Pushing us northward with every wave, the long-shore current raking Cape Lookout National Seashore is providing a great workout for our legs, arms, and stamina. Everyone talks about the dangers of rip currents, but this wave machine with its stiff, knee-buckling current is relentless in testing not just our muscles, but our commonsense.
In the end, commonsense and self-preservation won out and we exited the surf. But the cooling douse in the Atlantic near the end of a long day on the seashore was well worth it. With sunset coming, and the sea oats covering the dunes stirred by the sea breeze, Cape Lookout was giving us the quintessential natural seashore experience, one devoid of over-development, asphalt, and commercialism.
Running 56 miles along the lower leg of North Carolina's Outer Banks, this younger, and rougher, version of its older neighbor, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, is not for everyone. No bridges tie Cape Lookout's three islands (North Core Banks, South Core Banks, and Shackleford Banks) to the mainland, no paved roads are stitched through the islands, and there are no Mini-Marts to dash out to for that item you forgot to pack.
What this seashore does offer is a helping or two of the wild. There are horses running wild on Shackleford Banks, white egrets roosting in trees gnarled and twisted not by high winds or heavy snows but by salty spray, and mile-after-mile-after-mile of beaches to comb.
Maintaining A "Wild" Seashore
Cape Lookout is a throwback, something of an anachronism in this day of the almighty, and much sought, tourist dollar.
The seashore's lack of paved roads, of air-conditioned rental units, of marinas bobbing with catamarans, fishing fleets, and yachts, and of seafood-dispensing shacks, is as refreshing as the sea breeze.
And illuminating, too.
Compared to most of its siblings -- Cape Hatteras, Cape Cod, Gulf Islands, Padre Island, and Point Reyes national seashores -- how the National Park Service manages Cape Lookout perhaps comes closest to the agency's prime directive to preserve the resources. That the Park Service is able to hew so closely to that mandate best at Cape Lookout (Cumberland Island National Seashore is a close second) no doubt is due to this seashore's isolated nature.
You can get there via ferries, but getting there isn't as easy nor as comfortable as reaching the other seashores. There are reservations to be made and timetables to stay in sync with. And once you get there, you either need a four-wheel drive, and knowledge of driving in sand, to get around via the beach or the "back road," or you walk.
Of course, there are some exceptions to the wild, natural side at Cape Lookout. One plays out on the beaches near Cape Lookout Light, where daytrippers anchor their boats, set up their cabanas on the beach, and blare their boom boxes loudly in summertime revelry.
Another arises in the clusters of cabins the seashore rents out at Great Island on South Core Banks and at Long Point on North Core Banks. Frequent visitors to these shelters, well aware of how stifling summer's heat can be, not only bring generators to power the cabins at Great Island (cabins at Long Point come with power) but also tote along window air-conditioners.
During a recent stay there we had to endure the growling of a generator through the evening and all the night. Though campgrounds in most units of the National Park System come with quiet hours so you don't have to endure such sleep-depriving noise, that's not the case in these cabins.
The easy solution would be to establish quiet hours for the cabins. A slightly more difficult one would be to wire the Great Island cabins with power as are the Long Point ones, and locate a central generating system out of sight and sound.
Though Cape Lookout in so many ways is different from Cape Hatteras, there are similarities. Both have to deal with shorebirds, such as the piping plover, a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and American oystercatchers, a North Carolina "species of concern," and how best to manage off-road vehicles.
While Cape Hatteras officials are in the middle of a very contentious ORV debate, the same very possibly is on its way to Cape Lookout, where officials are at work developing their own management plan. Stay tuned.
Climbing Above Cape Lookout
Unless you fear heights or tight spaces, any visit to Cape Lookout should include a climb to the top of its lighthouse. Indeed, if you pair a visit to Cape Lookout with one to Cape Hatteras, you can take in four lighthouses and compare their sizes and color patterns, also known as "daymarks."
Reaching the gallery -- a steel walkway that wraps the outside of the lighthouse just below its light -- of Cape Lookout Light takes 207 steps. That you can make the climb today is thanks in no small part to a $500,000 appropriation from the Interior Department two years ago that allowed for needed repairs that had kept the lighthouse closed to the public for more than a year.
Today the lighthouse is a thing of beauty. The inside walls are red brick, the steel stairs a glossy black that is still glossy despite the thousands of feet that have climbed and descended them. From the gallery -- also painted a nice glossy black -- you can walk completely around the lighthouse with great views in all directions.
From one vantage point on the gallery, facing to the northeast, you can see on the ground a small mound where the previous light stood.
On the way up -- and down, of course -- there are 10 windows that offer additional views out across the seashore.
To help those not used to climbing so many steps, or for aid on really hot, humid days, there is a water station about three-quarters of the way up the lighthouse.
Stepping Back Into Outer Banks History
If you do make it to Cape Lookout, and are a history buff, a visit to historic Portsmouth Village is mandatory. However, such a trek cannot be easily made.
To reach Portsmouth Village you must travel to Ocracoke and catch a passenger ferry to the village. To reach Ocracoke from the south, short of a long, circuitous drive, you will take a North Carolina-operated car and passenger ferry from Cedar Island. For vehicles less than 20 feet long, the fare is $15; it goes up from there. The ride takes nearly two-and-a-half hours, time well-spent napping, reading a book, playing cards, or merely enjoying the ride. The passenger ride from Ocracoke to Portsmouth Village in a small skiff takes less than a half hour, and costs $20 per person.
Arrive at Portsmouth Village during the summer months and you're on your own when it comes to dealing with the village's notorious, and unrelenting, mosquitoes. My two companions doused themselves with full-strength DEET, while I went armed with a murtle branch that Marjorie, a volunteer who greets village visitors, kindly handed out.
There are five buildings open to visitors in the village -- the general store/Post Office, the school, the church, the U.S. Life-Saving Service station, and the Theodore and Annie Salter House, which serves as the visitor center -- but many others you can peek into via their windows.
Marjorie gave us helpful advice for minimizing mosquito encounters -- "Stay out of the grass, that stirs them up" -- but the mosquitoes didn't get the memo. They saw us coming and were out in such force that it seemed we were embarking on a "Portsmouth Village Dash" in an effort to see as much of the village with as few bites as possible. Marjorie did try to further aid us by offering bug-net-shirts with hoods, but the size selection was slight and the salty air had corroded most of the zippers beyond the point of functionality.
While you can head back to the village dock to be picked up for your return ride to Ocracoke, making time to walk out to the coast and then follow it back to a pickup point isn't wasted time. The beaches are largely deserted, again because of the hurdles that must be overcome to reach them, and are rich in seashells, of which you can collect a small amount.
It was while waiting for our return trip that I finally, after decades of roaming beaches, found a whole sand dollar. Though only about the size of a quarter, it promises to long remind me of Cape Lookout's wild side.
Tomorrow: Traveler's Checklist for Cape Lookout National Seashore.