Like most young people of my day, I did not pay much attention to the vegetation on the sand dunes of North Carolina's beaches. I was more interested in the water and the beach itself. The first time that I can really remember noticing sea oats is the summer of 1973. They were in a vase in the apartment of the young lady who was soon to become my wife.
Somehow ever since then, sea oats have had a special place in my memories. Now that we are permanent residents of North Carolina's Southern Outer Banks, each summer I watch for the sea oats to mature. I love it when they start to turn a golden color as the summer progresses.
Sea oats, marsh grass, and several less glamorous kinds of vegetation are very important here along our shores. They stabilize fragile areas and provide habitat for many of the area's creatures. I am proud that the marsh grass has filled in the spot beside our dock that was once bare. The water that comes off our driveway is filtered by a series of buried bags of Styrofoam pellets. After getting through the filters, the water runs across a section of lawn grass before it gets to the marsh grass and then the gut that runs behind our house. The neighbor who lives to the north of me has been on a campaign for years to kill most of his marsh vegetation. The water which comes off his yard is often filled with silt. If you go to the linked post, there is a link to a picture of the area which he works to keep devoid of vegetation. The silt coming off his yard is a direct result of no vegetation. The water coming off our yard is as clear as a mountain trout stream.
Worrying about vegetation on sand dunes and the grasses along marshes was not something that was taught in the schools in the fifties and sixties when I was a youngster. I am hoping that it is a topic that the children of today hear about in school. Without the marshes and sand dunes our lives here along North Carolina's Crystal Coast our lives might be very different. We might have a hard time catching any fish or shrimp.
Without sea oats, marsh grasses, and our beloved oysters, we might not have the crystal clear waters that make the area deserving of the Crystal Coast name. I also would not be able to paddle out to the oyster rocks and float in three feet of water and enjoy the marvel of the oyster rocks that are underneath my kayak.
If we are smart we will applaud efforts to add more oysters beds to our waters and we will all be protective of new area of beach grasses which will stabilize the sand like these few new plants over at the Point in Emerald Isle.
We just finished a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner. To answer one of my Oklahoma friends, it was not a stuffed grouper. In fact we even ate off the same fancy dishes as we did last year when we had Thanksgiving in Roanoke, Virginia.
We have enjoyed a lot of Thanksgivings on the mountain along with a few coastal Thanksgivings over the year. It never seems to really matter where we have our meal as long as some of the family can get together. We get to enjoy each other's company while we feast on turkey and the fixins.
I am not a fan of city Thanksgiving celebrations but that likely goes back to the magical first Thanksgiving that we had away from home in 1971. After college I purchased an old farm and my first real Thanksgiving on my own was in St. Croix Cove, Nova Scotia. That first Thanksgiving on my own created some wonderful memories. However, American Thanksgiving in Canada is not like having Thanksgiving in the United States.
Since then it seems like going for walks with nature's scenic beauty close by is just part of Thanksgiving for me. Thanksgiving 2012 was a beautiful day for walking. We were lucky to get to go back to Canada this past October. Going back to all those trees up North just got me in the mood for a nice Thanksgiving in the country here on the Southern Outer Banks.
The sky this Thanksgiving day was a beautiful deep blue color just like we saw on our trip to Canada.
Today when I went for a walk, the birds were out in full force. The temperature was around sixty degrees Fahrenheit. It was just a great day to go for a walk. I only saw one or two cars moving all day. That is the way that I like Thanksgiving. Our newspaper weighed three pounds and fourteen ounces. Of course it was mostly flyers.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas I manage to make some connections with old friends whose voices I haven't heard in a while. Reconnecting with old friends is an important element of what makes Thanksgiving so special to me.
Thanksgiving is about friendship and giving your time and talents to others. There are no purchased gifts to worry about and most people seem pretty relaxed though my wife as head cook does wear herself out. As the years go by we are trying to off load some of the cooking to the girls, and I try to wash as many dishes as possible. Still it is much harder on her than the rest of us.
While the weather was nice enough for a walk, it wasn't quite nice enough for boating or kayaking. Of course since we live by the water, there is always tomorrow. It isn't much of a challenge to get the boat or the kayak into the water from our launching area twenty-five feet behind the house. The day after Thanksgiving might be more about boating than shopping if the weather is as nice as I expect it to be.
Now that our two days of cooking are over, we can get back to sliding into the peaceful season that seems to mark the holidays here at the coast. Maybe all the quiet water around us helps to keep us calm during the holiday madness. It is part of the area's life style that I loved. I am pleased about peace and quiet during the holidays no matter what the reason.
The beautiful Thanksgiving day sunset was a perfect finish to a wonderful day.
One of the things that makes life at the beach so rewarding is that not only do we get to enjoy beautiful scenery but we also get to eat some delicious denizens of the deep.
For years before I moved to the Southern Outer Banks in 2006, I would come back from my coastal visits with coolers of seafood. There would always be fresh, local-caught shrimp and often some fresh flounder.
Now that we live here on the shore, I manage to catch a few fish that we get to enjoy usually within hours of catching the fish. The first week of July 2012 I was fishing around some docks in the White Oak River hoping to find a nice flounder for dinner. I was fishing from my kayak, and the wind was playing havoc with the location of my kayak in relation to the docks.
Finally I felt what I thought was a serious snag. It turned out to be a large flounder which threw my hook the first time he came to the surface.
Losing a two to three pound flounder is heart breaking, because they are a challenge to find in the heat. I actually went back the next day hoping to get another chance, but I didn't even see a jumping mullet that day.
With a few days of losing my flounder, I decided the only way to get one was to head over to Clyde Phillip's Seafood between the bridges. I hoped to get enough flounder for our visitors and to bake it for dinner. I have worked a few months at fine tuning my baked flounder recipe. It is to the point that I would rather have it than my classic fried flounder. Anyone who knows flounder is likely surprised at that statement, but both my wife and I agree the baked is better that our delicious fried flounder.
When I walked into Jimmy's fish house (Clyde's Phillips), I knew that I was in trouble. There were almost no fish on the ice. Jimmy, the owner, told me that they had been out of flounder since early in the morning. There was nothing left on the ice but a few black sea bass.
While I really enjoy black sea bass as long as I don't have to filet it, I thought I should fall back on something easier to sell to the crowd at home. I went with a can of lump crab meat, a pound of really nice scallops, and a pound of shrimp.
After cleaning the shrimp, I told the ladies at home that I would cook the shrimp and scallops outside about the time the crab cakes hit the frying pan.
I took my cast iron griddle to sear the scallops in some butter and my seafood/veggie grilling pan for the shrimp. All went well, and we enjoyed a wonderful plate of mixed seafood that reminded me exactly why I love living here on the Crystal Coast.
If my baked flounder recipe interests you, you will find it along with others in my new Kindle book, "A Week at the Beach, An Emerald Isle Travel Guide." The 87 page guide which costs $4.99 provides a detailed map for having a classic beach vacation along one of the East coast's best family-oriented beaches.
You can read the book on any electronic device by using the free Kindle reader software.
July 2012 is a great time to come for a visit. The early July heat wave has broken, and it looks like some great weather is on the horizon. We've had our rain and are now looking forward to a run of weather as it should be here at the beach.
There are some great places besides the beach to visit here. Those spots include the Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium and the town of Beaufort which is a great place to walk the docks or enjoy the Maritime Museum.
If you are looking for a special place to lose yourself at the beach, try the Point at Emerald Isle. Once you get beyond the yellow houses, there are few people.
For more detailed information and pictures, don't forget my eBook.
If you are a native North Carolinian, you likely have faced the question of mountains or beach more than once in your life.
I remember hearing the discussion of the relative merits of the coast and high peaks from my earliest years.
Now many of us wrestle with which is the best place to live? Should we reside at the coast or in the mountains? I am lucky enough to still be able to taste both.
My mother loved her two weeks of vacation, and every year she wrestled with the choice of beach or mountains. Since we lived not far from the Blue Ridge Mountains, the beach, which was the more exotic destination, won more times at least in my memory.
She would pack as many kids as she could into her 1953 Ford, and we would head off to one of North Carolina's many beaches. Along the way we got to enjoy one of her famous picnic lunches which were based around country ham biscuits and fried chicken so perfect that we'll never taste its like again.
I can only remember two trips outside of North Carolina in those early years. One was to Virginia Beach and the other was to Folly Beach near Charleston. Neither met her standards so we never returned to either.
Her favorite beaches were Nags Head, Atlantic Beach, and the beaches around Wrightsville including Kure Beach. We never got to stay right on the beach, but we always had lots of fun. We stayed out on the beach most of the day so our accommodations mattered little.
I don't even remember ever having air conditioning, but it didn't matter because we were so tired at night that we fell asleep no matter what the temperature. Of course we didn't have air conditioning at home so not having air conditioning was seen as normal.
I was always in tow behind some of my teenage cousins who were experts at enjoying the beach during the day and its amusements at night. It was a wonderful, magical time each year that made us look forward to our next trip.
When we didn't go to the beaches we would head off to Cherokee, Tweetsie, Blowing Rock, and even Gatlingburg, Tennessee which seemed to be okay even though it wasn't in North Carolina.
While those days ended with my going away to college, I had one summer when I alternated between camping on Ocracoke Island and pitching my tent deep in the Black Mountains of North Carolina. After college, I moved away to a sixteen year adventure in Atlantic Canada.
Then in 1989, our family moved down to the Virginia mountains after a short two-year stay in Columbia, Maryland. Columbia proved too much of a cultural shock to us after living in the laid back world of Canada. Roanoke, Virginia seemed like a much easier place to re-enter American life.
From our home in Roanoke, Va we still see mountains when we roll out of bed, mountains when we walk to the kitchen, and mountains when we sit down to have a cup of coffee in the morning. Our existence in Roanoke is wrapped in the soft blues of the Blue Ridge Mountains and their neighbors to the west and north. The only time we don't see mountains is when the fog rolls in, or it is snowing so hard they are hidden behind a wall of white. While Roanoke isn't in North Carolina, it is close enough to feel more kinship to North Carolina than to Northern Virginia, which I have I called the epicenter of shopping.
In the fall of 2006, seventeen years after our move to Roanoke, we bought a second home on the coast of North Carolina near the beaches of Emerald Isle and the beautiful waters of Bogue Sound and the White Oak River.
After years on the mountain, I wanted a place where I could put my kayak in the water without having to get in a car. I wanted to be able to fish from my backyard and to go for a bike ride without loading my bike on the back of a car. My hiking trails on the mountain behind our Roanoke home had been crowded out by development.
I felt some protection with the Crystal Coast being surrounded by the 56 miles of the Cape Lookout National Seashore on the east, the 158,000 acres of the Croatan National Forest to the north, and Camp Lejeune to the west of the White Oak River. Our home is on the waters of Raymond's Gut which feeds into the White Oak. To the south there is nothing but Emerald Isle and the Atlantic Ocean.
I was also tired of winter snows. While snows are rare in Roanoke, there have been enough good storms to remind me of those many years in Canada when shoveling snow was as common as opening the garage door.
We still have both homes, but in 2012 I am hoping to be down to just one home. I'm pulling for living on the coast because I love the warm December beach days that sometimes bless us. Having shorts weather in December makes up for the occasional nasty winter that we have on the coast.
Yet I still understand the pull of the mountains. I absolutely love waking up in the morning and seeing the beauty of the mountains spread out before me. It is a treat than not many people get to enjoy. In the summer taking a nap on our screened in porch is like having a magical rest in a tree house.
Actually I don't even mind the snow. Even at over sixty years of age, I still haven't seen a storm that I couldn't clear with my snow scoop. Our family was all together at our Roanoke home for Christmas. As our youngest daughter was leaving, mountain winds were blowing around the house. She turned and said that she was going to miss spending the night. She said that she loved to hear the wind gusts while safely tucked into her bed.
Our mountain home has a huge covered patio accessed from the walkout basement. Since it is sheltered, it is like a different world both in the summer and the winter. In the summer, it is cooler than any other spot, and in the winter, it is warmer and protected from almost all the cold winds.
Our coastal home on the Southern Outer Banks has the advantage of a water view from some rooms in the house including my upstairs office. It too has some places which seem to defy the weather. The back steps of our deck stay warm almost all winter, and the area around our garage door is a hot spot in winter and a place that draws cooling breezes in summer. I also find that living near the beach has made memories of earlier times on coast come back to me.
While it takes me thirty minutes to get to a lake where I can kayak in Virginia, it takes me less than ten minutes to get my kayak in the water and out into the White Oak River. We also now have a skiff on a lift behind our coastal home. I can drop it into the water and be in Swansboro where the river meets the Intracoastal Waterway in about ten minutes. The ocean is only another ten minutes away. We can also be walking on any of the miles of beautiful beaches of Emerald Isle in ten to fifteen minutes depending on where we head.
The reality is that this debate could go on forever. The mountains and the beach both have really good points. You can enjoy a wonderful breeze near the beach, or you can find some breezes and cooling relief from summer heat and humidity in the mountains.
It all depends where you are in your life. It makes a difference whether you have filled your lifetime snow quota or if you need lots more. Of course there is also a beach walking quota, and I am working hard to catch up on mine. I would like to be at 110% by the end of next year.
Growing tomatoes is a tradition in our family. My mother used to grow them at our home in Lewisville, NC and later at our family home which is now the Sobotta Manor Bed & Breakfast.
I started growing tomatoes in 1972, the spring after I moved to Nova Scotia. Our farm on the shores of the Bay Fundy was a great place to learn how to garden, but it was a challenge to grow tomatoes there in the fog of Nova Scotia.
In the fall of 1974, we moved to Tay Creek, New Brunswick. While it was much colder in the winter, it was also much warmer in the summer. Vegetables like corn and tomatoes did very well there. However, ripe tomatoes didn't show up until the middle of August at best.
After a few more stops, we ended up in Roanoke, Va in 1989. Sometime in the mid-nineties, I started growing tomatoes once again. Not many years after that, a friend living in North Carolina and I started the Great Tomato Race, a friendly competition to see who could get the first ripe tomato of summer.
With Roanoke being in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, and my friend being located in Lewisville, NC in the warmth of the North Carolina Piedmont, I didn't have much of a chance. However, I did win one year in the first three or four. Eventually it got very hard to grow tomatoes at our Virginia place because of deer.
While I didn't win in 2007, our first summer on the coast, I came very close. The next year on June 1, I got the first tomato in the contest.
I repeated as tomato king in 2009 with the first ripe tomato being picked on June 5.
In 2010 I was dethroned by another coastal grower with a May 31 ripe tomato. This year I actually conceded early in the year, because I was growing my own plants from seed, and I got them started late.
Even with a late start and growing my own plants, I managed to get a ripe tomato on June 9.
Since then it has been an exceptional crop, even better than last year's strong crop. I managed to pick over 100 tomatoes in one day around the Fourth of July. Even a portion of that day's crop was impressive.
One of the reasons that I grew my own plants from seed this year was to find a solution to my plants dying early in the season.
The first two summers we grew them here on the coast, we had tomatoes well into December. The record date for my last tomato picked off the vine is December 19.
Last year, I had to pull my tomatoes out in August and early September. I am hoping the new varieties that I am trying and some improved tomato cultural practices will fix my problem.
The four regular size tomatoes were are evaluating are all hybrids that we got from Totally tomatoes.
So far, I am leaning towards the Big Beef Hybrid as an all around tomato. The tomato slices on the plate in the picture at the top of the post are from a Big Beef Tomato.
We are still evaluating for taste, texture and disease resistance. Hopefully the season has several months left in it, and we will have some clear results.
You can follow the season in pictures at this web album.
Tomatoes are one of the three plants that I think every true Southerner should grow.
I cannot even imagine summer without tomatoes.