Cape Lookout, The Ribbon of Sand

While you are touring the Visitors Center at Harkers Island, you can watch a movie about Cape Lookout, Ribbon of Sand, based on the ecological writings of Rachel Carson and narrated by Meryl Streep. This was a PBS special with stirring music and stunning aerial photography. Not to ruin the ending for anyone, but the bottom line is that these barrier islands are doomed, vanishing before our wondering eyes. The movie describes the barrier islands south of Ocracoke Inlet as a luminous bar of sand 60 miles long with no roads, no bridges and no hotels. These wild, remote beaches of Cape Lookout National Seashore are one of the few remaining natural barrier island systems in the world.

We can blame global warming – and we do – for their demise, but Rachel Carson sounded this alarm more than half a century ago. Hurricanes or nor’easters slice open inlets in the sand barrier islands, allowing seawater to flow in and out of the estuaries, and have been doing so since the beginning of time. Storms pound the low, narrow barrier islands and throw loads of sand all the way across them, creating what geologists call “overwash fans.” A fan of sand, now on the sound side of the island, is colonized by vegetation to become salt marsh, created by sand borrowed from the ocean side. The island has literally moved.

The movie is both factual and poetic, both a celebration of and lament for a singular and ephemeral corner of the natural world. Ribbon of Sand also explains why nobody lives out there anymore, except for one small population center – the Wild Horses of Shackleford Banks.

The Horses of Shackleford Banks

Shackleford Banks, another ribbon of sand running east-west from Cape Lookout to Beaufort, is populated. About 120 wild horses live on the island, and a full-time biologist in charge of monitoring them is based at Cape Lookout National Seashore Headquarters on Harkers Island.

This is interesting work if you can get it. The job description involves watching and managing the herd. The down side of this otherwise ideal career opportunity is that you will have to contracept the ones that should not be breeding, because you won’t want one genetic line to overpower the others. If for some reason you fail to prevent an undesirable birth, you will be party to sending off a small baby to parts unknown, acclimating it to people and then getting it adopted, or sending it off to join other herds of wild horses. This happens maybe four to six times a year, depending not only on the Shackleford Banks genetic situation, but also on the genetic situations in other wild pony habitats. Two young foals recently were carted off to Ocracoke Island to diversify the genes in that herd.

Visitors are cautioned to keep their distance from these seemingly docile creatures, since they are essentially wild animals. This herd divides itself into roughly 25 harems and seven bachelor bands, and a stallion will take charge of a group of mares only temporarily. A hierarchy is established within each group that seems all too familiar, through threats, biting, rearing, striking and kicking. In addition to the National Park Service’s participation in the project, a nonprofit group in Beaufort oversees the monitoring and management of the horses, the Foundation for Shackleford Horses, Inc.

Staying on the Island

The National Park Service rents cabins on Cape Lookout in two locations, and all you need to do is catch a ferry to get you over there, bring your four-wheel drive to get around, and then maybe a generator if you would like electricity. Some of the cabins have generators and some don’t, and only a couple have air conditioning. As a precaution, you might think to bring light bulbs and radios, possibly a battery-operated fan.

Rustic though they may be, these facilities came in mighty handy when, in 2009, the National Park Service threw a big party to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Descendants were invited, including family of anyone connected to a lighthouse keeper and any offspring of Coast Guard or lifesaving personnel, and about 450 people showed up for dinner.