16 March 2011

Sunday afternoon at the beach

Sunday afternoon my sister and I drove out to Fort Macon, at the eastern end of Bogue Banks, with my sister's six-year-old grand-daughter. It was a fine afternoon and we wanted to show the six-year-old the old fort and take a walk on the beach. It's only a 10-minute drive from my mother's apartment.

Coastal North Carolina is all sounds, estuaries, inlets, marshes and hundreds of miles of sandy beaches. Barrier islands — a 300-mile string of them — protect calm backwaters and low, marshy bogs and shores from ocean waves and storms. That's about 500 km of sandy beaches. The Gulf Stream is just 30 miles/50 km offshore. Cape Hatteras is the point at which the mjor warm-water sea current from the south turns out to sea, flowing all the way across the Atlantic to warm the coasts of France, England, and Ireland.

Beaufort Inlet, near Beaufort and Morehead City,
in North Carolina, U.S.A

Nowadays, as the land is being developed and the marketing mavens get into the act, you often hear talk of North Carolina's two coastlines: the Outer Coast and the Inner Coast. The waters behind the barrier islands, which we call "sounds," are in fact lagoons. The shores of the sounds make up North Carolina's Inner Coast, which adds up more than 3,000 miles/5,000 km of shoreline.

Satellite and map views of the North Carolina coast. By road,
North Carolina is located about 600 miles/1000 km south
of New York, 500 miles/800 km east of Atlanta,
and 850 miles/1400 km north of Miami.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and '60s, we local people always made the distinction between the beach and the shore. The closest beach was 2 miles from our house by car or bicycle. It was the oceanfront over on the other side of the barrier island called Bogue Banks, linked to the town on the mainland by a bridge. The shore, which was a sandy beach too, was just 300 meters down the street from us. The beach was narrower on the shore and there were no big ocean waves.

The old town of Beaufort, across the water
from Fort Macon State Park

The body of water that separates "the beach" from the mainland and my home town is called Bogue Sound. The water is salty and tidal — there are inlets at each end of the 25-mile-long sound. The sound — a lagune or étang, I guess — is about a mile wide on average — maybe less. So it's not really large, but not small either. You could row a skiff across it if you wanted to.

North of where I live is Pamlico Sound. It's the largest lagoon on the U.S. East Coast. On the maps above, it's the large body of water between Wanchese on the north and Ocracoke and Oriental on the south. Pamlico Sound has a surface area of 2000 sq. mi. — 90 miles from north to south, and 25 miles from east to west. The maximum water depth is about 20 feet (6 m).

Sea birds, alone...

Pamlico Sound is a vast estuary, in fact, with waters that are a mix of salt and fresh. The water is so shallow that when there's a big storm, what we call a "nor'easter" in the spring or a hurricane in the summer or fall, the water gets so "rough" that the crest of the waves is really high and the trough reveals the sandy bottom. According to local legend and folklore, that is.

As you can imagine, what land there is is sparsely populated. Much of the sand that passes for land on the barrier islands is given over to National Parks. Cape Hatteras National Seashore to the north is accessible by car, over bridges from the northern end of the islands or by ferry from the south. The ferry ride from Carteret County on the south, where I grew up, to Ocracoke, on the barrier island, takes 2½ hours.

...and in flocks — sort of

Toward the south, from Ocracoke down to Cape Lookout and over to Beaufort inlet, where Fort Macon is located, is Cape Lookout National Seashore. It's made up of two barrier islands — strips of sand about a half mile wide (less than a kilometer) and 56 miles/90 km from one end to the other. The only way to get there is by boat or light aircraft. There is no development, there are no roads, and there are no people.

With the changing tides, sometimes strong currents run
through Beaufort Inlet, and there are no lifeguards.

These National Seashore parks cover a large part of the geographical feature called the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Down the Banks, there is a series of old fishing villages with picturesque names: Duck, Kitty Hawk, Nags Head, Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Hatteras, Ocracoke, and, finally, Portsmouth, an old sailing port that is now a ghost town. The Banks are inhospitable to human life, but birds, cactuses, turtles, insects, and small herds of wild horses and ponies inhabit them. The horses got to shore after ships transporting them ran aground and wrecked on sandbars and shoals offshore.

Enjoying a day at the beach in late winter

The shore side of the barrier islands — facing the sounds, not the ocean — includes large areas of salt marsh. Toward the north, there are gigantic sand dunes. The beaches are long, sandy, and, in places, wide. They are uncrowded. But the islands are unstable. In big storms, the ocean washes over them at different spots, and when the storms are very violent the raging sea cuts new inlets linking ocean to sound. At the same time, the older inlets can fill in with sand. So it's a constantly changing environment.

The Outer Banks aren't really land. Even a close-in barrier island like Bogue Banks, south of and outside the area known as the Outer Banks, is subject to overwash and significant beach erosion in bad storms. And with rising sea levels, these barrier islands face an uncertain future. The whole low, marshy, sandy North Carolina coast is vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Wading in the water and running in the sand

As you'll see from my photos, we enjoyed our afternoon out at Fort Macon and on the beach. My grand-niece wanted to go swimming, but we explained to here that it is still officially wintertime. The water is too cold, even though it looks blue, calm, and inviting. She did wade a little along the edge of the water, and of course she got her clothes all wet by splashing around, running and jumping on sand and in water.

Other people — just a few — were also out on the beach enjoying themselves. Some were feeding the gulls and terns. We could see a big ship on the horizon, out in the open ocean — I don't know if it was headed to port or returning to the open sea. A sailboat glided by. The breeze was pleasant, and the sun was warm. In mid-March...


  1. It's obvious you love this whole coastal area. I can see why.

    I think in one of your photographs I see the motel in Beaufort where my mother, sisters, and I once stayed. The rooms had a view of Carrot Island and the ponies. We had a fantastic meal at The Grocery. I think I'll google it to see if it's still there.

  2. Loved reading this, about an area I've not been to. Interesting to know that wild horses live on the islands or barriers in the wild. I hope they are protected.

  3. This was a really interesting post! I've lived in North Carolina for 10 years but haven't been to Beaufort--yet. I'm also amused that I came to your blog about living in France to find a post about my own state.

  4. You crazy Yankees will accept any excuse to go to the beach in freezing weather.

  5. Starman, to paraphrase, only madmen and Floridians would go out into the midday sun... down there.

  6. Diogenes, the horses in the national parks are protected.

    Carolyn, thanks for the recommendation. I see that The Beaufort Grocery is still going strong.

    Hi Monica, I don't think I know where you are in N.C. If you aren't too far from Beaufort, it is worth a trip.

  7. You're a great travel guide, Ken... what a beautiful, inviting place! I'd love to visit there one day.

  8. Here's a short local press article about the horses that live in the Cape Lookout National Seashore park.

  9. I always love your North Carolina photos, Ken. Beautiful! I had your blog displaying on my "big screen" while I read it this morning,as my French 3 students were doing a worksheet on their own. They said, "Ooh, pretty!"


  10. We were lucky enough to take a 3 year sabbatical & part of that was sailing up the ICW through the Carolinas. We spent some time hauled out at Oriental and made some terrific friends. Your post brings back such good memories - maybe it's time for another trip! Dreaming helps past the grey English winter!

  11. It's a lovely part of the world. We really enjoyed going to Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Wish we'd had time to visit Ocracoke as well.

  12. I encourage all of you (Carolyn doesn't need encouraging, I know, and I know Ginny's been here too) to visit the N.C. coast if you can. Ride the ferries. Walk the beaches and docks. Eat the seafood. Feel the wind and salt air. It's worth it.

    Mortimer, coming here from England is quite a long trip. Ellen, it's far from California too. You'd like a lot of things about it though -- the remoteness, the scenery, the air and breezes. Judy, don't know if you've been to the Carolinas...


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