Ocracoke Island Travelogue
March 2008

          Riojosie and I decided to take our major winter retreat time this year on the island of Ocracoke in eastern North Carolina.  After eight straight winters of retreats on the Island of Abaco in the Bahamas, we felt that it was time to revisit an island closer to home.  We have found the community of Ocracoke village very compatible to our style of winter getaway.  During this off season we have been able to rent at a reduced rate, a small cottage nestled into the coastal red cedars and live oaks in an old neighborhood just a couple of blocks from the harbor. 

          The tourist season won’t begin until April, so life is pretty laid back in this town during March.  Most of the restaurants and shops are still closed and traffic coming in off the ferries from the mainland in minimal. The owner of the house we rent from is a ranger in the national seashore park that begins about a mile from our cottage and extends north for a dozen miles.  This time of year in March, our favorite beach activity is simply late afternoon walks along this vast stretch of pristine natural area.  At low tide the beach is stretches out to a couple of hundred yards wide below a line of continuous high dunes.  Sunsets bring an incredible play of pastels to the sky and shallow surf.

          Just as there is a maritime hardwood forest about a twenty minute walk from our cottage in Abaco, there is also an evergreen maritime hardwood forest roughly the same distance from our rented cottage here in Ocracoke.  Since 2002 it has been a protected area of about thirty-one acres along the Pamlico Sound with nice trails.  These days the forest canopy is filled with myrtle warbles that will quickly descend to the sound of my pishing.  In the open marsh areas outside the forest along the sound,  a flock of white ibis have a rookery and are easy to spot, wading in the shallow water or flying in a long string as is there custom.  A sandy, secluded cove there reminds us of “Little Bay” in Abaco.

         In and around Ocracoke village virtually the same birds exist as in the village of Cherokee in Abaco - mockingbirds calling from rooftops, red-winged blackbirds and boat-tailed grackles chattering constantly.  The ever present, nonnative, ringed turtle dove that coos from atop power lines in abaco has also taken up residence in Ocracoke.  The familiar, two note call of the smoothed-billed ani of Abaco is sadly missing in Ocracoke, but is readily replaced by the emphatic, two note call of the fish crow. One bird we did not hear in Abaco is the laughing gull, which frequently calls over the Ocracoke harbor. i find that the wild, loon-like call of Ocracoke’s laughing gulls may become one of my favorite natural experiences on this island.  i am trying to learn to imitate its call, but it is a tough one!

          Just as our village in Abaco had two churches, the Methodist and the Assembly of God, so does Ocracoke have the same two.  Although we are not church goers, we do appreciate the bell of the Ocracoke Methodist Church that chimes on the hour during the day, a reminder of earlier days when the bell served an important function in a community as the main tracker of time.  The Ocracoke bell harmonizes well with the sound of the sea breeze in the oaks and cedars.  A hymn follows the six o’clock evening chime.  Strangely, I find myself recalling most of the words of the old hymns.  I do find the Ocracoke bell more soothing than the moaning of the electric organ that we often heard from the Methodist Church across the street from our cottage in Abaco.

          Our next door neighbor here in Ocracoke is hard at work preparing his spring garden.  It is interesting that he is able to grow bananas, even though they go dormant in the winter.  He says that any day now the brown stalks will send out the first green leaves.  This is news to me, as I did not know that bananas could be kept outdoors year round anywhere in North Carolina.  I suppose it never freezes here in Ocracoke, being twenty-five miles off shore from the mainland. Watching him garden makes me nostalgic for my own banana plantings in Abaco ...

          One of our favorite pleasures of Abaco was finding the huge Honduran avocados for sale in the grocery stores and letting them be a major part of our island diet.  For some reason, we could never find a grocer in North Carolina who would carry them.  The small California avocados that have always been offered in our Carolina grocers just didn’t match up.  But in the last few months I finally found them in Durham at the new hispanic grocery chain that recently opened in Durham called “Compare.” We were able to load up on them before we left and bring them to Ocracoke to continue our island cuisine tradition!

          I have found that the natives of Ocracoke, like John, speak with an old English accent that is very similar to that of the white population of Abaco.  (even the cardinals here have a certain trill in their calls that their land side brethren don’t have) both fishing communities were isolated for two centuries on offshore islands before modern tourism flooded their lives with new choices for making a living and raised the value of their land.  The most conspicuous sign of new wealth displayed by the locals seems to be the enormous Chevy and Ford pickup trucks that they proudly display about town.  In striking contrast, it is big business to rent bicycles to mainland tourists eager to adopt a simpler life for a few days.

          My reading projects for ocracoke consists of two books.  I have just finished a newly published American Transcendentalism .  The author, UNC professor Philip Gura, details the 19th century spiritual, literary and social protest movement that Henry Thoreau was a part of.  I am ready to start my second book, The spirit catches you and you fall down  by Anne Fadiman.  This is a book that came out in 1997 and has been highly recommended to me by a number of friends through the years. What motivates me now to finally pick it up is my new practice of traditional Thai massage, as this book is an account of a clash between traditional and modern medicine among the Hmong people of Southeast Asia.

          Weather ...  daytime highs have been in the sixties here in Ocracoke as compared to seventies one would find in Abaco eight hundred miles to the south. During the winter, both islands experience the regular passing of cold fronts that drop temperatures by ten degrees for a period of a couple of days at a time.  Winds will kick up to a gale force as they clock around to the northeast.  That’s when RIojosie and i turn to our Thai massage practice and have a nice, upper room floor to work on. Another option exists just down the street from us at the Ocracoke library that now has a wireless internet connection that allows us to stay in touch with friends and family. 

          The full moon ...  I usually plan travel to special places around full moons and this week’s moon turned out to be superb. In the evening the moon is rising in the east over the atlantic, the direction of many of the exotic adventures of my past.  But I especially like to rise early in the dark, predawn morning hours and drum and dance on the west side of the island.  The moon is sending its pathway of sparkling silver as an invitation that i can almost walk upon!  I watch the moon descend and melt into an hourglass in the waters of the Pamlico Sound to the west, the direction of Durham and the current affairs of my life and my upcoming season of moonlight wafting on the Eno River.  

          While walking out to the south point of the island several days ago, we recognized that strong winds and tides had caused an over wash through the dunes leaving large puddles of standing water. Riojosie spotted a fish trapped in one fast evaporating pool in the sand.  we were too far from the surf to return it, so I ran to our parked car and grabbed a bucket, filled it with water from a drainage ditch and hurried back.  As Riojosie was yelling to me that the water in the pool was about gone, I grabbed the ten inch whiting just as it was left writhing in the sand.  That lucky fish got tossed back into the sea for a second chance with life.  It was such a dramatic moment!  We have pondered what it all might mean as that day was Riojosie’s 52nd birthday ...

          The most unusual bird spotted in our time in Ocracoke will probably turn out to be an American Bittern.  The number of encounters with this large bird in my lifetime that I remember can be counted on the fingers of only  one hand.  The bittern looks similar to a great blue heron, but is streaked brown and white.  Yesterday, as I approached one in the marsh grass, it froze, raised its head and pointed its beak skyward, a posture unique to the bittern.  I wanted to watch it fly so i could acquire better aerial sight recognition, but it was so frozen that i had to clap my hands and shout to send it off.  Its profile in the air is very similar to a heron, but the coloration is quite different.  We also had a nice view of a northern harrier, or sometimes known as a marsh hawk, fly off with freshly caught prey dangling from its talons. 

          The Ocracoke coffee shop has opened for the season just down the street from us.  It is the only one on the island and is spread out with chairs over a grassy area under sprawling, shady live oaks.  We met some former wafters from Durham there yesterday.  The Easter weekend has brought in a few more folks to the island, but their numbers are barely noticeable.  The most famous gathering spot on the island is Howard’s Pub, located just outside of the old village.  We noticed quite a lineup of cars there last night.  As is commonly our style, we have stayed clear from the restaurant, drinking and loud music crowds.  We did have one meal out so far, a pancake breakfast at the Pony Island Diner.  That may be it for our time here.  We have been quite content with the food supplies we brought from home and a few extra veggies we picked up at the Ocracoke variety store.

          The big talk in coffee shops and restaurants is the lawsuit that the Audubon society, along with several other environmental groups, is bringing against the National Park Service for allowing motor vehicles on the beach that disturb the nesting sites of birds, turtles and other critters.  Many locals strongly believe that such a ban would negatively impact the tourism business on the island.  My feeling is that it may detract certain kinds of high maintenance fishermen who like to bring out tall profile trucks loaded with family members with beach umbrellas, fishing supplies, and immense coolers of food and alcohol for the day.  But if the word gets out that Ocracoke is more respective of wildlife, it may actually attract other types of lower maintenance tourists to replace the roadster crowd; those, like us, looking for a more pristine beach where we are the strangers treading carefully and managing our footprints, not the wildlife.  Some compromise will probably be reached in the end, with the most sensitive areas being out of bounds for motor vehicles. 

          The other local news is that Ocracoke’s oldest resident, Mrs. Belle Bryant, has just passed away.  An African American woman, born in the year the Wright brothers launched their plane at Kitty Hawk, she lived her entire life on Ocracoke and died at the age of one hundred and four.  She remembered her grandmother as a slave in the Antebellum South.  There are no African Americans living on the island now.  A number of mexicans have recently moved in as a new minority to work in the modest island construction industry.  Such is the odd human balance that currently exists in the Republic of Ocracoke! 

          On Sunday the 23rd the first wave of tropical birds finally arrived on ocracoke, probably having navigated with the aid of full moon light in their last leg from Central America. The island’s trees suddenly swarmed with gnat catchers, a tiny bird that loves to nest near water.  It was easy to call them down to within three feet of my face.

          Our departure back Durham was on the 25th. On the ferry to the mainland we encountered flocks of thousands of surf scoters on the Pamlico Sound.  These black sea ducks, with yellow bills and white napes, over winter in the sound before returning to Northern Canada in April.  This was a new bird for me. and I was amazed at there vast numbers and the fact that I could have lived in North Carolina for so long and never have had the occasion to make the acquaintance of this beautiful form of life until now.

          On the drive back to Durham, we stopped briefly to explore the river parks that line the  three towns of Bath (colonial home of naturalist John Lawson who in 1709 wrote the book A New Voyage to Carolina), Washington and Greenville, through which the tar river makes its path to the Pamlico Sound. I have been contemplating a paddling trip from the Piedmont to the coast on this river for a number of years and am waiting for a good series of rains to send the river swiftly along and allow me to surf to the coast ...
Photo by Riojosie: Springer's Point Nature Preserve on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina