Cape Lookout a unique weekend getaway

Published 12:14 pm Friday, June 13, 2014



It’s been a long time since I rented a 16-foot wooden skiff from Ms. Harker, strapped an old 5.5 horsepower outboard to the stern and worked my way from Harkers Island over to Cape Lookout for a day’s fishing and clamming. Old, run-down fishing shacks dotted both Shackelford and Core Banks at Barden Inlet and there were just a few tourists to disturb the peace of this tranquil area.

Later visits to the northern end of Core Banks on Portsmouth Island with the famed Raleigh Mulletmasters taught me what life was like on those old fishing shacks. Rusty old army bunks sat on sand floors and the bath area was a secluded cluster of wax myrtle bushes behind the shelters. Non-potable water came from a shallow well and was colored a faint brown color. The rusty old tin roof of the camp offered some shelter from a relentless sun, but offered little relief from a rain. All food and supplies for a week on Portsmouth Island had to be taken in when you arrived. It was rough camping, but the fishing was fantastic.

Without a doubt Cape Lookout is one of North Carolina’s more unique areas. Many consider it to nearly be a tropical area. Wild horses still roam the nearly barren Shackelford Banks to the south of the inlet and the old U.S. Coast Guard station still stands in the bight of the Cape on the Core Banks side. A few cottages and private camps still exist on Core Banks and campers still go over to the “banks” to spend a few days fishing and fighting insects.

Since our U.S. Government acquired most of both Core and Shackelford Banks and turned it into the Cape Lookout National Seashore a lot of things have changed on these semi-remote islands that we know as North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Most notably, these islands are now visited by thousands of visitors from all over the world.

It’s interesting that the unique offshore islands are now called national seashores and not national parks. The reason for the name change is that you can do things on a national seashore that you could never do on a national park. For instance hunting is banned on a national park but on a national seashore hunting is allowed, as long as the federal and state wildlife rules are followed.

Our Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras National Seashores now offer both local residents and visitors to our area a unique chance to experience life on the Outer Banks. The northern end of the Outer Banks (Cape Hatteras National Seashore) is governed somewhat differently than the southern Cape Lookout National Seashore though. The Cape Lookout Seashore is a bit more rustic than the northern sister seashore.

Both of these “parks” offer private and government ferry service over to the islands, but Cape Lookout with its wild horses and warmer atmosphere offers even backpackers some unique opportunities to “rough it” among the sand, wind, salt water and insects. It takes a different kind of backpacker that chooses to camp out under these conditions.

The Cape Lookout National Seashore sponsors guided kayak tours to the islands and the participants are noted for bringing their camping gear on board. It’s not unusual to see kayakers well out into the open ocean on a calm day. Group kayak activities we saw last weekend contained 20 or more kayaks.

On Shackelford Banks for an overnight camp-out last weekend we found campers with their tents set out in the marshes and sand dunes. In the majority of these cases, they’d been taken over to the island by the ferries operated under contract to the Cape Lookout National Seashore (CLNS). These visitors were dropped off at selected spots and left there for any number of days. Then, they were picked up and returned to the CLNS headquarters on Harkers Island at a prearranged time.

We spoke with a good number of these brave campers who were visiting our Outer Banks and were not surprised to find that many of them were from a long way from home. Such inland states as Arizona, Idaho, Nebraska and Illinois were well represented.

One excited couple were frightened by seeing what they described as being a “prehistoric monster” crawling from the water at high tide. “This thing looks like a miniature tank with eyes, a sharp tail and claws,” they said.

What they were seeing were horseshoe crabs, which were coming into the shallows on the high tide and new moon to spawn. The crabs are indeed a holdover from prehistoric days and their annual spawning activity sets in motion a whole series of events that would be amazing to these “uplanders.”

The horseshoe crabs lay their eggs in shallow depressions in shallow water at the very high tide mark. They then retreat to deeper water as the tide retreats. The falling tide exposes these egg “nests” to seabirds and, as the tide returns to high, an interesting array of small fish (including eels). Several species of stingrays were also slurping at horseshoe crab eggs.

The horseshoe crabs were once considered worthless and on some beaches, millions of these crabs were harvested by the truckload by farmers who used them as fertilizer for their fields.

The horseshoe crabs are now somewhat protected in certain areas because their blue colored blood is a valued product used in medical research.

Abandoned campsites among the dunes gave evidence that a recent group of people (scouts perhaps) had built teepee-like frameworks similar to those used by the plains-dwelling Native Americans. Old campfires offered evidence that these modern campers also used fuel for the fires, similar to the plains dwellers. Instead of burning buffalo “chips” (dried buffalo manure), they used dried wild horse manure as fuel for their fires.

The Cape Lookout ferries ran a constant stream of campers and sightseers over to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse complex and to the sand dunes and marshes of Shackelford Banks. The CLNS headquarters on Harkers Island sent naturalists along on some of these excursions to give tourists a better idea of what was going on at the islands.

Of course there was also a constant stream of private boats going over to the banks and on out through Barton Inlet into the Atlantic Ocean for fishing.

If you’re contemplating making the trip over to the Cape Lookout area in your private motorboat, be advised that these waters in the sounds and around the inlets aren’t easy to navigate. The tides are larger than many are used to and boaters who anchor near the shore on high tide often return to find themselves stranded. Shoals that were well marked last year might not be well marked this year. Be aware that these shoals are constantly shifting. Take it easy and follow the marked channels.