Posts Tagged ‘Outer Banks’

shackleford ponies

I used to go to those islands all the time. When I was a kid the Southern Outer Banks were my summer isles. We used to drive down across the Alleghenies, the cut through the Blue Ridge, and then wind our way around the North Carolina Piedmont for what seemed an eternity.

And we’d get all giddy and silly when we crossed the first causeway that went over saltwater. Children from the interior are certainly easily amused.

The sandy isles are made to weather and contort with the currents and the wind, but they aren’t likely going to withstand the king tides of climate change.

And this coming hurricane, which they are calling Florence, will be a disaster, of course. I hope the Neuse and the Cape Fear Rivers don’t swell up in the storm surge and decimate all those little cotton and pulp mill towns.

I hope those old banker ponies will still roam Shackleford Banks, and little kids will fight over who saw the first feral horse when the family drives over to Beaufort.

Blackbeard used to use the islands as his pirate haunts, and The Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground on a sandbar near Beaufort. And the old pirate met his demise at Ocracoke.

But when you listen to that Jimmy Buffet music on the beach, you feel that pirate’s presence in the hot salty air.

And you feel the hospitality of these saltwater people, whose lives are made during the tourist season if the shrimp and oyster boats don’t bring in a good profit.

They know the storms, but the bad ones are still pretty bad.

And I cannot tell you much but a piece of me aches for what is coming.  I hope that all will be okay in the end, but I know that every one of these storms takes a bit away. It takes life. It washes away a whole beach. It floods out a little town.

Nature builds the hurricanes over the warm late summer seas. We just now help in the process by making the seas stay a little warmer a little longer.

Those island towns have made fortunes off of West Virginia coal miners’ vacation funds. The carbon released from the burning of coal has made the earth retain the sun’s heat, as did the burning of petroleum in air-conditioned cars of all the tourists coming down  And so the force that made the islands ultimately will bring them down a peg.

Nature gives. Nature takes, and humans can never accept the unjust mismeasure.

But the storm is coming to the islands and coast, and let’s hope when this passes we can think about the warming seas and burning of fossil fuels.

I hope we can, but I wonder if we will do anything about it.

Because it may not happen this time, but someday– and someday soon– the Outer Banks will slip and slide away into the frothy waves of the Atlantic.

And I will have lost a bit of the happy times of my childhood, and we will all lose the tern-filled beaches, the nesting grounds of the loggerhead sea turtles, and the place where the waves crash and the dolphins cavort.

A bit of America will be gone, another bit that we squandered away in our stupidity and ignorance as the cars and plants churned up the carbon into the sky.



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The Crystal Island

black skimmer.jpg

When I was a boy, my family used to vacation on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. These islands are masses of shifting sands, and their exact topography can vary from season to season, year to year.

When you’re a child growing up somewhere deep in the interior of the country, the salt sea and the sand and all the attendant creatures associated with these environs are exotic. For me to come out of the mountains and the forests of oak, hickory, and maple was to step into a new universe,

I came to revel in the foliage in scenery changes as we crossed the Alleghenies and the Blue Ridge, then rambled along the Piedmont for what seemed an eternity, and the came to the flat land of the pines, Along the roadside, the subtropical pine forest seemed to stretch on for an eternity, but suddenly, you’d a long patch of cotton fields and corn. And when I was a really young boy, the tobacco fields would also stretch out on both sides of the highway.  Acres and acres of cancer and emphysema, bright leaves shining in the summer sun, white flowers spreading like a fine ornamental.

But then, we’d cross a causeway or two and drive over the some sound, where the saltwater laid heavy and black and where there would always someone fishing along the bank, and we’d get all excited because we’d seen saltwater again.

When I was a young child, I accepted the usual beach decorum of lying around on a towel in the sand and charging out into the waves for a bit of fun. The real joy would come when we’d go to the hotel pool and swim for seven or eight hours.

But as the summers passed, I got the wandering spirit. I think I initially got this idea to avoid potential family conflict, but I would go in the early morning on the beach and walk where the sand was still pounded down from the receding tide.

I would walk past all the places where people were sprawled out catching rays, past the places where lifeguards sat on high towers to watch for mischief, and within just few hundred yards, I’d step onto the wide beach that rested just beyond an old Civil War fort.

And there, I would walk into a sort of wilderness. Where the terns festoons the sand, and the black skimmers would descend along the foamy waves and let their long lower bills  dip into the water in hopes of snagging a wayward baitfish.  The little shorebirds, too difficult for my adolescent mind to identify, would scamper in and away as the waves crashed into the beach sand.

The only people about where those either letting their dogs off-leash to run into the surf or the true seashell aficionados, who were scouring the tidal zone for perfect scallop and oyster shells. And then there would be a few old me standing shirtless and sunburned as they cast their long fishing rods into the sea.

I would walk into the subtropical heat, and the sweat would pour from my skin. The sunscreen would run into my eyes, and I’d wipe my forehead with a paper towel I remembered to bring with me.

And I would enter into this Zen-like state, one that I can only attempt to describe with some difficulty, but that I would feel at one with the heat and the salty wind and the crashing waves.

And my eyes would cast about and watch the brown pelicans dive down into water beyond the waves, and occasionally, bottlenose dolphins would make an appearance in the surf.

And I would become transfixed with them.  I would wonder about what it would be like to be a dolphin living in the sea, frolicking the whole day with my pod as I chased the the little fish up into shoreline.

I would sometimes follow a pod along the coast  and then totally forget where I was on the beach,  but beaches being linear things, I knew that all I had to do was remember whether I had been heading out or heading back to correct my course.

I would cross back over the boardwalk that carried me over the dunes, and the green anoles would flit about and show their dewlaps. And I would be reminded of what an exotic place this truly was, and I would then return to the hotel or the condo for a nice shower and then preparation for the evening meal at some restaurant.

On dark winter nights, I often will have dreams about the Crystal Island, and into my mind will filter the crashing waves, the cavorting dolphins,  stench of the ocean, and that Zen-like state of walking in the subtropical heat.

And I will remember it for my encounters with a wildness I rarely got to see. I was in a place that was just far enough off the beaten path as not to have been turned into a corporate hellhole, where I could still see a bit of the wild Atlantic with my feet still in the sand.

I know that someday I will return to this island, and I will feel a bit of sorrow. I bet the dolphins don’t come in close to shore there anymore. Climate change and the sea level rise will have altered this spit of sand, too, and I know it will never be the same place I knew as a child.

But it still resides.  It is deep within my psyche, and my occasional flits of nostalgia will bring it back for a little while.

And maybe that’s the best I can do.


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When I was growing up, I spent a large part of my summers at the beach. My aunt and uncle had a condo on the Outer Banks, and my family used to spend three weeks a summer there. We would go when school was out for the summer, and then we would go again for the Fourth of July. We would make a final trip before school started again. It was a way to spend the summer– part of it in the bucolic countryside of West Virginia and part of it only sea-salted air of the Outer Banks.

I am not a person who sunbathes. I don’t think we humans are meant to be walruses, hauling our bodies onto the shore and letting the sun beat down on us. I am a beach comber, and I have always been interested in what animals use the littoral zone. I am pretty good at identifying the shorebirds of the North Carolina coast, and I have seen sea turtle tracks that reach from the surf to their nesting places on the beach. However, to get to really experience these things, I would always walk as far as  I could from the public bathing areas and the resorts. Only the intrepid would ever go so far, for the sand flies and mosquitoes tended to be rather strong at certain points during the summer and narrow barrier islands are rather hard to negotiate during high tide.

I have seen lots of interesting things wash ashore.

I remember walking along the beach during what we call “spring break” in the US. It actually happens in the late winter. In fact, it was snowing in West Virginia when we left. However, the beach in winter can be a remarkable place. I saw lots of cormorants diving among the waves. I also watched large numbers of brown pelicans dive into the water. Now, in the summer months, I rarely saw cormorants, and the number of pelicans diving from the sky was much lower.

But that was not the most interesting bird I saw on that trip.

I saw a dead white bird that had washed ashore in a raft of seaweed. When I approached it I could see it was a northern gannet, a bird I had only read about but had never seen. It was too bad that I had come across a dead specimen rather than a living one.

But even that bird wasn’t the most interesting thing I’ve found while beach combing.

One summer I was walking along the coast early in the morning. The tide was out, but at the narrow points on the beach the surf was beginning to come in. The surf was starting to nip at my heels as I passed the public bathing area.

As soon as I was through, the beach opened up in all its white sandy glory. Joggers were running down the coast. Some of them at the far end of the island were but tiny specs.  The sea breeze was blowing gently. The gulls were lining the shore, while the turns squabbled over their position on the beach. A skimmer hovered over the surf, occassionally lowering its thick bottom jaw into to the water to troll for small fish. All was as beach on the Outer Banks should be.

As I walked on, I saw a grey shape looming ahead. I noticed a mother and a daughter stopping to look at it. They had baskets full of shells, and I assumed they had found some interesting shells around that grey lump of flotsam or jetsam.

I continued on, keeping my eye peeled for the dolphins I had seen the day before. They were Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. I had often seen them foraging just a few yards off shore.  The day before the dolphins had come in really close. I surmised that there had been a shoal of small bait fish close to the coast that day, and the dolphins had cornered them up against the beach for easy picking.

As I kept walking, I noticed that the grey lump had a tail. In fact, the tail had a fluke, just like a dolphin. Could it be a dolphin that beached on the shore?

I  hastened my pace. I did not full out run, because I knew that if I started running towards the shape, it would definitely draw attention to it. So I kept walking, just at quicker pace.

When I got close enough to the grey lump, I realized that I had come across something really interesting. It was a cetacean. And unfortunately, it was quite dead.

However, it was not a bottlenose dolphin.

It head was thick and rounded, much more like a whale than any dophin I had seen. Its bottom jaw was tiny by comparison. Its jaw was lined with thick, sharp teeth.

I knew what I had come across. A few months before, I had purchased a guide book to the marine mammals of North America. I had learned that there were three species of sperm whale. One was the cachalot, the great whale that grappled with giant squid many fathoms down below the surface. It was the species immortalized in Melville’s Moby Dick.  The other two were much smaller. The one most common on the East Coast is the pygmy sperm whale, and it is better known for being a light shade gray and a more conical head shape. The other species of sperm whale is also small. It is called the dwarf sperm whale. It has a squarer head and darker coloration. It also has a larger dorsal fin in proportion to its body size.

I knew that I had come across a pygmy sperm whale. I was quite surprised. I ran back to tell my parents, who followed me closesly back to the whale. By then a crowd had gathered aroud the whale. And suddenly found myself like George Costanza, an impromptu marine biologist. I explained the taxonomy of the species and how it was related to the bigger sperm whale that everyone knows. I explained how its jagged teeth helped it catch squid, which are its primary food source.

I suppose someone from Marine Fisheries collected the animal. It wasn’t there when I went on my afternoon excursion down the beach.

The whale had a large gash on its head. I had guessed that it had been cut by teh propeller of a boat, which had mortally wounded the whale. It had then staggered in closer to shore, hoping that coming closer to shore would keep the sharks at at distance.

But then I began to wonder about the dolphins. Perhaps the dolphins had been attracted to the whale’s distress cries and had come to its aid. Maybe they hadn’t bunched up a shoal of bait fish against the beach after all.  Perhaps the propeller had damaged the whale’s melon, and it couldn’t find its way back to deeper water. Or maybe its brain was damaged, and it went to shore to die. The dolphins could have been trying to lead the whale back to deeper water.

My suspicions were furth substantiated when I read about this Indo-Pacific bottlenosed dolphin in New Zealand. This dolphin had helped a female pygmy sperm whale and her calf that came to close to the shore. The dolphin guided the whales back away from the beach and into deeper water. Perhaps that was what the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins were doing that day in North Carolina.

So a pygmy sperm whale is the most interesting thing I’ve found on the beach. It’s not the Montauk Monster, but it was far more interesting.

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