Thursday, July 31, 2008

First Exploratory Trip of West End of Shackleford Banks

A Calm Day on the Shackleford Banks with Cape Lookout Lighthouse at Center of Horizon

Imagine – a cold February day - you and six of your friends have just jumped into a heavy wooden double ended rowboat, and you are each pulling your oar hard into the winter Atlantic Ocean trying to clear the shore break waves of the Shackleford Banks. Behind you on the beach another friend is on top of one of the tallest sand dunes. He is shouting directions to your boat about the pod of whales moving your way.

If your crew can get the rowboat moving fast enough you will intercept the whales about one mile offshore. Everybody groans and breaks into a sweat.

The whales are moving slowly - calmly swimming along - dawdling. You hear them breathe and they blow water and mist high up into the air.

As you draw closer one of your buddies, probably named Guthrie, Willis, or Lewis, drops his oar and scurries to the bow. He picks up a heavy iron harpoon, flexes and loosens up a bit, and gets ready to strike one of the whales. There is not just one whale, mind you, but a group of whales and you are headed dead on toward the largest one – over fifty feet long. Just as it appears you are going to ram the whale, your buddy in front jams the harpoon deep into the whale. And, all hell breaks loose.

Some years ago my friend gave me a copy of an article published under title: "The Pursuit of Leviathan : A History of Whaling on the North Carolina Coast " by Marcus B. Simpson, Jr. and Sallie W. Simpson. It had been published in the North Carolina Historical Review, Volume LXV, Number 1, January, 1988. This article is about the history of whaling in North Carolina.

I skimmed it at the time and filed it away for “later”.

In late August of 2007 my wife and I moved from Raleigh, NC to Morehead City, NC. While unpacking I rediscovered the whaling article.

I reread it as I now realized that this was important local history for my new home.

From this article I discovered that the whaling scene I imagined above probably took place off the Shackleford Banks many times with many variations again and again for over two hundred years.

Unlike the New Englanders, the whalers on Shackleford did their hunting from the shore. And when they were successful, they had to drag their prize back to the beach.

Sometimes they may have been five or six miles offshore before their battle was over. During those short late winter and early spring days, the height of the whaling season, the afternoon sun would have been dropping fast or even may have been gone by the time they got back to the beach.

As they approached the surf line they then had to figure out how to get the huge whale carcass through the breakers and up onto the beach to process. It probably wasn’t unusual to have attracted assorted fish, crabs and sharks looking for a free lunch. That would have made it even more exciting.

Finally they would get the whale in position to process. Processing would mean cutting and mincing the fat, or blubber, from the creature and rendering it in huge fifty gallon vats. Then they strained and filtered it. The product, whale oil for lamps and lubrication, would then be packed in barrells for sale in Beaufort, NC. Remember, this was pre-petroleum.

North Carolinians, and southerners generally, would probably not find this “processing” dissimilar from rendering pig lard in the manner of traditional Carolina fall pig killings.

The fire would be started with the locally plentiful red cedar. Unlike rendering lard, once the rendering got going the “cracklins” would be removed and used to stoke the fire. Pig cracklins would, of course, be eaten.

Also, processing would include removing the baleen, the whales’ food strainers, which would be sold to be fashioned into combs and corset stays.

A strong, almost overwhelming smell would accompany all of the work.

The men who followed this trade were necessarily strong and self confident. And, for several hundred years many of these men lived with their families just behind the dunes along the Shackleford Banks. At the peak of the Shackleford whaling trade there were five villages along this eight mile stretch of unique west to east beach. Before the great hurricane of 1899 Diamond City on the eastern end nearest the Cape Lookout Light had over five hundred people living there.

Modern development of the Shackleford Banks was averted when the Cape Lookout National Seashore was authorized on March 10, 1966.

While fishing in the area, I had passed this beautiful stretch of our Carolina coastline many times, but I had never actually gone onto the beach and touched my feet to the sand.

Alice and I talked about visiting the Shackleford Banks frequently as we learned a bit here and there about the area. And, on a beautiful day in December we got our little jon boat ready, hooked up the boat and trailer, put our dog in the car and drove to Beaufort. On this first exploration our goal was to get a good look at the west end of Shackleford.

December 29, 2007

Alice, Baby and I put our jon boat in the water at the public boat ramp on Taylor Creek in Beaufort this morning and headed out to the west end of Shackleford Banks. As we motored along the creek rust colored ponies grazed along the water’s edge of Carrot Island.

After clearing Lenoxville Point at the east end of the Town of Beaufort we headed southwest down the channel toward the rock jetty on the west end of the back side of the Shackleford Banks. Through the bright clear air we could see Shackleford Banks a mile or so across the water. Although the sky was blue and the temperature was around 70F, a change was coming. Before we arrived back at the boat ramp some four and a half hours later the edge of a grey and cloudy weather front had moved in completely changing the light and bringing a much cooler and brisker wind.

As we approached the back of Shackleford Banks we could see a cluster of boats anchored up around the rock jetty by the National Park Service’s Visitor’s Dock. They were fishing for speckled trout. Before we left I asked one of the fishermen how his luck had been. He told me that he had caught a lot of fish. In fact, he said they had eaten all of his shrimp. Unfortunately, he had caught only two trout big enough too keep. The size limit for speckled trout is 12 inches. We saw a number of fish caught. All of the fish we saw appeared to be small.

We anchored up on the beach just east of the rock jetty and National Park Service Dock and checked out the National Park Service’s maps, diagrams, regulations and other information posted on a couple of big signs along the shoreline. Dogs must be leashed, don’t feed the ponies, etc.

The NPS maintains the dock for their use and for private ferry vendors to land their passengers. They also have composting bathrooms there.

There is a well marked trail across the island. It looks as if the Park Ranger must drive around on some kind of four wheel motor cycle, ATV or the like as there are all kinds of wheel ruts disturbing the trails leaving them very soft and difficult for people on foot.

We walked straight south across the strand to the ocean. It was a longer walk than we had anticipated. From looking at maps I thought it would be a rather short distance. When I got home I rechecked the distance on a map and determined it to be around one-half mile. But, walking across on the trail of soft sand and climbing up and down four or five rows of good sized dunes, made the little hike seem much harder and longer.

There were pony tracks everywhere and once we walked about half way over to the ocean we were surprised to also see lots of deer tracks. When we reached the last dune before the beach we saw a lot of raccoon tracks leading right down to the surf line.

There were several flat meadow areas between dunes where we imagined houses from the old whaling communities once stood. In some places remnants of cedar fence posts still bore witness to their past utility.

We also discovered a couple of plots maybe 40 X 40 feet where the NPS had fenced in small areas to keep the ponies out. We imagined they use these test plots to comparatively judge the extent of the environmental damage that the ponies cause. That damage appeared to us to be considerable. On a later trip this was confirmed by a young woman who was there with the NPS studying the ponies.

When we topped the last large sand dune and viewed the ocean we were surprised at how narrow the beach seemed. The tide was near full high and the ocean was very white and rough.

We noted that in the future we would need to plan shelling trips for the low tide.

Looking east toward Cape Lookout we could not see the lighthouse less than eight miles away. I think there was so much spray from the surf that it impeded our low line of sight visibility even though it was still bright clear day.

Down the beach toward Cape Lookout we saw an injured loon crawling from the surf line. I instinctively wanted to check it out, but we decided not to get any nearer since our dog, Baby, was with us.

We walked back checking out the numerous pony trails. The interior of that part of the island had very sparse vegetation and seemed rather barren. Alice and I both wondered what it must have looked like when the island was covered with a forest.

We then loaded back into our jon boat and rode along the shoreline eastward toward Mullet Pond. Just east of Mullet Pond a thick maritime forest begins. We pulled ashore near the edge of the forest and walked in toward the ocean side. This part of the island was lush with beautiful red cedar groves, stands of red bay, and yaupon holly with spectacular displays of red berries.

The yaupon holly is a native plant and is a locally important wildlife food. The local Indians used the foliage of this shrub for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. It was called the “black drink” and it is high in caffeine. It was also used by the Indians to cause vomiting as described by the species name, Ilex vomitoria.

The long time locals recognize yaupon’s medicinal value. One of them, Ira Lewis of nearby Harkers Island, gave the following recipe for Yaupon Tea to the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center at Harkers Island. I discovered it in the local newspaper.

Yaupon Tea:

Leaf Preparation

Strip the outer small leaves of the branch and chop the leaves into little pieces

To Parch

Heat the leaves in medium-to-hot (400 degrees F) skillet or pan. Turn leaves often for about 15 minutes, or until they turn a light or medium brown color. (If leaves start to smoke remove immediately) Remove from heat to cool


Use one cup of parched yaupon leaves to one to one and a half quarts of boiling water. Cook on low boil until water turns a dark amber color. Strain and add sugar and or lemon if desired. Serve hot or chilled

Brewed leaves may be dried and reused for a weaker tea.

The trees were bustling with small birds chirping and flitting about. I could identify only a few as these were not typical feeder type birds. Birds I could identify were mockingbirds, bluejays and towhees. We decided that we would definitely be better prepared with bird guides and binoculars when we returned. We also saw piles of shells that we took to be as evidence of raccoon feasts along the backside shoreline.

As beautiful as it was, the shoreline was heavily littered with beer and soft drink cans, all kinds of plastic and styrofoam, and other miscellaneous trash. We found a large mesh onion sack and filled it with as much trash as we could stuff into it and humped it back to a Beaufort public trash receptacle. We barely made a dent in the mess.

After a short exploration of these beautiful woods we then got back into the boat and headed further eastward toward Whale Creek. Suddenly the shallow water of two to five feet deep we had been traveling in dropped out to twenty to twenty-six feet deep and ahead in the water we spotted a pod of around a dozen bottlenosed dolphins.

We cut the outboard and drifted along with the current while the dolphins rolled around us blowing mist into the air while making their breathing sounds. It appeared that most of the dolphins had either new or very young companions right by their side. Some of the dolphins seemed half the size of the adults and others were a good bit smaller than that, maybe one fourth the size of the adult. We figured that there must be at least two separate age groups of the babies.

The dolphins finally moved away from us and we started the motor and headed back along the shoreline westward toward the rock jetty. By now we could see a dark weather front bearing down on us so we hightailed it back across the couple of miles of open water to Lenoxville Point.

Upon entering the Taylor Creek “no wake” zone, we slowed way down and putted back toward the public ramp. As we neared the ramp a group of egrets caught our attention on the Carrot Island/Rachel Carson Estuarine Research Reserve side of the creek. And upon closer inspection, we saw that there were more than egrets. There were also as a number of interesting looking herons including several Black-Crowned Night Herons.

It was a beautiful outing. Fishgirl, fishdog and I all thank the Gods for giving us the day.

Labels: First Exploratory Trip of West End of Shackleford Banks

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