An exploration of North Carolina's Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout.
In its gentler moods the ocean casts pearly shells on the wide, flat beaches and laps at the sand. In moments of fury, it lashes and churns at the dunes, gouging out channels and reshaping the shoreline. The ocean is forever resculpting these banks; Bodie Island and Pea Island (for example) are islands no more.
Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout offer two very different beach experiences. Cape Hatteras is a 70-mile strand of narrow islands connected to the mainland by a series of bridges and ferries, and bisected by a modern road that allows easy access to the shoreline. When the National Seashore was established in 1953, the small towns along the island were permitted to remain, so accommodations, supplies, and recreational opportunities are always close at hand.
It is for these reasons, however, that I chose to explore Cape Lookout, a 55-mile span of three unconnected islands, which is essentially a beach wilderness-as close as you can get to experience the coast, just as the original colonists did. Because no bridge has ever connected it with the mainland, Cape Lookout remains undeveloped and relatively pristine. The only access is by boat, and the only accommodations are tents and primitive cabins.
Carteret County, with nearly 80 miles of ocean coastline, is known as the Central or "Crystal" Coast. It is composed of south-facing beaches along the barrier island Bogue Banks (Atlantic Beach, Pine Knoll Shores, Indian Beach, Salter Path, and Emerald Isle), three mainland townships (Morehead City, Beaufort, and Newport), and a series of small, unincorporated "Down East" communities traversed by a portion of U.S. 70 that acts as a Scenic Byway.
Wilmington and the Cape Fear Coast area, between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean near the south end of the North Carolina coast, are simultaneously a beach resort and a shipping and trading center. Artists, golfers, history buffs, naturalists, and shoppers will all find something of interest here.
In 1524, explorer Giovanni da Verrazano landed on what is now North Carolina's shore, and wrote in his log that the land was "as pleasant and delectable to behold as is possible to imagine." His observation remains true five centuries later.
From the thin band of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks, along the northern coastline, to the area around Wilmington and the Cape Fear Coast, North Carolina's beaches is a year-round destination. You can visit national seashores or wildlife refuges, go surfing, diving, fishing, hiking, bird-watching, hang gliding - or just watch the waves. North Carolinians are proud that the nation's first national seashore, Cape Hatteras, is in their state, as is Roanoke Island, where the country's first European settlers landed more than 400 years ago.
For many years the Outer Banks remained isolated, home only to a few families who made their living by fishing. Today the islands, linked by bridges and ferries, have become popular tourist destinations. Much of the area is included in the Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout national seashores. The largest towns are Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, and Manteo.
These islands are steeped in history, mystery, and myth. The first settlers, remembered today as the Lost Colony, landed here in 1587, only to disappear without a trace shortly thereafter. Those who endured made their living from the sea, fishing and whaling, and frequently setting out in small boats to rescue sailors whose ships had foundered. They stayed for the same reason people flock here today: for the unparalleled beauty of the ever-changing coastal landscape.
Few landmarks in North Carolina are as evocative as the three lighthouses along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. A tour of these unusual structures should begin in the north at the 1872 Bodie Island Lighthouse. The 150-foot tower with wide horizontal stripes is set amid quiet marshlands, and still has its original Fresnel glass lens.
South of Bodie Island Lighthouse is the black-and-white-striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, at Buxton. Standing 280 feet, this is the tallest brick lighthouse in the world. Erosion has threatened the tower since 1935, and the current plan is to move it inland. At certain times of the year, usually between Easter and Columbus Day, visitors can climb 268 steps to the top of this lighthouse.
From Buxton, I headed south to the town of Hatteras, and caught the free ferry to Ocracoke, and then drove to Ocracoke Village on the south end of the island, to reach the Ocracoke Lighthouse, which was erected in 1823. Unlike its larger counterparts, this lighthouse is relatively small, standing a mere 75 feet, and its whitewashed exterior is free of design. As North Carolina's oldest operating lighthouse, this lighthouse primarily serves as a beacon for Silver Lake Harbor.
I caught an early ferry, to the point at Cape Lookout, and packed all necessary supplies, including water. From Cape Lookout's dock, I walked along a wooden boardwalk, to a lighthouse managed by volunteer caretakers. The old keeper's quarters doubles as a visitor center, staffed from March through November. Next, I followed the boardwalk, to the dunes--and, upon entering Cape Lookout's beach, I preceded south to the point, where the island ends, and meats the salty ocean. Along the dune line, I looked for massive timbers of old shipwrecks, which are covered and uncovered, periodically, by the shifting sands. Here, I found the fishing and shelling to very good. Every visitor may take up to two gallons of uninhabited shells, out of the park, per day. I proceeded to the point of Cape Lookout, where I observed gun mounts, which I would describe as 'massive, partially submerged metal structures'. During World War II, the gun mounts served as very significant submarine defenses.
Geology and Terrain
This area has an array of natural splendors. The two national seashores in North Carolina are part of a long, thin strand of islands stretching 175 miles from the Virginia border in the north to the tip of Cape Lookout in the south. Separated from the mainland by large shallow sounds, the islands form a buffer between land and sea.
A Fortified Barrier
Barrier islands consist essentially of dunes, forest, and marsh. The shifting dunes are anchored by vegetation with a special ability to withstand salt spray and unrelenting wind. Small shrubs that take hold in the shelter provided by the dunes give rise to maritime forests. The marsh is the place where freshwater and salt water meet, an ideal incubator for many ocean residents.
Go West, Islands
The dynamics of land and sea have slowly but inexorably moved the barrier islands south and west. You can see evidence of the westward movement in the black peat moss uncovered in areas of the beach; this is where the marsh was thousands of years ago. The southward current has shifted the inlets. As the current enters an inlet, it deposits sand at the bottom of the island to the north and carves it away from the top of the island below. Oregon Inlet, just south of Bodie Island, provides the most dramatic example: the inlet is moving away from the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, and only constant dredging by the Army Corps of Engineers keeps the inlet open under the bridge.
The Graveyard of the Atlantic
Two great ocean currents - the cold Labrador Current from the north, and the warm waters of the Gulf Stream from the south - converge offshore. In the dead heat of August, swimmers at Avon shiver in 72-degree water while 90 miles south, at Shackleford Banks, the water is a balmy 80 degrees. The currents converge at Diamond Shoals, just off the tip of Cape Hatteras, in turbulent, treacherous seas. The churning waters and shifting sands have claimed more than 2,000 ships since sailors first began exploring these waters, thus earning the name "Graveyard of the Atlantic."
Don't Mess With the Oats
Not much can survive on the wind-whipped dunes. Sea oats, whose deep roots anchor the dunes, are so crucial to the stabilization of the Outer Banks they're protected by federal law. Pennywort and prickly cactus also grow nearby.
The Maritime Forest
Behind the protective barrier of the dunes, the maritime forest takes hold. Live oaks, sculpted by the wind, grow no higher than the safety of the dune. Wax myrtle, yaupon holly, and cedar are a few of the trees you'll find at Buxton, Ocracoke, and Shackleford Banks.
Protect the Piping Plover
Many species of birds live along the shoreline, including sanderlings, orange-beaked oystercatchers, seagulls, and brown pelicans, which were once endangered but are now a common sight. The piping plover, a small, gray-and-white bird that feeds at water's edge, is very much endangered. Its tiny nest on the open beach is easily destroyed by humans, storms, and predators. Authorities occasionally bar sunbathers and vehicles from parts of the beach to protect plover nesting grounds.
Snakes and Nutrias
Forests are home to raccoons, rats, rabbits, river otters, and snakes. One of its rarest inhabitants is the Outer Banks king snake, smaller than a regular king snake and sporting different color bands. Cape Lookout has no unique species, but the early settlers introduced many animals to the islands. Survivors include nutria (a member of the beaver family) and ring-necked pheasants.
Marsh and Seafood
Marshes are home to a great variety of birds. Herons and egrets pick their way delicately through the grasses, and ducks glide along the water's surface. Whistling swans, snow geese, Canada geese, and 25 species of ducks winter here; sparrows, warblers, and terns can be seen during the spring and fall migrations. The marsh also provides a nursery ground for oysters, shrimp, clams, scallops, and many species of fish, some of which reach maturity in the calm, mineral-rich waters before entering the ocean. More than 90% of the sea creatures we commonly eat spend part of their lives in the salt marsh.
Ghost crabs, which venture out of their burrows to skitter along the sand, pose the gravest danger to another endangered animal that comes here to nest in the summer: the loggerhead turtle. The massive loggerheads, weighing an average of 250 pounds, drag themselves to the shores of Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras in the spring and dig large holes in the sand, where each female deposits more than 100 leathery, golf ball-size eggs. But an estimated 98% of the hatchlings die on their way to the surf, mostly picked off by seagulls and ghost crabs. Rangers and volunteers do what they can, marking nests and moving them when necessary, and even patrolling the beaches at night to help the hatchlings make it to the sea.
Nature Trails and Short Hikes
There is ample opportunity for walks and hikes, but there are no formal trails in the Cape Lookout National Seashore. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore offers a number of short, easy walking and hiking explorations.
Bodie Island Pond Trail. This trail begins behind the Bodie Island Lighthouse. A boardwalk leads through hedges of bayberry to the marsh, where dense undergrowth gives way to salt-meadow cordgrass and cattails. From the observation platform at trail's end, you can see snow geese in autumn, as well as egrets and herons.
Bodie Island Dike Trail. The Dike Trail, which begins at the far end of the lighthouse parking lot, shows how human influence has changed the landscape. Dams and dikes built in the early 1900s to promote waterfowl hunting turned a section of the marsh into a freshwater pond. Artificial dunes constructed on the oceanfront in 1938 blocked salt spray and flooding, giving rise to the trees and shrubs that have overtaken the wetlands. It's a 30-minute walk to the spot where the trail meets Route 12; you can retrace your steps or walk back along the highway.
North Pond Interpretive Trail. This interpretive trail at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge begins at a rest area several miles south of the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge. The trail runs atop a dike between two ponds. There is several observation decks equipped with binocular viewers that offer up-close views of the open areas around North Pond. It's an easy 15-minute walk to the end of the pond, but the dedicated birder can continue on the service road that winds 2.5 miles around the pond and ends at Route 12, about 2 miles from the rest area.
Buxton Woods Trail. Hiking this trail takes visitors to one of the few remaining maritime forests on the Outer Banks. The.75-mile loop begins at a parking area off the road that leads to the Cape Point Campground. The terrain is surprisingly hilly, rising and falling over old dunes that once marked the beach. Thirty miles from the mainland, one is struck by the strangeness of birdsong coupled with the crashing of ocean waves.
Hammock Hills Nature Trail. This.75-mile loop trail on Ocracoke Island offers the best cross-section view of barrier island ecology. The trail begins at a parking area across from the Ocracoke Campground on Route 12, within view of the dunes, and plunges into the maritime forest. Here you can see how plants are shaped by long-term exposure to the, sometimes punishing, elements. The trail cuts through the forest to the marshland. From the observation platform you can see where the marsh meets the sound. The trail reenters the forest and loops back to the parking lot. Be aware of fast moving but nonpoisonous black racer snakes.
Cape Hatteras Beach Trail. Most of the marked trails in the national seashores are short, but in one sense the seashore is one very long walk. You can trek the entire length of Cape Hatteras National Seashore on Cape Hatteras Beach Trail, which begins at the Whalebone Junction Information Center and spans 75.8 miles. Maps indicating comfort stations, campgrounds, and off-road vehicle (ORV) ramps are available from the National Park Service at the Seashore headquarters in Manteo, or any of the visitor centers.
Home of 'Blackbeard the Pirate'
Edward Teach, better known as 'Blackbeard', was one of the most infamous pirates on the East Coast. Cultivating fear by strapping on six pistols and six knives and, legend has it, by lighting matches under his hat to give the illusion that his head was smoking; Blackbeard attacked ships in the Caribbean and settlements along the coasts of Virginia and the Carolinas.
After a reign of terror that included taking the city of Charleston hostage, Blackbeard accepted a pardon from North Carolina's governor and retired. He bought a little place in Bath, on the mainland, and wooed a local girl. Mr. and Mrs. Blackbeard settled down to the good life, visiting and occasionally robbing terrified neighbors. With help from the governor's secretary, Blackbeard soon returned to piracy, setting up camp on Ocracoke Island.
In 1720, Blackbeard and some pirate friends swiped a few pigs, uncorked a few kegs of rum, and cranked up the band. Virginia's governor developed a bad case of the jitters. On November 21, long after the party fizzled, the governor's navy struck. Lt. Robert Maynard slipped two ships into the inlet as Blackbeard drank the night away.
Maynard approached at dawn. Blackbeard toasted the lieutenant's damnation, and Maynard attacked. Blackbeard crippled one ship and blasted the other.
Before the smoke could clear, Maynard sent his crew below. As Blackbeard and his pirates swarmed the gunwales, Maynard's men burst on deck, firing. Blackbeard and Maynard met face-to-face, pistols drawn. They fired; Blackbeard staggered. They drew their swords; Maynard's snapped. As Blackbeard raised his cutlass for the final blow, he was ambushed and decapitated by one of Maynard's men. Maynard sailed home with Blackbeard's head swinging from his bowsprit.
At least three of Blackbeard's ships sank in North Carolina's waters. My adventures ended with an exploration of Queen Anne's Revenge, from which archaeologists are retrieving artifacts from what is likely Blackbeard's flagship. Queen Anne's Revenge ran aground on a sandbar, near Beaufort Inlet, in May of 1718.
Although I found no hidden treasure, this modern-day 'Blackbeard' adventurer returned home, claiming a new and exciting frontier!
The author, who uses a cognitive-behavioral approach, has completed numerous graduate courses in social work at Springfield College School of Social Work and Roberts Wesleyan College, where he has received a cumulative average of 4.0 (an 'A' average). Additionally, he successfully completed social work internships at Project Aim and Continuing Developmental Services. He completed research studies, on the topics of depression and effective anger management, using a cognitive-behavioral approach, single-subject and single-group designs, and multi-dimensional assessment (including, but not limited to, standardized measuring instruments). The author's research study, on effective anger management, is used as an ideal in graduate courses taught by Dr. Jonathan Lieberman, at University of New Haven. His writing has also appeared in Poetry Workshop, Point of Life, and Vinland Journal.