This article appeared in the Fall 2000 issue of Wildlife Journal. It also appeared in “Surviving the Eye of the Storm: Essays in the Aftermath,” a book compiled by Coastal Carolina Press to benefit those left homeless by Hurricane Floyd.
It received the third place 2001 OWAA Excellence in Craft Award in the Conservation/Environment Magazine category.
At 110 miles per hour, raindrops have the power to break glass. Propelled by hurricane-force winds, they become liquefied bullets. On the eve of Sept. 16, 1999, we were once again under fire.
In spite of the howling wind, I was asleep. Climbing a ladder to armor second-floor windows with sheets of plywood against wind-driven missiles has become a routine occurrence here in Hurricane Alley. My need for rest from such hard labor overpowered my normal response to noise the night Hurricane Floyd arrived.
Wilmington, North Carolina has become Ground Zero for hurricanes. It is located at the “heel” of the Tar Heel State, kicking out into the Atlantic Ocean to snag these awesome storms that brush by more southerly destinations parallel to the coastline.
My wife, Carol, son Justin, and I live in The Tides community. Facing the Atlantic, we are protected from the surf by tiny Masonboro Island. We can ear the roar of the surf when the wind picks up and see waves washing over the dunes to chase sea birds aloft from their rookeries.
Our biggest concern during a hurricane is our marina. Seventy homeowners keep boats moored in a basin adjacent to the Intracoastal Waterway. We had frantically removed boats from the marina as sea gulls overhead fled the cloud bands that heralded the approaching storm. Just ten families stayed to ride out Floyd’s fury.
In the last four years, we have been struck by five hurricanes. Houses, utilities, docks, boats and automobiles have been damaged. Lost work hours due to preparation, cleanup and days without electricity have grown beyond counting. The emotional toll is severe when watching a hurricane approach on radar images. Having lived in Wilmington for 21 years, I am used to hurricanes. But preparations for Floyd followed the landfall of Hurricane Dennis by only two weeks. I was already worn out from cleaning up the mess Dennis left when we had to board up again.
Floyd was hyped on the Weather Channel as Storm of the Century. In spite of the apprehension of watching him target us for a week, I was asleep when he roared ashore. A thud and a moan awakened me. Carol had leaped from the bed and tried to hide inside the closet, but hit her head on the doorjamb in the dark. Power grids had been short-circuited by lightning strikes.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“Didn’t you hear that tree falling?” she replied. “I thought that one was going to kill us for sure.”
Carol doesn’t sleep during hurricanes. Her preparations of doing all the laundry and buying canned food are less physically demanding than securing boats and boarding windows.
After having eight trees tossed onto our house by five hurricanes in less than four years, Carol fears things that go bump in the night. The trees that hit our house were huge. They included a mockernut hickory, six laurel oaks and a willow oak. After she woke me, I didn’t go back to sleep. We watched the storm’s progress on a batter-operated television until the wind subsided at fawn. Together, we went out to assess the damage.
We were lucky. The falling tree missed our house this time. Justin counted 102 years of growth rings on the shattered loblolly pine. A pine is normally harvested for saw logs at 35 years of age. This old-timer had weathered a dozen hurricanes, including the infamous Hazel. It sprouted before the first automobile arrived in town. But Floyd snapped the pine like a kitchen match.
A squirrel scolded from a top a wooden fence that was bisected by the pine. His home had been a leaf nest in the tree’s branches. Our home was still intact. His was destroyed.
It’s poetic that weather forecasters give names to hurricanes because each has its own personality. The last five to make landfall at my front door were named Bertha, Fran, Bonnie, Dennis and Floyd. Each comes with extraordinary amounts of wind and rain. But how much and how long they visit has a great deal of impact on the amount of human misery these storms create.
Dennis had arrived on Labor Day weekend, which is known as “Opening Day” to my family. We had pulled on our raingear and braved 50-mile-per-hour winds to participate in the season’s first dove hunt.
Anyone who has hunted these rocket-propelled birds can imagine that the shells-fired-per-bird-bagged ration made ammunition manufacturers’ stock prices soar. The doves flew incredibly well, feeding ravenously in the grain stubble to store energy for migrating away from the storm.
Dennis hit, deluged, moved offshore, shifted into reverse and drowned the Coastal Plain again. But his wind-speed was that of a lightweight.
The rivers were full to bridge bottoms when his bully of a brother menaced everyone along the Atlantic Seaboard. Floyd was awesome, nearly a maximum designation of Category Five on the Saffir-Simpson scale. This scale was formulated to allow disaster teams to make evacuation and relieve plans based on the velocity of a hurricane’s winds. A Category Five is the worst o the worst, having winds of at least 155 miles per hour. In non-scientific terms, winds of that velocity will huff and puff and blow your house down. New houses hereabouts are built to withstand winds of 115 miles per hour.
“The storm was large enough to cover four run-of-the-mill states. That is why we elected to stay inside the bull’s-eye. Caution, but experienced, I asked some neighbors who were hurriedly packing their cars so they could leave the immediate coast, “Where are you going to hide?”
In fact, it had been impossible to run. Television showed traffic snarls that left in doubt our ability to get out of town before the storm hit. We decided to take our chances at home, rather than get caught exposed on a flooding highway.
Fortunately, by the time the storm struck, Floyd had diminished above ocean waters cooled by Dennis. What powers the engine of a hurricane is warm water underneath it. This gave us reason for optimism as we went to bed. Floyd’s central eye arrived at our house Sept. 16, 1999 at 2:30 a.m. with winds downgraded to category two – just bad enough to damage residential buildings and uproot trees.
After weathering a night that pounded picture frames off the walls, we removed branches and leaves from boats and automobiles secured in the backyard. We chainsawed the remains of the storm shattered pine. A check of our docks showed they were intact. Bu the marina parking lot was knee-deep in marsh grass and other flotsam from the 12-foot storm surge.
Wind had not been Floyd’s strong point. But what he lacked in punch, he made up for in persistence. Up to 25 inches of rain were dropped onto an already saturated landscape. With nowhere for the water to go, entire towns were flooded for weeks. Over 30,000 homes and 50,000 automobiles were lost.
People died. Eight hundred roads flooded. Two hundred bridges washed away. It took days for water levels to subside enough for most of my neighbors to return to their neighborhood.
After so many storms in such a short while, it seemed there should have been no more trees to blow down. The sad part is, more trees were lost. It didn’t concern me that my shingles had blown off, that my boat’s inner hull was now waterlogged, that the pine tree crushed my wooden fence. Money and labor could replace manmade structures. It hurt far worse that prime specimens of all timberdom, the trees with the fullest crowns and best wildlife values – oaks, hickories, dogwoods, cypresses, longleaf pines – were the trees that caught the most wind and fell.
Attention to human needs was foremost after the storm had passed. However, what damage occurred to our private wildlife refuge and the mobile home that serves as hunting and fishing camp was, to us, a question mark. Our hundred-acre woods were located in the worst area of Floyd’s flooding.
I took two weeks of water levels subsiding before I stood on the bank of Holly Shelter Creek, 40 miles inland in Pender County. I counted 167 years of growth rings exposed in the trunk of a broken overcup oak. The tree had shaded our canoe landing. We sacrificed for years to buy that slice of property. When the deal went through, I hugged that tree. I wanted to cry. Carol did.
It is also a somber event to wildlife to lose an oak. Eighty percent of the oaks in the swamps had been lost to previous storms. Now, half of the remaining twenty percent are gone. Squirrels have been hit hard. Without food and shelter provided by mast-bearing trees, their numbers have decreased by ninety percent. Squirrels won’t return to their former abundance within my lifetime, a shorter span that it takes to grow an oak.
Ducks that formerly landed in our swamps to feed on acorns will have to fly to some other region. Deer were forced to high ground, although some of them died in the floodwaters. We saw survivors feeding by the dozens in our flooded field of rotting corn. On returning to the low areas, they will find only brown, drowned vegetation this winter.
Animals like rabbits and quail were hardest hit, according to Vic French, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Biologist in the Floyd Zone. “The smaller the animal, the worse they suffer,” he said. “They can’t swim far to escape floods like larger animals.”
Everyone seemed worried about black bears, whose future was once grim, but whose numbers have now increased by one thousand percent due to help from wildlife managers like French. Bears climb trees and swim very well. As omnivores, they survived by eating dead animals drifting by on the current.
Since factory-style hog farms and poultry farms have recently proliferated in North Carolina, more than two million farm animals were serving as food for bears and vultures and putrefying the water. Turkey barns flooded and lagoons holding millions of gallons of hog waste were inundated, fouling floodwaters with filth that choked out life-giving oxygen. Organic matter and flooded municipal wastewater plants contributed decomposing nutrients that burned the oxygen from the water.
While terrestrial creatures seem to roll with the punches given by hurricanes, fish are hit really hard. The water line on a surviving cypress at our canoe landing was twenty feet above my head. Everywhere that floodwaters had receded, we could see the remains of bluegills, catfish and largemouth bass. Redbreast sunfish, those living jewels of blackwater streams, had not yet recovered from the population depletion caused by previous hurricanes. It takes four years to grow a redbreast the size of my hand and there were no redbreast alive in Holly Shelter Creek after the floods of Floyd.
Primitive fish like gar and bowfin are adapted to oxygen levels that approach absolute zero. They will last as long as there is a puddle in which to gasp for air.
Chad Thomas, NCWRC Fisheries Biologist in the Floyd Zone, said. “Many individual fish were lost. However, we have to remember that fish evolved to survive events like this. Some find pockets of oxygen where they can survive. It is too early to estimate the damage done by Floyd. But when suitable conditions return, the survivors will repopulate the impacted waters.”
French echoed the assessment in regards to terrestrial animals. “Although small mammals are hardest hit, they also have the highest reproductive potential. Once the water goes back down, they will return to replenish the areas they left. Events like fires and floods are something animals have evolved to live through. It’s nature’s way of starting over again.”
Once spring arrives, the fertile ground left by the retreating floodwaters will generate lush greenery for deer and rabbits to thrive upon. Songbirds will flock to new openings where forests once stood. Insects they feed upon have already hatched out in abundant supply, especially human pests like flies and mosquitoes.
What is important to realize is that animals have been coping with “disasters” such as Hurricane Floyd as long as Mother Earth has cradled them. Creatures survive – some even thrive – with catastrophic change. They evolved to cope with water and wind, no matter the quantity and quality of each element issued to them. They shift their populations to fill a void or vacate a territory that no longer fulfills their needs.
Only human beings draw lines on maps that designate their individual homes – their territories. When a human habitation is destroyed, we label it a disaster. When an animal loses his home, he simply moves to another territory. Animal populations adapt to any situation because once water and air return to “normal” status habitats renew themselves. What is labeled a “natural disaster” by a human being is, to an animal, merely “normal.” Our backyard squirrel simply built a new nest in a surviving dogwood tree.
This article appeared in Wildlife Journal in the winter 2000 edition. It received the second place 2001 OWAA Excellence in Craft award in the Conservation/Environment Magazine category.
Every angler and crewman aboard the Wave Runner knew that the fish was huge. As a warning clicker on the massive gold reel began to shriek, a 375-pound giant bluefin tuna stripped off 200-pound-test-line from the reel as if it were dental floss from the reel.
“Fish On!” screamed the captain, yelling to be heard above the ship’s droning diesel engines.
Bob Walmsley dove into the fighting chair. By previous agreement, Bob, a 65-year-old law-firm manager from Georgia, would take on the first fish. His brother and fishing partner, Don, would work the chair. Six-foot-seas and the frigid January dawn off the North Carolina Coast offered less than optimal conditions. Nonetheless, the brothers entered the battle with gusto, hoping to capture not just a fish, but a victory for marine science and a bit of their youth as well.
Half a century earlier, Bob and Don had helped their father land a giant bluefin tuna off the coast of New Jersey. At that time, in 1950, it was the largest bluefin tuna ever landed in Jersey waters and the experience had since lured the brothers into a lifetime of big-fish adventures around the world. However, the one fish that had consistently eluded them was the same species that now threatened to rip Bob Walmsley from his deck shoes.
These days, if a person wants to catch a giant bluefin tuna – which can weight 1,500 pounds and swim nearly 40 miles per hour – the best bet is to head, like the Walmsley brothers, to the waters off Morehead City, N.C. During the last five years, offshore anglers and marine biologists alike have been awed by the sheer numbers of giant bluefin spending the winter there, a phenomenon that previously had either gone unnoticed or was nonexistent.
This story appeared in the Wilmington Star News on April 20, 1996 and received the second place 1996 SEOPA Excellence in Craft Award for Best Daily Newspaper Column or Feature.
Last year, a new section opened for gobbler hunting in eastern Pender County. Novice George Paylor asked an experienced turkey buff to lead him in his quest for a gobbler by teaching him the lore and showing him how to lure one in close. No expert, but a veteran of 25 years of chasing beards and spurs, the hunter accepted the invitation to call a turkey for George.
The first morning, a tom gobbled his soul inside out attempting to get the hen contained in a double glass call to come to him. Although he was seen, no shot was offered at wattles that burned red as flame azaleas and a head as white as a dogwood blossoms.
Second day found the partners at the edge of a field, watching two bronze barons display fans as round and full as a flamenco dancer’s sombrero. Gobble they did, but they would not come to the imitation hen concealed in a cedar box yelper.
And so, the season progressed. Turkeys were bumped by the hunters, when they walked one step too close to their roosting trees. Two toms with fans the size of Mack truck tires displayed out of range, distracting George from another with a 12-inch beard that sneaked silently in, pacing 30 feet off his right elbow. Under the telescopic scrutiny of the gobbler’s eyes, the caller dared not signal George to shoot. The caller took a bird, practically in self-defense, which just wouldn’t circle around into George’s firing zone. George’s son, West, hammered a nice one on the way to roost on the second to the last day of the season.
After hunting 20 days of a 30-day season, with bloodshot eyes from lack of sleep and chores that nagged “undone,” George remained turkeyless at season’s end.
But the lure of an April dawn’s sun burning the mists from a Spanish-moss draped cypress swamp, the smell of violets blue as a gobbler’s cheeks, and the triple-throbbing gobble of a roosted tom in place of an alarm clock are lures that bond hunters to game. April 13 this year was opening day, or Georges day as it’s now celebrated in the Paylor household. A hen tried to lead not one, but six gobblers away from the sultry competition of the double glass call. But jealousy eventually made the hen spoil for a fight over her lovers. In so doing, she brought a beau with a 9 ½-inch beard into gun range.
All of those days of pent-up desire rocketed the caller past George to the fallen tom. The caller was glad for the day, happy for having to wait through all of those star-filled pre-dawns, thankful that the bird was earned through patience, that most enduring tool in a dyed-in-the-wool turkey hunter’s bag of tricks.
Presenting the trophy to George, I extended a hand in congratulations. Incredibly, it was George who thanked me for helping him earn his first set of spurs. I was thinking it should have been the other way around.
p>This story appeared in the Tabor-Loris Tribune on October 14, 1998 and also appeared in the Wilmington Star News. It received second place 1999 SEOPA Excellence in Craft award for Best Weekly Newspaper Column or Feature.
His registered name was Baytree’s Blacksmith. I called him Smitty for short. That jet-black Labrador retriever possessed me as surely as he owned any crippled wigeon that tried to escape from his incredible nose by burrowing deeply into the maze of a needlerush marsh.
A high-octane dog, with the blood of eight field champions coursing through his never-give-up heart, he was just the right partner for a twenty-something-year-old duckbuster who never missed seeing a dawn over the decoys no matter the price in lost workdays or sleep.
Smitty was my partner on days a-marsh. But he really “belonged” to my wife and son. Carol fed him and pampered him. Justin played with him until they fell asleep together in an exhausted heap on the floor. They made a mischievous pair. A four-year-old kid and a Lab think alike, so they banded together to torment the grown-ups of the house by playing hide-and-seek with things like shoes and car keys.
That dog was a marvel, fetching over 1,500 ducks to my hand before being called up too early to walk at his heavenly Master’s heel. Justin collapsed, burying his face in a pillow when I gave him the bad news that his dog was gone.
“I know he’s just over in the woods and will come home some day,” the little guy sobbed. Unfortunately, it was never to be.
“There have been a lot of excuses in the decade since, for not replacing that water-worn lab: He was too hard headed, I have no time to train a dog, Justin is too young, the duck daily limit has shut down to a trickle of three, two or one.
Everyone was certain I would get another Lab. But I never believed the timing was right. Carol and Justin asked often but my answer was “No,” although duck numbers began to climb until seasons and limits were as liberal as they were during my youth.
Three weeks ago, it was Carol’s birthday and our good friend, Ned Connelly, knew a nice young man named German Alvarez who had a six-month old puppy who was doomed to a life of apartment confinement or to be shipped to South America when his owner returned home.
Puppy and I were introduced. Skeptically, I tossed a ball. After five minutes of playing “go get it,” he was steady on the throw and dropped the ball into my hand. Over the next two weeks I tried to say, “No,” again. But how do you argue with the pleading puppy-dog eyes of a wife and teenager? Finally, I agreed to teach a pair of new pupils in the art of waterfowling because, I reasoned, by training a son to train a retriever, the son will be trained along with the dog and learn the best traits to be desired in the man – trustworthiness, dedication, obedience, consistency, unselfishness, and the list goes on.
I took Santana hunting the second day he came into our lives. He tasted his first dove that day. He liked hunting, except for the heat of September and percussion of a shotgun blast.
By the sixth day however, he knew that gunfire meant there were birds to be fetched when he found a lost dove and laid it gently in my hand. After less than two weeks, he dove into a pond in our woods at the sound of a shot. When he swam back, he laid a perfectly fetched wood duck in my hand.
That clinched the deal. He owns me now, as his predecessor once did, for the place that Santana brought his first duck to me was the same place on the bank where Smitty retrieved his last. I was glad to be alone with the new Lab at the time. I sat on the ground and hugged that wriggling pup while he licked traces of tears from my cheeks.
He isn’t as blue-blooded as his powerhouse predecessor. As a result he inherited a calmer demeanor. That makes him just the right partner for a not-so-hard-charging, middle-aged duckbuster. But I still get confused and call the little guy “Smitty” from time to time.
As I walk around our neighborhood, teaching Santana to heel or tossing a dummy for him to fetch from the dock, my neighbors comment on what a lucky dog he is to have a master like me. What they all should realize is that it is an honor for friends like them to recognize in a man the qualities it takes to be possessed by a Lab. If they could take a peek into the window of my soul, they would see a picture-perfect sunrise over Masonboro Sound, with the imminent dawn glowing pink above the dunes and a flock of pintails turning themselves inside out to land among decoys surfing on waves kicked to foam by a northwest wind.
Until now, there was something missing in that colorful picture that could only be filled by the jet-black silhouette of a Lab. By denying that small place in my soul for a dog, I kept the pain of losing my old hunting companion at bay. Life spans for hunters are too long, compared to their dogs. But if I outlive this one, he’ll be replaced within a month. Without a Lab, I was just another duck shooter. Now I’m a waterfowler again.
Mike Marsh has received several Excellence in Craft awards for his writing and photography. These awards are presented each year to deserving recipients by the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association (SEOPA) and the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA). Below are some of the most-recent award-winning articles and photos by Mike Marsh.
This image, "Canvasback Dawn" received the second-place award in the 2001 OWAA Art/Photo competition, Small Game category.
This image, "Outer Banks Pheasant Hunter" won the third-place award for best photograph in the 2007 SEOPA Excellence in Craft competition. It appeared in Wildlife In North Carolina.
This image received the second place award for best photograph in the 2008 SEOPA Excellence in Craft competition. The judge stated, "One of the most fantastic fishing photos I have ever seen! Out of all the netting-the-fish photos I have ever seen, this is BY FAR the best. Congratulations on a great idea and having the skill, ability and technical know-how to pull it off."
Any use of images and/or content of this website without a license agreement issued by Michael S. Marsh is strictly prohibited.