A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

“Do you even know where we are?” Julie asks. I bite my lip, ever so slightly. I’ve long since matured beyond taking offense at this type of question. OK, I

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

“Do you even know where we are?” Julie asks. I bite my lip, ever so slightly. I’ve long since matured beyond taking offense at this type of question. OK, I

Red, Right, Returning

“Do you even know where we are?” Julie asks. I bite my lip, ever so slightly.

I’ve long since matured beyond taking offense at this type of question. OK, I was deeply offended that time Julie suggested that we call the Coast Guard after she saw me thumping the boat’s compass housing like you’d thump a fuel gauge when you hope to loosen the needle a bit for another pint or two of go-juice. And, of course, the compass was right, dang it — but that was a really long time ago. Since then, I’ve successfully and safely transported my bride over, literally, thousands of watery miles. Except for the broken rib that one time. But I’m only claiming 50 percent responsibility for that. And it had nothing to do with my navigation skills.

I look up wearily. We’re crossing Currituck Sound in our 20-foot Scout center console, a boat large enough to handle open water but not so large that you don’t have to give the task your full attention. I search the horizon for the next channel marker, one of those green or red signposts installed by various state and federal entities that steer boaters into deep navigation channels and away from the shallows.

Typically, boaters can use the expression “red, right, returning” to remember to keep red markers on their right when returning to port. But on the water, as in life, there are always exceptions: Heading south on Roanoke Sound, green markers — like G33 — should be on the right. photograph by Chris Hannant

Most of the time, channel markers are close enough together that you don’t have to squint to see the next one. Other times, they’re so far apart that a pair of binoculars comes in handy. To be honest, I have only a vague idea of where the next marker is. Fortunately for me, my co-captain has terrible eyesight. That might explain our marriage, come to think of it, but the deficiency has otherwise come in handy a time or two.

“I’m headed for that marker,” I lie, and point the boat in the direction that I’m only guessing is correct. “See it? Just to the right of that pelican. Waaay out there.”

There is no pelican, of course, but she doesn’t know that.

“Good,” my co-captain replies. “You can’t blame me for getting a little nervous, compass thumper.”

She never forgets anything.

I give the engine some throttle, and within 10 seconds, a green channel marker appears off the starboard side of the boat. I adjust course in tiny little increments. Julie never suspects a thing.

• • •

On the water, there are no marked lanes, no passing zones, and few speed limit signs. And the markings that do exist are in what seems like a sort of kindergartner’s hieroglyphics: red triangles and green squares, and yellow squares and yellow triangles inside of red triangles and green squares, and flashing lights and steady lights and floating things and things nailed up on posts. You have to keep track of this and all the while stay clear of giant yachts and Jet Skiers.

But there are a few rock-solid guidelines, which stay true whether you’re on a river, lake, sound, bay, or the Intracoastal Waterway. Safe navigation channels are identified by green markers on one side and red markers on the other. In between is a channel of deeper water, and outside of that channel can lie fiberglass-shredding oyster beds, sandbars, sea serpents, giant fanged squid, and other things a boater would like to avoid.

On the water, there are no marked lanes, no passing zones, and few speed limit signs.

And those markers are not mere suggestions. I once beached a boat so far up onto a sandbar in the Cape Fear River that I thought I was going to have to pay property taxes on the place. Julie stood on top of the boat’s cooler seat to watch for alligators as I vaulted overboard to dig an escape trench, toiling in peril. I had no delusions that she would leap to my rescue, should I need one. Throw a bottle of sunscreen, maybe. What can I say? The woman is not a fan of large, toothed reptiles.

In general, when you’re moving from a larger water body to a smaller water body, or moving upriver, you want to keep red markers to starboard, or on your right. That fact has given rise to a salty saying: “red, right, returning.”

Boaters take a lot of comfort in that singsong little ditty, and it works just about all of the time. The rest of the time, well, that’s part of the adventure.

• • •

Navigating channel markers is a little bit trickier than it looks until suddenly it becomes a whole lot trickier than it looks. Just when things seem to be going pretty smoothly, the channel takes a dogleg turn, or it crosses another channel, or — to really confound matters — the channel moves during a storm, and now it’s marked with sticks or pipes or some other visual aid put in by locals. Or it’s not marked at all. You don’t really know what to trust. You don’t really know where the safe water lies.

I remember a trip we took through Currituck Sound one summer. There were stretches where the channel markers were so far apart that I sometimes searched the watery horizon with binoculars. A building storm was tossing the boat. I would find a green square in the distance, then lose it in the swell. Spot a red triangle only for it to disappear in sheets of rain and a distant chop. It took teamwork to find our way — Julie steering as I picked our way across the open water.

Life sometimes feels that way — the markers helping us stay on track are indistinct or confusing, or simply unavailable, having been swept away by storms we all must weather. There are times I find myself in uncharted territory, unsure of how I got there and unsure about how to navigate out. “Alone, alone, all, all alone,” lamented the sailor in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” We can all feel that way, at times.

That’s when I take a page out of the boater’s playbook. Keep your head up and take things slow. It’s far easier to push off a sandbar when you don’t hit it at full speed. Don’t ask me how I know that. Julie really enjoys telling those stories.

Red, right, returning. If we only look for them, there are markers to help us find life’s smoother waters and its safer deep channels. It’s not too difficult to spot the shoals of selfishness and greed. And much of the time, we’d do well to listen to those who are on the journey with us. Everyone’s life compass needs a good thumping now and then. And if you’re lucky enough to have a co-captain like mine, there won’t be much hesitation for correction when you start to veer out of the channel.

This story was published on Aug 28, 2023

T. Edward Nickens

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual and The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.