. I drew a great blue heron, loon and eagle before a particularly large wave came in and obliterated them.
“I have a new career,” I shouted, holding up the umbrella, like a sword. I pictured us moving to the coast and drawing on the beach for crowds of cheering tourists. Then I thought about being around crowds of tourists and the fantasy melted. I sat down next to my husband in the soft sand of the dunes above the deserted beach and sighed. Careers come and go, but a lonely moment on the beach with someone you like is a gift.
The sun was setting and we worked up our courage to hike back up the beach and face the buggy campground. My foot was throbbing from walking barefoot on the hard sand and I once again had to swallow down my frustration and regret for that fateful moment almost two years ago when a silly teenager crossed the center line and hit my car head on, wrecking my hiking adventures forever. Then I let the moment of pity pass. Back in the campground we had bigger things to worry about.
The mosquitoes were mean and persistent and as luck would have it, our camp stove suddenly stopped working. Richard worked on it, between slapping at flying insects. Finally he gave up and I quickly (think flight of the bumble bee) threw together a cold dinner that we ate in double time before jumping back on the bikes and riding around too fast for mosquito wings until dark. Then we packed the car for our 5:30 am departure, put our sleeping gear in the tent, jumped in and quickly zipped up tight. We scanned the tent with flashlights for mosquitoes and killed the dozen or so that had followed us in. One had to admire these amazingly well-adapted little creatures — once you were safe behind a bug screen and could think objectively. (As a postscript to this, when Richard opened the tent several days later in Virginia, more than 20 Ocracoke mosquitoes came buzzing out and we silently hoped this would not have some horrible ecological effect.)
The Wild Women of Ocracoke
A few campsites away the loud country music finally stopped and we silently thanked the National Seashore campground rules posted at the front gate, which asked for camp silence at 9 pm. We had been amused by this pair of women, though, who had been drinking beer, dancing and hooting to their loud country music all afternoon with admirable energy. We speculated that they must be part of some wild campground party crowd that we – given our tendency toward isolationist camping – had never run across before. We kept glancing over whenever one of them howled. It was hard not to smile, as they wore flannel pajamas all afternoon and popped open beer after beer while singing along at the top of their lungs. I mean the women had style. Just before bed, my curiosity piqued, I went over and offered them the eggs we couldn’t cook (due to the dead stove) and struck up a conversation to get their story. It was with a great deal of amusement that I later told Richard that these wild women were simply middle school teachers on spring break.
Alligator River and Heat Stroke
Wednesday, April 20th, we rose before dawn and rode the ferry for 3 hours across the expanse of Pamlico Sound to the North Carolina mainland. I sketched for a while and then lulled by the rocking boat and short night, I slept the last 2 hours until we docked. Now we were in true rural NC. We drove by miles of agricultural fields intermixed with swamp and brushy coastal bog. There were few houses and no towns.
Away from the coastline the temperature rose and by the time we reached Alligator River Wildlife Refuge it was noon and 90°. We stopped at the ranger headquarters and got a map, but I could already see that this would not be an easy exploration for us. The refuge had no trails – just gravel roads that ran along a thick, swampy forest and a man-made waterway. The actual river was only accessible by kayak or canoe (neither of which we had with us) and there was no shade on the roads at all, making biking difficult for us (still the pale-skinned redheads from the far north).
We drove along the waterway as giant turtles plopped into the water off logs and black swallowtails fluttered by. We saw a huge copperhead sunning in the road. Finally Richard decided to try the gravel road on his mountain bike. I was happy to play support team in case he collapsed with heat stroke, but passed on biking. (Besides for being a wimp about blazing sun, my little hybrid bike struggles with big gravel.) By the time we’d traversed the refuge, my husband was tired, sweaty, and happy, but we still had no place to camp.
We decided to make our way north a bit and head up the coast to the ferry at Currituck. We hoped to ferry across the bay to Knots Island where we could camp and explore MacKay Island National Wildlife Refuge where the breeze off the ocean would cool things down some.
Then several fateful things happened. First, we missed the ferry. The next one was not for two hours. So we drove around to try to reach the refuges from the mainland down the Marsh Causeway. Then we got lost (having rejected GSP or mapquesting I suppose we were asking for it). By then it was late afternoon. Hot and weary of driving, we pulled off to ride the bikes for a while and recharge. That’s when Richard slammed the van door on our air mattress and ripped a big hole in it. So we were now without an air mattress or a working stove and still had no place to spend the night.
Then, probably feeling sorry for us, the gods sent us something good – we’d inadvertently pulled over into the Northwest River Park – a campground and wildlife preserve on the Northwest River off Tull Bay. And it was absolutely beautiful. We rode our bikes through a cool mixed forest and cypress swamp that rang with bird song and smelled like early summer. We decided it was where we needed to be. We rented a cabin for the night and proceeded to have a wonderful night’s sleep.
Thursday morning, April 21st, we woke to a myriad of birdsong. We rented a canoe and paddled the swamp. It was lovely and cool (aka no bugs). The trees were in full leaf and there were turtles and snakes, birds and giant moths everywhere. We talked about what life might be like if we ditched our jobs and became Wildlife Refuge travel writers (hey, we can dream). This place was a find for April – though in summer might well be too crowded for us. It was with some regret that we head east determined to find Knots Island.
Getting Lost… Again
We were soon lost again but drove on letting the fates guide us and soon found ourselves near Back Bay Wildlife Refuge south of Virginia Beach. It was an acceptable alternative. We biked through the Back Bay Refuge through miles of coastal wetlands and a small cypress swamp spotting coots, glossy ibis, egrets, thrashers and red-winged blackbirds. When we reached the beach at False Cape State Seashore, we dropped the bikes and walked another gorgeous beach. The clouds had come in by then and we explored the tide line and found giant oysters, sand dollars, and a big, yellow rubber ball that was blowing down the coast. Richard carried the ball back to the bikes and we tied it to his bike rack. (It traveled with us for the rest of the trip and all the way back to upstate NY.) At the visitor’s center on the Cape we heard a backpacker saying that in the summer it was almost impossible to get one of the campsites there and we could see why – they were all nestled in the shade of coastal trees, right below the dunes with the sound of the surf nearby.
By the time we got back to the cars we had ridden 14 miles and still had no place to spend the night. We found a store and bought a new stove and air mattress, but by then it was raining and almost dark and we were exhausted. We ended up staying in a hotel in Virginia Beach (again) which was a little bit of a let down as staying in hotels had lost some of its charm and we longed for more solitude.
We packed up in Friday morning and after a last, quick bike ride down the boardwalk, drove north back across the Bay Bridge up to Chincoteague Island. It was raining on and off as biked around the refuge. We saw flocks of glossy ibis, nesting bald eagles, teals, yellowlegs, egrets and many other birds. It was cool to see the eagles, but I was frankly a bit cranky about the rain by then. We rode the trails, walked the seashore and visited the Assateague lighthouse (not sure how that was on Chincoteague, but hey we had been lost before). By late afternoon it was raining in earnest and we packed up and drove up to Lewes to catch the ferry back to Cape May in the morning. We were both a bit grumpy about the rain by then (and about our adventure ending), so we ordered in Chinese and watched TV, too crabby to venture out again.
On Saturday, April 23rd, we ferried on very rough seas (not fun) to Cape May and drove, in the pouring rain, 7 hours to upstate NY. We were pretty solemn heading north, silently listened to a book on CD the whole way. About 90-minutes from home Richard directed us into Saratoga Springs State Park. We got out and rode around the park for an hour or so (about 8 miles) looking at the sulfur springs and exploring the trails. There were no green trees yet and dirty snow banks were here and there but the forest was beautiful with a hint of bird song and reminded us why we live in the far north. Refreshed, we got back in the car and the last leg of the trip went quickly. At home it was 50° (not bad) and the spring peepers were singing in the wetlands as we unpacked the car. It was quiet and peaceful and we’d gotten all the way home without getting lost.