Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Desert Island Paradise

There's this old joke. A young single man spies an attractive young lady from across the room. He decides to pretend to know her, to start up a conversation. He goes over to her and says, “Hey, isn't it 'Sandy'?”

She looks at him frostily and responds, “Isn't what sandy?”

Well, after my recent beach camping trip I don't think I will ever be 100% sand-free again.

Virginia has a little-known wilderness area called False Cape State Park. It's located where the border with North Carolina meets the Atlantic Ocean. It consists of 8-9 miles of undisturbed Atlantic Ocean beach front, plus dunes, pine forests and brackish swamps. There are a dozen primitive campsites available for $11 a night. Primitive means you bring your own tent. There are no cabins. There are no utilities. There are no lights. There are no showers. The amenities do include his-and-hers outhouses, rather nice ones, too, with solar-powered motion-detector lights inside – just open the door and the lights turn on. At the campsites there is also a water well with a hand-pump which has to be primed, but the water is not treated for drinking. About three miles away there is a drinking-water “hydrant” so bring lots of drinking water containers. I was looking forward to washing my hair in the ocean!

What's great about FCSP is the proximity to pristine Atlantic Ocean beach: it's only 100 yards from the campsites, through the dunes. The downside is access. The only way to get to FCSP on foot is through the federal Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. No vehicles are allowed. Hiking and mountain biking only. No paved roads. The nearest parking lot is nine miles from the campsites. All food must be carried in; there is no “commissary” - whaddaya think this is, a National Park or sumpthin'? There are lots of venomous snakes, principally the eastern water moccasin, and swarms of biting insects, including red ants, ticks and “no-see-ums”, i.e. biting midges. So bring lots of DEET. Back Bay NWR is not a recreation area; swimming, sunbathing, camping, etc. are not allowed. Campers are expected to make their way directly five miles south to FCSP post haste!

Now, I figured that right after Labor Day the weather would still be summer-like, and all of the kids would be back in school, so the place would be nearly deserted. And it was. On the way in I passed three young women on their way out whom I would categorize as “college students”. They were on mountain bikes and each carried an enormous backpack. I guess it was back to school for them. I had the campground (three tent sites) all to myself.

All of my gear was carried on the bike, I didn't even bring a backpack. Just four big pannier bags.

After five miles of biking I reached the entrance to the park. Now just four more miles to go.

The welcoming committee was waiting - there are two snakes in the photo. The road conditions seen here are typical for the NWR and FCSP: a mix of dirt, gravel, cinder and packed sand. Watch out for ruts and potholes.

"No one will be watching us..."

As you get deeper into FCSP the roads are mostly packed sand and pine needles. Very pleasant biking, and very fragrant. Watch for snakes; I saw half a dozen.

Once I had arrived and unpacked the bicycle, I made a quick water run to the hydrant and came back with a couple of gallons of drinking water. The first liter was slightly brown so I threw it out and refilled it, and the rest was crystal clear. Note: bring drinking water containers made of clear plastic only. The trip back to camp without all the weight on the bike was outstanding! Fishtailing around corners, standing on the pedals to provide thrust to correct the oversteer... great!

I set up camp right away while the light was still good. I found a nest of red ants on the sand so I decided to use a sleeping hammock to sleep above ground. A decade ago I took my son on a Cub Scout camping trip. One of the leaders decided to sleep in the open. The next morning he found that his face was less than a foot from the entrance to a very busy underground wasp nest. He scratched his head and said, “You know...I wondered what that buzzing sound was...” Lesson learned: set up during daylight! There were plenty of strong live oak trees to attach the hammock lines to. I used these “figure nine” carabiners to keep lines taut; they're amazing! And the small green cords are woven with reflective material so they can be seen in the dark. The plastic gripper on the right holds the corner of the tarp. Cheaper Than Dirt, about $5 a dozen.

Using a painter's drop cloth (what a useful bargain! Get the 2-mil kind.) I built rain flies over the picnic table and over the hammock. I guyed these down with tent stakes and miniature carabiners. I stashed my food on the raccoon racks and went to have a look at the beach.

Raccoon Rack

From the beach, looking north, the nearest habitable dwelling is nine or ten miles away. Driving on the beach is prohibited, except for the park rangers, of course. And looking south, the little village of Carova, just below the North Carolina border, is three and a half miles away.

Looking north

Looking south

See the large red object on the left edge of the picture? That is a washed-up steel buoy, about 6-8 feet in diameter. You can see it in the aerial photo below:

My campsite was #9.

There is no life guard on duty. However, instructions are provided for saving someone who is drowning, should the need arise.

You could also call “911”.

"Searching For Network."

But I wouldn't count on it.

I brought a ham radio FM transceiver, just in case. Also serves as a regular AM/FM broadcast radio and a weather alert radio, too.

The day was warm with heavy overcast and strong winds. Back at camp I prepared an MRE (turkey patty, ugh) and a pot (actual percolator!) of strong Sumatran coffee from Peet's. That'll wash down any cruddy camping food. I like to use MRE's because they're cheap, light, have a long shelf life and (and this is important!) they can be heated without an open flame. It's really a letdown to arrive at a camp and be told by the ranger that no fires or stoves are allowed because of dry conditions, so you have to eat cold food. MRE's have these clever, cheap, use-once-and-throw-it-away chemical heaters that actually work. I have an old Peak “multi-fuel” backpacker's stove that still works like a champ and makes coffee in about 20 minutes.

After cleanup I snapped a lumistick and left it at the entrance to my campsite. I took two flashlights with me for a long walk on the beach while the sun went down.

This is one of the few places in Virginia (maybe the ONLY place, come to think of it) where you can actually camp right on the beach. With your tent or sleeping bag between the surf and the first dune. In fact, the rangers actually accommodate beach camping, with marked-off areas for each of the campsites. No fires, tho'! No fires on the beach!

As the sun went down I saw some blue sky breaking in the west, so I was optimistic that Tuesday's weather would be an improvement, and might even provide some sunburn.

When it was completely dark I waded into the surf and was rewarded by little green bioluminescing creatures in the foam. Ostrocods? Cool!

Walking back in the darkness it was reassuring to come around the last corner and see the lumistick glowing brightly at the entrance to my camp.

The lumistick is at the bottom of the wooden post.

It was about 10 PM by now so I got some supplies under cover, hung the trash bag on the raccoon pole, climbed into the hammock and zipped the insect screen closed. It was starting to drizzle on the rain fly a foot above my face and I could hear the “pat-pat-pat” of the rain on the plastic, but I was snug, dry and warm. Sleeping in a hammock made of ripstop nylon is actually pretty comfortable. By midnight the rain had increased to a steady downpour and the constant “PAT-A-PAT-A” on the rain fly had become a continuous roar of sound. It sounded like firecrackers on Chinese New Year. I couldn't get to sleep.

I was starting to feel cold at my feet. Water was running down the hammock lines into the hammock. Held by capillary action or “surface tension”, water can do the damnedest things. Next time I will install “drip lines” on the hammock lines; these are little pieces of string, about a foot long, that are tied to the hammock lines and hang straight down to provide a more direct route for the raindrops to reach the ground.

“Yeah, next time!” the Sundance Kid said to Butch Cassidy.

The wind and rain picked up (the next morning the weather guy on the radio called it “an absolute deluge”). Water was blowing underneath the rain fly. Water was traveling down the ridge line of the insect net and dripping on my face. I was starting to shiver. Then the insect screen ridge line snapped and it fell onto my face, and the rain fly with it. I got up three times between 1:00 and 3:00 AM to adjust or repair the rain fly. It never tore; the material is easy to cut but very difficult to tear.

At 4:30 AM the rain had slacked off to a drizzle so I made a dash to the supplies to see if I could find some dry clothes. They were marginally dryer; even though they had been protected from the rain, the humidity had got to 'em. My own fault for preferring cotton.

The weatherman said that the weather for the next two days would be the same. "We might see the sun by Thursday," he said. I hadn't slept at all and it did not look as if I would get any opportunity for sleep in the next 72 hours, so I decided, reluctantly, to pack it in.

I packed up and started out at first light. I kept dreaming about getting into my car and starting the heater. I packed up every scrap of trash, too. As I rode the rain stopped and I was besieged by flying insects. I had to use my right hand to continuously swipe them away from my eyes. Somewhere in my gear was a mosquito headnet, but before I could find it, the rains returned and drove the insects off.

It's slow going pedaling a heavily-laden bicycle into a strong headwind. I guess it took nearly two hours to reach my car, and by then it was a full-fledged gale. I opened the car door and the wind immediately slammed it closed again. I struggled to get everything inside and the bike back on the rack.

This has just whetted my appetite to try it again next year. Here's how I would make changes:

1. Bigger rain flies so that they can cover the entire hammock, plus 2-3 feet on each end, and reach the ground on either side, to reduce the amount of water that is blown in.
2. Separate ridge line for the rain fly, independent of the hammock.
3. Drip strings on the hammock lines, insect screen lines and rain fly lines.
4. Synthetic clothing.
5. Bring a f***ing book! Do you believe that I forgot to bring a book!?

I had a couple of food treats that I had brought in. One was the coffee and the other was cheese; Stilton with mango. Good lord, it's delicious!

[Edit: I forgot to mention hurricane matches. These are actually little "sparklers", like wax coated matches impregnated with gunpowder or some such. The paper matches from the MRE went bad after 3-4 hours of exposure to humid air, but I believe the hurricane matches might even ignite under water!]

[There is a Map and GPS version of the bike trip available here.]


drjim said...

Sweet! Sounds like you had a great trip.

Roberta X said...

We used to dip "strike anywhere" (find 'em now...) matches in candlewax to make waterproof ones -- they do work.

Quite the camping experience! It's not a real adventure unless there's rain.

Turk Turon said...

I got three big boxes of "strike anywhere" matches at a gun show last year. They have the familiar white tip, and they'll strike on just about anything. But they won't strike on a thumbnail like the old ones used to.

Bob said...

Question: matches are fine for emergency back-up, but what's wrong with carrying a butane lighter, especially one made of clear plastic so you can see the butane supply at a glance?

Loved the post; I visited that area back in the 80's when I was stationed in Norfolk, but didn't get down to False Cape. My usual destination was Seashore State Park for day hiking.

Turk Turon said...

Drjim: yeah, it was a fun trip in spite of the weather.

RX: next time I'll be better prepared for bad weather, particularly clothing-wise. I have a full-on rainsuit around here somewhere...

Bob: I always have two or three butane lighters with me, you're right about that. The weirdest way to start a fire: fine steel wool and a "D" battery - never fails!

Brigid said...

Looks like a great place to practice Pirate Action Shooting!

Turk Turon said...

Brigid: Yes! We could have a "Dead Man's Chest" drill, and a "Yo-Ho-Ho!" drill. False Cape State Park would be a great place for "buried treasure" drills.

Old NFO said...

Sounds like you WILL be back :-)

pax said...

In addition to whatever disposable matches you choose, it's always a good idea to tuck a metal match into your gear. See

(I'm not a bot, & haven't done any business with that particular company. I do have a match of that design that I've used for probably five years, replacing twice. It works very well.)

Turk Turon said...


Thanks for the tip!

Somewhere I have a similar fire-starting gadget which is a slab of soft magnesium alloy with a flint-like striker along one edge. Using a knife, one shaves off a few slivers of the metal and then uses the knife against the striker to make a spark to ignite the shavings. I wonder where that thing is?