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North Carolina: inside the Outer Banks.

Thoreau wrote about Walden Pond that people who came out to fish left with something much more than their strings of perch for dinner--just by being there for a few hours. The visitor who drives on Wright Memorial Bridge across Currituck Sound to these Outer Banks of North Carolina will feel the same way. And he doesn't even need to bait a hook. The barrier islands are a world separate and alone, a thinning splinter of sand 120 miles long and barely a good football field wide in many places.

Connected to the mainland by one bridge and a network of car ferries, the Outer Banks are composed of sandy villages, tall light-houses and seeminly endless water. There are more sea gulls and pelicans than human inhabitants. And the native Bankers like it that way. Even popular Nags Head, with its nest of hotels and obligatory honky-tonks, is a sparse seaside town compared to resorts such as Virginia Beach and Myrtle Beach.

On well-maintained two-lane highway runs the length of the barrier islands, from Kitty Hawk on Nags Head to Ocracoke village. U.S. 12 ends there and ferries continue to the mainland. For most of the 120 miles, one can only occasionally peer through dunes and see ocean and sounds. But an uplifting experience of solitude awaits those who park and hike the short distance to the water.

There they can count on being the only souls on miles of unspoiled beach. The area looks as it did when the first English in the New World set foot here in 1584: broad beaches and capes, marshlands and inlets and sounds lying like blue green quilts thrown between the many tiny islands.

A trip down-island isn't marked as much by its towns--Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, Hatteras--as by three light-houses: Bodie Island, Ocracoke and Hatteras. The dramatic black-and-white spiral design of the Hatteras light is a landmark on the North Carolina coast. The tallest brick lighthouse in North America (208 feet), it is the only one of the three lights open to the public.

The National Park Service maintains the Hatteras light against the ever encroaching sea. Officials are now facing the inevitable question--how much longer? It's only a matter of time until Cape Point, dangerously close to the breakers now, recedes around the lighthouse. At its base is one of the early life-saving stations that were spaced every seven miles apart on Hatteras. Prior to the inception of the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915, these volunteers and their horsedrawn boat wagons were the only help for foundering sailors.

The National Park Service protects 60 percent of the island chain--45 square miles of Cape Hatteras National Seashore and extensive wildlife refuges such as 10-mile-long Pea Island. Observation platforms lie near snow geese in winter and among egrets and the wading, shore and upland birds from spring through autumn.

NPS visitors centers on each island are clearing houses for a full schedule of free films, programs, historical tours and guided nature treks around their region, for children and adults. The park service also runs five campgrounds with showers, potable water and modern facilities. A family can stay for as little as $5 a night.

The environment and history of the Outer Banks are distinct from the mainland's. The area's history is so full of shipwrecks that this coast is known as the "graveyard of the Atlantic." The reputation was started by the first recorded hurricane, in 1585, one which claimed a ship and seven Elizabethan sailors trying to plant England's first colony on Roanoke Island. [See sidebar on "America's 400th Anniversary" and the Lost Colony.]

What happened to that first British settlement in North America, no one really knows. Marking the spot are ten acres of beautiful arboretum, Elizabethan gardens and an amphitheater. It's here that the U.S. tradition of outdoor drama got its start, and it continues today in nightly summer productions of The Lost Colony. The finely crafted drama by Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Green, now in its 45th season, tells a tragic story about those first settlers.

The Spanish pirates and Blackbeard, who made Ocracoke a base of operations, came later, as well as the wreckers who gave Nags Head its name. These ambushers would hang a lantern around a horse's neck at night to give passing ships the illusion of safe harbor. When a ship foundered on the sandbars, the wreckers plundered the cargo and killed the surviving crew.

But these shallow inlets and sounds that aided cutthroats like Blackbeard and Major Stede Bonnet, "the gentleman pirate," later brought a degree of commercial prosperity. From early colonial days through the outbreak of the Civil War, ocean-going ships had to off-load their cargoes at Hatteras and Portsmouth on Portsmouth Island for transfer to smaller vessels that could deliver them inland. However, a siege of the supply routes by Union troops caused most of the Portsmouth islanders to leave in the 1860s and doomed the bustling Outer Banks seaports forever.

Today, Portsmouth is the best-preserved abandoned village on the barrier islands. The park service plans to restore the original buildings as a cultural exhibit of the life of early Bankers. By following the self-guided walking tour, visitors can see how these rugged individuals lived and worked in an often hostile environment.

The Outer Banks, lying directly in the path of storms, have always been subject to hurricanes. At least 150 have been recorded since 1585. At the end of the 19th century, storm after storm lashed Shackleford Banks. Gradually its people moved across the sound to a place they called "The Promised Land," close to Morehead City on the mainland.

In 1903 history was made when the Wright brothers chose the steady prevailing winds of the Outer Banks and the mountainous dunes at Kitty Hawk to prove man could fly. Today, from U.S. 12, hang gliders flock under the Wright National Memorial at Kill Devil Hills, near the reconstruction of Orville and Wilbur's camp and flying machine.

Along U.S. 12 are signs for marine resource aquariums, for shipwrecks left high and dry like sheletons con the beach and for chowder houses serving up the freshest seafood you'll ever eat. Local attractions include the Ghost Ship fun house in Nags Head, boat charters and a 16th-century sailing-ship reproduction, Elizabeth, II, open for visitation in Manteo Harbor. And there are formal gardens, historic Fort Raleigh, the revitalized turn-of-the-century Manteo harborside, sand and sun, oystering, crabbing and fishing.

The touristy attractions slack off as you cross Oregon Inlet to HAtteras Island and then take the car ferry to the quiet isolation of Ocracoke. By the time you're there, highway signs no longer point out tourist stops.

If you want to fish, fine: There are 14 miles of ocean-front. Or roam Octracoke village around Silver Lake. Spring and fall are good seasons for a visit. The crowds are gone and the fishing peaks. Seven fishing piers can be found from Kitty Hawk south to Hatteras.

Rent a clam rake for $2 and wade the warm, shallow sounds to the west, or spend $450 to charter a group trip 30 miles eastward to the Gulf Stream and search for white and blue marlin, wahoo, tuna and sailfish. Until recently, the Oregon Inlet Marina on Nags Head held the record for blue marlin with a 1,142-pound catch.

For about $175 a day, a party of four can charter an inshore boat for drift fishing or wreck fishing for the same varieties taken from the surf plus black bass, amberjack, barracuda and king mackerel.

And even if you don't catch a thing, you'll at least have had the benefit of those "few hours."
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Author:Barudin, David
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1984
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