But we must be in North Carolina!

The author’s Bristol 27 Breakaway feels her way up Milltail Creek, which for all the world seems like a bootlegger’s lair. Photo by Nim Marsh

By Nim Marsh
For Points East Magazine

November 12 breaks in high overcast, 52°, wind southwest, 10. At mid-day the air is still raw, but the compass reads 180° – due south – and all is right with the world. At roughly Mile 34 on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) just beyond Viginia’s Green Point between markers “61” and “63” – at 36° 33’ N/76° 01’ W – Breakaway, my Bristol 27, crosses into North Carolina and something feels different about the land.

Between Mile 30 and the state line, the North Landing River has swollen into a two-mile-wide bay. The terrain is flatter now, having been transformed from heavy swamp growth to muskeg-like marsh. Looking south into the northern end of Currituck Sound, there is a sense of being in the middle of a large Ontario lake, and the prevailing stimulus-response pattern dictates keeping an eye peeled for moose. Such perceptual short-circuits aside, no boat has been spotted in the past two hours, and to perpetuate the North Country wilderness feeling, we squint eyes and blur our vision of the low country interspersed with “islands” or hummocks of trees.

Southbound, unless you arrive by sea at Beaufort or Morehead City, this is how you enter the Tarheel State – quietly, through-the-looking-glass-gently, aware of subtle changes, but not at all certain what they are. This seems appropriate, for North Carolina remains little known – an enigma – to cruisers from the north. There are reasons for this: Cruisers from the north are simply passing through, not settling in, trying to get as far south as quickly as possible before cold weather sets in for good. Additionally, the sounds are shallow, their perimeters generally unmarked, and they can be extremely rough, holding as prisoner on the magenta line deep-draft passagemakers as well as slow cruisers busting through weather windows on their inside runs down the latitudes.

After refueling and provisioning Breakaway at Coinjock in North Carolina Cut, my crewmate Charlie and I enter the S-curves of the North River, bound for Albemarle Sound, the largest fresh-water sound in the United States. Partially submerged pilings along the banks hint of a more vital era, but when? And for whom? An enigma. The weather forecast calls for light southerlies for the next three days. This is good, for shallow, snag-ridden North River already is telling us we don’t want to be here – in a river? – in a blow.

At sundown we slip into serene Broad Creek, on the north side of Camden Point, and anchor in nine feet of water in thick, black mud near – of all things – a clipper-bowed, canoe-sterned cutter from – of all places – Louisiana. Quietly – through the looking glass gently. A string of swans, wings silver in the setting sun, undulates in the southern sky. Charlie stands in the cockpit observing the oddly primal and surrealistic scene and mutters: “They should issue everyone a boat at birth.”

At dawn, with a front-row seat at a blood-red sunrise, Breakaway is under way, bound for either Pamlico Sound or the Alligator River. On the other side of Albemarle, the persistent southwest wind forces a decision, and we enter the protected river. From marker 16, on a course of 135°, we head for the river’s featureless eastern shore. A half-hour later, there still is no hint of the entrance to Milltail Creek. Another five minutes reveals a subtle break in the trees, and Breakaway slips quietly into what easily could be a bootlegger’s lair. The disorientation intensifies.

High-noon sun beats down on leaves, reeds, moss and bayberries, and the air is intoxicating. Rainbow foliage explodes on either shore; reds, pinks and yellows of maples contrast with greens of pines and the odd rust of bald cypress, and all are set against billowing cumulus-cloud castles in the sky. Breakaway drifts among little paint-pallets of falling leaves on a 40-foot-wide mirrored ribbon with 10 to 14 feet of water from bank to bank. She is on her way to the site of Buffalo City, a settlement stilled by yellow fever at the turn of the century. But she can’t be in either North Carolina or Ontario; she must be on a New England lily pond in early autumn.

Kingfishers dart easily above the creek, but Breakaway’s progress is thwarted by a fallen tree. We turn in our own length and head for the creek’s mouth, toward the Alligator River, and a sundown anchorage to be shared with an irritable eagle, who does little to dispel our pleasant sense of dislocation.

The next day – Nov. 14 – we approach the mouth of the Alligator River-Pungo Canal, and enter into the log: “Big cumulonimbus clouds in powder-blue sky . . . could swear we’re on the prairie.

But we must be in North Carolina!

Former Points East editor Nim Marsh crafted these observations in the fall of 1994 while plying the Intracoastal Waterway on his Bristol 27 Breakaway. He printed a copy, promptly misplaced it, and then found it 26 years later in a stack of slide sleeves. He hopes his musings are still relevant.