Outdoors

Bob Simpson: A birthday bash at Cape Lookout

June 13, 2012 

BTRL8ES

A file photo shows the Cape Lookout lighthouse in Carteret County, N.C. News & Observer file photo

CHUCK LIDDY — NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

— The scene was idyllic. Gentle north wind under brilliant blue skies, seagulls and white clouds sweeping overhead, the snarling roar of an outboard engine, the boat’s hull slapping across the endless wavelets. We’d agreed to celebrate my two brothers’ birthdays by taking them for a visit to the beaches of Cape Lookout.

As we peered over the bow rails, we discovered mile after mile of sandy shell-strewn beach aligned with hundreds of landing craft, a scene unnerving enough to pull ancient memories out of deep storage. My eldest brother’s last, grand beach party included places such as Normandy. The other, accompanied by his First Marines friends, found a beach known as Incheon, Korea, to visit.

This time was quite different. Providing first class service at a reasonable fee of $10 per round trip, the ferryboat operating out of Calico Jack’s on Harkers Island nosed the oversized skiff onto the shell strewn beach. The skipper stepped overboard into calm warm knee deep waters and guided his cargo safely ashore. Once unloaded, he announced he’d be back and would return us to civilization at an agreed upon hour.

For those not familiar with Cape Lookout National Seashore, it consists of a series of narrow migrating islands extending along mid-North Carolina’s coast for about 56 miles in a northeast to southwesterly direction. The southwest tip, Shackelford Banks, terminating at Old Topsail Inlet, where Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge was scuttled, is a short mile from Fort Macon on Bogue Banks. Portsmouth, at the northeastern end, is separated from the mainland by about 16-18 miles of Pamlico Sound’s shifting, shallow waters. It was one of Carolina’s important inlets until shifting sands reduced traffic to a standstill.

Nearly abandoned, Core banks were virtually forgotten by all but locals, waterfowl hunters and fishermen, until the early 1960’s when the entire length was deemed a national seashore. Efforts to keep it wilderness offended those unable to carry their fishing gear across the less than half mile wide beaches, which left Shackelford as the only section protected by wilderness designation, meaning neither motorized machines nor “non-native or feral” animals are permitted, which wasn’t a problem until the “Feds” started eliminating the “non-native” Banker ponies.

Horses were native on the banks since before the earliest Spanish explorations. Archeologists recently uncovered horse molars from the sands of Shackelford dating back a couple million years. Carolina’s beloved wild ponies remain.

Today only Shackelford is designated as “wilderness,” meaning all motorized craft must be tethered at least 100 feet offshore. Unrestricted hiking, swimming, fishing and bird watching are without compare. But be aware, with kids out of school and city folks aching for escape on the weekends it can become crowded. Between 500,000 and 800,000 sunburned, fly-, gnat- and mosquito-bitten visitors each year go happily trampling through the sand and meadows searching for shell and exotic birds in one of America’s treasure houses.

The famed Lookout lighthouse, standing tall and silent, a sturdy, handsome structure distinctive in black and white diamonds amid the scattering of oak and pine, still casts its beams far to sea. The sun descending below the horizon, moon and stars brilliant and alight, make a visit well worth any effort expended.

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