Outer Banks: Offshore barrier islands offer wonderful flights of fancy

December 05, 1993|By Christopher Corbett | Christopher Corbett,Contributing Writer Universal Press Syndicate

At the turn of the century, Capt. William J. Tate was the postmaster at Kitty Hawk, then an isolated outpost on the sandy barrens of North Carolina's Outer Banks. Descended from a Scottish shipwreck survivor on a coast known as "the graveyard of the Atlantic," Capt. Tate worked variously for the U.S. Lifesaving Service, was a notary public and served as a Currituck County commissioner. But he was chiefly, in the words of one historian, "a one-man chamber of commerce" whose greatest success was in public relations.

His first correspondents were a pair of bachelor brothers from Dayton, Ohio, who 90 years ago -- Dec. 17, 1903 -- became the first men to fly.

Wilbur and Orville Wright owned a bicycle repair shop and were looking for a place to conduct experiments -- flying experiments. They were especially interested in the wind. And here on this nearly 200-mile-long elbow of sand where the East Coast juts out toward the Gulf Stream, Capt. Tate assured them the winds were good and true.

And so the wind brought the Wright brothers to the Outer Banks and forever changed life, as man realized the ancient dream of taking to the heavens. The same wind today -- on average 15 mph daily year-round -- continues to shape every aspect of life along the nation's largest offshore barrier islands.

Wind-driven sporting industries -- hang gliding, wind surfing, kite flying, sailing and recreational aviation -- power much of the economy.

Stretching south from the Virginia-North Carolina border, the Outer Banks are a narrow, ever-shifting sandbar. In some spots a mere matter of yards separates the Atlantic Ocean from the shallow, marshy sounds that wash the North Carolina mainland.

The Banks run southeast along the East Coast to Cape Hatteras -- a legendary halfway mark -- whose treacherous waters have claimed more than 500 vessels since Colonial times. From Cape Hatteras, the sandy, low-lying islands stretch south and west nearly another 100 miles past sleepy Ocracoke Island -- once the lair of the notorious pirate Blackbeard. (Piracy was a virtual cottage industry on the Banks in Colonial times.) The Banks continue along a string of sandy barrier islands to end at Cape Lookout.

Like the Wright brothers' mentor, Capt. Tate, a good few of the original settlers hereabout -- two- and four-footed -- arrived via shipwreck. They were a gritty, long-isolated people who knew and feared the wind. They built their homes on the sound side, away from the Atlantic. Their descendants, who make up some of today's roughly 24,000 year-round residents, still favor the shelter of the sound. But tourists and second-home owners, who swell the population five and tenfold during the high season, perch their houses precariously on the exposed Atlantic-side dunes, a thing old Bankers would have deemed mad.

Beach houses and development are not the only things that have changed on the dunes. In the Wright brothers' day, the Outer Banks were accessible only by water. Today most travelers to the northern banks cross Currituck Sound via the 3.2-mile Wright Brothers Memorial Bridge (a second span, now under construction, is due to open in the fall of 1995) to the village of Southern Shores. The southern banks -- Ocracoke Island and Cape Hatteras -- may also be reached via ferry from the North Carolina mainland.

On the Outer Banks side of the sound, north of the bridge, is the popular upscale resort town of Duck, and farther north the once hard-to-reach village of Corolla, where wild horses, whose descendants were shipwrecked here in Colonial times, roam the dunes.

If you follow the wind along the Outer Banks today, the place to start is eight miles south of the bridge at the top of Big Kill Devil Hill in Kitty Hawk. Here a 90-foot granite pillar rises eerily from a great sand dune -- a monument to the wind and man's mastery of it. The Wright Brothers National Memorial is a peaceful place. Half a million pilgrims come here annually, but oddly there is no sense of crowds.

"This site inspires everyone," says Darrell Collins, a historian with the National Park Service, adding, "All of the famous fliers have come here: Neil Armstrong, Chuck Yeager, Amelia Earhart, Lindbergh."

Away from the solemn and solitary monument that immortalizes Wilbur and Orville Wright, the beach resorts of the Outer Banks south of the great bridge -- Kitty Hawk and Nags Head -- set quite another tone.

On the Outer Banks, it's the gospel of let's-go-surfing-now and the church of the Brew-Thru, a landmark drive-in beer store and shrine for the thirsty in Kitty Hawk. School's always out. It's always summer or it's always trying to be summer even in the cooler months, the "shoulder seasons," as they call them. In March, which the natives consider arctic, crazy Canadians come down here to wind surf.

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