Shells, Horses, A Lighthouse, and Wind


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Published: May 8th 2017
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Cape Lookout Lighthouse
Cape Lookout National Seashore, Harkers Island, North Carolina

Just a short drive down the road and out to the end of Harkers Island, we arrived at the Ferry Dock for the trip to Cape Lookout National Seashore. I think that proximity is the reason Joan booked us at the RV hospice, so there was some reason to her madness. The ferry people told us they were expecting a cloudy day, with no rain, but lots of wind - so we should be dressed appropriately. We were close enough to the trailer that we were able to go back and put on long pants, instead of beach shorts, for the day, and still make it back in time to board our ferry.

And I'm glad we changed pants. The wind was pretty constant all day. At times the gusts carried sand with stinging force. We weren't able to get in the water much at all, save some ankle-deep wading. Rip-tides and very rough surf were major concerns. The captain literally beaches the ferry itself to load and unload and, in this surf, he had to keep the engines revved to keep the front end on the beach.

Cape Lookout
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Joan's Shell Treasures
is the name for the point on the North Carolina outer banks where the islands make an abrupt turn to the northwest from a generally south direction. This stop, and our next one actually, are all about these remarkable islands. According to the movie we watched in the visitor center, these are very young - Columbus wouldn't have seen them had he been this far north. Surprisingly, they have formed recently as a response to shifting ocean currents associated with rising sea-levels. They are moving westward as ocean levels rise, but it is not at all certain that they will move fast enough to avoid inundation by higher seas. So these remarkable islands may well be a short-lived phenomena. They provide a remarkable, and complex, eco-system that is well described in the movie and exhibits at the visitor center.

As National Seashores, these islands are protected from commercial development. Interestingly, they are surviving better than those islands that have housing and artificial 'sea walls' to try to contain rising seas and hurricane damage. Nature does the job better than we do, as usual.

We purchased a 'combo' ticket on the ferry which allowed us to visit two
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The Lighthouse from Shackleford
of the three major islands that make up the National Seashore. The third island is more difficult, only accessible seasonally by another ferry up the coast.

In frothy seas, and an up-and-down ferry, we took off on the first leg of our trip to Shackleford Banks. There are no facilities, of any kind, on Shackleford. The island is a classic barrier island, with the beach, dune, maritime forest, marsh, and estuary structure running ocean-to-sound. But its smaller size means you have a chance to explore most of the island and get a feel for what a barrier island does.

On the windward side is the beach so that is where shells will be found, washed up by ocean waves, tides, and storm surges. The fact that this was the day after a fairly big storm meant that the treasures were available. We spent the first hour or so beach combing and Joan brought back a few stunning examples. (Normally National Parks do not allow you to collect so much as a dead leaf, but in this park, there is such a large and recurring supply of sea shells on the beach, that they allow up to 3 gallons
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Beach After the Storm
per day, so we helped alleviate their surplus shell population). Joan has a picture of her treasures.

We walked down the windward side of the island about as long as we could take the wind. After a while the sand in the face was a bit too much and we retreated back around the corner to the leeward side. No shells to be found there, but lots of interesting life forms. It was low tide, so the estuaries were empty, except for the oyster beds. They take hold in the bottom mud and grow there. I made a mistake, though, of wading in a bit too deep and got sucked down about a foot into the muck - almost lost my sandal. Then had to go wade through the ocean to get cleaned up again. Joan has a picture of that too! I didn't think it was all that funny.

After cleaning up the oyster mud, we headed into the marshy interior of the island searching for the Shackleford Horses. Like on Cumberland Island, there is a population of about 125 feral horses on this island. They survive, and die, on their own and receive no human interference.
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Ripples in the Sand
They don't fit the normal notion of 'horse', but here they are, grazing on the grasslands of the island. I have no idea what they do when a hurricane comes through, but since there have been many here over the centuries, and they are still here, then they have managed somehow. The 'myth' of how they got here is from shipwrecks. But some believe there may be a more prosaic explanation. The horses on Cumberland Island were inadvertently released from the operations of the Carnegie family - I suspect those here might have a similar origin. We tracked down four of them and understood, from talking to others, that there was a large gathering at a water hole further down the island, but we didn't make it that far.

We made it back to our 'base camp' - which was a spot on the leeward side of the beach where we dropped our stuff - and ate the cold fried chicken lunch we had brought with us. It was really a relaxing time. The rough surf pounded the beach, the birds chased, and were chased back, by the waves, the wind picked up the finer sand particles and carried
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Yes, More Sand
them in channels back down to the sea. The island moving closer to the mainland, grain by grain, as we watched.

Soon the ferry returned, beached itself, and we scrambled aboard for the 10 minute ride across the 'channel' to the Lighthouse area. The Cape Lookout lighthouse was built towards the southern end of South Core Banks, the largest island in this park. This island faces southeast, so sits at an angle to Shackleford Banks. There is more 'civilization' on this island, especially since the Cape Lookout Lighthouse was built here around 1898. The lighthouse hasn't opened for the tourist season yet, so we couldn't climb to the top. But we walked around the bottom and the restored lighthouse keeper's house. One thing I didn't realize, probably because I didn't think about it very long, is that the patterns on the lighthouse (they are called 'daymarks') were intentionally painted so that ships, in the daytime, could identify their location. The diamond pattern on this lighthouse identified this promontory as Cape Lookout.

We had hoped to take a tour of this island by truck, to see more of the island and some of its cultural history. But the wind
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I love some of the Patterns
and flooding from the storm the day before made parts of the island inaccessible. We realized, once again, that no matter how much you plan your visits, in the end, you must see the park that is available to you the day you visit it, not the one you might have wanted to see. (I suppose that line is derivative from a more infamous remark by Donald Rumsfeld.)

We also are reminded, once again, that National Seashores are really very big parks. I didn't realize that when I planned this trip and the result is that we have probably short-changed most of these seashores. Even when ferry rides are involved, one should allow at least two days for a seashore visit and maybe more. We feel like we have experienced an introduction to Cape Lookout, but we're not sure we made our minimum thirty data points. This one begs for a repeat visit. (17.1.60)


Additional photos below
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More Patterns
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Soft spongy Stuff
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Joan and. Horse
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Stuck in the Oyster Muck
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A Wild Horse Foraging
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Two More
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Approaching the Lighthouse
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North Carolina's Lighthouse Daymarks
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Wildflowers in the Dunes


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