We returned to lovely and car-free Bald Head Island, NC, last weekend, partly to check out the new Barrier Island Study Center and also for my final stop (at the Bald Head Island Club) as a judge in the NC Best Dish contest (more on that in another post).
The 20-minute ferry ride from Southport started things off on a high note – we had a glowing pink and orange sunset and even saw a pair of cavorting dolphins. We stayed at a lovely house near the ocean, which was quite the treat. We could hear the waves as long as the neighbors’ air conditioning units weren’t humming. (We thought AC was totally unnecessary!) BHI is a somewhat odd mix — an upscale “gated community” feel with a true conservation mission, and a blend of high-income homeowners and the hoi polloi, like us.
The Barrier Island center is a new addition to the Bald Head Island Conservancy, whose mission is to “foster barrier island conservation, education, and preservation to live in harmony with nature.” The Conservancy has long been associated with its protection of sea turtles, which nest in the dunes. (This year’s tally: 70 nests and 63 hatchings — so far!)
I should add here a bit about Bald Head Island, which along with Middle and Bluff islands, makes up the Smith Island complex, which includes 10 miles of beach and dunes, 10,000 acres of salt marsh, and 4,000 acres of barrier island upland and maritime forests. And let me also define barrier island: A relatively narrow strip of sand parallel to the mainland coast that creates a barrier system. I’ll let you in on a secret: the “island“ is really Bald Head Island Peninsula, since Hurricane Floyd (1999) filled an inlet with sand, but let’s not tell anyone.
The Conservancy runs many nature and education programs, but has long been known as a “turtles and t-shirts,” spot, said Tom Hancock, director of conservation, during a tour he gave us. Now, because of the study center, it is poised to become a nexus of barrier-island research in a major way, including offering university students semesters “abroad.” Findings here will benefit all barrier- island communities. The energy-efficient building is gorgeous, especially because of the light filtered throughout both floors and the stairs, floors, and doorways made of reclaimed pine salvaged from the Cape Fear River. The study center’s lobby is now the main visitor information stop for the Conservancy, so do check out the building and the Conservancy’s activities. Amazingly, the center was funded solely from grants and private donations, many from residents.
Afterward, we rode on the beach cruisers that came with our condo (thank you!) to Riverside Adventure Co., where we hopped into kayaks and tooled along Bald Head Creek, taking narrower and narrower tributaries, flanked by reeds. Beautiful and peaceful! From a distance, we heard the wedding march from Village Chapel next to Old Baldy, the state’s oldest-standing lighthouse (from 1817), which gleamed in the late afternoon sun. What a day!
On Sunday, following a tip from Dr. Tom, we directed the cruisers into a wicked headwind along the packed-down beach toward Fort Fisher State Recreation Area until, at Lina’s urging, we reached Bald Head Island State Natural Area, an area so remote you feel shipwrecked — that is until you see the official marker. An awesome tailwind took us back to civilization quickly, a good thing because the tide was coming in.
We capped the outing by cycling along one of our favorite spots — Cape Creek Road, a dirt road along Middle Island that feels like a step back in time and conjures images of early settlers who once called this land home. I wonder what it will all look like 100 years from now!