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271 pp., 35 photos

Published: Fall 1989


by Alton Ballance

Copyright (c) 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

A View from the Inlet

On a cold November afternoon I got in my boat and started for a ride. I wasn't going fishing, oystering, or hunting. I just wanted to be out on the water on such a beautiful afternoon. An old man on shore watched me as I got ready to leave. He wanted to know where I was going so late. I told him I was just going for a ride. As I left the shore, he kept staring at me, hands in his pockets. He stood there until I reached the mouth of the Creek, then he turned around and walked back toward his house.

The wind had been strong most of the week from the northeast, had lost strength throughout the day, and had finally died to a "slick ca'm" by late afternoon. I had about one hour of daylight left. The western sky had already turned a pale orange.

As I cleared the Creek, I scanned the horizon. Several boats were racing toward the village. When I passed them, the men slowed their motors and waved. They had been oystering.

The cold began to sting my face and hands as I increased the speed of the motor. I steered toward Beacon Island, located several miles west of Ocracoke and about one mile north of Portsmouth Island. Strings of cormorants flew swiftly along the waterline, and a large raft of redheads flared up miles away along the northwest horizon. Occasionally a nearby gull would interrupt its gliding and hover above a small disturbance in the water before settling down gently to investigate; then it would rise up, a tiny scrap of something in its beak, and fly off, leaving a radiating pattern of tiny waves on the otherwise smooth and undisturbed water.

My ride would take an egg-shaped course. After reaching Beacon Island, I would turn south into Blair Channel, follow it to Ocracoke Inlet, then take Teach's Hole Channel back to the village. The three main channels that branch from Ocracoke Inlet are Teach's Hole Channel, which runs northeast from the inlet toward Ocracoke Village; Blair Channel, which runs north from the inlet toward the mainland; and Wallace's Channel, which runs northwest from the inlet along Portsmouth Island.

The sun slipped below the horizon as I raced along Blair Channel. Except for the gentle breakers on the sandbars next to Ocracoke beach, the sea was flat and barely rippled in the faint breeze. Several trawlers dotted the eastern horizon. One was entering the inlet, traveling so close to the beach that a sudden turn to the right would send it crashing against the shore. Only a few months earlier the deep water of the inlet had been further to the southwest.

Inlets are in a constant state of change. They react daily to the natural forces of wind, waves, currents, and high-energy storms, all of which move the sands of the barrier islands, opening new inlets and closing others.

Like the inlet, the island itself has been changing for thousands of years. Part of the North Carolina Outer Banks, Ocracoke is one of a chain of islands that form a barrier (hence the name "barrier island") between the Atlantic Ocean and the sounds behind the islands. These barriers, geologists tell us, have been gradually moving toward the North Carolina mainland, while it too erodes.

According to Duke University marine geologist Orrin Pilkey, the geological formation of Ocracoke probably began about 17,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. If an Ocracoke existed then, it was a barrier island approximately twenty-five miles offshore on the edge of the continental shelf, a broad, shallow shelf that extends from the shoreline to deep-sea depths. As the sea level rose, the island migrated landward to its present position.

"Judging from other islands," said Pilkey, "Ocracoke probably got to its present location around three or four thousand years ago. Some of the same sand that once existed when the island was out on the edge of the continental shelf is probably present on the island today."

Pilkey also believes that during its retreat toward the mainland, Ocracoke was not as wide as it is today. "All barrier islands are a product of rising sea level," he explains. "When the island began retreating across the continental shelf, it was a narrow sand island. As sea level rose more slowly, then the island began to widen to something like its present width."

Another marine geologist, East Carolina University's Stan Riggs, also recognizes that the barrier island part of Ocracoke has migrated to its present location. Riggs maintains, however, that Ocracoke Village is an old "chunk" of island, similar to Roanoke Island, that has existed in it present location longer than the barrier island which migrated up to it. When the beach finally reached what is now the village, it "bumped into it" and got "hung up," forming basically the present-day shape of Ocracoke.

This process also explains other features of the Banks. Capes have formed as migrating barrier islands bumped into chunks of old islands. "The Outer Banks town of Rodanthe has just come off Wimble Shoals where it was once hung up. There used to be a place called Cape Rodanthe. This is also being done at Hatteras and it's about to do it at Ocracoke," says Riggs.

Looking at a map of the Outer Banks, you can see evidence of Rigg's theory, especially at Cape Hatteras, where an ancient island is being wrapped by a migrating barrier island. Ocracoke Village, as well, is about to be wrapped by the same process. Riggs further theorizes that as Nags Head migrates toward the mainland, it could one day run in to Roanoke Island, and thus another cape will form.

These geological changes have of course taken place over thousands of years, but for a good view of these processes at work, you have only to go to one of the Outer Banks inlets. There, deep channels and low sand islands form overnight, especially after storms, when vast quantities of water move in and out of the inlets. "Ocracoke Inlet is greatly affected by the sound behind it," says Pilkey. "It has a cross-section of water that adjusts to the volume of water that goes in and out. Although there's not much tide on a daily basis, when a storm occurs, even a minor one, then it really serves its function. It would have been very exciting to be at Ocracoke Inlet during Hurricane Gloria. It must have looked like some of the rapids in the Amazon."

According to Outer Banks historian David Stick, Ocracoke Inlet is perhaps the only inlet on the Outer Banks that has been open continuously since the first European explorers visited the North Carolina coast. Like other inlets, however, Ocracoke Inlet has always shifted. Sometimes the deep water is closer to Ocracoke, other times closer to Portsmouth. Moreover, the exact location of Ocracoke Inlet at the time of the first explorations is uncertain. Early maps indicate that Ocracoke may have been connected to Portsmouth Island, and together they formed Wokokon. On other maps Ocracoke appears to be joined to Hatteras Island and is referred to as Croatoan.

Wherever it was located, though, Wokokon Inlet was important in the early settlement of Ocracoke. The first visitors to North Carolina, and later the settlers in the Pamlico and Albemarle Sound area, needed a reliable entrance into the safer sound waters. Ocracoke Inlet and later the island itself were placed on the map for good.

Legend has it that Blackbeard the Pirate gave Ocracoke its name. In the early morning hours before his fatal encounter with Lieutenant Robert Maynard, Blackbeard, anxious for the dawn to arrive, was supposed to have looked ashore near Ocracoke Village and bellowed "O Crow Cock! O Crow Cock!"

This makes a good story, but a more likely source for the name is the Indian name "Wokokon," which itself is thought to be a misspelling of "Woccon," a tribe that once lived near the Neuse River. The Woccons occasionally traveled to Ocracoke, but none actually settled on the Outer Banks. Like other coastal mainland tribes, the Woccons came to the Outer Banks to feast on seafood. The feasts usually took place during the warm months when a canoe trip along the Outer Banks was smoother and fish were more plentiful.

The Indians used crude nets and weirs to catch large quantities of fish, while smaller catches were made by spearing or clubbing the fish in shallow water. Spears were made of wood and often tipped with stingray stings or horseshoe crab tails.

Early colonists John Lawson and Thomas Herriot described the Indians and their fishing techniques. Herriot observed that the Indians fished with poles sharpened at one end, "shooting the poles into the fish after the manner as Irishmen cast darts, either as they are rowing in their boats or else as they are wading in the shallows for the purpose." Lawson wrote that "youth and Indian boys go in the night, and one holding a light wood torch, the other has a bow and arrows; thus they kill a great many of the smaller fry, and sometimes pretty large ones." Flounder and other fish are still speared today by similar methods.

Another possible theory for the origin of the word Wokokon comes from Professor James A. Geary. According to Geary, the word seems to derive from such Indian words as "waxkahikani," which means "enclosed place," "fort," or "stockade," or "wahkahikani," "wakahigan," and "waskahigan," which refer to "stronghold." If this theory is correct, then such a structure may once have stood on Ocracoke, suggesting at least a temporary Indian settlement.

The Hattaras Indians were the only tribe that lived permanently on the Outer Banks. Their villages were located in high wooded areas near Buxton on Hattaras Island, approximately twenty-five miles northeast of Ocracoke. Since several thickly wooded hammocks also existed on Ocracoke, Indians may have settled here for short periods. Unfortunately, very little evidence is available to support this connection.

One of the first European explorers to write about the North Carolina coast was Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian navigator in the service of the French. After exploring briefly the Cape Fear area in the spring of 1524, his expedition departed and sailed east, anchoring at a place further up the coast. Some historians think Verrazano was anchored in the Raleigh Bay area located between Cape Lookout and Cape Hattaras. If this is true, then Verrazano could well have been anchored off Wokokon. While at this anchorage, they sent a man ashore with "trifles" for the Indians, whom they saw on the beach burning large fires. The man, exhausted from his swim through the surf, was helped to the beach by the Indians.

They carried him by the fire, stripped him of his wet clothes, spread the garments to dry, and gave him some food. From the ship it appeared that the Indians were preparing to roast and eat him. When the man later revived, the Indians provided him with a canoe so he could return to the ship, where he reported the kind treatment he had received.

Not until sixty years later, when the Sir Walter Raleigh expeditions began, would the Outer Banks again gain the attention of Europeans. Ocracoke and the rest of the Outer Banks would play a major role in the story, which would lead to the settling of North America.

But history often evades us. As I raced along Teach's Hole Channel that cold November afternoon, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to see Blackbeard's ship anchored in the channel, and beyond, in its original pristine state, Ocracoke.

I shifted my gaze from Teach's Hole to Springer's Point, and finally stopped to stare at the soft light atop the Ocracoke Lighthouse. Although most Ocracokers see the lighthouse many times every day, we seldom give it much thought. Yet, the tall, white structure, lighted at night, has towered over Ocracoke since long before any of us came into the world and will probably be there for some time to come. A friend once said, "When you sit right down and think about it, you can't help but be amazed that it's been there so long. It must have been a pretty sight way back when it didn't have a lot of electric lights surrounding it. You notice it a lot more when the power goes off."

Although the lighthouse still serves its original role, it belongs more to the past. Since it was built in 1823, many generations have depended on its steady light: the early sailors who used Ocracoke Inlet as a port of entry; the Navy men who fought in the surrounding waters during the Civil War and World War II; and the fishermen who, even today, work within its fourteen-mile range. The familiar light must have been a reassuring sight on a stormy night at sea, especially for those whose homes were spread on the same land.

As I approached Springer's Point, I swept my eyes along the rooflines of the village several times. I slowed the motor and stared toward the Coast Guard Station. Something had interrupted my line of sight, something that towered above everything else, including the lighthouse. Silhouetted faintly against the growing darkness of the eastern sky was the new Ocracoke water tower. If the lighthouse belongs to the past, then the water tower belongs to the future, a future in which more water is needed for the thousands who are now visiting Ocracoke. Most people are now so used to seeing the new tower that they have taken it too for granted. Change is often difficult, but eventually it takes place, is absorbed, and becomes part of the past.

More change has taken place at Ocracoke in the last few decades than at any other time in its history. Even though parts of the old fishing village have made way for motels, restaurants, and shops, there are still remnants of the past: wooden, white-painted boats tied to stakes in the Creek; nets and other fishing gear cluttering front yards; and old people who watch a faster way of life, measuring its worth against days long past. And there are the children of the transition, myself included, who must balance the old ways and the new and go on living in the village beneath the lighthouse and the water tower.

When I reached Springer's point, I turned off the motor. The boat drifted on, propelled by the last push of the motor and the incoming tide. The water is deep here and the current runs strong. This is Teach's Hole. I held my breath for a few seconds and stared at the lighthouse once again. When my eyes started to water, I allowed my focus to shift to Springer's Point, looming dark and silent before me. A great blue heron glided along the shoreline in front of it, raised itself quickly, and disappeared into the darkness back toward the inlet.

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