GASP! Gulf Area Sea Paddlers
Living in Atlanta, I'm about the same regrettable distance from both the Gulf and the Southeast Atlantic Coasts. I've usually paddled the Atlantic side, so I'm not much of a GASPer, but thought I might contribute something to those who occupy their disk space with ideas for future paddling trips.
Cape Lookout National Seashore occupies three islands in North Carolina's Outer Banks, extending 55 miles northeast from Morehead City and Beaufort. There are no roads and the islands can only be reached by boat.
At the southern end is an east-west 10-mile island which forms the Shackleford Banks. It has the most extensive maritime forest of the three islands and the only significant population of wild mammals, mostly ferile sheep, goats, cows and horses.
The cape and its lighthouse are situated at the southern tip of two 20-mile islands (the "big islands") which extend northeast and form the 45-mile Core Banks, separated from the mainland by Core Sound at distances of 3-6 miles. The northern tip of the Core Islands comes within 1-1/2 miles of Cape Hatteras National Park's Ocracoke Island. Cape Hatteras is known as the graveyard of the Atlantic, even without counting sunken kayaks. Orville and Wilbur didn't choose Kitty Hawk for the surf, the wind blows constantly. The surf tends to be rough on average days.
The two long north-south islands are narrow threads of sand, backed on the western side by scrub brush and marsh grass which can make landings difficult. Because the islands are constantly shifting westward, blocks of black peat surface through the sand, having evolved from the vegetation which occupied that spot when it was the backside of the island. The sand beaches are covered with shells, particularly spiraling welks. There is no shelter other than a few small roofed picnic table platforms and two small clusters of commercial cottages. Paddlers must carry in everything they need, including water, and carry out everything they use, except water.
The NPS Headquarters and Visitor Center is located at the end of the road on Harker's Island, about 15 driving miles from Beaufort and a short paddle from the south end's cape and lighthouse. There's a convenient put-in and cars may be left at the Visitor Center lot for several days, which has a locked gate at night. There are no entrance or parking fees for the seashore. Primitive camping is allowed everywhere.
On the northernmost tip of the Core Islands is the deserted village of Portsmouth, chartered in 1753. Its buildings are maintained by the National Park Service and attract tourists by boat from Ocracoke. Its onetime population of 500 maintained a major lifesaving station and an active seaport, but the town gradually died when other islands became linked to the mainland by roads and bridges.
Ferry service is available to four points. As a safety precaution, I suggest carrying information about locations and current schedules of all ferries while on the islands. Each of the big Islands is serviced by small commercial ferries capable of carrying several four-wheel vehicles. They depart from the mainland towns of Davis and Atlantic and are a good fallback option for leaving the islands if weather prohibits safe paddling. Each lands at one of the two small clusters of residential cottages. I believe boats from Ocracoke on the north and the NPS Visitor Center at the south end are principally outboards for carrying passengers (not sure about the south end).
One difficulty of touring in the sound along the lower big island is the difficulty of landing in the salt marsh which forms the island's backside and isn't easily traversible. The backside of the northern island appears to have more landing options, but also has substantial backside shoaling and tidal flats. In fact, about half the area of the north part of that island is below water at high tide.
I kayaked the Core Sound and the lower of the two big islands in March 1995, about the time Canoe & Kayak's May issue featured the area in a guide to the best paddling sites in each state. My original plan was to tour the 50 miles from Cape Lookout to Ocracoke (the southern tip of Cape Hatteras N.P.) over 4 days by way of the Core Sound and, if possible, some open ocean. As it turned out, I never touched the ocean and only went halfway up my original route via the sound before returning to the shelter of the mainland.
The winds blew constantly and shifted direction, with the result that the seas in Core Sound were just rough enough to be constantly difficult for travel. Core Sound is narrow (3-6 miles) compared with Pamlico or Albemarle Sounds behind Hatteras, where waves develop from a much greater fetch under the same conditions. Core Sound reaches only as far north as the midpoint of the northern big island, after which the island's backside is fully exposed to Pamlico Sound.
Because wind direction sometimes wasn't favorable for travel and landings could be difficult, I simply kept each of my two campsites for two nights and reduced my planned trip length. I capsized one afternoon in Core Sound's trailing seas after 3 hours of paddling upright. The water was so warm (in late March) that I merely floated about 3/8ths mile to shore.
There was virtually nobody on the islands in March. A hiking couple passed one morning from the direction of the lighthouse and returned around noon, probably daytrippers who ferried from the Visitor Center. Another day, three four-wheelers worked the ocean beach for surf-fishing. Commercial fishing boats worked the sound daily, usually very close to the islands. Touring in March avoids the heavy insects that are advertised as May-October residents. It also avoids the worst heat and lets you carry less water. I used no more than two liters per day and had 1/3 of my original supply unused.
On my last night out, I was surprised to turn on my radio at 7 p.m. in the middle of an emergency storm warning, which I first took for a hokey advertisement. I had just returned from a four-mile walk as darkness fell and there had been no hint of bad weather. The warning advised of severe thunderstorms, lightning and golf-ball-sized hail and instructed listeners to "take cover in a strong building and stay away from windows."
My two-man nylon tent was the strongest and highest thing on that end of the island, though there's no way to stay away from the window. On my earlier walk, I had passed a picnic table shelter which would have been higher if its 12x12 corner posts had been sufficient to keep it from collapsing and crushing the picnic table. I wasn't sure whether the aluminum rod in my Sea Lion or the pole in my tent attract lightning. The overturned kayak offered the only protection from hail, but since it was positioned to prevent the constant wind from blowing the tent away, it wasn't something to be disturbed without risking loss of the tent.
I didn't recognize the city mentioned in the storm warning. I dressed up in heavy foul-weather gear and stood outside in the dark, looking for lightning flashes, which were concentrated in two places in the distance. As it turned out, the further of the two was the storm center and, fourty-five minutes later, emergency warnings were reporting hail in the small towns just five miles across the sound as it headed straight for me.
Appraising the situation, I assumed my disaster-imminent posture inside the tent, recited aloud my emergency alert procedures ("Hell with it; if it comes, it comes!"), found a public radio station on the FM band and listened to Mozart while the rain beat on the tent. The hail never came and, apparently, the lightning hit elsewhere. I came to respect hail a week later when the evening news reported the grounding of the American Airlines fleet at Dallas airport because of puncture holes from hail. A friend in Fort Worth finished re-roofing his house six months later, when local roofers finally freed up.
With that coast's reputation for weather, it's important to have some radio for weather news and to know when and where to find ferries as fallback options for getting off the islands if it's too dangerous to paddle. Major storm surges easily sweep over many parts of the islands and it's no place to get stuck waiting out a major storm.
On the 4th day, I made it across the 4 miles to the mainland only by heading directly into the waves. If wind direction hadn't been just right, I might still be there. I reached the mainland just north of Sealevel and paddled north to Atlantic, where I took advantage of Morris Marina's restaurant for a huge omelette and a few beers. The Marina operates the ferry which serves the northern big island.
I was back on the water about 3:30 for a 10-mile dash north to the Cedar Island ferry landing. The protection of the mainland shore afforded smooth paddling, in contrast to the chop that would have been found in the middle of the sound at the same time. As it was getting dark and I thought of looking for a campsite, I realized the obstructions I spotted far ahead in the water had vertically moving parts on either side just like,... omigosh,... kayak paddles.
I overtook five doubles and two singles comprised of two guides from Trek and Trail Outfitters of Bayfield, Wisconsin and a group of students from Luther College in Iowa, your average North Carolina crowd. They were making for the campground at Cedar Island, the endpoint of their weeklong tour. The guides had brought a similar group to Cape Lookout the prior week. Their main business is as outfitter/guides for tours to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Lake Superior.
When they noticed me, they waited, thinking I might be the owner of Beluga Sails, a friend whose home they shouted at as they passed a few miles earlier. We paddled together to the campground, threw up tents in the dark, and shivered our way to the hot showers. The following morning, they started a 24-hour marathon to Iowa and Wisconsin with one van and a trailer of kayaks.
I retrieved the bike I'd left there five days earlier and was ready to peddle 35 miles to retrieve my car as soon as I transacted some important business. On an earlier trip to Ocracoke, I discovered that the waterproof caps from Tradewinds Tackle Shop are perfect for paddling. They even float so you can retrieve them when you capsize, except this time. So I paid $1 for the 2-1/4 hour ferry ride to Ocracoke and, during the ferry's 40-minute layover, bought two caps and a $1 return ticket. The Ocracoke ferry is the best bargain in water transportation, especially when you take the whole car for $10.
Cape Lookout National Seashore is definitely an interesting and worthwhile place to visit. More experienced paddlers could have handled the ocean and sounds more easily than I, particularly if not paddling solo. The Outer Banks can be tricky on both sides of the islands and there are days when a novice shouldn't be on the water, certainly not alone. With proper regard for safety and by planning with enough flexibility to allow for unpredictible weather, the National Seashore offers a great touring opportunity.
The ideal do-everything tour would take at least one week and would include at least a tourist visit to Ocracoke and Cape Hatteras. There are enough alternatives available to design a tour of any length.
One difficulty can be the process of retrieving your car at the end of the trip. No public transportation exists on the mainland between Beaufort/Morehead City and Cedar Island. I drove to Cedar Island and left a bicycle for the 35-mile trip back to the Visitor Center. Even if planning to paddle the longer distance to Ocracoke, leave the shuttle car or bicycle at Cedar Island and use the 2-1/4 hour ferry from Cedar Island to Ocracoke, with or without kayaks. Remember that each one-way crossing with an auto costs $10.
Starting from the south end and traveling northeast reduces the odds of fighting headwinds. The National Park Visitor Center on Harkners Island is a good source of free parking and convenient for a trip starting with the unique topography and wildlife of Shackleford Island. I also note that Fort Macon State Park, reached via Atlantic Beach, is only a few paddle strokes from the tip of Shackleford Island, but I know nothing about parking possibilities. Also note that returning there by road covers a much longer distance.
The tour up the Core Banks can be paced for weather and personal preference, but any plan should allow for weather delays. For easiest access to the main road on the mainland, convenient tour endpoints are Marshallberg, Davis, Sealevel, Atlantic, Lola, or Cedar Island, in addition to Ocracoke. At Cedar Island, there is a convenient private campground with boat ramp on the shore of Core Sound. A motel and convenience store are across the street.
On Ocracoke Island, the NP campground is harder to reach. It's located three miles north of Ocracoke village on the ocean side, which requires about 7 miles of ocean paddling. It may be most convenient to paddle directly into Ocracoke village on the sound in early morning and complete any required shuttle functions before nightfall.
Since everything, including water, must be carried, consider arranging resupply for long tours through the commercial ferry operators at Davis and Atlantic. The NPS Visitor Center gives out the telephone numbers for each. (Morris Marina at Atlantic is 919/225-4261). You can drop off your resupply items with them when you take your shuttle vehicle to Cedar Island.
The waters are not without sharks. If it's any consolation, there have only been 10 shark attacks recorded in NC waters, about 30 in SC. So there's little to fear about being recorded (don't know what your chances are of being attacked).
Try to get all necessary maps, charts and equipment BEFORE your trip. Although the Morehead City area is full of marinas and power boat sales, I couldn't find waterproof charts and ended up using the NPS handout for a map. There are also no kayak sales or outfitters in the area to speak of.
Don't leave out Ocracoke Island simply because it's harder to get to (that's what keeps it nice). While it may be hard to distinguish Ocracoke's beaches from the rest of the National Park, the lack of people and the delightful beauty of Ocracoke Village are things I wish I had learned about on my early visits to Hatteras. It's now my favorite place to get away, even for only a day or two.
The Ocracoke ferries to Swan Quarter or Cedar Island (2-1/2 and 2-1/4 hours) are a bargain at $10 per car. Warning about Ocracoke Island: there's no ATM and no public laundry, stop in Buxton (to the north, on Hattteras) if you need either. Ocracoke's general stores are very well stocked.
The N.P. campground is three miles north of town. A convenient place for noncampers to park for ocean access is the paved parking lot next to the campground. Most other places, you park on sand and walk a longer distance. The gravel road behind the airport is usually crowded with surf fishermen and sunbathers.
Elsewhere in the National Park, the historic lighthouse at Buxton, the highest on the East Coast, has been refurbished and is now open for climbing after being closed to the public for 20 years. Twenty years from now, it will probably be elsewhere: they'll move it inland when erosion makes it necessary. The free museum at the lighthouse is worth the time. Hanging around the marinas in late afternoon when the day's catch comes in is entertaining; you'll find them at Hatteras Village, Ocracoke, or Oregon Inlet. North of the National Park is the Wright Memorial at Kitty Hawk.Hatteras is a great place, best visited in months other than July and August.
- Cape Lookout, Harker's Island Visitor Center,
Hatteras Nat'l Park (919) 473-2111
Ocracoke-Mainland Ferry Reservations:
- Ferry dock, Cedar Island (919) 225-3551
- Ferry dock, Ocracoke (919) 928-3841
Commercial ferry service from Atlantis to North Core Island (Portsmouth Island):
1000 Morris Marina Road,
Atlantic, NC 28511
One kayak outfitter (rentals and guide) in Ocracoke
Hwy 12 and Silver Lake RD.,
P.O Box 789,
Ocracoke, NC 27960
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