October 5, 2017
Looking out at the intercostal waterway my stomach begins to sink. Our canoe is stocked with gear: tent, food, water, everything we think we’ll need for a two-night stay on the island. One precarious tip and the whole trip will be lost along with a lot of equipment. The currents and passing motorized boats take little notice of our dark green canoe bobbing in place with its passagers feeling a bit unmoored.
Setting Plans in Motion
The idea started less than a week ago. With UNCW’s fall break coming and questions circulating about how to spend that extra time. We could visit family, go hiking, go to new restaurants. Nothing really struck a chord, until somehow, the idea of going to Masonboro Island found its way in.
It sounds do-able. Rent a canoe, paddle over, setup camp, then surf, swim and hang out for a few days. Minutes after the idea breaches our conversation Alex and I know it’s going to happen. It only takes one grocery trip and one rented canoe till we find ourselves here, bobbing, and looking out across a nerve wracking expanse of water. I don’t know whether to qualify the ease of putting this plan in motion as serendipitous or cruel.
Hugging the eastern shore and inching our way north against the current I feel a lot less prepared than I assumed. Our aim is to overshoot the turn into the swampy corridor so if the current takes us south we can still make it. Passing the dock north of our put in we cut right to take a stab at crossing.
The current isn’t that bad, though we still paddle like our lives depend on it. We complete the crossing just in time to watch a kayaker decked out in fishing gear traverse the crossing in half the time.
Past the first test we turn our boat into a maze of saltwater marsh. The online maps have been vague about this section, shifting sandbars and reed patches don’t submit to cartography easily.
Maneuvering between close packed reed bluffs tries our novice paddling skills and our report with each other. Our exchanges our peppered with “Are you sure?” and “What’s that?” After a good 30 minutes, we clear a dense growth of reeds into a small bay. A thin crescent of beach can be seen at the far end of the bay, we make a bee line for it, still doubting we’ll ever reach the end.
The sound of our boat sliding against beach sand is an instant relief. We pull the gear laden, miraculously non-sunken, canoe ashore and begin exploring our temporary home.
The island is beautiful. Rolling with green scrub and oat encrusted dunes. Walking eastward from the bay reveals strong crashing surf dressed in vibrant blues. The beach is wide and bright, with no one around as far as the eye can see. This is why we came. This is exactly what we imagined when the idea popped up a few days ago. And now we’re here, serendipitous.
The map at the bay estimates we’ve paddled over a mile to get here and we toast our success with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Then get to work laying out our campsite.
In the absence of firm ground anchoring the rain fly to both food coolers and a juice bottle filled with tap water works nicely. Though the tent already has sand in it, the optimism spurned by a fresh salty breeze and cerulean blue waves is currently indomitable.
Leaning against a dune I drape a towel over my legs and pull out my book. It will be a miracle if I leave this island without a sunburn, but we brought an almost full tube of aloe in case the inevitable should occur.
Alex sets up with his book as well, but soon the book is open on his chest his eyes heavily lidded beneath his sunglasses.
After a few chapters I’m hungry again. I set up the cooking equipment a small distance from our tent and begin working on a pack of pre-seasoned jambalaya. The sand under me is cool and soft. I can hear crickets beginning their afternoon concert. The dunes to my left soften the noise of crashing waves creating a cozy feeling.
When the food is ready, Alex and I eat from Tupperware bowls while staring at the ocean. The sky is beginning to dim and the waves reflect jagged piece of sunlight. It feels so peaceful.
We rinse our bowls in the surf with the hopes of keeping wildlife from detecting our dinner. Back by the stove a crab has already dragged the lighter to a knoll in front of its den.
October 6, 2017
The next day rises early. We are up at 6:40 with hopes of a sunrise and morning surfing. But both are not to be. Though the sun does rise, it is shrouded in clouds and Atlantic mist. The waves beside our campsite are messy and they come too close together making them all too small.
Instead we strike out on an expedition to the northern tip of the island. Our small day pack is filled with water towels and a few cookies. I was taught that when you go camping you always bring cookies.
The nighttime brightness of the full moon pales in comparison to the morning sun rising lazily through the clouds. Ambling along the border between waves and sand we start picking up bits of trash scattered among the shells. Alex picks up trash every time we go to the beach. Most days he won’t leave the beach until we’ve both picked up a little.
We walk at a leisurely pace. Our path blazed by a collection of odd landmarks. First an old broken tire followed by white signs marking two sea turtle nests near the dunes. Soon we can see people cropping up along the beach. Then we see surfers.
Droves of surfers, black shapes bouncing just out of reach of the breaking whitewater. All heads turned eastward in a watchful supplication for big beautiful waves. Their wishes are granted with glossy arching rifts filing toward the shore one languid curl after another. The open faces of waves display rippling hues of green and blue before white frothy fingers wrap around in watery decrescendo.
Alex, is oddly patient in the presence of illustrious waves just itching to be ridden. We both feel unhurried as we walk to the channel at the far north of the beach. From the northernmost tip of Masonboro island we can see Crystal pier our go to spot on Wrightsville beach. At the end of Wrightsville, we can see longboard bearing surfers setting out to paddle across the channel to the island.
The channel is deep dark blue with choppy, restless waves taller than my hip. I know it would take a lot of money to convince me to make that 250-yard paddle. I am transfixed by their trek, crossing my fingers and breathing a sigh of relief when they make it.
Soon Alex and I are in the water. He makes for the deep water and big waves while I linger near the shore catching the smaller, reformed versions.
Resting on the sand a few minutes later I am struck by a novel, unhurried feeling. We’ve been living at the beach for four months and this is the first time we haven’t felt time pressing on us. It’s usually a race to catch a few waves and get out before 9am when they start charging for parking or in the evening trying to catch one last wave before the sun goes down. Now, it’s not even lunch time and we have nothing else in the entire world vying for our time.
That’s what I really love about camping. It makes no difference if I haven’t checked my email or if I don’t have cell service. All I need to worry about is keeping the tent up and boiling water for food every once in a while.
Alex surfs for an hour longer while I explore this end of the island. The sand is hot at this time of day, and as I walk back from a small bay on the west side I pass many surfers leaving. The tide is going out and they know if they don’t leave when it’s still high they’ll be stuck for 12 more hours.
Tired and relaxed Alex and I trek south back to our campsite eagerly anticipating lunch.
The one shortcoming of Masonboro Island is that there are no trees, and very little shade. While the sun is high in the sky I take refuge in the tent to stave off a sunburn. Alex opts to put on a long-sleeved shirt and drape his legs with a towel instead. Neither method keeps us from sweating, but both satisfy our want to protect our skin.
After a few hours, I slather on more sunscreen and explore around. The small beach where we came ashore is no longer a beach but a border to and expansive mud flat. The small puddle containing the dregs of the bay is occupied by a modest flock of white herons. Presumably the herons are picking off tidal fish now corralled into a much smaller area.
I am fascinated by a herd of crabs each no bigger than my thumb. They scurry tentatively from the safety of the reeds their tiny claws constantly at work picking invisible pieces from the muck and delivering them to miniature mandibles. They are very aware of Alex and I peering over them. Moving our hands to point at the herons scares the crabs back to the thicket of reeds.
The sun has now slipped to a manageable angle. Our tent creates a shallow u shaped shadow and we sit together on the cool sand whiling away the hours. Alex strumming the ukulele and me leafing through a different book.
October 7, 2017
3 AM is For the Crabs
I wake up to find Alex leaning over me to peer outside the mesh tent walls. Slowly I become aware of a quiet scraping sound close to the tent vestibule. We conclude that there is a crab outside and try to find it to figure out what it is doing.
Unzipping the tent and shining the headlamp around one of our empty water bottles we find the crab. The crab is almost as big as my foot. It has pried open the lid to our cooking pot and stationed itself within, cleaning out the burnt remains of red beans and rice.
Alex immediately suggests cooking the crab. Since it is sitting in the bottom of our pot isn’t it just asking to be eaten? But, the crab hops out quickly when Alex leans out of the tent to grab the handle. We refasten the lid firmly on the pot and balance it on top of an empty water bottle for good measure. I think this crab is more used to humans than we originally expected.
We lay awake for a little while afterward listening for quiet scuttling. The scraping noise does not resume.
At 6 AM we’re up and packing all late-night crab shenanigans pushed aside. Though our time has been enjoyable we’re both excited about the prospect of showers later today. Before packing up the canoe and speeding off to our relatively sand free life we head north up the beach to see if we can find just a few more waves.
We’ve picked up trash each time we walk the beach and the bag of trash has grown to almost knee height. Alex slings the trash bag over his shoulder as we walk north on the beach admiring the changing sunrise as we go.
A lot of bits of trash have washed up since our last trip this direction. Alex is zigzagging back and forth to pick up odds and ends. Being bogged down by trash starts to annoy me. I proffer the idea that we stop picking up trash, we have a lot already and I’m anxious to get moving.
He is quiet for a moment, pondering. He says, for him picking up trash is a lifestyle, and he can’t just stop caring about keeping the beach clean. Then I realize, he can no more stop picking up trash than I can stop being a vegetarian. These things are ingrained in our lifestyle. And now that we know the need for being environmentally conscious, now that we’ve felt what it feels like to care, neither of us can stop.
If this were an argument Alex would have won.
Next Stop Showers
Canoe loaded up and paddling away from the skinny beach there is both a feeling of accomplishment and relief. We did it. Despite contemplating leaving early we stayed the whole three days just as we’d planned barely a week ago. In the future we will become reabsorbed into our daily routines, they’ll be chores and, jobs, and school, but we won’t worry about that now. All we can think about is the joy of home and the experience we get to take back to it.
Right now we are thankful. Thankful for all the small comforts of our mundane lives, like tables and chairs and beds. We’re also thankful for getting to enjoy this beautiful place and relish in the simplicity of camping.
Until Next Time.