Monday, August 4, 2008

Paddling Around the Sound

When Hank and I got up this morning, Pamlico Sound was a sheet of pale blue glass that blended seamlessly into the sky. Kayak time.

The important thing to understand about the sound is that, although it is wide, it is not deep. Out in the fishing channel, it averages 15-20 feet, but as Paki demonstrated a couple of years ago, someone who doesn't mind being nibbled by fish can walk to the channel markers almost a mile out and not get in water above his or her chest. Oh, there are a couple of holes up in the national wildlife refuge (more about one of these later), and NCDOT (!) keeps the Chicamacomico channel open for the fishing boats into Rodanthe (15 feet deep, four feet wide. I am not kidding. Miss the channel and some shrimp boat is being pulled off backward by jet skis.)

Kayaking in the sound is like flying over an alien landscape. Shoals of little silver fish flash back and forth under the boat. We saw much bigger fish everywhere, eating the little ones. Several of these jumped out of the water quite close to us, and they were about 12-15 inches long, brown, kind of chunky-looking. Drum? Mullet? When I think of mullet, I think of fish with bad haircuts, something like a marine Lyle Lovett. I digress.

We paddled first out to a sunken barge, the relic of another NCDOT effort to create fish habitat in the sound. I dunno about fish habitat, but it certainly created crab habitat. Spider, blue, and wharf crabs swarm all over it. We took our dip net out, but to be honest, I do not want to deal with a crab, particularly an agressive blue one, in a dip net. Spider crabs, if you can get past their obviously arachnoid appearance, aren't so bad because they don't have big pincers. I tried dip-netting fish, with no success.

After thoroughly inspecting the barge and environs, we paddled up into the national wildlife refuge. Herons (green, great blue, night), egrets, cowbirds everywhere. I drifted out over one of the holes, watching a heron fishing along the wrack. A fish jumped beside me and I nearly went over. I paddled off the hole and away. It's not all that deep, maybe six or eight feet, and I can swim fine, but when you're used to water that's two feet deep, it seems like the abyss.

Back down the sound toward home, water chuckling under the bows. I can't think really, of anything more relaxing that paddling the sound, watching the fish, waiting for wonders. We found several right off our own beach. The first was a horseshoe crab, always a favorite, wending its prehistoric way across the eelgrass. This was small as horseshoe crabs go, about nine inches across. We grabbed him and carried him to our neighbors, to show the kids. (We asked their mom if it was okay, naturally. We remember how we accidentally scared Suzanne with a crab to the point that we spent months convincing her, every night, that they hadn't followed her to bed.) These kids squealed with delight as it made its lumbering way back through the water. Later, though, we heard the little one saying "I'm scared of the horseshoe crab!" Oh well.

Following that, I found a hermit crab scuttling along the bottom, and scooped him up for further investigations. When I lifted him out of the water, he drew back into his whorled shell, but the minute I immersed my hand, he came out, and then hung upside down under my fingers, filtering things, I guess. Hank was cleaning the eelgrass and cordgrass that had clogged our beach after the storm. I stood in the mid-calf-deep water just beyond, watching dozens of small fish school around me. Being nibbled by fish isn't one of my favorite things, but these were so small, and so wary. If I moved at all, they'd skitter away. Lots of things cast shadows on the water, and all of them are bad for you if you're three inches long. As we ate our breakfast on the deck this morning, we watched an egret catch and eat at least two, right where I was standing.

In his book River Horse, William Least Heat-Moon says, "Brevity does not make life meaningless, but forgetting does." This comes to mind as we watch the children next door splashing and laughing with each new discovery. It was just Saturday, wasn't it, when we paddled out to the barge with Chip perched on one end of the kayak and Gabe LeBlanc on the other, both with dip nets? Didn't the girls just come in from the beach with buckets of shells in chubby hands? Wasn't it this morning that they learned to catch the elusive ghost crabs, totally abandoned to the moment and as unselfconscious as plovers?

No, I don't forget. At the beach, time ceases to have any conventional meaning. I don't know what time it is right now (but I know that my blog posts read three hours off, for some reason.) In the larger sense, I don't know if it's "this" year, or some other year, eight of them now that we've been in Rodanthe. The sound roots me in the "now," along with the shining fish and the egrets and the crabs. My children have gone to the ocean beach, but I hear them laughing in the kids next door.

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