I have a habit of dreaming big, and most days I enjoy this about myself. But on a wet Tuesday in March, when my father and I are trying to launch the Night Heron—my 23-foot Ranger Tug boat—into Taylor’s Creek in Beaufort, North Carolina, the cost of dreaming becomes apparent. Our fingers have gone numb in the cold while we unknot the boat cover. Damp masks muffle necessary instructions. We’re all drenched by a cool spring rain. Finally, we ease the boat into the tidal creek.
“I love it when a plan comes together,” my father says.
He’s said this line for as long as I can remember; his own father liked to say it. I know it’s one part sarcasm, one part nod to the divine chaos of the universe. Navigating imperfection, I’ve learned, is an essential part of pushing dreams forward.
Owning a boat and living aboard in the historic town of Beaufort is an old dream, one that came to me as a child walking the local docks. I spent my summers staring at the sea, reading about maritime forests and shipwrecks. I pictured myself as an adult, living here on an old wooden sailboat, writing mystery novels. My imagination was forged in the coastal South, and that’s still where it feels most alive.
As I weathered the pandemic on my farm in southern Vermont, I could hear my childhood dream growing louder and more insistent. I wondered what it would be like to return to my first home of eastern North Carolina—knowing more about the natural world, more sure of myself, captain of my own ship. I pictured taking my boat to places like Georgia’s barrier islands to see Red Knots feast on horseshoe crab eggs, to Lake Champlain to watch loons raise their young, or to glimpse puffins or petrels along Maine’s Penobscot Bay.
I lived frantically before the pandemic, rushing from my job as a professor at Middlebury College to parenting. I traveled often for book tours or on assignment for The Guardian, where I often write about climate change, female adventurers, and fisheries. After months of stillness in Vermont—a place I love but one that still feels alien to me at times—I could finally hear my own desires clearly. I missed the coast and wanted to deepen my relationship with its ecosystem, and most of all, its birds.
Entering my forties, I felt it was time to update my narrative about who I am, what I value most, and what I’m capable of. I wanted to show my two daughters that a woman doesn’t have to wait for everyone to approve of her plans. Plus, the pandemic had granted me a flexible schedule—I was teaching remotely for the foreseeable future. So I took the leap and bought a power boat with a cabin, christened her Night Heron, and booked a slip in Beaufort.
It took me months to admit to friends and family that I’d made such an audacious move. How would I balance my Vermont life with life on the boat, they asked? I didn’t know, only that I would figure it out. If I had WiFi, I could teach and turn in book edits. My daughters could attend virtual school onboard, or remain in Vermont while I spent a few weeks down south. Logistics, an old friend likes to remind me, are surmountable.
I bought a life jacket for Radish, my rescue dog. I outfitted the Night Heron, made calls, took online boating classes. I was determined to rediscover myself.
inally, the Night Heron is in the water. We drive it from the boat launch to the slip where it will stay for the spring. Then my father leaves to run errands, and I’m alone for the first time on my boat. Regrets start to surface, but I talk them down. I’m used to this feeling of overwhelm when I’ve reached for something past my comfort zone.
From my new slip, I pause to take in my surroundings for the next week. The stern of my boat faces Carrot Island, part of the state’s Rachel Carson Preserve, which protects important habitat for shorebirds and waterbirds. Wild horses—descendants of Spanish stock loosed in shipwrecks—graze among White Ibis and Snowy Egrets and take shade under salt-pruned live oaks and scrubby red cedar. Because it’s early spring, the marina is empty, except for the Night Heron.
Despite all that has changed here—a new hotel replacing the state’s last menhaden plant, high-density developments cropping up on once-quiet lanes, the creep of gentrification—I already feel closer to my old self. The smell of the oak leaves and the feel of humidity on my skin are a pleasure.
I plan to spend this week alone learning the boat. The panel of knobs and switches intimidates me, but after a couple of days, I get the hang of it—even the windlass anchor system. I remember to leave my engine up when I dock for the night. If there’s a problem, it’s on me to solve it, and in boating, there’s often a problem.
I like being alone on Night Heron that first night. The rain subsides. On the now still water I see the first bird I fell in love with: a Common Loon. I was on a camping trip in the Adirondacks in my late twenties when I woke up to the mournful call of a loon across a glacial lake. It feels good to return to the Carolina coast more aware of nature’s specifics; the knowledge deepens the experience of the boat trip.
For me, watching birds is a way of ascribing meaning to the world; it’s an additional line of sight that colors every place I visit, from wild ostriches in northern Kenya to the humble sparrows in a grocery store parking lot. I’m struck by the fact that the Common Loon has surrounded me my entire life—wintering on the warm waters of the Carolinas, breeding on the cool, clear lakes of New England.
This particular loon is a mottled gray from feather to bill, not yet in its black and white breeding plumage. It turns to look at me with a cool, red eye and dives down to fish without a splash.
People ask why I named the boat Night Heron. I love the birds’ villainous posture as they skulk about salt marshes looking for fish. I admire their whiff of mystery, and their adaptability and generosity. They have a wide range in the world, are active at dusk, and are known to care for any hatchling placed in a nest, not just their own. (Night-heron young also regurgitate their food when startled, so I try not to get carried away.)
When it comes to birding, I’m an enthusiast, not an expert. My adventure in boating is beginning the same way—filled with the pleasure of observation and the humility of learning. It seems fitting that a Black-crowned Night-Heron roosts nearby my slip. I take it as an auspicious sign from the universe that, despite the hard parts, I should proceed with my dream.
new friend, Captain Jess Hawkins, and I head out on my boat Wednesday morning. It’s overcast. We’re going to practice driving. Captain Jess is a North Carolina native and retired marine biologist. He shows me some of his favorite birding spots, including a part of Carrot Island where Sandhill Cranes stop over and a sandbar where I might glimpse a Red Knot or oystercatcher.
He points out the old Shackleford cemetery, just behind an enormous live oak that was turned over by a recent hurricane. The oak bark is gnarled, silvery, and sea-polished. A hurricane destroyed many of these poor island settlements in the late 1800s, but locals kept hunting and fishing shacks on the shores until the 1980s.
I, too, am reluctant to relinquish my attachments. I’m relieved to find that the coast of North Carolina still resonates as home for me in a deep, biochemical way. I’ve lived in Vermont for a decade, and because of the pandemic, two years have passed since I’ve been in my home state, a place where I spent most of my first 30 years.
At what point do you belong elsewhere?
I always miss my North Carolina family, the scent of low tide, the pleading call and awkward enthusiasm of a Herring Gull circling my outdoor lunch. I miss the sun, especially when Vermont’s gray winter drags on. I’ve wept in gratitude at the first wedge of warm light and the appearance of a Red-winged Blackbird. But living on a farm in Vermont drew me closer to nature and nurtured my capabilities of observation—never have I been more in tune with the weather, the moon, what birds have just flown into the local swamp or visited the feeder.
I know I’m fortunate to have the privilege of escape and a struggle that is merely philosophical. This year has devastated so many people, many of whom were already short on resources. It’s the people and species already on the margins who suffer worst in a pandemic or on the front lines of climate change, in need of food and safety, or navigating a crisis of belonging.
I think of birds displaced: migrant terns thwarted by storm cells, the Barn Swallows that didn’t make it back to our barn last spring, Red Knots arriving on the coast before the horseshoe crabs that lay eggs the birds need for their long flight to the Arctic. Near my marina, barrier islands and important habitats are under threat from rising seas and development.
While Captain Jess and I cut through the waves on the boat, we glimpse mergansers, Double-crested Cormorants, Tri-colored Herons, Brown Pelicans. A Belted Kingfisher dips in front of us. All seem engaged in the business of survival and spring coupling, acts of revitalization that feel reassuring and necessary after a dark and trying year.
I have mixed feelings knowing I must return to mud season in Vermont, where I often feel like an exotic species. When I first moved to New England, I didn’t have the right accent, coat, or disposition. I was too friendly, made too much small talk. I fell on the ice.
I fumbled and gave it my best, as I’ll later do when attempting to dock my new boat. I take the turn into my slip too tightly and the wood of the floating dock presses into the Night Heron.
But this is my boat. I get to laugh at the scar on the green hull. I honor the noble clumsiness of trying to expand the boundaries of your life.
s my first week on the Night Heron draws to a close, a fierce storm is blowing across the South. I examine and re-examine my dock lines, preparing the boat for wind gusts of 50 to 60 knots, possible tornadoes. The ibis have clustered on the shore across from my slip, and the wild horses have retreated to high ground. Someone advises me to get a hotel room for the night, but I want to stay with my boat.
Throughout the night, the thunder is so loud I can feel it transfer from the ocean water into my boat, and ultimately, my body. The water is choppy and loons and cormorants are no longer fishing. The Night Heron strains against the wind, dock lines groaning. Outside, the water and night sky are black until the lightning flashes, turning the skeletal oaks across the water into macabre silhouettes. I’m pleasantly unnerved, and completely engaged. These are the problems I wanted to have.
At the end of the week, I drive back up to Vermont, already missing my boat. In May, I’ll move the Night Heron to a slip on Lake Champlain, two hours from my home. In late summer I might trailer the boat and take a field trip or two to Midcoast Maine. I’ll return her to Beaufort in the fall, and explore Georgia’s Altamaha River in winter. I hope to find a rhythm that suits me—one that follows the birds.
It takes a certain determination to stay tethered to the lives and places that matter to you, to steer full-selved into the divine chaos, knowing that it will change on you as soon as you have your bearings. Migratory birds know this instinctually, and yet each year they chance the voyages between their different homes. The plan never fully comes together, but we take the risk of dreaming, again and again.