Fog of Time

Castle Island is only a stone’s throw from the Washington waterfront. It’s a few acres of sand in the middle of the Pamlico River named for the crenelated chimneys of lime kilns that once occupied the island. The chimneys resembled medieval towers. The kilns rendered lime from oyster shells to make cement.

History is piled on Castle Island like oyster shells. There was a shipyard once and a sawmill, Union troops and an artillery battery. Much later there was a whorehouse.

Through the years old boats were left to rot on the shore or burnt to the waterline for their metal fittings. The hulls settled into the mud like time. They piled up like cordwood upstream of the island, a ship’s graveyard. The bones of an oyster shell barge jostled a sharpie schooner, a motorized fishing boat from the early 20th Century, a bugeye schooner, and a barge or ferry boat. In all, 11 vessels were researched by the Eastern Carolina University’s Maritime Studies staff in 1998 and 1999.

Castle Island, Pamlico River in the fog. Boats moored up-current are near the location of the ship's graveyard.
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Castle Island, Pamlico River in the fog. Boats moored up-current are near the location of the ship’s graveyard.

Then Hurricane Floyd struck in 2000. The Pamlico River rose 24-feet above flood stage. Houses, buildings, farms, even small towns were swept away. The river spilled onto the 500-year floodplain. And the current scoured the ship’s graveyard.

The remnants of vessels up current of the island are gone now. They may have been carried downstream or broken up and shot downriver by the force of the flood. Whatever more we may have learned from them is lost.

Sloop Rebecca aground on the banks of the Pamlico River opposite Washington, NC after Hurricane Dorian.
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Boats are still being lost to hurricanes. The sloop Rebecca aground after Hurricane Dorian.

Great Blue Heron

A Great Blue Heron regularly roosts overnight in a neighborhood tree on Chocowinity Bay. Sometimes it squawks indignantly and flees when I paddle too close. Sometimes it tolerates my approach.

The frayed feathers on the heron’s chest are called “powder down.” The birds can crush these feathers into a powder with a fringed claw on its middle toe and apply it to the feathers on its underbelly. The powder keeps those feathers from becoming fouled and oily wading in the swamps. The swamp slime clumps on the feathers and the heron brushes it off with its feet. They also powder oily fish before eating.

The disapproving gaze and crouched shoulders of a Great Blue Heron remind me of Groucho Marx.

Herons stalk shoal water for hours, waiting for a fish, a frog, shrimp, crabs, aquatic insects, rodents, small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and birds, especially ducklings.  Apparently, hunger breeds patience but not a good temper.

Great Blue Heron, Chocowinity Bay
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Vanishing

The Norfolk-Southern Railroad bridge spans the Pamlico River at Washington, NC. One end vanishes in the fog, the other ends abruptly at the draw span.

The fog has leeched the color from the photo except for the red light of a single channel marker.

As an old man Bill Seller remembered when he was young, staying at his grandparent’s house in Washington beside the Pamlico River, windows open in the sultry heat, listening to the freight trains slowly cross the bridge in the middle of the night, restricted to 10 miles per hour over the wooden trestles, counting the cars as their wheels clattered across the open joint at the end of the draw span.

The bridge remains; the memories are fading.

Norfolk-Southern Railroad bridge, Pamlico River, Washington, NC
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Bootleggers

Beaufort County, North Carolina has always been a hard place to make a living. People get by doing what they can. Some got by making moonshine.

There’s a story about a bootlegger in the 1950s, long after the end of Prohibition, who sited his still on a saw grass meadow at the head of Chocowinity Bay. It had the advantage of isolation. It could only be reached by boat.

The saw grass grew tall enough to screen his still from fishermen and duck hunters until the grass caught fire one day and burned down to the muck. His still became as obvious as a smokestack.

The saw grass meadows remain even if the bootleggers have all gone.

Saw-grass Meadow
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After The Storm

After Hurricane Dorian, boats were sunk or cast on beaches across Pamlico Sound. The sloop Rebecca came ashore on the Pamlico River opposite Washington, North Carolina.

In the early morning fog, the boat lays abandoned, isolated from the world. I imagine the dreams of distance that came to rest so far from the sea.

After the storm
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Salutations to the Sun

Early morning along the shore, I passed this Blue Heron perched on a dead cypress limb as the sun rose over Chocowinity Bay.

The frayed feathers on the heron’s chest are called “powder down.” The bird can crush these feathers into a powder with a fringed claw on its middle toe and apply it to the feathers on its underbelly. The powder keeps those feathers from becoming fouled and oily wading in the swamps. The swamp slime clumps on the feathers and the heron brushes it off with its feet.

The heron also uses the powder to remove the slimy oil from fish.

Blue Heron, Chocowinity Bay
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Grandpap Island

Grandpap is an island sunk in the Pamlico River downstream of Washington, NC. The island has been eroded by storms. It’s only a name on the charts now, a shoal patch, and the bones of some cypress trees rooted in the water.

The trees stand isolated in the fog. A few sodden cormorants dry themselves on leafless limbs. The river flows past sluggishly on its way to the Pamlico Sound.

Dead trees are the island’s headstones.

Cormorants and sunken island
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Thunder

To paraphrase Kipling, the sun comes up like thunder over Chocowinity Bay. Cumulus clouds rise a thousand feet into the atmosphere and sink a thousand feet deep in reflection.

On summer nights thunder rolls across the bay like Barisal guns and blue herons squawk indignantly, alarmed by raccoons along the shore.

Thunderheads over Chocowinity Bay
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A Neighborhood War

There were African slaves in the early settlement of North Carolina but relatively few. White settlers compensated by raiding Tuscarora villages and enslaving natives to work their fields. The Tuscarora objected violently. In September 1711, the Tuscarora War began.

Oral history records the first Tuscarora attack was against John Porter’s homestead at the head of Chocowinity Bay. Porter and his guest, Patrick Maule, successfully defended themselves.

John Porter built his home near a landing on Sidney Creek. The creek winds itself through the wetlands near the head of the bay. The old wharf pictured is likely located near Porter’s homestead and the opening battle of the Tuscarora War.

Not everyone fared as well as John Porter. A neighbor, a man named Nevil, had a farmstead near the mouth of Blounts Creek.

Nevil, “after being shot, was laid on the house-floor, with a clean pillow under his head, his stockings turned over his shoes, and his body covered with new linen. His wife was set upon her knees, and her hands lifted up as if she was at prayers, leaning against a chair in the chimney corner, and her coats turned up over her head. A son of his was laid out in the yard with a pillow laid under his head and a bunch of rosemary laid to his nose.”

The Tuscarora had a creative way of celebrating death.

Sidney Creek, Chocowinity Bay
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Useful Dead

Osprey often take stand on branches of Bald Cypress trees. The trees grow and die at the edge of Chocowinity Bay, offering a good view of the water. The dead trees, stripped of their leaves, are no hindrance to their flight.

Many people value trees only as board feet. There is no profit in a dead snag. Osprey see it differently.  Dead trees are wondrously minimal. Nothing unneeded, nothing superfluous, a place for their talons to grip and their hunger to focus. The fish hawks wait with patience sharp as their talons and then fly.

Not all things dead are useless.

Osprey on bald cypress snag
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