Deep winter chills island

ON THE BAY

Journey: January on the water brings a great appreciation.

January 30, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

BEFORE WE start paddling, does anyone need to relieve themselves?"

I was not being solicitous.

It's just that when the wind chill is minus 5, and your kayak's in a remote marsh, and the buckles that secure its hatches against the waves building offshore are frozen so they will not latch -- well, you thaw them out however you can.

Mission accomplished, we launched for the nine-mile transit of winding channels and broad, shallow bays that would take us to an uninhabited stretch of Cedar Island, an Atlantic barrier beach south of Chincoteague.

This was winter on the water with a vengeance, savoring January's bone-cold to the marrow. From early last Friday when we left until Monday's return, temperatures would seldom rise out of the 20s.

Heading outside in such times is not for those lacking proper gear, survival skills and knowledge of their route.

But it's not about death-defying risks either. To the contrary, it's about being alive, becoming attuned to those great ebbs and flows of the atmosphere and the oceans that shape our natural world -- except that mostly, we just turn up the heat and watch the Weather Channel.

Tide and wind dictated our trip. No one in a kayak can buck the strong, seaside tides for long. It's go-with-the-flow, or don't go. And the last part of our route would be nothing but impassable mudflat if we didn't reach it on high water.

The cold front huffing down from the northwest would boost us in the right direction. When it clocked around to northeast Sunday night, it would hustle us home Monday -- at least that's what we thought on Friday.

Nor'westers, for all their boreal bluster, are among my favorite winds. Bearers of swans from Alaska in November, geese from Labrador in October, they usher in bright, clear days. Makers of low tides as they shove water out of the bay, they make good hunting for arrowhead collectors along eroding Chesapeake shores.

Nor'westers' crystalline air makes the finest sunsets. Friday night, tents snugged into a hummock of sheltering cedars, Atlantic surf murmuring in the foreground, we raised a toast to sundown.

Military jets, heading south beneath the new moon to roost for the night in Norfolk, Va., essayed glowing pink contrails on the steely dome of sky, in air so clear you could see the vapor stream from each engine.

Friday night's salad was frozen before we could eat it. We put our drinking water by the fire to thaw.

Firewood was no problem. Cedar Island, even more than most Atlantic barrier islands, is migrating westward before a rising global sea level, its sands overrunning the forests on its landward side.

Dead, seasoned red cedar, aromatic and hot burning, was everywhere. Mixed with long-lasting logs of black cherry driftwood, its drowsy warmth almost made us forget the winter storm forecast for Sunday night.

Saturday was an interlude, a play day on the edge of the continent, on the impending edge of two great weather fronts, one moist and one cold, headed for a snowy collision.

The northern sky turned the color of a deep bruise, bringing a dusting of snow.

In such conditions, staying on the move warms better than any down or fleece.

We hiked the beaches, explored the marshes, picking up shells and driftwood. We inspected the expensive summer homes that continue washing away on the island's beach side.

In the 1950s, a local developer sold lots here, all of which were soon underwater as the island migrated.

A quarter-century later, his granddaughter and her husband sold sites on the island again, telling the buyers that the island's moving, but we'll sell you lots a couple thousand feet long so you can move your house back as the land erodes.

They made millions, but all the King's home movers couldn't keep pace with Cedar Island's furious erosion -- up to 80 feet a year in some places. And soon the beach will be shed of this latest folly.

Saturday night we dined on oysters brought from fresher Chesapeake waters.

Sunk in the salty creeks of the seaside, they were transformed in a day to pricey Chincoteagues.

Sunday came the nor'easter, a different animal from nor'westers. Generally unpleasant company, nor'easters bring sleet and rain and drear skies, and push the tides to flood heights.

Over the decades they have caused far more erosion and shoreline property damage than the more notorious hurricanes, which pass through in hours, while nor'easters stay and pound away for days.

We rigged tarps to keep dry and built the fire high that night as "wintry mix" encrusted our world and the surf raged. The edge of the continent, in the heart of winter, with good, old friends, seemed a fine place to be.

The paddle back Monday was anything but bleak. Black ducks, Canada geese, brant, teal, widgeon and other waterfowl filled the sky -- many, like us, come from the Chesapeake seeking open water. Eagles hunkered in the marsh and a seal popped up behind my kayak.

Then, the unexpected. The salty, strong currents of the seaside seldom freeze, but a thick slush lay atop the water the last two miles between us and home.

One of us had brought a small, outboard skiff, which I consider less safe in rough weather than kayaks. But now it earned its keep, breaking trail.

Was I glad to be back to the world of flick-of-a-switch warmth? Always. But keeping touch with the outside heightens one's appreciation.

And for several nights I dreamed of the island, of weather and tide, of being on the edge, in the heart of winter.

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