The car was unpacked and my paddle board gear prepped and ready for my adventures tomorrow. I settled into the couch on the screened in porch and took a deep breath. Probably the first one in several weeks. Between my work demands, and coordinating the kids summer activities of day camps, play dates, and swim lessons, I was exhausted.
Thankfully this weekend was mine. Mom and Dad had the kids. Jim was playing golf in Myrtle Beach and I was in need of solitude, and time away from traffic jams and strip malls. The beaches would be crowded and I wasn’t in the mood for putt putt and all you can eat buffets anyway. I wanted peace, and I knew where I could find that. Pamlico County.
I’d spent four fabulous summers at Camp Seafarer in Arapahoe, North Carolina where I’d learned to sail, kayak and become a more independent woman. A little searching and I quickly found this cottage in Arlington Place, a beautiful neighborhood on the Neuse River situated between Camp Sea Gull and Camp Seafarer. Here was where I’d fallen in love with paddling and it was a gift to return to familiar waters, although now I’d be navigating them standing on my board instead of sitting in a kayak.
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I threw my feet up on the ottoman and took another deep breath. A gentle southerly breeze rustled the river grasses by the creek behind my cottage, and the sun slipped below the tree line, the star of the show, now behind the curtain. Like a kaleidoscope, the western sky changed from orange to cantaloupe to pink and then finished with a deep violet. My heart swelled with gratitude for the time to appreciate nature’s benediction at the end of the day. Sleep came easily.
Friday night’s show left me no choice but to get up before sunrise to enjoy it again, in reverse. At 6:00am there was just enough light to retrieve my paddle board at the outfitters center next to my cottage, and take it down the short pier to launch. In minutes I was paddling south on Mill Creek, towards the Neuse River and sunrise.
The creek was only about 30 feet across and lined in tall river grass. In this light, all that was visible was the black water beneath me and the trees, shrouded in darkness, standing sentry on either side of the creek. When I looked up though, it was a different story. Even with dawn approaching, there were still hundreds of stars in the sky, no light pollution here to blot out their twinkling. Off to the east, the watermelon pink of sunrise intensified, and the night sky began its retreat. In response to the light, the volume of the morning increased. The birds, crickets and frogs made a cacophony of sound, occasionally punctuated by an owl calling to his mate.
I picked up my cadence and rounded a corner, startling a blue heron who honked in protest and then flew towards the river. I laughed in response, a little startled myself and unaccustomed to being immersed in the natural world. This was much better than simply looking out the window at the bird feeder, like I usually did. The sky was peach orange now and I hurried to follow the heron to the river, not wanting to miss sunrise.
I paddled out of Mill Creek into the Neuse River, four miles wide at this point, and it felt like I was in a different world. Across the river I could make out the lights of Cherry Point, the Marine Corp Air Station located in Havelock, but when I looked east, all I saw was water and the horizon. What a different perspective than a minute ago. The sounds changed too. Birdsong and crickets were replaced with the call of the seagulls and the splash of a pelican scooping up her breakfast.
I paddled directly east and was thankful for the calm water, remembering how choppy the river can get from my summers at camp. After a few minutes I stopped paddling, sat down on my board and let it drift in the breeze. Sunrise was a couple minutes away, so I deepened my breath and waited.
A crescent, the color of an orange marigold, silently appeared on the horizon. It grew to a semicircle, and then a full circle that separated from the water like a bubble leaving a wand. Slowly, the sun gained altitude and I was overcome with the miracle of it. My eyes filled with tears at the beauty, and with the recognition that I often missed this miracle, packing lunch boxes, pedaling in my spin class or answering early morning emails.
I drifted for a while, breathing in the morning, feeling the sun on my face, being fully present in the moment. I’d left my watch at the cottage so didn’t know the time but my stomach figured it out. It was time for breakfast and I took a sip of water to quiet its grumblings. I sent up a silent thank you to the sun, stood up and paddled back to Mill Creek. Coffee and oatmeal would fuel me before I set out on my next adventure on Beards Creek. It was only a short paddle west from the mouth of Mill Creek. Of course, a morning nap could also happen. I had no schedule other than to do what felt best in each moment.
And on Sunday morning, it felt best to sleep in. Between my sunrise paddle and afternoon paddle on Beards creek yesterday, I was tired. Sleeping until seven and then having coffee in my pajamas on the back porch was pure luxury, although I was starting to miss Sarah and Hank. At five and eight years old, they were always busy so it was never this quiet at home. Maybe another time we could come here as a family. Yesterday I saw a couple with young children walking back to their cottage from an afternoon at the pool. But today was still all mine, and I spread the map of the paddle trails of Pamlico county on the couch to select today’s adventure.
The wind had picked up and I was craving fish, so I decided to paddle in Oriental where the restaurants had fresh fish and the creeks were protected from the wind. After a 15 minute country drive, I was at the Oriental boat ramp. I launched my board at the small beach area and was on the water in just a few minutes. The ramp was beside the Oriental bridge, so I started my paddle weaving in and out of the bridge supports until I reached the south side of Green creek, which was protected from the wind.
Green creek was at least a 100 yards across at its mouth, with homes lining either side. I paddled along the edge to admire the creekside homes and the boats tied up at their personal docks. My muscles warmed up and my paddle strokes and breath were in sync. The usual racing thoughts I had about the children, work, my weight, were gone and I focused on the pull of the water against my paddle blade and the waltz of puffy white clouds across the blue sky.
Suddenly a movement caught my attention in the water. Did I see a fin? Then I heard “phew” and saw a grey head surface off to my right in the middle of the creek. Dolphins! I’d heard they may be feeding at the mouth of the creek, and here they were. I counted six dolphin and paddled closer to watch them feed. They swam in circles to trap the fish and one even jumped completely out of the water just 20 feet from my board. What a thrill. It was pure magic to watch their sleek, grey bodies surface and dive.
I absorbed good energy from the dolphins and picked up my pace to clear the last of the houses and explore the back of Green creek. The shoreline here was lined in pine trees, cypress, and oak with an occasional magnolia tree mixed in. Fan like palmettos grew in the understory, giving things a tropical feel. I saw raccoon prints on a sandy beach and the white tail of a deer as it bounced deeper into the woods. I paddled slowly now, hoping to see the eagle that a fisherman at the boat ramp had told me about.
A bird flew into view, but as it got closer I saw it was an osprey, smaller than a bald eagle, but majestic none the less. I floated and watched the osprey circle over the water and then dive for a fish. After a millisecond pause under water, she simultaneously gained altitude, shook off the water from her dive and clutched a small fish in her talons. The osprey flew to a dead tree just ahead of me and I wished I had my binoculars to watch her eat. The sun was high now, and I was ready for my own lunch. I would return though, and find the eagle on my next trip to Pamlico county.
A breeze from the west provided assistance on my paddle back to the ramp, and my muscles were grateful. I loaded my paddle board onto the car and thought about the fish sandwich, french fries and sweet tea I’d soon be ordering. Once I refueled, I planned to wander around town a bit and stop in at the art gallery and several of the boutiques.
By the time I returned to my cottage at Arlington Place, a cool front had lowered the temperatures and humidity, a welcome relief in the middle of July. Out of the sun it was actually cool, a reminder that summer didn’t last forever. I grabbed a sweatshirt from my suitcase and sat on the front porch in one of the rocking chairs. The chimney at the outfitters center caught my eye. Tonight would be a perfect night for a fire. Did I remember how to make one from my Camp Seafarer days? There was only one way to find out.
I grabbed some matches and the Sunday paper I’d picked up in town and walked to the outfitters center, essentially a screened in log cabin next to Mill Creek. It had picnic tables and a huge stone fire place with adirondack chairs in front of it. Thankfully they had kindling and logs there, so all I needed were my fire starting skills. It took a few tries but soon the logs ignited and I had a crackling fire. I wiped my hands off on my jeans, proud of my prowess with a match. This deserved a celebration and I ran back to the cottage for a bottle of craft beer from Oriental’s New Village Brewery & Taproom.
I settled back into the adirondack chair and took a sip of the freshly brewed IPA. I stared into the fire, mesmerized by the leaping flames. My mind was clear, my breath was deep and my body pleasantly fatigued. I was at peace. This was why I’d come here. I put another log on the fire and listened to the wind in the tops of the trees. Tomorrow, I would leave my secluded retreat in Arlington Place, restored. I was ready to jump back into the wonderful craziness of my life but thanks to my time here, I’d occasionally slow down, and be mindful of the small miracles that are happening every day, if only I’d take the time to notice.