In a pair of rustic cottages on two remote strips of North Carolina shoreline, one family left time and responsibilities behind to watch waves crash on barren beaches and stars dance in the coal black sky.
Core Banks, the long, slender, least-inhabited of North Carolina’s barrier islands, lies east of the colonial seaport town of Beaufort. The first time Ann and I went to stay in one of the two fishing encampments out on those sandbanks, each of our 8-yearold twins, Hunter and Susannah, brought along a friend, and our daughter Cary was 10 months old. Late that Friday afternoon, we embarked on the car-and-passenger ferry Green Grass from Morris Marina on the north side of Atlantic. A light rain picked up quickly and became driving, and the fog sat down and soon enshrouded Core Sound.
Some folks arrive alone for weekends of angling and solitude; others bring families and pets for a relaxing vacation at the very edge of the continent. photograph by Baxter Miller
We all crowded into the cabin with Cap’n Glenn Lewis while he piloted us slowly forward through the cloud. Half an hour later, he backed off on the throttle and, as if he had been able to see right through the thick fog the whole time, eased us into a channel marked by white PVC pipes and brought us safely on up to the Long Point-Morris Marina Kabin Kamps landing. In less than 10 minutes, we had rolled Ann’s father’s GMC Jimmy truck, laden with groceries and gear, off the Green Grass and on down the lane to the small, tarpaper Cabin No. 13, its screens encrusted with salt. There, the seven of us would stay safe and snug till Sunday.
Daughter Susannah had everything planned and ordered out in quarter-hour units: a board game for 15 minutes, drawing for another 15 minutes, ghost stories after that, and so on. But the reality of the children’s delicious moments in this way-down-home spot was just as casual as was the shanty itself. Later, as the kids settled down by candlelight, we read them John Harden’s spectral account of the 1921 Diamond Shoals shipwreck of the five-masted Carroll A. Deering — all sails set, captain and crew disappeared forever. And then, the next morning, in the spirit of coastal exploration and adventure, Cary took her first steps — only two of them, mind, but still … it happened in Cabin No. 13.
Visitors bring their own fishing gear, beach chairs, and ice chests packed with food to the cottages of the Alger Willis Fishing Camps. photograph by Baxter Miller
Two years later, our family clamored for a return, so on a blue-sky day in late July, we gathered for another Core Banks adventure, this time at Davis, a few miles down the sound from Atlantic. There, we boarded our own craft, a 17-foot Boston Whaler. We were six this time — our guest being 12-year-old Caroline Parsons down from Brooklyn — all headed for the Alger Willis camps of South Core Banks at Great Island Bay. Before we took in lines, I went aboard the ferryboat Capt. Alger to seek the route into the camps, about three miles away. A bearded, tattooed mate told me, “Go in at a pole with a yellow sign with a bicycle on it and follow the ferry channel, and it’ll take you right in.”
Once there, we docked and entered our shanty. Cary, then 3, sensing and seeing rusticity before her, walls open down to the framing, asked excitedly, “Mama, is this all tore up?!” Well, not quite, but certainly evidence of a relaxed approach to house-joining. Soon came flashlight tag for the children, and, after supper, we all went out of the cabin one more time before bed, down to the nighttime shore, the distant Lookout Light beaming our way every so often. There, beneath the brilliant diamond sky and the Milky Way, we all gazed up and marveled at the Delta Aquariids, shooting stars falling over us by the score.
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Our literature is filled with intriguingly remote shelters, like Henry David Thoreau’s self-made 10-by-15-foot cabin at Walden Pond; Annie Dillard’s “house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek”; Horace Kephart’s back-of-beyond log-and-plank cabin up Hazel Creek in the Smokies; Capt. Moses Grandy’s “little hut” on the shore of Lake Drummond; and Henry Beston’s 1920s beach cottage, Fo’castle, his literal “outermost house” in the Cape Cod dunes. In many of us, at some time or another, there arises the desire to be off and away — in the last house down the lane or out on the point, or in the tent in deep woods, a little bit farther apart from the rest — for the calm and the quiet, if nothing else, or for real recovery and healing, or even just for the outright romance of it.
Venturing either just a little way or many miles from the tiny encampments of South Core and North Core — each of the paired barriers being about 20 miles long — gains one an even rarer level of solitude than the camps themselves, as well as vistas into infinity. Looking away to where the lines of surf and sand converge, I can hear Shakespeare’s Prospero speaking to me of “such stuff as dreams are made on,” and I am grateful for this paradise of fair winds, tight lines, and a few good days and nights in a cottage by the sea.
The 51-foot, 35-ton ferryboat Capt. Alger was named for Alger Willis Sr., one of the first seamen to run a vehicle ferry from Davis to South Core Banks in the late ’50s, when he started his fishing camps. photograph by Baxter Miller
Most days out here, from early spring to mid-autumn, are golden and bright, sparkling sunlight reflecting off the many waters beneath a great vaulted blue sky. Though noisily brooding purple-black thunderstorms will roll through, too, so one always must keep a weather eye. Heavier winds can push the surf over the frontal dunes, or even through them, as Hurricane Dorian did in early September 2019, creating 54 inlets through North Core Banks, including one that lay waves of ruin upon the Long Point cabins, closing them for at least the following two years.
In a sense, an acute awareness of oceanic dynamics is what makes our being out in these little houses so deep and rich in the first place, tying us, in ways, to “the hidden world of mullet camps,” those late-1800s fishermen’s seashore shelters of brush and thatch that historian David Cecelski sings so well of. And also to the rugged coastal experience of the 19th-century Diamond City folk, the Ca’e Bankers who lived on Shackleford Banks just west of Cape Lookout, not so very far south of the two present-day Core Banks fish camps. We see what they saw, high-piling clouds in an endless sky, rolling breakers of an endless sea, sun setting brilliantly over the sound, and we are not only observing the grand rotations: Out in this elemental here, we are a part of them.
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Our family left the Alger Willis Camp in the Whaler on another blue-sky day, perfect for an afternoon’s boat ride back into Beaufort. Young Brooklynite Caroline Parsons rode up in the bow with our son, Hunter, at one point proclaiming to the heavens with great purpose and joyful noise: “When I’m older, I’m coming back to walk the whole way from the camps down to Lookout Light!”
The goal may be bluefish and speckled trout in the spring and fall, or pompano and spot in the summer. But no matter what time of year it is, the age-old desire to pull from the waters something that nourishes body and soul is always evident along Core Banks. photograph by RYAN STANCIL
Caroline may not have done that quite yet, and nowadays, the small lodgings standing where we stayed more than a quarter-century ago are better-made and tighter against the wind and rain. They’re rustic wooden rectangles, mostly, still without refrigerators, but with rockers on porches facing out to glory. They’re little buildings only a few hundred square feet in size, yet a sight larger than the tarpaper cabins that stood out here in these fisherfolks’ redoubts for decades.
But the old yearning possibility is still open to our Brooklyn friend, and, indeed, to us all. As is the wide-open Core Banks locale of these small outermost houses upon what the environmental writer Rachel Carson called a “strange and beautiful place,” the very edge of the sea.
To commemorate our 90th anniversary, we’ve compiled a time line that highlights the stories, contributors, and themes that have shaped this magazine — and your view of the Old North State — using nine decades of our own words.