I enjoy photographing birds and wild horses, and I also like to flatwater kayak. Getting to do all three at the same time, well...., I figured it just could not get any better than that. However, I was wrong, because it did get better. An opportunity came along to join photographer Bob Decker on his mid-April Crystal Coast Wild Horse Safari during the same week I was to be in Beaufort to kayak and photograph at the Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve. I jumped on the chance like a duck on a June Bug. To top it all off, fate smiled on us with beautiful weather, which made it all the more fantastic.
     This would be my first Spring visit to Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve. My previous trips were all in October and November, which is also a great time to go. The clear air of a comfortably cool autumn day minimizes that wavy "mirage" effect that softens your images on hotter days when shooting distant subjects with your big telephoto lens. The species and number of birds you'll encounter are different with different seasons too. Though I come specifically for the wild horses, I'm not about to pass up good opportunities for bird photos. Shooting from the low-angle, water level view of a kayak makes for greater impact with your images. But shooting from a kayak also has its challenges, which I'll get more into later on.
     The Rachel Carson reserve sits just a few hundred yards across Taylor Creek along the Beaufort waterfront. From downtown you can often see the wild horses grazing along the edge of Town Marsh, the westernmost island of the reserve. From the downtown waterfront it's a short paddle across for foot exploration and photography. But when the tide is right, I prefer paddling into the tidal marsh, accessed off Taylor Creek via a small inlet situated roughly half way between Curtis Perry Park and the downtown waterfront. You can reach the tidal marsh by launching from either area.
Leaving Curtis Perry Park launch on Taylor Creek

     My first day of paddling started well before sunrise. I rose early, ate my complimentary continental breakfast, packed my photography gear in the truck and headed out with my brightly colored kayak trailer in tow. A bright sun peeked over the horizon as I drove through Beaufort and reached the Curtis Perry Park boat launch on Taylor Creek, near the east end of Lennoxville Road. If you have a vehicle with a boat trailer, this is pretty much your only choice in Beaufort for launching on Taylor Creek. Taking your kayak on a car-top carrier leaves you more parking choices closer to the downtown waterfront. My only issue with Curtis Perry Park is their boat ramps are ribbed concrete, which does absolutely no favors for the bottom of your kayak. Ouch!
     The creek was as smooth as glass when I launched at high tide and paddled westward up Taylor Creek toward the inlet in the quiet stillness of a cool April morning. Ah, what a therapeutic pleasure, so vastly different from my usual work-a-day spent in front of three computer monitors, with only desktop backgrounds of water, birds and wild horses to temp me.
     Three quarters of a mile up Taylor Creek I turned south into the tidal marsh, carefully avoiding the oyster beds lurking so close to the surface. The whole tidal marsh is littered with oyster beds that will do a nasty number on the bottom of your kayak, or anything else that scrapes them. Depending on the tide, this can be a real issue when paddling here. In fact, paddling this tidal marsh requires planning, with a critical eye to the tide tables. I learned a new lesson before this day was out, but that comes later.

Female Common Loon on Taylor Creek
     For the moment, I'm paddling on glass, looking across the wide expanse of the marsh, barely making out the tiny dots on the horizon that promise there will be wild horses grazing ahead on Horse Island. Then I see a swimming bird ahead. I paddle on, thinking it's the ubiquitous Cormorant. But as I paddle closer I realize it looks more like a Loon, which I've only ever seen in books or on TV. Loons live way up north don't they? I must be imagining.
     I stopped paddling and let the kayak drift closer, not believing my eyes. Then I heard that unmistakable call, three times, before it disappeared under the water and I lost track of it. What a wonderfully unexpected surprise. Little did I know then that I would see more Loons later in my trip.
Morning sunshine on the marsh
     As I paddle along I begin to find bottom with the paddle easier than I expected at high tide, but I'm getting close to Horse Island and the horses now, so I paddle on. I really expected deeper water for some time before the tide begins to receed. I found channels barely deep enough to pass and pressed on, believing I had more time. Soon I was busily shooting stills and video of the horses, and of American Oyster Catchers, Willets, White Ibis, peeps and pipers that linger on the oyster beds still above water as I drift past. I followed along with the horses as they waded across channels, drifting from one grazing spot to another, nibbling on the tempting spring growth sprouting anew.
Grazing on the flats of Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve
     This was quite a new experience for me, since my previous autumn trips were when the tide was higher, and Horse Island was underwater. I had paddled beyond there to Bird Shoals, and even Bird Shoals was only a tiny patch of sandbar. The horses were keeping mostly to dryer ground, so I had only the birds out on the tidal marsh to photograph from my kayak. Paddling among Black Skimmers swarming all around me by the hundreds had entertained and kept me busy. I had still gotten my wild horse photos, but not from water level in my kayak as I had hoped.
Hundreds of Black Skimmers swarm on the marsh
     This time though, it was just as I had imagined, if not better. The horses were out in force on the great expanse of the tidal marsh, and doing what wild horses do - eating, running, sparring and mating. Shooting video with two cameras and photos with two cameras while trying to keep the kayak headed in the right direction kept me really busy. But I knew I had to take heed of the tide.
A Sandpiper stalking the shallows
     By now though, some of the horses had wandered off toward Town Marsh island and the watering hole, so I decided it was time to put the cameras away and start paddling back toward the inlet to Taylor Creek.
     Soon I found myself backtracking, looking for the channels where I had paddled through the maze of oyster beds. Before long I realized the water had gotten too low, and I had to get out and pull the kayak to deeper water before I could paddle out to Taylor Creek. Even with my weight out of the kayak and only the weight of the gear left, it was still a chore to drag it along, trying to avoid oyster shells, my feet slipping in the soft marsh bottom while it sucked on my boots, trying to pull them off my feet.
     Finally I reached enough depth to paddle, so I climbed in again. It didn't last long though, and I ended up pulling the kayak to shore on Town Marsh island. I dragged it up above the high water mark, then farther to the shade of a cedar tree, where I sat down and took a break to assess what I should do.
Hanging out by the watering hole

     It was a beautiful day, not even lunch time yet, and I knew where I was because I had trekked this area before. I was only a quarter mile from the watering hole where I knew the horses would be, or likely feeding close by. So I grabbed my cameras and headed out to get a few more photos. I found some of them feeding on the grasses among the cedar trees within view of Taylor Creek and the Beaufort waterfront. That put me to thinking of how to get my kayak out.
Heading off the marsh to the watering hole

     By lunch time I had plenty of photos, and the noon light was not that good for shooting, so I hiked back to the kayak to sit in the shade and eat my lunch. The soft breeze and pleasant quiet, punctuated by the calls of birds flitting about in the trees and brush, made it tempting to just sit the whole afternoon and wait for the tide to return. But the light would be no good for shooting for several hours, and I knew it would be approaching sunset before the water would be high enough. I didn't want to paddle back that late, so after lunch I did a little exploring.
     Within five minutes I found that the trees nearby were not as dense as I expected. Just 500 feet away through the trees I could see Taylor Creek, with a clear path to the creek edge where I could put in and paddle back. All I would have to do is drag the kayak across the grass and sand to get there. I pondered my two options for awhile and decided dragging the kayak to the creek was the best alternative.
Paddling glassy waters
     Three trips through the trees moved all my heavy gear close to the creek. Then I pulled the lightened kayak to the creek and reloaded everything. Soon I was off, paddling back to the launch ramp, only this time I had the breeze and the tide current working with me. I mostly sat back and let nature do the work, only paddling now and then to keep the kayak on track.
     I had learned a lesson this day, not that I hadn't already known I could be caught by a falling tide. It was just that I hadn't realized how quickly that could happen without noticing. It was one of those situations where the knowledge and experience of a local guide would have saved me a lot of work and time. But I would be all the wiser tomorrow, because I was going to do it all over again. I could hardly wait.

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