North Carolina Kayaking:
Kayaking to Bald Head Island and back from Ft. Fisher, NC By Ken Kucirka
Carolina Beach is a small oceanfront community on the Atlantic coast, just south of Wilmington, NC. There are a number of beach communities that stretch from Carolina Beach in the north, through Kure Beach, and down to Ft. Fisher, a Civil War memorial site and home to one of North Carolina’s State Aquariums. My friend, Barry, has kept a condo at Carolina Beach for many years now. It’s an area with plenty of places to stay, and some great eateries. What we found was an area ripe for kayaking adventures.
Our usual kayak run, which we grew into over the course of several years and learned experiences, is from the boat launch basin at Ft. Fisher to the inlet at Bald Head Island, and then back again. It’s about a 17 mile paddle, round trip, through beautiful channels and marshlands, which, as we found out, were easy to get lost in since you can’t see over the marsh grass. We’ve done this trip about 22 times so far, heading to the beach every 3-4 months.
However, Barry, myself and our friend and professional colleague, Perry, started our exploration of this region by making runs down the Cape Fear River, whose outlet to the ocean is right at Bald Head Island. It’s also a major shipping channel to the port at Wilmington, NC. We would travel from Carolina Beach, down Snow’s Cut, a channel connecting the Cape Fear River to an outlet to the Atlantic Ocean by Masonboro Island. Once through the Cut, we would enter the Cape Fear River and take advantage of the outgoing tide to help us along down to Ft. Fisher.
We never got any help in Snow’s Cut, where the current always seemed to be going in the opposite direction from where we wanted to go. That was our first lesson with regard to tide and currents. One would think that three college-educated guys would be able to figure out that wind, weather, tidal flow and currents would have to be considered when you go kayaking. But NO, we had to figure it out the old-fashioned hard way - By experiencing it!
As we were paddling through Snow’s Cut one time, we were being watched by some fishermen on the bank. Twenty minutes later, we were looking at the same fishermen, who were now chuckling amongst themselves about the foolish kayakers paddling against the current. We were paddling at 3.5 mph against a current of about 3 mph. We made it through the Cut eventually, but it took us a lot longer than we expected.
We’ve had some interesting adventures during our many trips. One of them involved one of our trips down the Cape Fear River from Carolina Beach to Ft. Fisher (about 9 miles). Paddling down the Cape Fear one cold day, we saw the weather change, the sky get darker, and the wind died down.
Soon, fog started to obscure the river in front of us, then behind us, and then the shorelines disappeared. When we couldn’t see each other when we got more than 20 feet apart, we knew we were in trouble. So, we reached into our gear bags and pulled out a compass, RIGHT? WRONG!
None of us had brought one, just one of the basic pieces of gear that kayakers should carry. Then, we heard the mournful sound of a ship’s fog horn blast through the soup. With fog, it’s very hard to tell which direction the sound is coming from, and we didn’t know which way to paddle to get to shore. Had we inadvertently crossed over the open river into the ship channel? What direction should we paddle, since there was no sense of direction?
Suddenly, off to the left, we could see a simple geometric shape way off through the fog. We had no idea, at first, as to what it was, but we knew it had to be man-made. Turning toward it, we paddled like the dickens because the ship’s horn sounded again, closer. As we drew closer to the shape, it became apparent that the geometric shape we saw was the roofline of the aquarium at Fort Fisher. Paddling straight for it, we soon hit the shoreline. Whew! Guess who carries a compass every time we go out now!
These river runs helped us gain experience in paddling technique, tune up some muscles and joints, and learn more about currents, wind, and what happens when two foot waves are hitting the starboard rear quarter of your kayak. There are some beautiful places to stop and take a break on the river. We also got to see some great wildlife, both in the water and above it.
Graduating from these river runs, we decided on one of our trips to explore the basin by Ft. Fisher. It is a beautiful place to kayak, with winding channels, dense marsh grass, wonderful wildlife and access to the Atlantic Ocean beaches. Straight across from where we launch at the basin is Zeke’s Island, which is a great place for a picnic. We even tried some night kayaking in the basin, putting some running lights on the boats and using headlamps to see where we were going. It put the marshlands into a totally different perspective – almost spooky! We also found some folks who disregarded the timing of the tides, with serious consequences!
Learning the ins and outs of the basin, we wanted to explore farther out into the marshland, so we decided to set out across the largest part of the basin to see if we could reach Bald Head island and get a look at Old Baldy, the famous lighthouse there. What we found was how easy it was to get lost in the marshland.
We could see the lighthouse and some rooftops, but we couldn’t figure out how to get there. Finding some dead-ends, we turned around and headed back. For our next planned trip, we did some internet research to get a satellite view of the area and we bought a fishing map. That helped tremendously and allowed us to map out a route. It still involved some pretty good navigation in the marshes, and we found that tide timing came into play, as sandbars sprang up all over the place. During numerous trips, we also found that the sandbars moved around quite a bit.
Well, we finally made it to Bald Head Island, and got to see Old Baldy up close. We paddled down the inlet to find a place to beach our boats, and tied them up in case the tides caught up with us. To take a break from sitting in the kayak, we walked around Bald Head, and enjoyed lunch at one of the restaurants there. It’s a beautiful place, with gorgeous houses and lush vegetation.
Sometimes, the wildlife flies in with us, and sometimes the local dolphins escort us down the river. There is one pod of dolphins that we see frequently, and we can tell it’s the same pod because one of the dolphins has a distinctive bump on his (or her) dorsal fin.
On one of our return trips from Bald Head, we chased that pod of dolphins for a mile and a half, paddling as fast as we could to try to keep up with them. The young dolphins were jumping and cavorting, leaping into the air and splashing down repeatedly. We felt so blessed to be able to see nature like that, something that most people will never get the chance to see up close. That’s what kayaking is all about!
During another trip down to Bald head, we were fighting both an incoming tide and a 20 mph wind in our face. Best we could do paddling in those conditions was about 2 mph. As we got within about a mile of the Bald Head inlet, we came upon the styrofoam marker float of someone’s crab trap.
We found some folks who disregarded the timing of the tides, with their Jeep sitting in three feet of water!
Our paddling slowed to a crawl as the wind increased. The marker float was between our boats, and had a wake behind it from the incoming tide. We looked over at the float, and found that it was starting to pull ahead of us. How was that even possible? Were we floating backwards?
Soon, the float pulled away from us, and as it did, something smacked the bottom my boat with a loud thump and bumped me up in the water. It was the crab trap attached to the float! It was being pulled against tide and wind, and the float attached to it turned toward the ocean inlet and continued to pull away from us, picking up speed! All we knew was that we did not want to find out what was towing that steel and cement crab trap out to the open ocean!
You could ask why do we go back there, repeating the same trip, time and again. Well, there are many reasons:
And, occasionally, there may have been some other views, too!
(Photos by Perry Peterson and Ken Kucirka)
Barry Motsinger, Director of Capital Construction Projects for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools (WS/FCS), is an avid athlete who does insane 105 mile bicycle rides just for the sport of it. One of them involves riding his bike up a 6,500 foot mountain at the end of the 105 miler. Perry Peterson, is an architect and president of Peterson /Gordon Architects, a firm in Winston-Salem, NC. Barry, Perry and I have enjoyed a friendship for many years. Perry is our river-runner, who enjoys taking advantage of the Yadkin, Dan, and New rivers whenever he can get the chance.
I’m Ken Kucirka, the third musketeer, and I retired in 2016 as the Chief Operating Officer of WS/FCS, a 55,000 student, 80 school county-wide school system. I’m also the senior member of the crew, soon to be 70.
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