From two lakes to one couple

| November 03, 2005

America’s Islands
As you look out your windshield and see the signs of winter beginning to descend on us, thoughts of sand, surf and palm trees may wander into your mind. And why not?

Here’s an idea. Instead of heading to one of the big, over-popular beach oases that might be far out of your way, consider some interesting smaller surf and sand places, spread out enough that some might come tantalizingly close to your routes.

Stretching along our eastern and southern coastline from Maryland to Texas is a series of sandy barrier islands, places awash with history and mystery. And they’re fragile, as this season’s hurricanes have shown. Over the centuries they have changed as the elements battered, and winds, tides and currents pushed and pulled at them. Man has come and tried to keep these flat islands from being overwhelmed by nature, so in some places dunes and other features on the islands are man-made. Despite man and his machines, they will continue to evolve.

A visit might take you to a place that will never be the same again. You can enjoy the heady mix of salt sea air and the smell of the open marshes where salt and fresh water mix into a brackish soup, the crowded flights of a wide range of sea birds, the nearness of the ocean with nothing to stop it overwhelming you if nature decides to attack, and a look at life as it must have been lived on these islands in pioneer days.

Some of North Carolina’s barrier islands are notable for being further off the mainland than most. On these “outer banks” you can visit Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills. Winter winds pounding in from the northeast push the sand into high dunes (although summer winds try to push them back), and it was the combination of winds and dunes that attracted Orville and Wilbur Wright to this place to show the world how to fly in December 1903.

At Ocracoke Island you can run into a pirate story to make your blood run cold. It was here, near the little village of Ocracoke in November 1718, that the British Royal Navy’s Captain Robert Maynard found the notorious Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, at anchor. In the ensuing battle, Blackbeard and his crew boarded Maynard’s sloop and engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Another British sailor slashed open the ferocious Blackbeard’s neck with a saber, but he refused to fall until finally Maynard shot him several times. When he died, his head was severed and hung from a mast, and more than 30 wounds were found in the body, which was unceremoniously tossed overboard.

Off the coasts of Virginia and Maryland lie Assateague Island, the Assateague Island National Seashore and Chincoteague Island and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Like so many of our barrier islands, they are home to huge flocks of birds. But perhaps the islands are best known for the herds of wild horses that freely roam among the plants and native animals that have adapted to a life of sand, salt and wind. Once a year, the Chincoteague ponies are rounded up, a spectacle highlighted by the horses swimming a channel they were once ferried across. Legend says the horses came from a sunken Spanish galleon carrying horses, with a few survivors making it to shore. The horses are more likely descendants of horses originally owned by British settlers.

In South Carolina you can visit perhaps America’s most famous barrier island. Actually, it was a barrier sandbar at the mouth of Charleston harbor when, after the war of 1812, federal authorities decided to fortify it. Work began in 1829, and by 1860 the fort was ready. In 1861, Fort Sumter became the flashpoint for the Civil War, with Confederate guns in Charleston blasting it into surrender on April 10, 1861.

Southern South Carolina is home to perhaps the fanciest, shmanciest of the country’s barrier islands, Hilton Head, home to assorted millionaires and site of one of the most famous tournaments on the Professional Golf Association Tour. But some of the islands around Hilton Head are distinctly different. I recommend Pat Conroy’s wonderful semi-autobiographical 1972 novel The Water is Wide for a look at barrier island life in this part of the world not too long ago.

Georgia’s coast boasts some wonderful islands, from the developed St. Simon’s and Jekyll islands to relatively untouched, and protected, Ossabaw Island, Sapelo Island and Cumberland Island National Seashore, which offers camping possibilities. You could also visit Savannah’s Tybee Island for some rest and relaxation. This island was once a pirate haunt and was one of the first places settled by the British as they came to Georgia.

In the southern South Carolina barrier islands and the northern Georgia islands, and nowhere else, you can find the Gullah culture and language. Gullah is a Creole form of English which began as a language used by the first West African slaves brought to the area. It became a language in its own right with the first generation of slaves born in the area. Local culture, such as sea grass weaving, casting net fishing and local food dishes are still distinctly Gullah.

America’s rocket ship base, Cape Canaveral on the east coast of Florida, feels like, but is not really, a small island. Even with no shuttle flights planned, it is an amazing destination for Americans, a place to see and touch some of our most modern history.

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