Spring 2021-Part 1

Lake Wateree SP, Skidaway SP

Because we left Meadows of Dan around 10:30A on Thursday, April 1 in quite a brisk wind (low forties/upper thirties temps) we changed our plan from going down Interstate 77 through Statesville (notoriously windy stretch south of here) to heading down Squirrel Spur and south via Mt. Airy.

Traveling in the Time of Covid: Jack had gotten his second vax shot, and I’d even managed to get the first of my two (Moderna), thus feeling less vulnerable on the road. Still, we endeavored to stay and keep those around us as safe by continuing to mask up and keeping as much distance as reasonable between us and strangers. We left home with the hope that around April 22 or so, I’d be able to obtain access to the #2 Moderna shot somewhere along our travels.

First stop: Lake Wateree State Park in SC, higher on the “River Loop” than when we were here before (site #24) and the ranger said the second bath house had been renovated. Oddly, strange wiring in both the men’s and the women’s meant that when the motion-sensors activated, the full-velocity hand dryers would blow loudly. Jack opined to one of the guys trying to fix the men’s that the problem wasn’t with the units but the wiring. But he came away certain the guy was clueless beyond the fact that the units cost $600 each.

The wind was strong off the very high water. The paved pad on which we were expected to level was quite sloped to the side, so we moved the trailer away from the hookups and toward the severe drop-off of the pavement on the awning side. We also dispatched with setting up the awning as there was zero “front yard” not already taken up by the picnic table (which, to their credit, was brand new and still clean and fresh) and the fire pit.

From this minimal set up we moved straight to dinner (our standard chicken salad) and soon tucked into bed with the furnace fighting back the below-freezing overnight temps.

Friday, April 2 dawned with less wind, but chill temps. The internet told us Meadows of Dan (home) was in the mid-20s, and we hoped house sitter John and the doggies were doing okay with the new mini-split we’d had installed recently.

We waited until 40 degrees before venturing out to walk along the nature trail we’d enjoyed with John and Mary back in December. Since they’d had some obvious and significant flooding, we stopped first at the check-in/tackle shop to see if the trail was even open. They said it was, but there were some wet areas that we could easily go around.

We noticed some very yellow blooms high in several of the trees along the path. They reminded us of the kind of jasmine we had planted in our yard in Houston, and confirmed that it was, in fact, the same fragrant jasmine we remembered when I was able to have a good sniff of flowers on a plant that was growing at eye level, enjoying more sun than those climbing to the tippy-tops of trees.

The water was high, and we noted that one of the small bluffs we’d stood atop with John and Mary in December was this time, not raised above the water at all.

Of course, we traveled during the region’s famous pollen time, and many of the trees sported “Racing Stripes” of yellow “paint” around their trunks.

The Nature Trail’s forest protected from the wind in force near the water, so it was quite a nice walk, and I used my trekking poles to get some extra calorie burn. When Jack headed back to the campsite, I carried on and walked across the causeway to the newer loop recently opened to camping. 

This section is definitely more raw and sunny—and at the time I was there, the bath house was still under construction. Individual toilet/showers were being created, but those set up on sites had to be self-contained or drive over to our loop to use the bathrooms.

Later, herds of children moved in and started racing and yelling and fighting all over our loop. Next door a large rig full of an amalgam of families and cousins or step kids, etc., tried to use their scissor-type stabilizers to level their enormous B-3 (Big Brown Box) on a level-challenged site like ours. It wasn’t long before the stabilizer bent and threatened to let everything crash down.

Next to that activity was a group trying to back a large rig, and I know they worked at it for an hour before getting it the way they wanted. Apparently, they didn’t know to leave space enough for the slide-outs on the sides and kept having to move the rig.

Sitting in the waning sun at the back of our camper (protected from the wind) we watched the goings-on all around us. In addition to the B-3 fiascoes, mobs of noisy kids were playing volleyball or losing their gliders in the trees, then breaking up the tree branches in an effort to get them down again. When the sun set and it got cold again, we heated some of Jon Beegle’s pulled pork BBQ and combined with some of Jack’s famous mac-and-cheese (plus a quick salad) had an easy dinner.

We resolved to escape early as possible in the morning, even to forego our morning coffee and tea. Check-in at our next destination (Skidaway State Park near Savannah, GA) was relatively early (1PM). So, we rolled out of Lake Wateree State Park by 7A on Saturday, April 3. Having taken back roads, we finally got some caffeine down our throats near Colombia, SC, and arrived at Skidaway around 1PM, where the high for the day was around 58 (lows in the 40s) and enjoyed a gentle breeze that kept the bright sun from being too hot.

We looked forward to meeting up with fellow Altoiste, Annie, but were unsure which site was hers. While we knew we were all in Campground #4, we headed to our site (#55, which is a pull-through) and took our time setting up for a four-night stay.

We had a choice of two bath houses available to us, one having been renovated more recently than the other. Our loop is close to the start of the Big Ferry Trail (the only one of the 3 or 4 trails on our map that allows bicycles), which runs about 3 miles round-trip out to the marshes and back. 

Around 3:30P, Annie rolled in next door in site 54. We decided we’d get together for a campfire after dinner and then Jack and I took a quick “shake down” bike ride around the loops to get our bearings. While the daytime weather was dry and warm-ish, a campfire was comforting as the sun set. 

Early on Easter Sunday, April 4, we heard a couple of barred owls talking to one another (and later, Jack actually spotted one, alerted to its presence by a mob of crows). And we had our coffee and tea watching a small herd of deer browse their way along our back “yard” toward the main visitor center.

The sites were very well-spaced, and even though we saw multitudes of people all around the visitor center and along the roads, walking, riding, exercising, etc., there was hardly any noise (except squirrels) and the spacing between sites was, for the most part, generous. With the old live oaks and Spanish moss, plus many other understory trees, there was shade nearly everywhere, and plenty of privacy. 

Disappointed that the nearby Publix grocery store was closed for Easter, Jack and I explored the area via car and found a “cart path” leading from the church parking lot nearest the campground entry road over to the Publix shopping area and its backing neighborhood. In the opposite direction from the neighborhood, we found a dead-end road lined with gated communities, straight and flat as a board. It looked very good for potential cycling.

Typically, many rigs departed in the usual Sunday evacuation from campgrounds everywhere. But there were plenty of day-trippers visiting because the weather was quite fine. After lunch, Annie and I walked along one of the hiker-only nature trails for about an hour at a good, exercise-worthy pace. Many folks were also on the narrow trails, though, and I felt like I should have used my mask more frequently, although Annie and I were talking so much it was hard to remember to use a mask.

Afterwards, I began the process of making a Dutch Oven chicken pot pie for all three of us, enjoyed around the Solo stove, on another lovely evening. 

On Monday, April 5, Jack and I tried our cycle wheels on the Big Ferry Trail, and it was not as we’d hoped—there were treacherous exposed roots all along the path. Tricky for navigation, sure—but also rough on the hind parts. The most unfortunate aspect, however, was that our eyes were so focused on watching for roots, we missed much of the available views and southern flora of the trail.

We rode from there straight down the roadway to the paved church path and over to our long, straight run past the gated communities. The dead end and lack of commercial enterprise made it an excellent, low-traffic 2-mile (one way) sprinting venue. After the tree-root hell, it was good to stretch our legs.

That afternoon, temperatures hit the seventies (!) and we hopped into the car for our delayed visit to Publix. Both of us had a craving for pizza so we found a non-franchise take-out place and ate in the car. Meanwhile, Annie took her kayak to the marsh (parking at the boat launch and parking area on the Savannah side of the tall causeway bridge). The high for the afternoon was 75 degrees, and we enjoyed our first “shorts weather” day for the season!

Dinner for the two of us was a reprise of the chicken pie (next time we re-heat DO Chicken Pot Pie, it will be thinned with a bit of Half and Half mixed with chicken broth, the leftover crust removed, and over fresh drop biscuits—we tried Grands packaged in the tube, but the Omnia oven is too small for such large biscuits). After dinner, we invited Annie over for another Solo Stove fire for the evening. I got out the pudgy pie irons and we made two fresh blueberry and cream cheese pies and divided them up amongst the three of us for dessert.

Pine tree pollen blanketed everything, including my laptop screen, and my sneezing might wake the dead—such are the joys of a southern springtime.

On our final full day at Skidaway, Tuesday, April 6, we took another cardio ride down our long, straight road, ending in a good sprint. Before the temps rose to 75 degrees, we tootled around the neighborhood behind Publix, and hoped we’d discovered a wifi source in a “public” library—the word is in quotes because Annie disabused us of the public nature of the institution: it is actually open to residents of its neighborhood only.

We drove out to Wormsloe Plantation, a historic site, museum, and visitor area. Since there were lots of trails and structural foundations, we were able to stay outside, for the most part. There was a small museum with a lot of displays and explanations of the whole site’s history and uses—and some of those indoors did not wear masks, making me particularly uncomfortable in the hot, close quarters. We probably wandered outside for an hour or so, but I discovered later that the mosquitoes were stealthy and numerous, and I was a particularly tasty entree on their dinner menu.

After our visit to Wormsloe, we hit Dubberly’s Seafood, on a back road behind a house, where we got some sweet Savannah shrimp to cook on the grill. They were VERY good and if you can find the place, it’s a great fresh seafood source.

Birdwatching Bonanza

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

We got significant unexpected rain in the night, with colder than predicted temps. With our mummy sleeping bags and the propane furnace set on 50 we slept fine. When we got up, it was 32 and the dawn was red and fire-like, but the clouds rolled in, and then rolled away again.

We all walked down to our hoped-for boat launch camping spot, to watch the tundra swans get up off the ice and fly overhead, on their way to the feeding grounds. For the most part, these thousands of swans in a couple of groups were the only birds out there. Some were merely standing on the ice and others were floating in small patches of thawed water. There were also some small, short-necked, dark-colored ducks in patches of water.

Our plan was made while we watched and took pix—we’d use Mike and Barbara’s vehicle that had on-demand four-wheel drive, because we thought we’d be headed out into muddy tracks trying to get to Pungo Lake, and to a spot across Phelps Lake that was recommended to us by the ranger: Cypress Point.

After breakfast and unhitching, we all piled into their car and headed out for the day. Our first stop was Moccasin Point Overlook, which extends into Phelps Lake only a few miles away from Pettigrew. To access the dock, we took a lovely raised walkway through a cypress swamp—where Mike, Barbara, and I had hiked the last time we were here. We did not see the many, many ducks we’d seen last time, but we did see a pair of woodcock, a very bold squirrel, and just enjoyed the walk and the scenery, even though there was quite a lot of snow. In that snow we saw tracks of all sorts of critters, including the deer we later saw in the woods (but I was unable to capture on film).

Next, we drove to Cypress Point (another Phelps Lake overlook), which had a small boat (kayak, canoe) launch area beside the dock. It was a lovely overlook, with benches to enjoy the view—but contrary to what the ranger said, there wasn’t a migratory bird anywhere in sight. We did, however, see two bald eagles. That was special.

By this time, it was about 1PM and Mike was pretty hungry, so we fetched our lunches from the car and sat on the dock to eat. We were all pretty stiff by the time we’d finished, and several of us had sat too close to the melting snow on the step, and got our bums wet. It was a very nice temp, however—maybe in the high 40s—and with little wind we were quite comfortable and relaxed. It was also quite sunny, those AM clouds having dispersed, so by the end of the day, both Barbara and I felt a bit sunburned.

Next, we headed around to another overlook on Phelps Lake: Pocosin Overlook, in the Pocosin Natural Area. There was a strange elevated platform that you accessed via steep, narrow (icy) steps, and when we all climbed up there, far away across the pond, we saw an enormous cloud of white birds lift off and swirl around — it was similar to a murmuration of starlings, but low over the ice/water, no higher than what could be backed by the trees on the far side. It was truly extraordinary.

0918-BirdCloudCypressPoint

Trying to get to Pungo Lake is a challenge—many roads are closed seasonally, and there’s simply no easy way to get there. We all though that if Phelps was mostly frozen, then for sure, Pungo would be a sheet of ice (it’s smaller than Phelps) but surrounding Pungo are many open fields, some left unharvested for the birds. So we drove around, trying to get to where we might see the sea of birds we’d captured last year.

One final turn that happened to be along Pat’s Road, where we had ventured last time, and LO! We saw millions and millions of birds, covering the partially-harvested corn fields on either side of a muddy road, out of which another vehicle full of bird watchers emerged as we arrived. So we turned right and met the mud.

Wow. We were breathless. The birds appeared to be in nearly-overlapping but separate groupings of tundra swans at one end and snow geese at the other. While they sometimes seemed to mingle (at least in the air) there seemed to be an agreement among them about whose end was whose. The geese had youngsters with them—we were able to distinguish them because they were gray.

Mike and I walked into the field (followed a bit later by Barbara) but our only photographic options to capture the snow geese were to the west as the sun was setting, and too bright for photos. We took a lot of pix of the swans. Far to the north, we heard hunters, presumably hunting geese or ducks.

We watched and listened for a long time. Jack stayed back by the vehicle, and at one point an enormous gaggle of snow geese flew right over his head, and settled near the road, in another partly-harvested cornfield toward the north (but not near the hunters, rather, still within walking distance of us).

As the sun set and our hopes for a mass fly-off dimmed, we re-gathered at the vehicle. Barbara’s feet were cold, Mike had stepped into a water-filled, snow-covered ditch and his feet were wet, and we were all getting tired and hungry. We had parked with the nose of the vehicle pointing north, along a small, muddy side road, along which lay the field where the geese had settled. So we thought we’d get closer by driving straight along. We were not actually able to see the geese better from that vantage, after all.

A couple of trucks met us, and there was absolutely no where to ease to the side without going into the cultivated field, frozen below with a skim of mud on top. So we backed nearly the whole way out, until a wide grass verge allowed us to pull off for the trucks to get by. The first one passed and waved, and the second one stopped and informed us that this and the other mud road were seasonally closed, even though there were no signs indicating such. So we apologized, wondering if he was a ranger or a hunter, and (since we were on our way out anyway) promised we’d exit post haste.

Then we stopped on the paved road (not closed seasonally) and took some more pix of the geese that were packed right next to the road, madly feeding. I was in the back and the photos I took of the snow geese and their gray youngsters came out blurry since I had to take them through a fixed window. Too bad, because we were very close.

Managed to work our way back toward Pettigrew by “going around our elbows to get to our thumbs” as Jack characterized our route, and since dinner was on our minds, we navigated into Edenton, where we were sure to find a restaurant. A place J&I had gone on one of our NC bicycle rides was the Waterman’s Grille, so we aimed for the downtown/waterfront section and parked. That place was closed for their winter break and clean, so we tried something called Bistro 309. Lovely little place, that it seemed everyone in town was patronizing that night (on a Tuesday?) but we didn’t wait long for a seat or service and had an excellent meal. Drum fish was one of the specials, and everyone got that except yours truly, and I got fried flounder. Everyone’s meals disappeared with a nice glass of wine (except Mike, who was driving) and then we endured the long drive home, tired and well-fed, satisfied, and imagining flocks and flocks of large, raucous, white birds.