Tuesday, December 11th, 2012 - Got up around 6 and packed a few things - jacket, book, camera, a few groceries - closed up the boat and went up to the clubhouse for a cup of coffee and a last check of the weather. It was unseasonably warm with a predicted high near 70 and a chance of showers. Dale was in the parking lot getting ready to head in to work and we commiserated about the terrible system that required people to be at the office at 7 in the morning. I watched as Cassandra and the kids loaded up and drove off. Galen came in and chatted for a while, and Dan rolled in about 7. We each poured a cup of coffee and then Galen went off to a days work while Dan and I climbed in the jeep. We took the Pine Cliff cutoff to the ferry landing and were second in line for the 7:45 boarding. We had a pleasant chat with the security officer who said the Stumpy Point ferry almost never filled up so we should be able to get a spot.
Even if we hadn't arrived a good 15 minutes early, there would have been no problem getting a spot on the Minnesott ferry at this hour of the morning, as all the traffic was going the other way. The north side of the river has become a bedroom suburb for people working in Havelock and the other towns along U.S. 70. We made a quick trip across the river and stayed on 306 north through Grantsboro, where we topped off with gas. Soon we arrived in Aurora, a most impoverished looking place despite the massive potash mines on the edge of town.
We got to the ferry landing and waited most of an hour for the 9:45 boarding. I took some pictures of the incoming ferry Cape Point, a Hatteras Class boat of 26 car capacity and wearing the colors of NC A&T University, and then talked with an avid duck hunter who was out on a scouting expedition in advance of the the Saturday season opening. Dan engrossed himself in a good book. Eventually we rolled on board Cape Point and started off on the four mile journey to Bay View. The ferry was a fine place to take in the view of the giant PCS potash facility along the south bank of the river.
Once across, we pushed hard in the hopes of making the noon crossing from Stumpy Point. There is no ferry across the lower Pungo River, so the road must make a long sweeping curve and cross at the headwaters at Leechville, then dodge back to the south around Lake Mattamuskeet. It was slow going up State Road 99 to the Highway 264 connectio at Bellhaven, but after that we shaded the speed limit through the small towns along the way and blatently exceeded it on the long country straightaways. As we crossed the Alligator-Pungo Canal Dan reminisced about passing under the bridge on his trip to the Chesapeake aboard Marian Claire. The road to Swan Quarter cut off to the right and the one to Fairhaven to the left, and then we slowed down through the pretty little town of Englehard. Just twenty miles to go - and 21 minutes until noon.
North of Englehard we passed through the remnants of the huge Pains Bay forest fire of May 2011. This fire kept Highway 264 closed for three weeks and burned over 25,000 acres.We rounded a corner and could see Stumpy Point Bay laid out ahead, with the ferry in plain view. We turned in and presented credentials to security and got in line. Boarding of the River Class ferry W. Stanford White, painted in the colors of my alma mater, Winston-Salem State, was just beginning so we never shut down the jeep but rolled right aboard. We had a few minutes to look at the Neuse, a sister to W. Stanford White painted for Wake Forest University, docked alongside, but very shortly the ferry was under way.
W. Stanford White has a capacity of 38 cars, but today there were four cars, a box truck and two tractor trailers aboard. As we reached marker one far out in Stumpy Point Bay we passed inbound ferry Croatan, another River Class sister, carrying the colors of Methodist University. It was covering the 11:00 am schedule out of Rodanthe, and I'm sure all passengers were staying to the windward of the three garbage trucks which made up most of its cargo. Croatan was rolling noticeably in the beam seas set up by a steay 15 knot northerly wind. Out on the 56 degree water the air temperature was quite a bit lower than the 70 degrees of the drive up, and the wind made it feel even cooler.
Dan put away a few more pages of his book, and like a good sailor I took the opportunity to nap, keeping a weather eye open for any interesting photographic opportunities. Along about 1:15 we came in sight of the banks, and at 1:30 passed the outbound Hatteras, yet another River Class sister, covering the 1:00 departure from Rodanthe. Hatteras carries the colors of mighty Shaw University. The short channel in to the Rodanthe dock was shockingly narrow, but the captain expertly maneuvered into the tiny slip and tied up at 2:15.
The trucks trundled off the ramp and turned right onto Highway 12, and then the cars did the same. They were all headed for points south, the real towns of Buxton and Ocracoke. Rodanthe is a tourist enclave, with a permanent population of just 261. Rodanthe's days of glory were when the Chicamicomico Lifesaving Station was active. Once it closed in 1954, the area, which includes the towns of Salvo and Waves, slumbered through two decades, and then reawakened as a tourist destination. For tourists coming from the north, Rodanthe is the first development on the Outer Banks, since all Pea Island is in public ownership as a wildlife refuge. We passed the temporary ferry office facility, a trailor, and the temporary flagstaff, a bamboo pole with an American flag flying bravely in the wind. Our ultimate goal was to go north, but first we wanted to drive through Rodanthe and get an idea of the degree of damage done by Sandy.
We made a quick tour of the area. It was all very bleak in the December wind, with salt-damaged vegetation and piles of refuse along the roads. Many buildings showed signs of damage, and several beach houses were on the verge of collapsing into the surf. The beachfront itself was studded with pilings, concrete slabs, cables and other detritus that we assumed had been buried for years and now were uncovered by erosion. Not much was going on. A few crews worked boarding up windows, the pounding of their hammers the only accent to the sound of the wind and surf. In my opinion, Rodanthe suffered some of the worst overdevelopment on the Banks, and now the piper has been paid. It remains to be seen if lessons were learned.
We turned back north on Highway 12. The road was open to 4-wheel drive vehicles only between Rodanthe and "new" New Inlet Bridge. My jeep was just the ticket for the run north. Right on the edge of town we hit a section of sand road around a work area. This was where some of the worst damage was done, with extensive pavement displacement. Work was going on and it looked as if a few more days would see the section restored. It was only about a quarter mile, and as it turned out, it was the only section left to finish. All the rest of 12 was repaired, so it looks like NCDOT will meet its goal of having the road open to regular traffic by Christmas.
"New" New Inlet opened in 2011 as a result of hurricane Irene, at or near the location of New Inlet which closed in 1945. A temporary bridge was placed after the storm and remains in place. We crossed the bridge at low tide and noted that water was not flowing across the beach, but the narrowness of the Banks in this area suggests that New Inlet may have permanently reopened. As we headed north the only thing between the highway and the beach was the sand that had been scooped and scraped off the road and piled along the way. There was no vegetation on the beach side. Water and sand stood on the road in places. On the sound side, the sparse vegetation showed signs of salt damage, and some of the power poles were leaning. Crews were working on the lines in places.
The North Pond Visitors Center was open, so we stopped in. Across the pond we could see heavy equipment working on the dike. I got Marie a Peace Love and Possums Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge t-shirt to go with her Peace Love and Manatees shirts from the Florida Refuges. From here it was a short drive to the Bonner Bridge across Oregon Inlet, scheduled for replacement in 2015. This bridge is far beyond its expected life, having been built in 1963 and expected to last 30 years. Galen Newton's uncle was a state engineer when the bridge was built and Galen talked to him about the bridge before he died several years ago. The old man said the pilings for the bridge were sunk 65 feet deep but sand scour had uncovered all but 17 feet on some of them. Every time I cross this bridge I hope it is for the last time. We crossed it slowly and with a degree of trepidation. One lane was closed near the center to allow crews to attach pilings to the bridge to help stabilize it. The NC DOT rates the bridge safety at 4 on a scale of 1 to 100, 100 being safest. Its original cost was $4 million but an additional $50 million has been spent since 1993 trying to preserve and stabilize the bridge.
At Manteo we got on 64 west and crossed the new Croatan Sound Bridge. Rather than turn south on 264 we continued west. We crossed the old bridge across the Alligator River, another span that is rated as "structurally deficient" by the NCDOT. Dan talked about the tricky entrance to the river off Albermarle Sound and the long fetch on a northeast wind that gives the Alligator a reputation for tough sailing. It was just such a day and as we crossed back to land on the western end of the bridge we could see a sailcraft just arrived at the docks of Alligator River Marina, the crew covering sails in their heavy-weather garb. I'm sure this little marina is a welcome refuge for many sailors. Soon we reached Columbia and turned south on State 94. The road passes through the farming town of Fairhaven and straight across the middle of Lake Mattamusket before rejoining 264 near Stumpy Point.
We hadn't expected to make the 5:30 ferry at Bayview, but passing Stumpy Point it looked like we might have a chance. The Jeep put on a burst of speed as we negotiated the curvy roads in a light rain. We turned into the waiting line at 5:30 and shut down in the next to last spot on a full ferry. It was long past nightfall and the lights of the Aurora phosphate processing plant made a spectacular show on the far bank of the river. Fifteen minutes later we rolled off on the south side of the river.
After a quick stop in Aurora for gasoline, we proceeded south with good hopes of catching the 7:15 boat at Minnesott. We arrived at the landing in plenty of time, to find no ferry and no cars waiting. Turned out our schedule had been superseded by a new one, and the next boat would be at 7:45. We caught that one with just one other car.
We finally ended a long day back at Matthews Point at 8:15 pm.
Postscript - The winds of December 11th heralded the onset of a Nor'easter that blew with increasing strength for the next two days. On December 13th the NCDOT posted the following on their website: "The 4wd route is now closed along #NC12 on Pea Island due to overwash. We'll reopen it as soon as conditions improve."
The closure only lasted a few hours, but it bodes poorly for the ongoing viability of Highway 12 on Pea Island that overwash is happening during routine Nor'easters.