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THE OUTER BANKSOF SHIPWRECKS,
LIGHTHOUSES, AND SAND DUNES

by Bob Brooke

Jogger on the Beach, Nags Head, NCThe Outer Banks of North Carolina, a string of sandbars and barrier islands stretching for 80 miles from Corolla near the Virginia border to the tip of Ocracoke Island and shifting with every storm, have been around longer than any man knows, always and never the same. They're a fragile group of islands, in some places less than 2,000 feet separate the Atlantic Ocean from four sounds--the Currituck, the Pamlico, the Albemarle and the Roanoke. Today, they've become one of the hottest seashore destinations on the East coast. During the summer months the population swells to over 200,000 from a mere 15,000 or so souls.

Long since "discovered" by vacationers and sportsmen, these natural barrier islands have been somewhat saved from the commercialization of the northern beaches by the federal government as part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Parts are equally a refuge for wildlife and an escape from the wild life of a typical seashore resort. But the settlements of Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, and Kitty Hawk, made famous by the Wright Brothers first flight, have become boom towns in a sea of dunes and beach grass, at least during the summer months.

There's something for everyone here--history, nature, adventure, ecology, or just plain fun in the sun. However, the waters off the Banks are some of the most treacherous in the world. Unlike the Jersey shore, rip tides can snatch a person and hold him in its grip. Swimming only in sight of life guards is imperative. These same tides and shifting sands have also snatched many a unweary ship.

History
Since Giovanni da Verrazzano landed here in 1524 on what he believed to be an isthmus jutting into the "Oriental" Sea, the Banks have been a vast burial ground for over 2,000 ships of every flag and origin, from Civil War blockade runners to Nazi submarines. Known as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic," the Banks have witnessed some of the most dramatic rescues ever documented.

Within the National Seashore, there are many shipwrecks either visible in shallow water at low tide on washed up on the beach within the National Seashore. Many are just bits of hulls but occasionally after a severe storm, one will magically appear on the beach. All are buried off Diamond Shoals, the partially submerged fingers of shifting sand that jut over 10 miles into the Atlantic from the Cape. Several visitor's centers, strung out along the shore from Hatteras to Ocracoke Island, provide a wealth of information on the history and ecology of the Banks.

In an effort to improve shipping safety, a system of lighthouses and Coast Guard stations were developed over the years. Four working lighthouses are still in service and two of the Coast Guard stations, located in Rodanthe and Avon, are open to visitors.

Lighthouses
Of the lighthouses, the one at Hatteras is the most recognizable. Its black and white barber-pole design is a North Carolina landmark. At 208 feet, it's the tallest in the United States. Closed for many years, it has recently been opened to visitors on a limited basis during the summer months.

Less well known, but older, is the Ocracoke Lighthouse. Built in 1823, this white lighthouse is one of the oldest still in use in the country. Traveling north again, the Bodie Island Lighthouse(pronounced body), built in 1873, has an alternating black and white pattern to easily distinguish it from the Hatteras Lighthouse.

On a cold and windy December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright did the impossible--they became the first men in history to fly a heavier-than-air machine. The flight lasted a brief 12 seconds and spanned only 120 feet, yet it was this beginning that the air age was born.

Today, the Wright's conquest of the air is commemorated at the Wright Brothers National Monument. Located in Kill Devil Hills, the Memorial features full-size replicas of their first plane and practice glider, documents, and films of their flights. Visitors can also walk the path of their first four flights and view reproductions of their shop and living quarters.

A Naturalist’s Paradise
The Bank's are a naturalist's paradise. More than 400 species of birds visit the beaches and marshes on their semiannual migrations. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, on Hatteras Island, offers unique opportunities for wildlife observation and photography. Its 6,700 acres of barrier beach, scrub thickets, salt water marsh, and fresh-water ponds attract all types of waterbirds, including Canada geese. Birdwatchers find the low shrubs surrounding the ponds an excellent vantage point for observing songbirds and nesting herons.

While a few areas have become overrun with fastfood establishments, surfing shops, and beach boutiques, others remain quiet and at times desolate. All of these are within the bounds of the National Seashore and under the strict supervision of the National Park Service. In Corolla and Ocracoke, at the north and south ends of the Banks, visitors can stroll through gentle dunes and watch grazing "Banker" ponies, wild horses descended from those off sunken Spanish galleons.

Hang Gliding Nirvana
Jockey's Ridge State Park, located in the town of Nags Head, offers both natural beauty and opportunity for sport. The park comprises some 400 acres and in addition to a nature trail, picnic area, and small visitor center, it contains the tallest natural sand dune system in the eastern part of the United States--over 13 stories on most days.

From atop the dunes, ranging in height from 110 to 400 feet, adventurous climbers have a commanding view of a large portion of the Banks. Within view of the Wright Memorial is a hang glider's nirvana. The sand makes for soft landings and lessons and equipment are available at reasonable prices from several operators nearby. However, a permit is required. For those with an interest in keeping their feet on the ground, kite flying is also a popular activity on the dunes.

Most of the terrain in the Outer Banks, with the exception of Jockey's Ridge, is decidedly flat and sandy. Prevailing northeast winds keep vegetation short. Yet right in the middle of the Banks is a maritime forest that few visitor every know exists.

Located just north of Jockey's Ridge State Park is the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve. Comprising nearly 1,200 acres, the preserve, operated by the Nature Conservancy, offers one of the finest examples of maritime forests left on the East Coast.

Offering three nature trails and a visitor center, its longest trail winds through forested dunes and around fresh water ponds. Run Hill, a 90-foot sand dune at the north end of the preserve is said to be a favorite spot of CBS's Charles Kurault.

Activities for Everyone
For those that want to do more than lounge all day on the beach and swim in the warm waters, there's a myriad of activities. The Outer Banks has always been synonymous with fishing. It still plays a big role in the off season. However, hang gliding and wind surfing enthusiasts have been coming to the area in increasing numbers. Both rely on the wind, almost always present, to enjoy their sport. Another esoteric sport gaining in popularity is open deck kayaking. Not as confining as the traditional closed-body kayak, this type of boat is becoming popular with everyone from children to senior citizens. Just as popular is horseback riding along stretches of wild open beach.

Each island in the chain that makes up the Outer Banks is unique in itself. Hatteras, the chain's largest island, is where most of the resort activities take place. The streets of its three major resort communities--Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, and Kitty Hawk--are lined with block after block of beach houses, restaurants, and small shopping centers.

Situated between Bodie Island and the mainland and accessible by causeway is Roanoke Island, site of Sir Walter Raleigh's famous "lost colony," whose members mysteriously disappeared sometime between 1587 and 1590. Efforts to establish an English colony began in 1585 when Raleigh settled on Roanoke Island. However, this colony failed and another attempt was made in 1587 by John White. White's daughter gave birth to Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World. The story of "The Lost Colony" is commemorated at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on Roanoke Island.

Adjacent to the Fort Raleigh are the Elizabethan Gardens, a haven for flower and nature lovers, and the North Carolina Aquarium. Here children can see the types of fish and aquatic life that inhabit the sounds around the Outer Banks. The Elizabeth II State Historic Site, also on Roanoke Island, features a working reproduction of an early sailing vessel.

And Pirates, Too
Ocracoke, the southernmost inhabited island, is virtually all unspoiled national parkland, except for the quaint fishing village near its southern tip. This fishing hamlet, whose formerly isolated residents speak with an accent distinctly different from the rest of the "Bankers," is now home to artists and craftsmen who show their works in their home galleries. It was once the hiding place of Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard the Pirate. In 1718, Teach was killed in hand-to-hand combat during a sea battle at Teach's Hole just beyond Ocracoke's harbor. Many still believe that his vast treasure is still hidden on the island. He evidently liked women as much as plunder since he was married 14 times. Ocracoke can only be reached by ferry, either from Hatteras or from the mainland.

Dining on the Banks ranges from fastfood pizza and burgers to more local delicacies like "she-crab" soup, a milky ambrosia of delicate morsels of seafood and vegetables. One of the best of the local eateries is Seafare in Nags Head. Their buffet is well known and standing in line to get in is a usual occurrence.

Accommodations along the Banks aren't as fancy as those in other seashore areas. Generally, most visitors rent beach cottages at rates well below those along, say, the Jersey shore.

However, during the prime months of July and August, space is at a premium. Traditional seashore motels with average nightly rates of about $100 and three seaside campgrounds within the National Seashore fill out the offerings.

The Outer Banks is the great fortune of shell collectors, bird watchers, bird hunters, surf fishermen, and lovers of solitude--and now families seeking a safe and natural place to getaway from the stress of everyday life.

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