Our Coast: Be a ‘Kindred Spirit’ on Bird Island
By Frank Tursi
A lady from Connecticut walked the mile to the mailbox in the dunes at the end of Bird Island on an April day in 1993. She found the dog-eared notebook inside. She wrote the following:
“I am making this pilgrimage for my husband, Martin, who died 8-23-92 from leukemia. He loved Bird Island and all the surrounding area. I know he is with me here today.”
A mother from Maryland came by ten years later to confess that the pain of losing her daughter still lingered. “I wish I knew the ‘whys’ in life. Jenny should still be here. She gave so much and had so much more to give to the world at 22. I try not to be angry and not to be depressed because I know she wouldn’t want that but I miss her so much. Please let me feel her here this week with us. I love you, Jenny, and miss you so much.”
A woman from Charlotte left a more joyous note on a page next to a lipstick-lips kiss: “Thanks for a beautiful day!”
Bird Island has that kind of effect on people. Once separated from Sunset Beach in Brunswick County by a narrow, meandering inlet that dried up with every low tide, the island affixed itself permanently to the southern end of Sunset when the inlet closed for good in 1997.
No longer deterred by the tide, thousands of people have walked this wide, deserted beach – the last bit of sand in North Carolina -- and have found the mailbox, sitting crookedly on a wooden post in the dunes. It’s one of those standard-issue, half-dome affairs that adorn rural roads across the state. There is one difference. Painted in block letters on its side are the words “Kindred Spirit.” Inside is a notebook. People fill it with their reminiscences, their most personal feelings, their prayers. They have been doing it for almost 25 years, filling five or six notebooks each summer
Frank Nesmith thinks he knows why. A native of these parts, Nesmith put the mailbox in the dunes in the mid-1980s as a way for people to correspond with other kindred spirits who love the beauty and solitude of the place. Instead, they come to commune with the spirits. “Something happens to a person when they walk that mile or two miles down to the mailbox,” he says. “It invites them. They sit down and are moved to write their cherished thoughts. It’s a special place. People seldom forget it.”
Bird Island, though, was in danger of being a rather forgettable place or, to put it more kindly, of being like any other developed place along the coast. For most of the time that the Kindred Spirit has been beckoning visitors, Bird Island was under the gun. The owners of the uninhabited island wanted to build a mile-long bridge across the marsh to connect the island to Sunset Beach. A subdivision and pier were also part of the plan for this island.
Guided by the N.C. Coastal Federation, people put up a ten-year fight to save it. They banded together to write letters, raise money, pack public meetings and lobby legislators. What started as a local effort, soon spread throughout the state. Tourists from towns across America joined the cause. It ended with one of the great conservation victories in North Carolina.
“We won eventually because of the dedication and hard work of a lot of people, but the outcome was never certain,” said Bill Ducker, the acknowledged leader of fight to save the island.
His house in Sunset Beach sits across a sea of waving cordgrass and black needlerush that now separates Bird Island from Sunset. The marsh attracts a variety of the avian creatures that give the island its name. Herons and egrets nest in the high ground above it, as do least terns and skimmers. Painted buntings, a rarity along our coast, flit through the high grass. Wood storks stalk the shallow water of Bonaparte Creek. Ducker has seen bald eagles.
Aside from offering a good vantage point for bird watching, Ducker’s house occupies a special place in the history of the island. It was here that the activists came to plan and plot. A wall in the house is covered in hand-written messages of encouragement from those who took part in the fight or in heartfelt notes of thanks from those who visited later.
Ten local people gathered in the house in March 1992 for the first meeting. Among them were Minnie Hunt and Sue Weddle. Like the others they were alarmed when the island’s owners asked the state for permit to build a bridge to connect Sunset to Bird Island. They wanted to subdivide the island into 15 lots and build a pier. The people in the house that day sat down to write letters to state and federal officials expressing their opposition to the permits.
Six months later, with the help of the federation, the N.C. Coastal Land Trust and N.C. Audubon, they formed the Bird Island Preservation Society and began raising money for the long fight ahead. Within a year, it would raise more than $25,000 and could count more than 1,400 members.
The Mayor of Bird Island
Many joined after walking the beach with Nesmith. Amid the growing controversy, Nesmith invited people to walk with him along the beach he so loved. On some days, a hundred or more took him up on the invitation. Nesmith would talk about the island’s history, point out its creatures and decry a future of subdivisions and bridges. The beach walks received nationwide publicity, and Nesmith was soon dubbed “the mayor of Bird Island.”
“Frank was our inspiration,” Hunt says, “and those beach walks were a stroke of genius.”
Hundreds of people attended public meetings of the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission, the state panel that would decide whether to allow the bridge. More than 800 wrote letters to the commission opposing the development of the island. Finally, in January 1996, the commission voted unanimously to forbid a bridge to Bird Island and passed a resolution recommending that the state buy the island.
Haggling then ensued over the price. After settling on $4.2 million, the state tried for several years to raise the money. Using a combination of state and federal grants and $700,000 from the N.C. Department of Transportation, the state finally acquired all of the island in April 2002. It is now protected as part of the N.C. Coastal Reserve.
An anonymous writer went by the mailbox in the dunes soon after the deal was done and succinctly expressed the feelings of many: “Hallelujah!!”
The inlets between the state’s barrier islands are more than just waterways between landmasses or convenient outlets to offshore fishing grounds. They are dynamic environments that are in constant motion. They open and close, sometimes quite suddenly and unexpectedly. Hurricane Isabel in 2003 opened one on Hatteras Island, much to the chagrin of locals and state highway people, who rushed to fill the gap and rebuild the main road on the island.
If left on their own, they can migrate many miles over time. Bodie Island Lighthouse south of Nags Head in Dare County stood astride Oregon Inlet when it was completed in 1872. The inlet is now several miles to the south.
Movement is the nature of inlets.
They are also alive with animal life. Fish move through them on their way to or from the ocean. Sometimes you’ll see and hear large schools of jumping mullet admitting clapping sounds of thunder as they strike the water. Where the fish go birds follow, feeding on schools of small bait fish. Many shorebirds use the shifting islands of bare sand that form behind the inlet to forage or nest.
Unfortunately, we don’t always understand the need to live with inlets with the respect they deserve. We’ve built too close to them. Then we need rock walls to protect buildings, roads, bridges and historic structures. We’ve moved the channel in other inlets when they moved too close to beach houses or condominiums, and we’ve dredged sand out of others to pump onto eroding beaches or to keep navigational channels open.
Several inlets along the southeast coast have experienced little of man’s management, while others have been highly managed. Tubbs, Shallotte, Lockwood Folly, Masonboro, Mason, Rich’s, Topsail, and New River inlets are wonderful places to see inlet dynamics at work. A leisurely walk down the beach will get you there. Go several times at different tide cycles to see the inlets’ different faces. Brave the elements on a windy day and feel the blowing sand sting your bare ankles and legs. Now you know how sand moves along the beach. By all means, bring along a fishing rod because fishing at inlets can be grand.
Lockwood Folly River
Before the recession, Brunswick County was among the fastest-growing counties in the country. Since 1980 the county’s population has tripled to more than 93,000, and another 35,000 residents are expected to arrive by 2020. Residents worried that widespread growth could harm the Lockwood Folly River. Shellfish closures in the river’s 150-square-miles watershed had already tripled to 55 percent since 1980 because of bacteria from stormwater runoff.
Worried that continued development would further threaten the river’s health and the continued viability of the local fishing industry, the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners three years ago teamed up with the N.C. Coastal Federation and federal and state agencies to establish the Lockwood Folly Watershed Roundtable. The eight-member group, which included participants from a range of backgrounds, was tasked with developing strategies that would balance development with the needs of the environment.
The final strategies include recommendations such as using alternate techniques to control runoff from new development, retrofitting existing stormwater problems and acquiring strategic properties from willing sellers. The federation, using a federal grant, sampled the river’s water to determine the sources of the bacteria polluting its oyster and clam beds and developed a plan to help restore those waters.
Development hasn’t yet overrun the river. It is still a fetching place where you can get a glimpse of the N.C. coast that is fast disappearing. Travel to Varnamtown at the river’s mouth. It is still a traditional fishing village that is home to the largest remaining shrimp-trawling fleet in the county. Everybody in town knows each other, and they’re likely to serve visitors collards with their shrimp.
Northeast Cape Fear River
Palmetto and cypress grow along its banks. Alligators swim in its waters. Pileated woodpeckers nest in the forests that line its shores. The Northeast Cape Fear River is a beautiful river that has been sadly abused.
Coursing lazily some 130 miles through the state’s southeast coastal plain, the Northeast Cape Fear suffered a number of major spills from hog lagoons and an oil spill from a now-defunct metal recycling plant in the 1990s. It recovered from all that only to have industrial developers eye it for a cement plant that will rip up its life-sustaining wetlands and poison its water with mercury.
Titan America wants to build the fourth-largest cement kiln in the country along the banks of the Northeast Cape Fear in Castle Hayne near Wilmington. The company also proposes digging a strip mine near the plant for the limestone to make its cement. The mine would destroy more than 1,000 acres of wetlands. Thousands of people have risen up against the proposals. They worry about what will happen to the river and to the people who live along it. They’ve signed petitions, jammed public hearings and traveled to Raleigh to lobby their legislators. The federation was among the Titan opponents who successfully sued the state to force the company to do a thorough review of the plant’s environmental effects.
It’s worth seeing what all the fuss is about. A boat, canoe or kayak is obviously the best way to see the river. The state maintains a boat ramp off U.S. 117 near the Northeast Cape Fear River bridge. It provides the quickest access to the river near the proposed plant site at Island Creek. The river floodplain in this area supports one of the highest quality and most scenic examples of freshwater tidal cypress-gum swamp anywhere, especially along the lower reaches of the tributary creeks.
There are other ramps farther upriver. The best may be the one at the Holly Shelter Game Land. Here the river is narrow and meanders through swamps and dense forests. Fishing can be good all along the river. Researchers at the University of North Carolina Wilmington found that it is home to at least 45 species of fish, including shortnose sturgeon and bowfin. Crappie fishing, though, is especially popular, with Prince George, Long, Morgan and Island creeks known as the best spots.
Sandwiched between the two bridges to Topsail Island, Stump Sound often is overlooked by visitors in their rush to the beach. It is an inviting place. Waters here are protected enough that waves rarely get dangerous. Boat access is easy and safe, and many of the forested islands that dot the sound have sandy beaches that are perfect for picnicking and sun bathing.
The dense salt marshes that fringe the sound provide shelter and food for many marine creatures, and the sound has a long history of supporting productive commercial fishing. If you haven’t tried a Stump Sound oyster, you’re in for treat.
It was the oysters that led to a historic fight to save an island in the sound from development. Permuda Island is small and narrow. It’s about 1.5 miles long and has only 50 acres or so of high ground, but it’s close enough to Topsail Island that developers in 1983 wanted to build a bridge and erect condominiums.
Lena Ritter knew what that would mean for the waters that she depended on for her livelihood. Such intense development on such a small patch of land would lead to polluted runoff that would close the sound’s productive oyster and clam beds. A native of nearby Holly Springs in Onslow County, Ritter had fished these waters all her life, as her father and grandfather did before her. Feisty and combative, she organized other fishermen and enlisted the aid of the federation, then only about a year old. Ritter spent most of the next three years attending meetings, writing letters and haranguing state and local officials. She even got Walter Cronkite to visit the sound.
The work paid off. The state finally denied the permits in 1986, and the island is now publicly owned as a natural and historic estuary preserve. Accessible only by water, the island is worth a visit in the fall when the mosquitoes and ticks are scarce. The center of the island holds old farm fields that now bloom with native plants -- broomsedge, dog fennel, asters, goldenrods and Mexican tea. Shorebirds feed in the marshes and mudflats. Willetts, American oystercatchers, egrets, herons, black skimmers and sandpipers are common. You may even see river otters playing in the marsh.
At Morris Landing, you can experience the beauty of Stump Sound without getting in a boat. Here, you can fish, go crabbing or clamming, look for birds, launch a kayak and even roll up your sleeves to help restore the island’s marshes.
The landing has long been a place where locals went to do all those things. But heavy unrestricted use had degraded the marshes along the shoreline, leading to erosion and loss of habitat.
The federation in 2004 bought 52 acres at Morris Landing through a grant from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund and is now working with local people to restore more than 3,000 feet of shoreline. Our volunteers plant marsh grass and build oyster reefs, and we have planned activities throughout the year. Check our Events Calendar or email Ted Wilgis on our staff.