Morehead City's Bob Simpson was an N&O correspondent for more than 50 years. He recently passed away at age 92. Here is a selection of columns he submitted over the years:
A merry, noisy evening
(Published Dec. 29, 2002)
PELTIER CREEK Granddad used to quote a verse: "If you ever are lonely, brother, the cure is to share a little with another, stretch an open hand to one unfriended and both your lonely days are ended."
Sylvia lay dockside, gently rocking in the restless waters and wind. All day the wind had been screaming out of the west, the crash of waves, hissing of whitecaps rolling and breaking water hissing over the shoals and beach. Seabirds tossed about in restless flight, riding the wind in wild abandon. Even the pelicans had come inside to join the ducks seeking shelter from the gale. The prospects for the annual night of caroling, even within the sheltered waters of the creek, looked bleak.
For the past quarter-century, it has been our custom to gather a few long-term watermen who think they can sing for an evening of caroling aboard Sylvia. Having the singing voice of a crow with a bad cold, I run the boat and let them make all the noise they can.
Somewhere halfway between sundown and midnight the wind eased considerably, a blue-white glow silhouetted the oak and pine against the eastern sky as a brilliant moon eased over the horizon. John McCallum, from Taylor Boat Works up the creek, went down to the boat with me to look over the situation.
I was eager to go, but I hesitated. It was still rather windy, and chilly, too much for the caroling crew?
John offered, "If you give them a choice, they'll find a way to back out, don't ask, just go."
Sylvia gave off a faint aroma of oil and wood, of paint and salt as I stepped aboard and wound my way forward in the familiar darkness. A small brass oil lamp below the forward cabin hatch provides her basic interior illumination. A sniffing and quick inspection of her vitals, oil, filters, cooling system and life jackets, all in order. The main battery switches closed, topside, at the wheel, the fuel valve opened, throttle set, clutch in neutral, ignition on, a quick spin of the engine and the ancient Chrysler Crown flathead six dating from World War II rumbled to life, soon settling down to a steady murmur of power. Side curtains rolled up, running lights gleaming, the old girl was alive and raring to go as her crew gathered.
There's a lonesome but friendly feeling to the creek at night. Not a very large body of water, opened first in the late 1920s as a failed land speculation. Little used before the 1950s, when the entrance was dredged, it has provided shelter for boats during hurricanes. Today, the banks are lined with ever-increasing numbers of mansions and bank-to-bank mega-yachts of fiberglass replacing the old fishermen's cottages and wooden work boats.
Sylvia tied loose, we nudged her from the comfort of the dock and slid into the night. Gliding smoothly into the darkness gave me a feeling of sudden freedom, a merging with the elements as she swung toward the channel. As captain, I issued my first command, "Now sing ye lubbers, else there'll be no dessert tonight!"
Power cut, the boat idled past the gleaming windows of homes secure against the night air. The response to the spotlight beam was at best feeble, but each new song of joyous verse rang out accompanied by an occasional tooting of the old "Auuga" horn of yesteryear. Despite the sincere vocalizing efforts, most shore-bound landsmen did not seem to fully appreciate the efforts. More than one immediately pulled curtains, doused lights and sought shelter from the intrusion. I figure that the power of television, cable or otherwise upon the modern generation is overwhelmingly addictive, and those that were aware of our presence figured it was just a bunch of drunks making noise.
Granddad was right. While weaving the boat between crab pots, poking along in the black of night, flushing waterfowl while listening to a crew of carolers offering songs of joy, all while cruising beneath the magic of star and moonlight, making the offering is what counts.
The legendary Sylvia II enjoys another birthday
(Published on Feb. 20, 2000)
PELTIER CREEK Sylvia II will celebrate another birthday today. According to those who know her best, she is the last of the old-time charter boats that made Morehead City famous as the East Coast's No. 1 fishing hole.
She is pushing 70. We can state that Sylvia II was backyard built by William Riley Willis at the foot of 10th Street. Some knew Capt. Willis as "Double Dip," because of being a stickler for boat-building quality and insisting that every fastening be of double-dipped galvanizing.
The boat represents one of the most successful of Carolina designs: a "quarter boat," meaning that her beam was one-quarter her length (36 feet by 9). Her round stern, to accommodate hauling a net, is characteristic, as is her straight stem, and locals call her a Core Sound sink-netter. Her design is so noteworthy that her lines have been recorded by marine architects, including Mike Alford, formerly of the North Carolina Maritime Museum. Several models of her are on public and private display.
Sylvia's keel was laid on St. Valentine's Day during the famous era of prohibition. She was launched on St. Valentine's Day, a year later, christened with a bottle of clam juice. Some say any spiritous launching materials were reserved for other purposes. She was named in honor of Willis' granddaughter Sylvia, who had been launched the previous Valentine's Day. She (Sylvia Willis Dillon) died a few months ago.
The "II" was added upon discovery that a second sink netter of similar lines was also named Sylvia (owner/skipper Johnny Styron). The two boats were berthed side by side on the Morehead City waterfront, alongside the Sanitary Fish Market and Restaurant until the mid-1970s, both engaged in "waiting on" inshore fishing parties. Mostly, they made half-day trips.
Severely damaged and sunk in a sudden, unpredicted storm on Ground Hog Day, in February 1976, Sylvia II was restored by Bob and Mary Simpson to her former glory and became the leading figure in their book, "When the Water Smokes."
Each year since her restoration the birthday of Sylvia II has been celebrated at the same Sanitary Restaurant where she had operated and was sunk almost a quarter-century ago. The party is open to her friends and the public with cake and coffee today, from 1-5 p.m.
Thrilling to wander the wilds
(Published on Sept. 24, 2004)
Canoes and horses have far more in common than many of us realize. Among the more obvious similarities: You don't have to work at falling off a horse or out of a canoe; for most of us, such mishaps just come naturally.
Another similarity: After a couple of hours of sitting on horse or in canoe, unless you are mighty spry or young, getting legs and knees working properly again requires considerable rehabilitation. Somehow, I don't recall that such things were such problem a few dozen years back.
After some research, I have found another similarity between canoe and horse: They are ideal for exploring inaccessible country, be it backwater or river, backwoods or mountain. Nothing can compare with a good horse when you're too lazy to walk (or wade) or you venture where vehicles aren't allowed.
Better yet, canoe and horse can tote a lot more a lot farther than I care to pack on my back.
This summer, I have engaged in researching various aspects of back country fishing, and I'm happy to report that by using primarily canoes and horses for transportation, most of my major problems were satisfactorily solved. It's true I've also made quite a few casts from beaches and fishing piers where neither canoe or horse was required, but those sessions were secondary to the hours savored canoeing peaceful back country rivers and following mountain trails into wild and mysterious lands.
After I had spent quite a few days working over backwaters via canoe in pleasant sessions of attempting to reduce excess trout populations, the Nelsons of the Diamond D ranch out of Hamilton, Mont., asked if I'd like to ride trail with them again.
Dan and Jeanine Nelson raise Missouri Fox Trotters and are active outdoors types, dedicated to conservation and activities such as the Back Country Horsemen of America, spending their recreational hours maintaining back country facilities.
Their idea of fun is to load horses into a trailer, drive to the end of some far-off mountain trail and head into the unknown. This time we took a trail called Lost Horse that leads into rugged mountains ranging in elevations of 7,000 to 10,000 feet to the ridge that forms the divide between Idaho and Montana. Wild mountain goats, sheep and elk range free, almost unmolested by even the most ardent hunters.
The Nelsons reminded me that this month, 40 years ago, Congress finally persuaded President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Wilderness Bill into law. It set aside about 105 million acres of land to be left in its original form as a reserve for future generations.
Interestingly, the U.S. Park Service and the Forest Service opposed such thinking. At that time, the agencies saw no value to letting land just be beautiful, support wildlife and watersheds or provide man a place to escape social pressures. They had been taught that they were obliged to make the land produce something merchantable, be it gold, corn, wood or tourists. Adopting the wilderness concept required a major philosophical shift.
As I pulled myself closer to the campfire, watching the reds and oranges of sunset reflecting on fresh mountain snow, listening to the distant bugling of a lovesick elk, the more apparent it became that the quality of the hunt, be it for bird, beast or fish, is poorly measured by the size of the bag.
The real value is in the experiences involved. It's more important to be able to wander freely the wide-open spaces in Carolina or elsewhere, savoring the salt spray or wind in the trees, rod or gun in hand, dog by your side, listening to surf and gull, dove or waterfall, knowing that there are things still wild out there is much more important than filling creel or game bag.
(Published Oct. 28, 2001)
PELTIER CREEK Hunting camp. A sharp, cold wind rattling the canvas walls, whistling in the trees, moaning through the woods, The world is wet and still dripping from last night's rain. A chill promises plummeting temperatures, even frost, as we roll out of warm sleeping bags.
We're awakened in the pre-dawn darkness by the sputter of a match, the hiss and roar of the Coleman lantern. The click, click, click of the pressure pump stirs the stove into action, and rattling lids and pans and the aroma of coffee inspire grunts, groans and, finally, action.
Outside the canvas walls, a gray sky loaded with fast-moving clouds suggests more rain and cold. Game would be holding close to cover. Even so, the sputter and sweet aroma of bacon frying, hotcakes and eggs sizzling promise a good day.
Two days of scouring open meadows and hillsides by scope and following trails searching for fresh sign had not been promising. A few tracks and rubbings told us game, lots of game, had been in the area, but nothing very fresh. Gathering our gear as we swill another cup of coffee.
As we unfold maps and begin laying plans, a freshening blast of wind and a slash of rain hammer at the billowing canvas. Maybe we're not as eager to get under way as we'd thought. Just possibly the game had known of the coming storm and holed up.
All hunting days are not sunshine and sweetness, just as all hunts are not rewarded with filled-game bags and trophy antlers. Nor are all hunters Daniel Boones. Even with GPS, superbly detailed maps, the ever-reliable compass, radios and cell phones, none do any good left in camp. And without waterproof fire-starting equipment, signal flares or the like, a source of food and drink, shelter from rain, wind and cold, it's still possible to spend a very miserable night or more deprived of companionship and comforts.
One of our crew had got himself lost the first day and not until after dark had he found his way back. He'd had a sobering lesson: He'd left his survival pack at camp, and after wandering down the wrong drainage, he'd spent most of the day retracing his trail. Had he not heard our pre-arranged signal shots enabling him to re-orient himself, he'd probably spent a cold, wet night afield.
Hunting season is properly timed: the beauty of autumn woods and marshes, fields and streams, skies and beaches is reaching its peak. Still a little tuning of nature here and there, a few more leaves to paint in their final colors, but how can skies become any bluer than on a clear October day, the air any fresher?
This is the month of transition. Whitetail bucks begin this month in stealth, feeding and conserving energy. As days grow shorter, the nights cooler, inactivity gives way to restlessness. Antler scraping and rubbing increases as the rut starts, and by the full of the hunter's moon, caution will be abandoned, the nocturnal secretiveness giving way to the search for receptive does.
Waterfowl, following ages-old patterns, begin moving out of Canadian bog and tundra. They move with the thermoclines, each passing front stirring them toward ice-free waters and new feeding grounds.
And now man comes back to accept reality, by shifting his timepieces and routine back to standard time. His reward? Another precious hour of sleep. It's as if nature is telling him to pause, return to actuality and smell a little wood smoke. Man is only temporary, time is forever.
There remains deep in man's psyche an instinct from the past, something resembling the rut, an instinct of preparation. Most of our mothers would call it harvest time, or stockpiling for the months ahead. Grandmothers would be busy gathering, canning, spicing, drying, squeezing, grinding, salting, baking, knitting, weaving and performing other ancient arts of survival. Arts to be proud of. Who could make better apple pie or stuff a tastier sausage?
Meanwhile, menfolk had their own peculiar tasks: harvesting, hauling, stacking, splitting, cutting, hunting, skinning, smoking, swapping. A man took pride in his wood pile, barn stacked with hay, a full granary, apples in the cellar, hams and bacon hanging in the smoke house.
The winding down of October is the turning point, shifting from the flippancy of summer to the nuts and bolts of winter.
The sun pauses
(Published June 19, 2016; this was Bob Simpson's final editorial submission)
The steady increasing of the "circle of light" moving north for the past six months has gone as far as it will go. Arriving at its northernmost angle this week, it will be completing its mission of awakening and fulfilling a new season.
This work finished, the sun will appear to pause motionless for a short time as if pondering what could have been forgotten. Maybe offering a solar shrug or two before it resumes its mission of re-inspiring the struggling myriad life forms south of the equator with its generous gifting of renewed life and vigor.
We know these momentous events now taking place translate as the summer solstice, the longest day of the year that begins in spring and ends in summer.
Much of our awareness of the earth's moving seasons finds its foundation within the rituals of ancient Celtic culture. Thousands of modern Druids gather annually to see the solstice sunrise at Stonehenge.
Celtic scribes of ancient days taught that light symbolizes growth, pregnancy and expansion, that dark is not evil but speaks of resting, meditation and sleep - giving compelling reason to the northernmost populations to celebrate the summer solstice.