Letter from the Coast

Salty Splendor

In praise of our glorious coastal life

By Mark Holmberg

My wanderings and research have led me to the conclusion that North Carolina is the nation’s saltiest state (I want that license plate!) and one of the tip-top marine life producers in the world. Yes, our oceanfront coastline stretches just 322 miles — a short walk compared with the shorelines of Alaska and California. But we have all to ourselves vast systems of estuaries (where freshwater and the ocean mingle), including the titanic Pamlico Sound. It is second in size only to the Chesapeake Bay, which is shared by six states and D.C.

Add it all up and there are more than 12,300 miles of salty splendor here in the Red Drum/Channel Bass state. And so much of it is knee-deep to an egret, accessible to only the saltiest boaters and kayakers, but is a perfectly briny and absolutely blooming habitat for the tiny plants and animals that are the very foundation of all life on our planet.

Everything begins here! Everything lives here!

And, oh, the mysteries of it all! Among the deepest and trickiest: the way the tides move and shape life here. The only constant is that everything changes.

We’ve walked to Bald Head Island from Fort Fisher. It’s no longer surrounded by water, thanks to tides and storms. We’ve strolled Wrightsville Beach’s entire 4-mile waterfront on a sandbar exposed by a crazy low tide.

Fisherfolk talk of the best fishing right before and after tide changes, or during rising tides. It all depends on who’s talking, which way the wind is blowing and the current beer count. (I prefer a slack or falling tide for surf-casting because I can use a smaller, more sensitive weight.) Low tides are a favorite time for surfers (unless the waves are big), rakers, diggers, beach drivers and most shellers, although some beachcombers swear high tides are the best for treasure hunting in some spots.

Quick story: After a low-tide winter surf on the top end of Wrightsville in 2014, I ran into a lightly clad youngster with a nice bucket of fresh quahog (hard) and cherrystone clams he had raked out of the marsh on the leeward side of Shell Island, which is not so shelly anymore. His freckled face was flushed from his cold morning of clamming. He had some nice ones, for sure. “Do you want some?” he asked. “I’ll trade you some clams for some fishhooks.”

Turns out, he was living out of his faded car and camping out. “Living off the land,” as he said. (He reminded me of my younger self during my hitchhiking years.) Keep your clams, I said, respecting the effort it took to find them on this cold day and thinking he really could live off the land. My tackle backpack yielded a flounder rig, several hooks, a new rubber worm and some still-fresh leftover bait shrimp. Even if I live another half-century, I doubt someone will ever again offer to trade fresh clams for fishhooks.

Savvy boaters will also tell you low tide is the time to learn the shifty channels that meander through these huge estuarine systems, such as the shortcuts to Cape Lookout, Bear Island, Masonboro and all the other beaches. If you can bump through a spot at dead low tide, you’re pretty safe the rest of the time—as long as the channel doesn’t move.

But assume nothing!

That’s the one thing I’ve learned during the past year-and-a-half of living in and rehabbing a fishing shack on Queens Creek (some older maps say Queen Creek), a sizable estuary feeding the Intracoastal Waterway a short mile from the ocean.

Every sunrise and sunset I look at what’s going on at the water’s edge, to check for footprints in the sand or who’s swimming, fishing or flying nearby. Otters, raccoons, possums, deer, dolphins, alligators, eagles, osprey, ducks, geese, herons, egrets, pelicans, those crazy cormorants, jumping mullets . . . you name it, we’ve got it.

And even though I constantly check my tide clock and have studied the basics of our semidiurnal tides (two complete sets of highs and lows a day, six hours and 15 minutes apart with the sea level shifting two to four feet), I am continually surprised by what the water is doing. Just when I think I’ve got the rhythm, it changes.

Yes, it’s moon phases. The sun and planets can have their influence. Westerly winds push the tides down, easterly winds whip them up. So-called spring tides happen year-round and neap tides turn down the volume like smooth jazz.

The highest tide of the year has a royal name — king tide — but where’s the cool name for the lowest tide? (May I suggest “serf tide”?) Those are the ones that turn much of coastal Carolina into a scary lunar landscape, like a leak has sprung in the ocean floor.

Seeking to plumb the depths of the mysterious tides, I stopped in at the Clyde Phillips Seafood Market on the coastal highway (Route 24) in waterfront Swansboro on a recent cold March morning. Four generations of this family have run shrimpers and other fishing boats out of this spot.

The beautiful 79-foot Capt. Phillips shrimp boat (built on Holden Beach Island) berths here just a few yards from the four-lane, and has to be one of the most photographed and/or painted boats in the art world. This clan knows the shoals, channels, rivers, the ocean and the tides up and down this coast.

I found two Clyde Phillipses (the younger is 55) sitting by a gas heater with their brainy friend, Dr. Mike, a retired Navy pathologist. They warmed to the subject of tides, sharing some of their fishing and shrimping secrets and the amazing vagaries of big-time workboat life in coastal Carolina. Surprisingly, they said the shrimping is better now than when the Phillips patriarch began in the 1950s. More net-ripping sharks, too. The 55-year-old Clyde Phillips, who was still nursing from a bottle when his workboat life began, described bottleneck areas where the tide can swirl in and out at the same time and warned that the tides can push the upper water one way while deeper currents surge the other way, and vice versa.

In their lifetimes, they have seen tremendous changes to coastal Carolina’s estuaries and the channels — the roads — through them. When your boat drafts 8 feet and weighs close to 100 tons, you’d better know your water and when to be in it. It appears that after a lifetime of commercial fishing, the rhythm and mysteries of the tides kind of clear up and soak into your bones.

“I know it,” the younger Clyde Phillips said. “I don’t think about it.” That’s pretty salty.

UPDATE from my last Letter from the Coast, in which I wrote about finding a basketball-size whale vertebrae while walking through the low-tide shallows on Bear Island last October: A visiting friend (an expert sheller) suggested the whalebone should be in a museum. So we took it to Hammocks Beach State Park, which has a sweet nature center. Once there, park ranger Renee Evans immediately informed us it was illegal for us to have it without permission from the feds due to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. She was delighted to accept our donation and said it will be preserved with a special coating, and will make a grand addition to their displays and nature classes. (An expert later identified it as the caudal — tail — vertebrae of a right, fin or humpback whale.)

Next on my shelling list: a chest full of pieces of eight. If I find them, you can bet I won’t be blabbing about it.

Mark Holmberg was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2003. He has been writing for Salt since 2013, most recently under the guise of Spencer Compton, First Earl of Wilmington. He lives in Swansboro.

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