Our Coast: A White Oak River Relaxathon
By Teri Saylor
The intrepid kayakers pose for a group shot on Jones Island. Photo: Teri Saylor.
SWANSBORO – It was one of those beautiful late spring afternoons on the White Oak River, one of those rare days with perfectly warm air, pleasantly cool water and cotton ball clouds floating in a Carolina blue sky. Twenty coastal adventurers set out on a triathlon.
But not the Ironman kind.
It was the kind of triathlon meant for sightseeing, being outside and taking in the best of what nature has to offer.
This relaxathon called for kayaking, yoga and swimming.
Sally Steele, the N.C. Coastal Federation’s development director, discovered yoga two years ago, and just like most people who fall in love, she wanted to share it with others.
So she partnered with April Clark, owner of Second Wind Eco Tours of Swansboro, to develop a triple-sport adventure that would combine exercise with meditation and relaxation, and take it outside.
Steele and Clark took their program all the way to Jones Island, by way of the White Oak River.
“We love showing people the island,” Steele said. “We leave from the Cedar Point Wildlife Landing and paddle over to Jones Island. Along the way we pass by our oyster restoration projects, and during the trip, we are able to give the paddlers an introduction to the island. This fulfills our mission, and it is fun for the participants.”
Brad Fischer, yoga instructor and safety guide with Second Wind Eco Tours, gives beginners some paddling tips. Photo: Teri Saylor.
There was nothing about June 16 that could have prepared anyone for temperatures over the century mark that would descend like a warm damp rag in July. There would be no hot yoga on this day.
A stiff breeze made paddling a challenge and blew in ash and smoke from the Croatan Forest fire that had just begun to get out of control, but that same breeze also kept bugs away.
The crew gathered at the Cedar Point Wildlife Landing in the Croatan for paddling tips and instructions before setting off on the half-hour trip to Jones Island.
There’s something primitive and organic crossing water under your own power, pushing and pulling on a paddle as you make your way to a destination.
And like a troupe of wayward explorers, this band of mostly beginners made their way over without tipping over or going off course.
“I love, love, love kayaking,” said Jean Zier, who recently drove to North Carolina’s coast all the way from Orange County, Calif., where she had worked in a high-stress aerospace industry job. Her husband, a manager at Lowe’s Hardware, had moved to Carteret County first, and her brother had retired from the Marines here.
This was her first N.C. Coastal Federation trip.
“This is great. It’s a fun way to meet new people, and my husband is jealous that I’m off playing and doing this today,” she said.
Maria Tart had a good time too.
Tart is a new federation board member and is in a learning mode. So far she has volunteered at numerous federation activities, including the annual native plant festival and a school rain garden.
This was her first kayak experience, but she vows it won’t be her last.
“I love it,” she said. “Being this close to the water, in a group setting, but solitary in my own kayak is great.”
As the kayaks scraped ashore on Jones Island, participants clambered out of their vessels and walked around the island working the kinks out of their legs.
The travelers surveyed the landscape.
A small school of bottlenose dolphin diving and bobbing down the river drew smiles and laughter.
The cameras came out.
Alice Day was delighted. She had never seen a live porpoise before.
Day had traveled to Emerald Isle from Idaho last year to help her daughter, Cassie Stephens, take care of a new born baby and never went back.
Cheryl LeClair, center, treats kayakers to a yoga session on Jones Island.
Kayakers practice yoga in the fresh air on Jones Island. Photos: Teri Saylor.
“The porpoises are really cool,” she said. “I’d like to kayak next to them.”
Day allowed that there is kayaking in Idaho, but it is different.
“Out there, we kayak on scary rivers and white water. This kayaking is new,” she said.
The 20-acre Jones Island is part of Hammock’s Beach State Park and serves as the site of many federation restoration and education projects.
In 2005, the federation bought nearly seven acres of the island. The Audubon Society already owned 10 acres. Both organizations turned their acreage over to the state park, where it is preserved, protected and available for visitors to enjoy.
It makes a beautiful setting for yoga.
“A lot of people look at yoga as a way to feed their body, mind and spirit, but our environment is part of it too,” said yoga instructor Cheryl LeClair.
LeClair wanted to feed her own spirit when she dropped out of her network systems administration profession in Chicago and started teaching yoga.
She is a devoted kayaker too.
Her friends thought she was crazy to leave a successful career to pursue yoga and kayaking.
“When I lived in Chicago, I commuted four hours a day for work,” she said. “Here, I live two miles from Second Wind. In my old job, I worked eight hours a day and was exhausted all the time. Here I can work for 11 hours and still not feel tired.”
By the time LeClair and the islanders had worked their way through a series of basic yoga poses under a canopy of live oak branches and Spanish moss, they were serene.
“Let’s thank ourselves for giving ourselves this time to relax and enjoy this day,” LeClair said in her soft, measured, yoga voice.
Relaxed and mellow, the group posed for photos before shoving off to a beachy spot on Jones Island for a swim.
In the water, Dan Sforza and Kelsie Engelhard were gathered around Erin Harrison. Engelhard had her camera out, photographing the tiny, wriggling crab Harrison was clutching between her thumb and forefinger.
The three are students at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, working on earning a master’s degree in environmental science.
Harrison had found out about the trip through an email and told her friends about it.
“I thought ‘oh my gosh, we have to go do this,’” said Engelhard. “We’re having a great time. It is relaxing and beautiful.”
Harrison, who has taken classes in environmental education, sees the value in eco excursions.
“This is a great opportunity to teach people how to conserve and build an appreciation for the environment,” she said.
And suddenly it was time to paddle back to the landing.
The wind had shifted, and as it cut across the water making ripples and tiny white caps, the enthusiastic paddlers quickly made their way home.
Odds are good they’ll be back soon.
The next kayak and yoga trip is planned for Thursday, Aug. 2. See the federation’s Events Calendar for registration information.