<< Day 30: Rock Hill to Cape Hatteras | Day 32: Cape Hatteras >>
Our RV spot on Hatteras Island was right next to the ocean. A short walk up and over the dunes, and we were presented with a magnificent beach that stretched for miles and miles. I, however, am not a "hang out at the beach all day" kind of person. (Besides, I can hang out all I want on the beach near my home in California--I don't need to travel 3000 miles to do that.) A couple of hours on the beach is generally nice, but I need to be moving on after that--hiking, bicycling, following an inviting path, venturing off to a new place. There was plenty to explore on the Outer Banks.
This morning we left our campground and drove about 40 minutes south to the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, which is part of the Cape Hatteras National Shoreline.
The 2-lane road south followed the contour of the long, skinny island:
My dad at the lighthouse entrance:
Me and my mom:
Cape Hatteras lighthouse:
We stopped by the Visitor’s Center to get Jr. Ranger booklets for the children, who were both excited to be earning another badge.
Later in the day, Sebastian commented that he didn’t do the Jr. Ranger programs just for the badge. He said, “The purpose of Jr. Ranger is to learn all of the information—the badge is just an award for all of your new knowledge.” Bravo! Such insight.
Ranger Ben was giving a presentation on shipwrecks this morning, so we attended the program in the outdoor pavilion. He started by explaining that Cape Hatteras is part of the long thin line of barrier islands, called the Outer Banks, that protect the mainland of North Carolina from the energy of the Atlantic Ocean.
Here is Ranger Ben pointing to the narrow white line showing the sandy edges of the islands.
The Cape Hatteras National Shoreline stretches for 70 miles along the Outer Banks and was the first coastal area in the nation to be designated as a “national” shoreline.
The land is constantly changing, with the wind, powerful waves, and shifting sands.
Ranger Ben also explained that the shores have many “rip currents”, which some people mistakenly call “rip tides.”
The rip currents are caused by breaks in the sand bars near the shore; the waves crash into the shore, but when they recede, the sand bars act as little dams to prevent the water from moving back. When the water finds an opening in the sand bars, it is sucked back with an intense force. Ranger Ben instructed us to swim across the rip current, parallel to the shore, if we are ever caught up in one.
Ranger Ben then dove into the colorful "shipwreck" history of the Outer Banks. This area of the coastline has been called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” because of the high number of shipwrecks—500 confirmed wrecks, but the number of actual wrecks is estimated to be one to two thousand. Evidence of the wrecks is rarely found along the shore today, but 50 years ago the deteriorating carcasses of wrecked wooden boats were scattered along the sand.
Ranger Ben held up a piece of wreckage that had been found on the beach:
Off the shore of North Carolina, the warm water from the north-flowing Gulf Stream meets the cold water from the Labrado current that flows south. (My father was in the U.S. Navy for many years, and said that the sailors always dreaded entering this part of the ocean because of the huge waves created by the two currents coming together.)
The sailing vessels flowing south did not want to get caught up in the Gulf Stream, which would take them upwards and across the ocean to England, so they would hug the shore. At the tip of Cape Hatteras, there is a shallow shifting sand bar that extends 15 miles into the sea. Many ships have run aground on that bar and have been battered to pieces by the ocean waves.
A photo of one wreckage that was washed ashore:
One of the most famous shipwrecks here is that of the USS Monitor, which fought the Confederate ship CSS Virginia (aka the Merrimac). The Monitor was being towed south and sunk 12 miles off the coast in a storm.
In the 1870’s, the USS Huron sunk just a few hundred feet off of the coast near Nags Head, and over half of the crew drowned. Nags Head had a life-saving station, but it was only manned part time, and was closed at the time of the wreck. Several months later, another ship, the Metropolis, sunk only 20 miles north of the Huron; local people were aghast that no one was there to help the Metropolis sailors, except the ghosts of those from the Huron.
After those wrecks, a plan was implemented to prevent further loss of life. First, lighthouses were built every 40 miles, each with a unique paint pattern and light flashing pattern. Ranger Ben showed us the different lighthouse paint patterns:
Second, the U.S. Life Saving Service was created, with life-saving stations constructed every few miles.
The stations were staffed by local surfmen, and the success rate was 99%. Ships still ran aground, but the people on board were rescued before the pounding surf could destroy their vessels.
One historical tidbit of which I had previously been unaware is that in 1942, German U-boats sank more than 80 ships off of the shores of North Carolina. Hundreds of lives were lost, and the area was nicknamed “Torpedo Junction.” After 1942, the United States increased its patrol of the water, and the lighthouses were used to keep watch for the U-boats.
After the shipwreck presentation, we walked over to the lighthouse. We had tickets to climb to the top at a specific time this morning.
Here we are at the bottom:
The top stretched far above us.
Construction of the lighthouse began in 1868 and finished in 1870. At 198.5 feet in height, it is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States.
We would be climbing to the observation deck at the top.
Ranger Jay gave us the safety rules.
Inside the lighthouse was a spiral of 257 cast-iron steps winding up and up and up to the top.
We climbed and climbed, and then climbed some more, around and around.
There were a couple of windows so that we could see our progress on the way up.
We finally reached the door at the top:
What a magnificent view!
In the distance to the northeast, we could see the sandy patch next to the ocean where the lighthouse originally stood.
In 1870, that area was 1600 feet west from the shoreline. However, the shape and outer edges of Hatteras Island are constantly changing, and the ocean gradually crept closer and closer. In 1999, the shoreline was a mere 150 feet away. That year, through a tremendous engineering accomplishment, the lighthouse was moved inland 2900 feet on rollers, inch by slow inch, to its current position far from the shore.
The eastern view looked toward mainland North Carolina, which is 30 miles away. Ranger Ben had told us this morning that visibility from the top of the lighthouse is only 20 to 25 miles and that we wouldn't be able to see the mainland. He was right. Down below were the park museum and administrative buildings.
The people directly below looked like colorful ants.
Sebastian and Genevieve:
Sometimes Genevieve has some issues with heights. After looking briefly at the view, Genevieve decided that she felt much more comfortable away from the edge of the observation deck, sitting with her back pressed firmly against the solid lighthouse wall.
Looking up at the glass top:
After we spiraled our way back down the stairs, we wandered over to visit the museum to learn more about the area and to find the information that Genevieve and Sebastian needed for their Jr. Ranger booklets.
The museum porch had a line of gleaming white chairs. The morning was still cool, however, and no one needed to rest in the shade.
One of the exhibits was a map with lines showing how the coast had eroded and changed over the years.
Sebastian learned more about the different patterns for each lighthouse in the area.
On the way back to the car, the children discovered this small lizard shape in the concrete sidewalk--it had apparently gotten trapped in the wet surface, and then its body had eroded away with time, leaving just its impression behind.
This afternoon, we spent some time playing in the Atlantic Ocean.
The water here is much warmer than the Pacific Ocean. The waves are also different, breaking close to the shore and burying our faces in the sand when we tried to body surf. Woo hoo!
Genevieve met a girl from Ottawa, Canada, who spoke French and not much English; Genevieve speaks no French. Yet they played happily together for a long time, building a large sand castle with moats and high walls. The girl’s parents said that this was their first trip to the Outer Banks; they were on their way to visit Savannah, Georgia, which they had heard was very beautiful.
The beach sand consists of tiny rocks, which are eventually ground into grains by the vigorous surf. When we peeled off our bathing suits back in the RV, enough small rocks fell off our bodies to fill a small bucket—yikes!
Sebastian rode his bike around the campground.
He also shared some explosive water balloon fun with a new friend.
After dinner tonight, we attended the “Night Lights” program, led by Ranger Zac. He has been a ranger for 3 months, and Hatteras National Shoreline is his first assignment.
The mosquitoes were out in full force tonight, so we sprayed ourselves with bug repellant. Even so, the mosquitoes kept landing in my hair around my face, so I had to give my hair an extra spray. We don’t have many (dare I say “any”?) mosquitoes where we live in California, and I’m so glad that I don’t have to include bug repellant in my daily routine.
We started the program at the original site of the Hatteras lighthouse. The ring of stones that formed the foundation still remains, with the names of the lighthouse keepers engraved along the base. Here is Sebastian sitting on top of the ring wall.
Ranger Zac educated us regarding why the darkness of the night sky is an important natural resource for plant and animal life. Artificial lights have consequences.
For example, migrating shore birds are very active at night, eating insects such as mosquitoes and lightning bugs; however, the bright light from lighthouses captivates them, and they will circle the light around and around and around, sometimes crashing into it. One lighthouse has even documented 6000 bird deaths in a one-year period.
Another animal that is affected by artificial light is the sea turtle, which needs dark beaches to lay its eggs. The hatchlings have a natural instinct to turn away from darkness and move toward the natural brightness of the ocean; however, when there are bright lights on the shore, the hatchlings get confused and either move toward those lights (away from the ocean) or move in circles on the sand. Either action leads to their death from predators or the moisture-sucking heat of the rising sun.
Humans, also, are affected by artificial lights. Those lights allow us to stay up much later than in the past, which often leads to severe sleep disorders, including insomnia and the inability to get up in the morning.
Ranger Zac told us that in 1994, after the Los Angeles earthquake had created a power outage, hundreds of people had called various government organizations (some in a panic) to report or complain about a “great silvery cloud” in the sky. That “cloud” was actually the Milky Way, which many people never see because city lights often create a “sky glow” that obscures most of the stars overhead.
The darkness of the night sky connects humans to the past because the sky is the same that others have seen for thousands of years. Our ancestors connected the dots in the sky and came up with various constellations and stories about the stars.
The Night Lights program was supposed to include some star-gazing, along with stories about the constellations. However, all but a few twinkles were covered by the broad expanse of clouds tonight.
Ranger Zac promoted the reduction of artificial light by turning off lights when we don’t need them, by replacing high-wattage lightbulbs with less intense bulbs, and by using light shields that prevent light from spreading up into the sky. Each of these suggestions can be easily implemented and can have a cumulative huge impact on the night sky.
We returned to the campground satiated with today’s good times and new knowledge.
<< Day 30: Rock Hill to Cape Hatteras | Day 32: Cape Hatteras >>
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