Off the Porch: The wilderness on the coast

Nov. 22, 2013 @ 05:32 PM

It looked like something in a movie. The sunset was almost there. Only about half the diameter of the sun separated the lower edge of the sun from the ocean horizon. As I watched and waited for the sun to touch the horizon, I noticed a seagull flying a hundred or so yards out. He turned and eclipsed the red ball of the sun, and flew straight towards me, highlighted against the background of the setting sun. His flight kept him aligned between me and the setting sun until he lifted up and passed over my head. Had I not been waiting for the sunset, I wouldn’t have noticed it, but it was a remarkable and beautiful thing to see.
I was at one of the last coastal wilderness areas in North Carolina, probably the largest accessible coastal wilderness on the Atlantic seaboard. I was a mile or two below the Cape Lookout light house on South Core Banks. There are no stores or streets, and no electricity lines. All the power on the island is generated with gas and diesel generators. The electricity that powered the lights in my camper came from the battery of my truck.
There are few truly wild places that are still accessible to the general public and I fear for the future of access to South Core Banks. Much of coastal North Carolina, where a person could go to fish and camp on the beach has been taken over by the Parks Service and restricted to the point of making those places almost inaccessible under the ruse of protecting the local flora and fauna. Cape Hatteras now requires a permit to drive on the beach and you can no longer camp on the beach. Bird and turtle closures close access to almost all the beach in summer with less than 10% of Hatteras Island’s beach accessible even on foot. Ocracoke Island is covered under the same rules. I have no problem with preserving wild areas, but every year, we lose more of our beaches to closures for birds and turtles that aren’t on any endangered list.
South Core Banks is remote but still accessible via two commercial ferries that run across the Core Sound from mid-March to the end of December. There are National Parks Service cabins on the island, but you must bring your own generator, if you want electricity. The island is about twenty miles long and in some spots, you can see all the way across, seeing the Atlantic Ocean in one direction and Core Sound in the other. It is a wild place with miles of deserted beach.
This time of year, the island has few visitors other than fishermen. Some have old motorhomes or delivery trucks converted into beach campers, some tent camp and some, like my Lab, Larry and I, have slide in truck campers. The cabins are spartan, but livable and have showers and hot water. There is a public bath house with hot water near the ferry dock and ranger station. You can buy gas and ice at the ranger station; otherwise, there are no supplies available.
Before you get the romantic notion that this is the perfect place for a weekend getaway, take into consideration that you will do without anything you neglect to bring. You are much more affected by weather when you only have a small space to live in and there are no diversions if it rains every day. Coastal winds are noticeable at Myrtle Beach, but a strong wind that continues for three or four days is a lot less pleasant under more primitive conditions. In summer, if the wind doesn’t blow, the mosquitoes can eat you up.
Having said all this, I love spending time on that skinny stretch of sand. I’ve been on the island when you could literally pick up a truck load of whelk shells in 200 yards, and it went that way for miles. You can spend a day on the beach without a single other soul in sight other than some other soul driving down the beach to find his secluded spot.
You can buy a machine that replicates the sound of ocean waves; trust me, it may help you to sleep but it’s a poor substitute for the real sound of waves on the beach. Watching the sun rise or set is better than any TV show I can think of. Myrtle Beach has some great restaurants but the fried potatoes and fresh fish I had for dinner last Saturday night was mighty good. The bacon and pancakes on the beach while I watched my fishing rods out the camper window, made for a pretty good breakfast.
It seems that every year, our beaches become more commercial or controlled by the Park Service. The Core Banks were once a wild place. It is rapidly becoming just another sterile National Park with only limited access. You might want to see it before that happens.

How to experience South Core Banks
- Ferry service should be arranged before leaving. You must schedule when you get on and when you plan to get off. For two people and a vehicle, expect ferry service to be about $100.00.
- Spring and fall are the best times. Summer can be very hot and you must furnish your own AC and power for it. Mosquitoes can be thick if the wind abates.
- Truck campers are the most hospitable way to experience the Banks. The cabins are comfortable, but the beach drive to the lighthouse is 45 minutes. Tent camping will work but can be an exfoliating experience. If you tent camp, you might bring a large tarp for the ground to slow down the migration of sand into you tent and sleeping bag. If the wind gets up, you can normally find a protected area, but the windward side of the island in a blow is similar to a sandblasting cabinet.
-  The fishing can be wonderful, but remember to bring your bait or be prepared to catch it. I got my bait for this trip from Todd’s Seafood Market. They often have mullet, the best cut bait. If you use shrimp, make sure it’s not been frozen. Freezing makes it soft and it won’t stay on the hook in the surf.
-  Make a good list of what you’ll need, there is no Dollar Store on South Core Banks.
- Gas up before you get on the ferry. Normally gas on the island is expensive and you can burn a lot exploring.