Getting up early isn’t easy for me and it’s safe to say that most of the world’s population agrees. Yet for whatever reason early mornings become easy-to-rise when I know there is something uncomfortable to go endure. Not “uncomfortable” like going to the office before everyone else and getting paperwork done. I’m talking physically uncomfortable and demanding. Maybe it’s the masochist in me, but I crave that feeling. So that’s what got me out of bed on a chilly coastal autumn morning to climb in a kayak and head to an island. The shock of the still cool water on my feet woke me up as pulled the hull into the water and hopped in.
Pushing hard to make good time – and to warm up a bit – I paddled swift toward the island. It felt like I was on a mission that I hadn’t been briefed on. All I know is that a little over a week ago something in my subconscious started nagging me about being on this island at sunrise. There’s been a lot on my mind lately. Adulthood keeps forcing its will on me and the resistance to growing up is so strong that my brain won’t let me sleep soundly. You’d think since I was already half awake when the alarm went off that I’d spring right out of bed. Nope. If you’ve been through a phase like this then you know that you’re moreso half asleep most of the time than you are half awake. Wishing you could just sit and sleep rather than get out and live. Even when I silenced the alarm so I could sleep another hour…the voice persisted. “You’ve got to see this”, it nagged as if there were a huge purpose or vision quest awaiting me. There isn’t. All I’m doing is going to an island to look at a horse.
If you haven’t seen the sun come up while sitting in a watercraft, I recommend it. Kayak or not. The sun kind of splits direction. Heading up in the sky and while also heading down across the water. Most times the water is still and as the sun comes up the air starts to move, the water shakes. Echoing along your hull giving rhythm to the sound of the world waking up. Sunrise came as I reached the channel I needed to cross to get to the cove that is perfect for beaching my kayak. A perfect time to stop and catch my breath while enjoying a sunrise on the water. That’s when I saw them straight ahead. A harem of horses crossing a narrow sandy straight on the island. Black silhouettes on an orange backdrop. Second from the last horse was a smaller silhouette. The colt I’d paddled out there to find. Had it not been so late into the fall the sun would have warmed up the earth and water to where radiating heat off the ground would have bent light to make them look like mirages, but this morning their outlines were crisp. This was real. They were making better pace than I was. I needed to hurry before they cross the marsh and into the thickets. “Hurry”. That voice in my head stating the obvious.
I didn’t slow my paddling until I hit the sand deep in a cove on the leeward side of the island. Lept out, dragged my craft far from the water even though the tide was heading out. Locked and loaded my camera and lens. The horses had covered more distance than I had when I’d spotted them. So I rushed on into this truly special habitat. This is the Rachel Carson Preserve. Named after a ground-breaking, glass-shattering hero who sparked one of the first environmental movements in our country. There is another Rachel Carson Preserve in Maine and while I hope to go there someday, it’s probably not going to be in late fall via kayak. This preserve in North Carolina is made up of multiple small islands connected by marshes and is what I consider a Gallapigos of the east coast. Wildlife thrives here. There is no development on these islands and it, for the most part, looks the same as it did when settlers entered this inlet in the 1600s. There was a fishery here in the 1800s and in 1782 British soldiers stayed here while they staged their siege on the town of Beaufort but in the past century, there has been no development here. No roads, high rise condos or surf shops hocking personalized shot glasses and henna tattoos. It almost was. The land was up for sale in 1976 so it could be built on and developed but the people of Beaufort took action. A non-profit bought the land for the sake of conservancy. Instead tacky shacks tourist traps it’s mussels among the marshes, cranes standing where streams exit those marshes because minnows are all over the place. Larger fish are also striking those minnows while crabs wait to pick up the scraps. A foot from the water’s edge you can see a cartoonishly definitive fish-shaped outline where a good sized flounder had burrowed itself in the sand before the tide turned. Somewhere on this island is also a bald eagle I saw a few days ago. This is nature in motion. The tide goes out, the animals feast on what is revealed, we all leave our tracks, take what we can find, and then the tide comes in to reset it all before we do it all again. One thing the high tide will wash away are the sets of hoofprints extending in front of me. Among those prints were the colt’s steps. Hoof crescents just a little bit bigger than the size of a silver dollar. I tracked them in the soft sand – so soggy my foot sunk inches each step. What a great early morning workout. Slowing my pace and upping my heart rate to the point where I was worried my heavy breathing might creep out the horses. A few minutes of enduring this and there I was. At the edge of a marsh, minnows splashing to my left, watching this family graze on their main food, Smooth Codgrass. “Almost there.” Great.
There are 3 main islands at the inlet of Beaufort, North Carolina. Two are home to wild horses. However, they’re not related. A short distance away and clearly visible I can see Shackleford Banks which is that other island home to wild horses. Recent storms have eroded the western end of Shackleford by about 400 yards in just 3 years. Threatening the already precious real estate of the horses that live there. They’ve been on that island since the 1600s. DNA tests show they have Spanish heritage and its assumed they arrived on the island after Spanish explorers ran aground near the banks. Many ships have run around in this area including Blackbeard himself. The horses of Shackleford had probably been there for a century by the time they could clearly see Blackbeard’s ship Queen Anne’s Revenge run into a sandbar just across the inlet. Now, these particular “feral” horses of the Rachel Carson Preserve are different. A farmer left them there in 1947, they overpopulated the island, used up all of the resources and brought themselves to the brink of extinction. Herds on both islands endure all of the storms, floods, harsh seasons, and annoying tourists. So these feral horses don’t have some rich storied history like the Shackleford “banker ponies” do. Yet I feel called to rush out here. Why? “Just wait. You’ll see.” Ok.
Spotting the horses on these islands is not always easy. I’ve been coming here my entire life, sometimes for months at a time. On average I’ll spot horses a couple times a week. It’s not hard to find the horses but its not incredibly easy either. Seeing one specific horse can be even more of a crap shoot. This morning, however, it was easy. If you believe in serendipitous powers from the universe then you could believe it was easy because a voice had been guiding me to the island. It led me right to their tracks which led me right to them. Even if I’d seen them from far away it would have been hard to get to them before they head toward the center of the island with taller growth and disappear into the thickets. Then my opportunity to see these horses would be gone. These horses were heading that way. If I want to actually sit, watch and observe I needed to get ahead of them. “Hurry”. And hurry I did. The voice was less annoying now than it had been but maybe I was distracted by how hard it is to power walk in soft, soggy sand darkened in hue from that natural Carolina tar.
Another little bit of luck, they stopped to eat. Standing among the creeks within the marshes. I stopped where the creek meets the cove to have my first close look. The orange sun was still low so the light outlined their figures and gave their manes a long halo glow. I could hear the tricking of the creeks, light splashes of minnows, the horses ripping grass out of the ground, and…leaf blowers across Taylor Creek in Beaufort. I hate leaf blowers.-I digress- Horses travel in bands and within those bands are the smaller family groups called “harems”. This harem was circled around their colt. Protecting it from non-existent predators. Perhaps in a few years, as the globe continues to warm, alligators will make it this far north. There have already been sightings of them just to the south of here but for now they’re fine. Slowly moving through the creeks and grass toward the thickets. I needed to get ahead of them so that I could just sit and watch instead of playing catch up. I took a wide arc around them to keep my distance and not trample any grass. Did I mention I was barefoot? No big deal. I’m treading on grass or sand. The only hazard are sharp shells, still living mussels, and sandspurs. A tiny ball of spikes. Imagine thorns all bunched together into the size of a BB. I stepped on one. The first step I figured I’d just stepped on something sharp, the second step it hurt again but I figured I’m tough and it’ll dislodge, 3rd step I’m not tough and I had to sit down. Those things are sharp and this one was dug well into my foot. Multiple punctures and the sharp tip of one broke off to ensure I’ll feel it every step for the next few days. What fun. The cool salt water will numb it for the time being. Right now though, I had to hurry. “Worth it.” Quiet you.
I crouched next to a clearing in the grass where a flowing brook eddied. The colt now right at his mother’s side and his father working just ahead of them. Regularly looking back to check in on them while also leading them forward. I let the voice that’s been nagging me for days now know that I’m here. I’m watching. It took just a few moments to feel some kind of connection. The horses knew I was there but just went about their business. The colt was very curious and kept checking in on me. Looking to his mother for cues on how to react and her cue was to not react at all. He had long curly hair in patches all over. His hair is the color of clay dirt except for a saucer-sized white patch on his forehead. It’s an amazing sight to see this thing. Learning how to survive on elements and instinct alone. Yet my attention seems more drawn toward his father. Lately I’ve been thinking about what a true grownup needs to be. A father is what we all view as a model male grownup right? Stoic, fearless, all knowing and able to provide for his own family. Providing means giving up what you do for yourself so that you can serve your family. The thought of being looked to as a provider is terrifying. Especially today when things are getting more and more expensive while jobs are paying less and are harder to come by. Personally, I’m hardly able to provide for myself so it is kind of a scary thought to have to provide for someone who is dependent on you. Seems like life will turn to no fun, all business, look over this child, try to connect with it and hope it doesn’t resent you when you’re not able to furnish everything they need and deserve in life. [I told you. I’ve got a lot on my mind lately]. This father seems to have not gotten the same memo I’ve gotten. He looked playful this morning. When he crossed through water he would splash through it intentionally and it looked fun to him. Yes he’s leading the way for his family, looking after them, but he’s also having fun. He still gets to enjoy the simple pleasure of being himself. When dad wasn’t looking I would see his colt look up and watch him. While seeing all of this, it started to make sense why I’d been compelled to come out here this morning. “Now you’re getting it.”
We all know that a mother is essential to a child. It literally cannot live without her. Through that, they establish a deep instinctual connection. What about the father? Maybe he’s not all that important in the equation. Just bring the child and the mother things so that they can eat and be protected. Maybe that’s it. A feral horse will tell you otherwise. There is a much deeper and essential connection. Right now he’s moving ahead of them. Splashing as he does. His colt sees this. When he walks up to a shallow creek about 2 feet wide to cross, he bucks up and clumsily leaps over the water. This young guy isn’t ready to splash just yet but he’s at least up for fun. He keeps checking in on his dad. There is the connection. As he grows older he’ll mimick his parents. The drive to endure all that comes at them will be taught to him by his mother and father through actions. Did this horse worry about being able to provide his son all the finest things? Did he stay up at night kicking himself because he doesn’t have a nice barn with blankets and heat lamps for the mother and son? Probably not. All they have is what is around them and that is all they need. The father isn’t going to provide things. What he provides is bigger than that. That colt watches his father and wants to become big and strong so that he too can lead a group down a path toward the thickets. He’ll survive hurricanes, floods, shivering cold and blistering heat because of what’s being instilled in him during these young years. All learned by just watching his dad live the best life he can. His dad didn’t have to give up fun, didn’t have to give the whole world to him. All he had to do was lead, live, and bring his family along with him for the ride.
I like freedom. Going up to the mountains on a whim, heading out on the town with no plan, sleeping in, or waking up early to look at some wild horses. One thing that worries me about the possibility of being a father is how my eccentric compulsions will stand up against the rigidity of a parent’s schedule. There’s no specific child on the way for me right now so why even worry about it? Because I do. Why am I thinking about all of this when I’ve had a nice morning paddle and am in the middle of unbridled nature while the rest of the Eastern Time Zone is headed to an office? “Shhhh. Look. Just look.”
The male horse had reached the entry to the thickets and looked back to the mother and colt who were still toward me. They looked up at him, took the cue, and our morning together came to a conclusion. They upped their pace to catch up and I just watched this family move on. I swear the father gave me a glance, too. Though his focus was on the two most important creatures in his 6 x .25 mile world. A quote by Robert Moor popped in my head that fit perfectly within this context: “We are born to wander through a chaos field. And yet we do not become hopelessly lost, because each walker who comes before us leaves behind a trace for us to follow.” There are horse trails all over this island. Carved by parents who lead their young through it all so that they can get what they need to survive and thrive. These trails are a legacy left by their previous generations which will lead them to food, fresh water, and shelter. This is what a parent provides. They provide a path to lead their young forward and give them the skills and bravery they’ll need for when it’s time to carve a path of their own. All of this from just some feral horses.
The distance from my kayak to the water had grown since I’d been gone. The wind had picked up and the water was choppier right now but I didn’t even think to worry about it. My mind was racing. Now I know why I felt called to the island this morning. Not fully, but then again we rarely fully understand anything. I wasn’t ready to get up early to walk in cold waters and paddle toward the sun. I wasn’t ready to walk in soft sand or get stabbed by a sandburr. Those horses on that island weren’t ready for the situation they’re in. Reality is that we’re never ready. Even when we think we are. You’ll either never feel like you’re ready or you’ll think you’re ready and be wrong. So there’s no point in waiting. Prepare, yes. But don’t wait. Whether it is starting your own harem or chasing after a dream. There is a path to be followed and a slightly different one to be left behind.
Doesn’t matter how old you are or where you are in your life, there will always be something uncomfortable to endure. Rarely when you are ready to endure it. Yet we find a way to navigate through it. Enduring it may exhaust us and even change us, but that’s not such a bad thing. That night, I got the best sleep I’d had in months.