These nasty, gray and dark coastal Carolina winter days need to end and be replaced by the warmer days of Spring. I’m ready to don my worn leather flip flops, roll up a pair of my favorite jeans, throw a light weight sweatshirt over a tank top, and finish it off with my new monogrammed beach hat (same hat, same color of font and same font choice, just different initials than the one pictured). I’m ready to pack a lunch, board a ferry, soak in the sun, and walk barefoot in the sand of Shackleford Banks.
I’m surprised at the large number of people who live in this area that have never heard of Shackleford Banks. If someone isn’t a “local” here, then they are left by reason of deduction to be military. It is my military family who make up this large number who haven’t heard of this little sliver of solitude off the coast of Beaufort (pronounced Bow-fert) and Morehead City.
The “locals” affectionately call this barrier island “The Shack”. It could almost be a codename for the island to those who don’t know any different, mistaken by others as maybe “The Shack” being a bar, or a restaurant.
With the 3rd largest town of Beaufort being within view of the shores of “The Shack” it’s no surprise that the island is named a Virginia planter named John Shackleford that originally owned the land in 1713. During the late 1800’s there was once a small settlement of residents called Diamond City. The residents lived mainly in hut-type of homes fashioned out of wood found on the beach. Residents would walk the beach early in the morning and look for pieces of wood or other materials from shipwrecked boats that would wash ashore…an activity called “racking”. Many of the 500 residents started to leave the settlement after a particularly bad hurricane in August of 1899. By 1902, the island became abandoned with the former inhabitants relocating to nearby Beaufort, Harkers Island or Morehead City. For those of you who have been on the island and have experienced a hurricane in the past, it is easy to understand why this wasn’t a great location for “setting up home”.
Fun Fact: More than 1,000 ships have sunk in these waters off the Outer Banks and an unknown number of lives have been lost to this area of water known as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic”.
One of the most well-known pirates in history lost his life and his ship in the Beaufort inlet between Shackleford Banks and Boque Banks. This pirate famous pirate was Blackbeard and his ship… Queen Anne’s Revenge. The wreckage was recently discovered and many artifacts from it have been brought to surface, cleaned, restored and are on display at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort.
Now skip ahead from history, to a present feature of the island. The Banker Ponies, or the horses of Shackleford. They are smaller in size like ponies, but are more genetically connected to horses. There are over 100 feral horses that roam the 9 foot long and not quite 1 mile wide island. These horses are the single most important reason for attraction to this island for tourists. They all want to catch a glimpse of one of these beauties. No one is quite sure how the descendants of these Spanish Mustang horses arrived here 400 years ago. It’s been speculated that they may have swam ashore from exploration ships that were sinking in the Atlantic Ocean or that they roamed the islands freely by their owners and then were just left behind. The beautiful horses are cared for by the National Park Service and the Foundation for Shackleford Horses. Click the link to read a very interesting and informative page on the care and behavior of these horses … http://www.nps.gov/calo/naturescience/horse-faqs.htm#background
You might be asking “How do I get to the island?”. You can only get to it by boat. If you don’t own a boat, then you’ll need to take one of the ferries in Beaufort, Morehead City, or Harkers Island. I use two different ones, depending on which end of the island I want to go to. For the first year that my family and I visited Shackleford Banks we used the Outer Banks Ferry Service out of Beaufort. This service is very family friendly and located directly across the NC Maritime Museum on Front Street. The staff at the counter are very friendly and the captains of the boats are safety oriented and knowledgeable of the area’s waters. My children love to use this service for the island because of its concession stand. On hot days when we are having to wait in the sun for our turn to board the next ferry, it’s nice to get a cold drink or the kids an ice cream cone! When we take a family day trip or go camping for the weekend on “The Shack” we use this ferry service. After returning from a long day in the sun, sand and ocean it’s a treat to look forward to the area on the deck where you can wash sand off of you and all your items with cool fresh water!
This ferry service will only drop passengers off on the very southern tip of the island in a little half a mood shaped cove, on the sound side. This is a fantastic place for the younger kids to swim being it’s protected from the waves on the ocean side. Just don’t let them swim outside of the cove area into the inlet, there have been cases of people getting sucked out to the ocean and having to be rescued. So.. mm, yeah. I don’t care what age you are…don’t swim the inlet! Besides usually being very calm, it’s also very shallow at low tide making it enjoyable for kids of the youngest age to walk around in. When high tide comes in, my daughter and friends love to dive off the side of the cove into the deeper end of the sound. When we camp over the weekend on the island, this is usually where we set up our tents, just beyond the high tide mark. It’s a quick walk to the water and the dunes protect us from the strong winds on the ocean side.
If you’re looking for shells, this is the second most popular reason to visit the island. One can easily find sand dollars, starfish, and a buffet of shells on the ocean side. Once you get off of the ferry, walk to the right and follow the curve of the island and you’ll be on the ocean side. Or you can cut through the center of the island about a half a mile walk or so, to get to the ocean side. Just walk the shoreline and on a good day when it hasn’t been picked over or if you go after a high tide or storm the night before, you’ll be amazed at the shells. We’ve brought home sand dollars, starfish, giant whelk shells, our state shell- the Scotch bonnet, queen’s helmet shells and more!
For a view of the horses, it is rare that they are on the southern tip of the island. Maybe it’s because it’s ground zero for tourist drop-off and they know it. Start walking North…I can always find a few horses each time I go. You just have to LOOK…and WALK. Cut across into the center of the island and start walking North. Stand on the top of dunes and look for them in the horizon. You’ll find them if you look hard enough. Stay on the lookout for mounds of fresh horse poop, that will help you know that there was one there not too long ago! Whatever you do, don’t approach these beauties. They are not tame to people. They are very calm when you view them from a distance, but do not try to “molest” or harass them. These beauties have been known to attack if you invade their personal space.
For the better part of the first year that my family frequented Shackleford Banks I had wanted to get to the northern tip. I had heard that from that tip of the island the Cape Lookout lighthouse was a stone throw away over the inlet. First thing I thought of was how beautiful it would be to capture a picture of one of the horses with the lighthouse in the background. Loving photography as much as I do, this was high priority on my list of things I wanted to photograph. However, it was a 9 mile walk down to the tip, and 9 miles back to the ferry pick up. That’s 18 miles! I’d never make it back in time for my scheduled pickup! No matter how early I got there and no matter how late I had them pick me back up!
Through that year I would get to know the captains of the ferries at the Outer Banks Ferry Service. I’d be extra chatty with them, tipping them well…until one day late in March on one cool but pleasant Spring day, I thought I’d see if I could persuade them to take me to the northern tip. There were only two other people on the ferry with me that morning. I approached one of the captains before we loaded. I flashed my prettiest smile, batted my eyelashes, twirled my hair around my finger… and asked as sweet as I could… if he’d PLEASE take me out to the northern tip. I just want to try to get ONE photograph that I’ve dreamed about getting. “No.” That was the answer. Short and gruff, but I know it was meant to be polite, as this Captain in particular isn’t one of the most chattiest. I did my “aw, Shucks…” display of disappointment. I wasn’t making any progress… so I brought out the big guns. Money, cold hard cash. Money talks, right? Nope, this Captain was one tough cookie! I even tried to BRIBE him to take me up to the northern tip, for a $50.00 tip. He laughed a little “bless her heart” laugh, and explained that it takes too much gas in the boats for them to go that far up, he couldn’t help me. Damn!
So I asked him if there were any other ferry services that would take me there and he answered no. Sigh… I need a boat of my own. I had given up on getting to that part of the island until one day I came across Harkers Island and a ferry service located there that takes visitors to Cape Lookout AND the northern tip of Shackelford Banks!
They are a bit more out of the way, as Beaufort from New Bern is 28 miles and Harkers Island is 40 miles away, but so well worth it!
One early May day while the kids were in school I drove to Harkers Island and hopped a ferry from Calico Jacks ferry service. I was impressed with the locations that the ferry would drop riders off at, and I was grateful that I found this place! The $10 charge round trip was a much better price than what I would have given the Captain of the other service if he had accepted my bribe! There were a few different spots at Cape Lookout and of course, my destination for the day…the northern tip of Shackleford. Since discovering this ferry service, I’ve been with my family several times to Cape Lookout. That’s another blog though!
As soon as the boat pulled up to the shore, I hopped out and told the Captain to come back in 3 hours to pick me up. I abandoned my worn leather flip flops in the sand and started walking. Not so many shells on this end of the island, but at low tide I was able to walk through the ankle deep water and walk on several dry sand bars to get different views of the island and of Cape Lookout across the inlet. A perfect place to eat my bagged lunch too!
I swam a little, I walked a little, I looked for shells a little, and I saw a few horses. Yet none were grazing in the right place I needed for the shot that I wanted. So I walked a little more. I walked up and down through the center of the island, and through the groves of myrtles and back over the dunes. I was exhausted, I had left my water back on the shore after I’d eaten lunch, and I was hot. Looks like I could get a great pic of the Cape Lookout lighthouse, and it looked like it was going to have to be without one of the horses in the foreground. Suddenly I heard the sound of a horse walking, I looked up and while I was at the bottom of one dune, a horse had appeared on top of the dune in front of me… lining up my perfect shot! I about peed my pants in excitement! My fingers fumbled with my cameras menu, my heart was racing, and I prayed for the horse to stay still. He stayed and grazed on sea oats for longer than I needed, I was able to get several frames. More than enough to be able to find the perfect shot.
I went home that day ecstatic. I was on a high that I can’t describe. Apart from having my toes in the sand, and being at the beach… a perfect day became an indescribable experience!
If you want one of these shots, it’s not going to be easy! You’re going to need patience, and most of it depends upon the horse and where he/she decides to be at that time. The next shot on my list to capture is the horses frolicking in the waves like they do in the summer to cool themselves!
Please enjoy the pictures below and if you get the chance, get out and explore the beautiful coast of North Carolina. Just remember it’s not ours, it belongs to nature. Leave it as you found it. Pick up your trash and that of those careless ones who left theirs behind.
Help keep our Banks beautiful!