Almost made history

A few years ago, I took a weekend photography trip to the Outer Banks of NC with a friend, and among others, took one of my favorite black & white photos seen here (and twice at least on this blog.) But I haven’t told the backstory, and how I nearly made history, until now.

While wandering the beach at Buxton, just south of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, we came across a small placid tidal pool sitting behind the main dune line, and I started wandering around it looking for decent compositions. I had actually been down to the very edge of the water with no difficulty and started wandering up the slope away from it when the sand became abruptly soft and I began to sink in. This was no big deal – I encounter this all the time when wandering in muddy estuary areas, and the trick is to shift away quickly before you sink enough to submerge your footwear. Of course, you head for more solid ground.


Only in this case, it didn’t work, with each step, I found softer footing, and as I frantically tried to get out of it, sank below my knees into what appeared to be normal beach. I ended up scrambling up the slope on hands and knees to avoid putting my weight straight down on my feet, and even left a shoe behind. In the pic at top, you can see where the footprints at right, only dipping a few centimeters into the sand, vanish entirely at left to be replaced with small sodden hollows of hideous-smelling muck where my deep holes had filled in after I drew my legs out – note the nearby splashes of mud from yanking free.

I point out once again that I was going uphill, and this occurred on a slope actually higher than the firmer footing I had at the water’s edge. This is not something anyone would expect to find, most especially not as deep as it seemed to extend. The mud underneath was quite stinky, appearing to have been there a while. It occurred to me afterward that I’d had my first encounter with quicksand. It’s not what the movies have made it seem to be, and was potentially caused by a spring or undersurface channel in the area. Thus, the tidal pool may not have been tidal at all, but the surface effect of the water seep alongside of it. The consistency of the muck indicated that silt or clay was probably present as well. The upper layers were clearly normal sand, maybe to a depth of 10-20 cm (4-8 in) but beneath was heavily saturated swamp.

Had I, of course, not had the presence of mind to wallow and flail frantically and gracelessly like the advanced life form that I am, I may well have disappeared beneath the surface, never to be seen again until paleontologists discovered my fossilized remains thousands of years from now, pondering over the strange possessions I had strapped to me, and speculating on the nature of the god “Canon” that was emblazoned on my totems. Either that or they probably would have thought I was just an idiot. Truth be told, though, quicksand is unlikely to result in total submergence, because it does have its own buoyancy, and equilibrium would have been reached long before my head went under, so they would have found only my legs after the rest had been taken away by scavengers.

Afterward, I wandered to the “edge” of the unstable area to get some pics of the aftermath, and sank in again, only not as far this time. I also managed to retrieve my shoe by spreading my weight out and keeping most of it upslope. Later, as we sought a motel room for the evening, I stayed in the car with my overly fragrant trousers so as not to send people screaming from the lobby, then rinsed them out in the room sink later on. The previous day, I had been wandering in a coastal bog area that had been burned off to prevent the buildup of gasses and fire hazards, and had gotten the light-colored pants from that day marked up with ash. That represented the only two pairs of long pants I’d packed, which meant getting dinner that evening in shorts. Since an unexpected cold front had moved in, I was rather uncomfortable in shorts and sandals as my pants and shoes dried in the room.

My friend, always ready to catch me doing something stupid, provided me with a portrait featuring the Hatteras lighthouse in the background, which I should probably sell to a calendar publisher. But it also serves to show the conditions and the slope, as well as the camera beltpacks that I’d slipped off to retrieve my shoes, visible at right. And to highlight the weirdness of it even more, I’ll say that I was further downslope, just a little ways around the perimeter of the pool, when I got the nice B&W pic.

In my memoirs this will undoubtedly become a bit more dramatic, and will likely take place in deepest jungle far from help, where I will extricate myself with the help of my trusty grappling-hook gun. Later on, I will escape the clutches of a deadly man-eating gorilla by remembering exactly where the quicksand could be found. And there will certainly not be silly little photos to illustrate it. I’m fine with talking about it here because my memoirs will not be published under the name of “Denelsbeck” – people want author names they can pronounce, maybe like “Dugong” or something. Al Dugong. Naah, people will simply mistake me for that guy that gets killed in nearly every part he’s played.

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