Tuesday morning Margaret and I got out of bed early and slapped together some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I threw mine into my backpack with a couple bottles of water; Margaret had a snazzy camelback hydration system (she does a lot more hiking and backpacking than me). We drove across the Atlantic Beach bridge onto the mainland and north to the town of Beaufort, wherein lies the North Carolina Maritime Museum. There we met up with our guide Jeannie and the other Shackleford Banks trekkers.
As I mentioned in an earlier blog, Shackleford Banks is a small barrier island. It lies just north of the main Crystal Coast land mass and is currently unoccupied but for a small herd of wild ponies and the occasional overnight camper (click on the map for a closer look). With Jeannie in the lead, our group of about ten crossed the street to a water taxi dock and clambered aboard. We were headed to the landing dock on the sound side of the island; we were joined by another couple that wanted to be dropped off at the western tip of the island, so our water taxi driver headed in that direction first. The water was a bit choppy and as his land-bound brethren are inclined to do, the water taxi driver was going awfully fast. He seemed to be taking special delight in taking the waves head-on; this was fun until we slapped down hard after a particularly big wave and discovered that one of the women in the front of the boat had been jounced hard enough to hurt her back (the landing had jarred my back pretty good, too, and I was sitting several feet further aft). We made room for the injured woman aft (turned out she was half of the south-bound couple) and the water taxi driver continued in a saner fashion, no doubt with the words “Lawsuit! Lawsuit!” ringing through his brain. Margaret kindly dug out some Advil and gave it to the woman.
We pulled up alongside a narrow little dock at the north side of the Banks, and the museum group debarked, leaving the taxi driver, the injured woman and her husband to head back to the mainland. Margaret and I availed ourselves of the only sanitary facilities on the island, and then the members of our group shouldered backpacks and mushed off through the brush after our intrepid guide.
Jeannie is a botanist, so much of what she pointed out on our trek was the local flora, which was very interesting. She was also good at identifying birds, and my first frustration of the trip came after we’d pushed through some myrtle bushes to the island’s only freshwater pond, and she said “Oh, a spotted sandpiper!” I looked and looked but couldn’t see it – a Life List opportunity missed. Jeannie also showed us the difference between male pony poop and female pony poop, and kept handing us bits of plant life to smell or taste (I love walking with botanists because they’re always picking stuff and chewing on it). In between her natural history tidbits, Jeannie told us a bit of the history of human habitation of the Banks, which were occupied until storms in the late 1800s drove the settlers to the mainland. However, most of the families maintained camps on the Banks until the area was designated part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore and they were finally forced out in the 1980s, leaving the island to the ponies.
Speaking of ponies, we’d been looking for them but still hadn’t seen any. Around eleven o’clock Jeannie led us to a high dune in the middle of the island, where there was a pleasant breeze and where we could see both ocean and sound. Everyone had a seat in the sand and brought out their snacks, and as we munched Jeannie asked all of us where we were from and what we do for a living. I always hate this question because when I say I’m an actress, people want to know what TV shows I’m on, or they want to tell me about a friend or a relative who does theatre and do I know them. Sure enough, one of the women in the group asked me if I knew someone who works at the Little Theatre of Alexandria, and I had to tell her that I didn’t because I don’t work in community theatre, which always sounds a bit snotty regardless of how I say it. One of these days I’m going to have some obscure or terrifically boring occupational lie ready when the subject comes up.
With snacktime over, we headed back to the sound side and continued our stroll westward. It was low tide and we were approaching some mudflats when Margaret spotted our first pony in the distance. All the binoculars came out, and there was much excitement when the first pony was joined by a second, although the excitement turned to anxiety as some nipping and kicking ensued. Eventually a peaceable agreement was reached, and then one of the ponies headed in our direction, still looking a bit pugnacious. Our group clustered together somewhat nervously, but clearly the pony just wanted a closer look at us and continued past us down the beach. Jeannie pointed out the number painted on the pony’s haunch and made a notation of it in her notebook.
We saw more and more ponies as we continued west. I have to say that I’ve never been much of a horse person and, having seen one pony, the rest of them didn’t interest me much. A lot of them looked scrawny and unwell into the bargain. I was more entranced by the bird life (black-bellied plover, semi-palmated plover, white ibis, snowy egret, dowitcher) and by the smaller wildlife at our feet, particularly the acres of tiny fiddler crabs popping in and out of their holes. As we walked out onto the salt flats there were so many of them at times that it looked like the surface of the earth was moving. Jeannie got happy when we discovered a blooming marsh mallow, which she claimed to be one of her favorite plants (no, she didn’t eat it).
After about an hour, we gained the curve of the island’s westmost point, and there on the beach we decided to have lunch (by the way, Margaret and I both agreed in hindsight that a single PB&J sandwich and water made for a skimpy meal). Many of the trekkers, including Margaret, plunged into the water to cool down; since I hadn’t dressed for swimming, I decided to take a brisk walk up to the tip of the island. There were two large poles sticking up in the sand to mark where the water taxi would pick us up and I made them my goal. There were a lot more people on this part of the island; evidently this was the best place to go shelling, as there were a lot of people doing just that, but it must have also been the best place to swim in quiet waters. Many families were ensconced for the day, with canopies and tents and lawn chairs. I made the water taxi pick-up point and retraced my steps to our group, rejoining them just as they were packing up to head to the pick-up point. We had about an hour and a half left before our water taxi was due, so we piled all of our packs in one place and everyone set off on their own. Margaret and I walked around the western point of the island and headed southeast along the ocean shore, which was nearly deserted (I wish I’d taken a photo of the beach just to contrast it with the “renourished” beach at Emerald Isle – the sand at Shackleford was bright and clean and there were no black shells). We walked and chatted for about forty minutes, then noticed that dark clouds were piling up in the distance.
We headed back to the taxi pick-up, where Jeannie was scanning the horizon with her binoculars and worrying aloud. We could see lightning striking beyond Fort Macon, but the dark clouds seemed to be closing in from all sides and even the dug-in family groups were folding their tents. After about fifteen minutes we spotted our water taxi heading toward us; he pulled up into the shallows and we hoisted ourselves aboard, getting into Beaufort just ahead of the rain. Margaret and I were ravenous and thirsty so we treated ourselves to beer and seafood at Clawson’s. It was incredibly good – whether because it really was that good or because we’d worked up such an appetite for it is a moot point.