Discovering the Zen of Kayaking

 In Coastal Life, OBX Community, OBX Nature, Sports and Outdoors

Hazy conditions meant limited visibility as John Thomas and his friend pushed off the shore and began making their way from Jockey’s Ridge to Pirate’s Cove on the other side of the Croatan Sound. Once out on the water, Thomas looked back and realized he’d gotten too far ahead.

Just before back-paddling his kayak to close the gap, Thomas spotted a single fin following his buddy’s kayak. “Shark!” crossed his mind before he spotted countless other fins slicing through the water nearby. 

He shouted a warning to his friend to pull in his paddle, and not a moment too soon: “Fish were jumping over our kayaks to get out of the water and the dolphins just missed us,” Thomas recalls.

It’s that kind of adventure that Thomas loves about kayaking. He started out in canoes in 1956, got his first kayak in 1976, and has paddled with seals in Cape Cod and manatees in Florida on trips with his brothers. Since moving here in 2003, Thomas has explored the waters of the Outer Banks from the Virginia/NC border to Cedar Island. 

“You see otters all the time, alligators occasionally, a lot of dolphins. In the shallows, you can see rays, hundreds at a time, nutria, snakes – I even had an eagle crap on me,” Thomas says. “You just see everything when you’re out there. It’s a really fun sport. You can have countless hours of enjoyment out of it.”

Thomas is an active member of the OBX Paddlers Club, a group of kayaking enthusiasts who explore all the nooks and crannies the waterways of these barrier islands have to offer. He can attest that kayaking has exploded in popularity over the years, and for good reason. 

Longtime club member Dru Ferrence shares Thomas’s enthusiasm, adding, “We just have so many places in northeastern North Carolina that are beautiful and not crowded.” 

Ferrence got her first taste of kayaking in an inflatable model on a rafting trip out West in the 1990s. Later, on a trip to Cat Island in the Bahamas, she discovered the joy of exploring the Caribbean from a sit-on-top kayak. When she moved to the Outer Banks in 1998, she soon discovered the OBX Paddlers Club and “from then on, I was in a kayak,” Ferrence says.

Like many kayakers, Ferrence says she’s drawn to the rhythm that kayaking offers. “The rhythm, the silence. I love that moment of zen when you’re just drifting.”

Alligator River National Wlidlife Refuge offers up some of her favorite spots to kayak – East Lake Bay, Mashoes Road public boat ramp, Davis Pond, and the access from Brier Hall Road to reach Durant Island. 

“The Alligator River is just phenomenal,” Ferrence points out, and laughs when asked about the prospect of encountering an alligator out on the water. 

“Alligators don’t see a big yellow kayak as a food source…just be cautious and don’t dangle your hand in the water.”

Ferrence has seen a few gators from her kayak, but none were that close to her. She has seen plenty of snakes, bears and bobcats on trips through the refuge. In her mind, the biggest danger for kayakers actually can come from boats at popular spots like the Oregon Inlet.

“You have to be very wary,” she says. “They don’t always cut their wake when they see paddlers.”

Because anything can happen when you’re on the water, Ferrence recommends new paddlers take lessons from a local enthusiast. College of the Albemarle even offers a kayaking class. 

Thomas takes safety seriously as well, and he doesn’t skimp out when it comes to precautions on his kayaking trips. Thomas carries a cell phone, VHF radio, GPS, ACR emergency beacon satellite system, a signal mirror, a spare paddle (carbon-fiber so it’s non-conductive) and a first aid kit when he kayaks. His cell phone has apps for the Coast Guard, NOAA and the American Canoe Association, where paddlers can file “float plans” to let people know their intended route in case something goes awry.

One day, paddling between Grandy and Corolla, Thomas was enjoying having the sound to himself when he was stopped by the Coast Guard.

“They asked, ‘You OK? You’re out here all by yourself.’ I told them I’m always here by myself – where have you guys been?” Thomas recalls with a laugh. “People will ask why do you carry this stuff. For years, I kayaked by myself – I always came back.”

Thomas volunteers at the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service office (USFWS) once a week and always gets questions about kayaking. He warns about weather and wind, checks on what kind of equipment people have and what conditions they’re used to kayaking in. The safest bet, Thomas said, is to enjoy the endless protected spots on the Outer Banks, such as Milltail Creek and Sawyer Lake at the Alligator River as well as Jean Guite Creek, which connects the canals of Southern Shores to the maritime forest in Kitty Hawk.

He cites as “one of most indispensible ways of looking for kayak locations,” and the OBX Paddlers’ website offers details on that front as well. Thomas also hopes to work with USFWS, as well as local communities and businesses, to install channel markers to help visitors and other newcomers to the sport more easily navigate the endless waterways of the Outer Banks.

“You could paddle from now to the end of time and not see all the water here,” Thomas says.

Ferrence would love to take the time to see it all – but business is booming for her at Village Realty where Ferrence works as a real estate agent. She still gets in as many trips as possible, taking advantage of the kayak launch in Nags Head between Sugar Creek and Tale of the Whale that lets her circle the islands in the sound. Ferrence also enjoys the watery trails of Kitty Hawk Woods, where she launches from Bob Perry Road, as well as taking off from the base of the old Manns Harbor Bridge.

Bob and Tanya Hovey, owners of Duck Village Outfitters, have discovered the joys of kayaking over the years as they’ve taken countless visitors and locals on tours through the waterways of Kitty Hawk Woods where guests can experience three unique ecosystems. 

“It’s a pretty dynamic little piece of water,” Tanya says. “Every single time you go out, it’s always different. The bird family itself is enormous. You’ve got deer swimming, bobcats…The other day I saw a turtle I couln’t identify. You get it all.”

As for that zen feeling Ferrence feels everytime she gets in a kayak, she says it comes from a deeply personal place. Ferrence’s mother never learned to swim and was afraid of the water. So when her mother passed along $1,000 to each of her children, Dru bought a second kayak – an Eddyline Carbonlite 12.5-foot Sandpiper. It’s got a big cockpit and it’s light enough for anybody to handle.

“Anytime anybody says to me, ‘I’ve always wanted to do that, but I don’t think I can,’ I take them out,” Ferrence says. “I have put so many women over 50 and kids under 13 in that boat.”

Then they soak up the silence and the scenery, and the cycle – with its perfect rhythm – continues. ♦

Steve Hanf worked as a sportswriter for 13 years in North Carolina before finding a fun second career in the classroom. He currently advises the newspaper and yearbook programs at First Flight High School and loves his new life on the OBX.

Steve Hanf
Author: Steve Hanf

Steve Hanf worked as a sportswriter for 13 years in North Carolina before finding a fun second career in the classroom. He currently advises the newspaper and yearbook programs at First Flight High School and loves his new life on the OBX.

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