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A Visit with the Gulf Stream

Writing From Where the Ocean Flows North

January 15, 2019  |  by Bryan Pfeiffer  |  19 comments  | 

If you happen to be trapped in a Polar Vortex, if the Arctic has invaded your neighborhood, if everything outside seems to groan or crunch or crack, if the cold itself seems evil, and if you do not wish to fly away on an airplane, then I suggest you head for the Gulf Stream.

Sanderling / Fort Macon State Park, Atlantic Beach, NC

The most direct terrestrial route between my home in Vermont and the Gulf Stream (as the Snowy Owl flies) would be to head south until you pass Cape Hatteras and then park yourself where the warm waters flow north near shore. Here in Beaufort, North Carolina, some summer green remains along my woodland walks, the Carolina Wrens sing out, and Brown Pelicans drift by on ocean breezes.

I saw three warbler species the other day, which is more than Montpelier had in degrees above zero. And today I’ll paddle my canoe — yeah, I’m with my canoe — out to a barrier island preserve, where I’ll walk among Marbled Godwits and sand dollars (the flattened Echinoderms, as Judy Brook pointed out after I posted). And where I’ll even get some work done.

I’m on a writing retreat beside the Gulf Stream — the conveyor belt of equatorial waters passing me by here in North Carolina before bending east out to sea. From its origins in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, the Gulf Stream brings warmth to the Carolina shores. It rides in on a river of warmer ocean surface water, about 60 miles wide. To those of you north of here — well, uh, sorry, the Gulf Stream is way offshore to your east, heading at about 6 miles per hour toward the British Isles and elsewhere in northern Europe, where it warms things up there a wee bit. You can see its path on this map here to the right.

Oops, well, you can’t see its path on the map because the government and this particular website are shut down right now. So here instead is a recent map of surface water temperatures from Rutgers University. (Go, Scarlet Knights!) See that area where the red nearly touches the shoreline? Yeah, by the arrow I drew. You are not there. I am there. And it’s kinda warm here. That blue stuff to the north — well, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the cold wind blows. (Oh, by the way, there’s some evidence that the Gulf Stream has lost some of its punch, owing to global warming.)

I do not mean to gloat over weather. In fact, I’m indoors a lot here, writing my two books (the lovely or evil albatrosses), a few essays and various other things, including this blog post (which is a break from book work). I awaken before sunrise and write until noon. Email and other distractions of the glowing screens (except for this post, maybe a few others yet to come) are basically shut down until I emerge in about a month. Afternoons are for walking and thinking.

Some of you will recognize my affinity for this region of North Carolina because I used to guide birdwatching trips here in late April, when all the southern warblers are back on territory, where Red-cockaded Woodpeckers survive, where some of the northernmost Painted Buntings glow like no other temperate songbird, where Black Rails call kee-kee-do! and where we walk among thousands of shorebirds. I’ll be seeing some of those shorebirds once I get offshore to the Rachel Carson Reserve and to Shackleford Banks — closer yet to the Gulf Stream.

Until then, here’s a Painted Bunting, not yet arrived in North Carolina but basically reflecting the colors on our ocean map above. Onward!

Painted Bunting / © Bryan Pfeiffer

  1. Sarah Cooper-Ellis says:

    Your post inspired Abijah and me to stop in Beaufort for three nights on our annual pilgrimage south. Trying to get out to Carrot today. Loving this place, it’s pelican and ibis patrols, the noisy grackle perched on the boat mast, blooming roses.
    If we see you lurking in the marshes, we’ll pretend we don’t recognize you so you can finish your work!

  2. Susan Sussman says:

    Hi there! I just read in Michelle’s book about Barack Obama doing his own writing retreat when he wrote Dreams of My Father. Kinda like your retreat (although he went to Bali). And Dorothy just told me there is a male Painted Bunting around the corner from her in Newton. Yikes! Waiting for Sunday’s snow storm …

    • If only I could get book advances like Michelle and Barack! But I’m happy in writing poverty — either poverty of words or cash. And I’m dreaming of Painted Buntings here, but I’ll take the Orange-crowned Warblers for now.

  3. Jim Higgins says:

    Bryan, You are to birds what John Snell is to trees. Two treasures in our sea of riches.

  4. Steve Rae says:

    Hi Bryan,
    Glad to hear you get nice writing time in a warmer environment. Been plenty of 0 or below here in Vt lately. Did see a Bluebird shivering in Lenox Mass this last weekend. But I’m off to SoCal to take pictures of spring birds. (Friends there already have taken pictures of a nesting Anna’s hummer!)

  5. Judy Brook says:

    Hi Bryan, So glad to hear you are following your bliss or at least giving it room to wander. Thought you should know that sand dollars (flat, circular, and minutely spined) and sea urchins (ventrally flattened balls and long spined) are separate classes in the phylum Echinodermata. George and I are off to Bermuda hoping to see a Bermuda petrel (cahow), catch some of the Gulf Stream, and meet up with some Lytechinus variegatus, a sea urchin on which I started my doctoral research there 52 years ago. Think the place has changed?! Hugs, Judy

    • Thanks for the clarification, Judy. And you should know! (I’m so darned terrestrial.)
      Have a great trip — its sounds fabulous! I can envision you and Rachel Carson in the “the sea around us.”

  6. Andrew Nemethy says:

    Glad to hear from you Bryan, sounds like the climes are being kind and the birds are offering visual feast. Admire your discipline in writing.
    I’ve long marveled at the Gulfstream, whose absence would make Scandinavia like Greenland. In fact, as I am sure you know, that is one of the climate change concerns.
    Vt. is being itself and when it’s not raining and turning everything to ice, has provided some scenic vistas, up-close marvels and many a lovely tree limb. Maybe I will go climb Spruce on your behalf (though not at dawn.) Cheers.

  7. pat hazouri says:

    We have seen some amazing birds recently here on the coast of NE Florida. I have been thinking of you. Glad to see you, too, are catching sight of these winged wonders. Let your Vermont friends know, you have sunshine, but the cold north wind keeps reminding you of the bitter north wind you left back in Vermont.

  8. Catherine Willson says:

    So nice to hear of your adventures south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Hope you’re sipping sweetened iced tea and eating hush puppies and grits daily. Nothing better!
    Winter is cold and crunchy and beautiful. Skiing is amazing and we have seen some bluebird days recently with crisp temps.
    Looking forward to seeing you when we all get home. Catherine

  9. Sally M Colman says:

    Hi Bryan,
    I wanted to let you know that last Sunday, under a beautiful blue sky and bright sunshine, we skied along the Winooski towards Rt. 2.. All of a sudden a huge bird flew by and perched in a nearby tree. In order to properly identify it (eagle? osprey?) we walked into the woods crunching our way through the snow as quietly as we could to get a closer look. It was indeed a Bald Eagle!
    It remained perched for a little while longer, and then flew away. Just as we began to turn to leave, we watched another eagle appear and the two of them flew off together! It doesn’t get much better that that! ….and I immediately thought ‘gotta tell Bryan!’

  10. Nancy chickering says:

    sweet bryan, nice to see you have settled into a routine there
    hugs from the winter wonderland–it has been a spectacular show of winter with snow bows and high powder drifts–but you are enjoying a different kind of bliss–xo

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