Digest>Archives> January 2003

Visiting North Carolina's Outer Banks

By Jean Smilie


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Ocracoke Light.
Photo by: Jean Smilie

Two of my friends were going to North Carolina's Outer Banks. I had always wanted to visit the Banks so was delighted when they asked me to join them. They were going for the kayaking which is excellent there as is canoeing, fishing, shelling, surfing, hang gliding, parasailing, kite flying and bird watching, and there are, more outfitters than a dog has fleas offering rentals, instruction and guided ecotours. It's also a good place to just kick back and relax. But I was going for the lighthouses!

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Bodie Island Light.
Photo by: Jean Smilie

The lure of Lighthouses varies from person to person -- architecture, history, beauty, romance, or mystery. All of the above apply to me. But mainly, when I think of lighthouses, I see small wooden sailing vessels tossing on gigantic waves threatening to engulf them and hear sailors' screams and curses as they fight to keep their ships afloat while their eyes strain to pierce the black of night. Then, yes! Yes! Thank God! There it is, a lighthouse's flashing beam cutting through the darkness warning them to come no closer. Off the Outer Banks those able to heed the warning are saved. Others not so lucky are trapped and torn apart in minutes by the raging surf. It's not called the Graveyard of the Atlantic for nothing.

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Cape Hatteras.
Photo by: Jean Smilie

We arrived September 15, 2002, and for the entire week spent on Nags Head, the sun shone and the breeze was constant but gentle. The day after our arrival we spent settling in. The second day my friends kayaked, and I walked the beach shelling, gawking at Horseshoe Crabs, which look like alien beings from Star Trek, left high and dry by the previous night's tide and feeling the peace that comes from watching the ocean's waves breaking endlessly on the shore.

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The Restored Keeper's House at Currituck.
Photo by: Jean Smilie

The third day was the one I'd been waiting for. We began our lighthouse pilgrimage! A word to the wise, when beginning your lighthouse journey on the salt marshes of the Outer Banks, in addition to your camera and bottle of water bring plenty of insect repellent. Heading for Bodie, our first stop, we drove south on NC 158 and then took NC 12 south. Warning! After about 10 miles, watch carefully for the small sign on the right marking the entrance. We missed it and had to turn around. If, like me, you've always pronounced Bodie with a long "O," know that originally Bodie Island was spelled "Body's" Island and the people who live there still pronounce it "body".

Bodie stands in splendid isolation so offers a wonderful photographic opportunity. As soon as we'd stopped rolling, I was out of the car and clicking away. Unfortunately the tower is still in need of restoration and not open to the public for climbing, but fortunately the lower portion was open for viewing. I immediately took advantage of this good luck. As I stood looking up at the spiral stairs, I envisioned the Keeper climbing its 214 steps carrying a five-gallon brass can of lamp oil and a bucket of coal for the warming stove in the watchroom one level below the lantern room where he remained on watch from one-half hour before sunset until one-half hour after sunrise.

Bodie is 150 feet tall with wide black horizontal stripes, its 1st order Fresnel lens was electrified in 1932, is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard, and twice a minute its white flash can be seen for eighteen miles. The small Keepers house originally providing quarters for three families -- repeated requests for another Keepers Quarters were ignored, now houses a visitors center, exhibits and a bookstore. Helpful National Park Service (NPS) rangers willingly provide Bodie's history as well as interesting scheduled programs.

After leaving Bodie, we continued south on NC 12 over Oregon Inlet for approximately 45 miles to the town limits of Buxton. After another 1/2 mile, my excitement mounting, we turned left into a well-marked entrance. My first sight of majestic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse didn't disappoint. I easily recognized its barber pole black stripes I'd seen in so many pictures and gazed in awe up its 200 feet (some say 198, others 208) making it the tallest brick lighthouse in North America.

The present Hatteras Lighthouse was built in 1870. Everyone who loves lighthouses has probably heard or read about its relocation to its current site, but when you visit, don't miss the 45 minute free movie depicting this "move of the century". I still find it hard to believe that relocation was accomplished in twenty-three days. Today Hatteras sends out its white flash for twenty-four miles every seven and a half seconds. The 268 steps to the lantern room had been declared unsafe, so the tower was not open to the public for climbing. Hopefully this could change in the future. If you need to stretch your legs, you might enjoy the self-guided nature hike. The former Keepers quarters serve as a gift shop and visitors center. Call (252) 995-4474 for programs schedules. There's a separate well-stocked bookstore.

We left this symbol of North Carolina and were on our way to the lighthouse on Ocracoke Island, the pirate Blackbeard's favorite stomping grounds. To get there go to the southern tip of Hatteras Island and take the car/passenger Hatteras/Ocracoke Ferry. From May 1 to October 31 it leaves Hatteras every hour 5-7 a.m. and 7-10 p.m. and midnight and every half hour 7 a.m.-7 p.m. It leaves Ocracoke every hour 5-8 a.m. and 7-11 p.m. and every half hour 8 a.m.-7 p.m. The good news is that it's free and, when we were there, ran on schedule. The bad news is that even though each ferry (three when we were there) has a 30-car capacity and we were there off-season, we still had over a two-hour wait to board. More good news is that the wait was worth it. Nearby there're rest rooms, a small gift shop with reasonably priced items and a refreshment center full of vending machines with overpriced items. I recommend taking snacks, drinks, a good book and, if children are with you, games. Crossing time is approximately 40 minutes and was smooth and uneventful. The return was a little rougher. You can stay in your car, on deck or--like I did for a while--sit in a small passenger lounge enclosed by windows. Upon disembarking, we continued south on NC 12 for about 12 miles to picturesque Ocracoke village, the island's only village. After lunch, we tried to find Ocracoke Lighthouse.

We could see it but somehow kept turning wrong on the narrow, sandy, twisting streets. There are no signs pointing the way, but it is on Lighthouse Road, which should have given us a clue. Eventually we found it tucked away in the back yard of a private residence, which at one time was probably the Keepers quarters. Now there's a big No Trespassing sign posted on the white picket fence surrounding the house. There's a tiny parking lot for about four cars. We were lucky. A car was leaving as we arrived. There's no visitors center, no gift shop and no helpful NPS ranger. A narrow boardwalk spanning marshy ground allows visitors to get closer to the lighthouse. I felt sad for this humble little tower and sensed that if it could talk, it would say, "I know I'm only 65 feet tall. I know I'm not glamorous. I have no stripes, diamonds or markings of any kind, and my sides aren't even but I have character. I was built in 1823 so I'm the state's oldest lighthouse still operating. Every night my white light shines and can be seen for 14 miles even though I have to compete with the electric signs and street lamps all around me. It's lonely back here, so thank you for coming." I was glad we and the few others there had taken the time and trouble to pay our respects.

We made the rounds of the village shops and made a quick stop at the Pony Pen between the village and the ferry dock to see the famous Ocracoke ponies, which once roamed free but were penned in 1959 when the first highway was built. By the time we were back on Hatteras Island, it was dark. Therefore, I had the thrill of seeing the lights of Hatteras and Bodie. Unfortunately, it was too late to stop in Rodanthe to visit the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station, one of the island's most famous and the only one open to the public.

Tearing myself away from lighthouses for a day, we did other things I recommend. Not to be missed is the Wright Brothers National Memorial open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. The impressive sixty-foot monument standing on Big Kill Devil Hill is visible for miles. I found one thing the young lady NPS ranger told us particularly touching. On his flight to the moon, Neil Armstrong carried a small piece of fabric from the Wright brothers' first plane (now in the Smithsonian) between his space suit and his heart as his way of recognizing that their first step into powered flight led to his first step on the moon and honoring their achievement. Many events are planned here for the worldwide centennial of flight December 17, 2003. A small fee of $3 per person or $5 per carload is paid as you exit and worth every penny -- and more.

Another must is a visit to tiny peaceful Roanoke Island, chock-full of history. To get there, from Nags Head follow Highway 64/264 and bear right toward Manteo. Here the 117 first settlers lived and vanished without a trace, leaving a mystery unsolved to this day. I longed to see their story in the outdoor drama The Lost Colony but couldn't since presentations end in late August. However, for minimal admission fees we strolled the beautiful Elizabethan Gardens and visited the North Carolina Aquarium, which kids will really enjoy. We lunched in Manteo's quaint waterfront district, and then wandered through its art galleries and antique shops. There's much more to do on Roanoke than our time allowed.

On our last day we headed north on NC 12, and I dropped my friends off at Duck for final kayaking while I continued north to Corolla and the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, its distinguishing daymark its natural red brick. Built in 1875, it is the youngest of the Banks' lighthouses. There's ample parking, and walking around its beautiful compound, you'll see the meticulously rejuvenated three-story double Keepers quarters; the lone survivor of only three built in the U.S. Much work on the interior remains. Even a pristinely restored two-hole privy is visible through a clear plastic door. A smaller Keepers' house moved here in 1920 was hidden by vines until rediscovered during restoration and now serves as a museum/gift shop. Open from Easter through Thanksgiving, the Currituck is 162 feet high, and with a 20-second flash cycle, its light can be spotted for 19 miles. For the adult fee of $6 I climbed its 214 steps, stopping on every landing to catch my breath and read information posted there. From the catwalk I took photos of the wonderful panoramic view but was disappointed not to see at least one of Corolla's wild horse herds, which have roamed its beaches for over 400 years.

Twenty years ago, when Currituck was in ruins, the Outer Banks Conservationists (OBC), a non-profit organization, stepped in to preserve it when no one else would. The OBC has spent nearly 1.5 million private dollars restoring, maintaining and operating the lighthouse. Therefore, I hope that everyone who cares about lighthouses and justice responded to the American Lighthouse Foundation's alert that the Federal Government is attempting to steal the Currituck from the OBC and give it to the local county government which did nothing to preserve it. In spite of modern technology, the beacons of all the Outer Banks lighthouses remain an aid to navigation. I like to think that in the dark of night far out to sea some sailor standing his lonely watch is still comforted to see their beams flashing the message, "I'm still here, doing my job, keeping you safe."

Let's continue to keep them safe.

This story appeared in the January 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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