Many great ideas run aground on the shoals of reality, but you always figure that’s not going to happen to you. Especially on your paddling vacation, double especially after two days of driving and eager anticipation. Yet there I was on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, incredulously stuck in the unwelcome reality of being grounded on an apparently endless shoal of sand, just 15 minutes after first launching my kayak.
Around me I could see a ring of intriguing marshy islands, filled with some of the 400 species of birds that inhabit or migrate through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, located about halfway down the Outer Banks. Beyond the islands to the west beckoned the endless shining waters of 35-mile-wide Pamlico Sound, where two major rivers to the Atlantic flood the third-largest estuary in the world.
The idea of gliding silently through this vast, sheltered inland sea teeming with birds and fish had brought me here in April, when the waters are already warm, air temperatures are in the 60s and 70s, and the place is almost deserted (there’ll be as many as 200,000 visitors in summer weeks). But now I was confronting the gap between avid kitchen-table conjurings over a map and reality on the ground-make that water. Dragging my 17-foot sea kayak behind me, I could not see an easy float to the open bay beyond the islands. Worse, I had no idea how deep the water was going to be once I got there.
As inauspicious beginnings go, this was right up there. At least the late April air was warm and the sun was pleasant. Stymied, I finally gave up, pulled the nose of my boat around, and comically half-poling and half-paddling, headed back to shore, completing an hour’s misadventure.
Getting shoaled convinced me to do what I should have done immediately, but hadn’t in my eagerness to get on the water: get a maritime map. I drove to Avon-one of a dozen villages on the banks-where a big water-sports outfitter called Carolina Outdoors has one of its six stores. Oddly, they had no maps, but the store manager, Jay Turner, turned out to be a walking encyclopedia of kayaking info. He told me what the maps wouldn’t: that Pamlico Sound is a vast, shallow wind-driven ocean pond, only a few feet deep even a quarter mile offshore (which is why it’s one of the East Coast’s prime windsurfing areas). I had inadvertently picked one of the shallowest spots for my first paddle, a place where wind can just about drive the water out of the bay.
Fortunately, that literal low point was the only bad moment in a spectacular week spent exploring the inner waters of the Outer Banks. Aside from a few powerboats in the channels, most days I had the balmy waters all to myself, sticking my kayak’s nose into the endless variety of estuarial nooks and crannies that make up 30,000 acres of National Seashore. My week revealed a quiet realm of birds and marshes, wildflowers, sea life, and sandy beaches dotted with leaning, sculpted trees bending to the constant wind here, which can throw up some pretty good-sized waves when it gets blowing.