By ANN GREEN
It’s a slow day Down East as a yellow lab roams along the Cedar Island Harbor pier.
Nearby, a young man listens to a Willie Nelson song while relaxing on a well-worn gray sofa inside an open shelter facing the harbor.
As soon as a white skiff pulls in, everyone rushes to see the catch of the day.
“It’s all local people. It is like a big old family,” says Joe Taylor, who owns one of the piers. “No one squabbles. We use each other’s docks.”
There have been few changes at the harbor over the years. “It’s rustic. The place has not been fancied up,” says Taylor. “There is no concrete here. It is a do-it-yourself-place. People build their own piers.”
Not far from the harbor, Bradley Styron operates Quality Seafood out of a concrete building adorned with an American flag. His crew fishes year-round. On this day, men are icing down a load of fresh shrimp.
“I come from a fishing family,” says Styron, who serves on the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission. “Everybody was a fisherman. Fishing is our heritage.”
In Cedar Island, 40 miles east of Beaufort, fishing still dominates most people’s lives.
Along the main road, some homes have gardens that are fenced off with fishing nets. Others have fishing boats parked in the front yard. Brightly painted “boom trucks” haul fishing gear.
The community’s only variety store, Island Choice, is packed wall-to-wall with fishing gear, hardware and groceries.
“Ninety percent of the people on Cedar Island still fish for a living,” says Cedar Island native Jerry Gaskill, director of the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Ferry Division. “The rest of the people work for the ferry division or go into Beaufort or Morehead City to work.”
The ferry dock is the only busy spot. During the summer season, cars are lined up bumper to bumper to catch the ferry to Ocracoke.
It is a “unique community” because of the Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge that spreads over more than 14,000 acres, says Woody Hancock, who raises horses. “There is no room for growth. It’s as laid back as you can get.”
Natives still retain the famed “Hoi Toide” accent, a remnant of Old English that was once spoken in colonial Carolina.
One of their favorite expressions is “right slick cam” when the water is as smooth as glass, according to author Jean Day, who lived on Cedar Island during the 1950s.
To get to Cedar Island, head east from Beaufort along U.S. 70 to N.C. 12. Along the way, marshes stretch for miles along the shoulders. The only sign of life is people coming in and out of convenience stores and homes in the tiny communities of Bettie, Otway, Smyrna, Williston, Stacy, Sea Level and Atlantic.
After passing over the Monroe Gaskill Bridge, a sign says: “Welcome to Cedar Island, Gateway to the Outer Banks.”
Along the road, fingers of emerald green salt marsh and tea-colored water create a checkered pattern. Nearby, a laughing gull poses on the post of a boat dock.
The wide expanse of marsh makes up the southern end of the Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge that stretches across 11,000 acres of irregularly flooded brackish marsh and 3,480 acres of pocosin and woodland habitat.
“Cedar Island is a world-class marsh,” says East Carolina University geologist Stan Riggs, author of the Soundfront Series: Shoreline Erosion in North Carolina’s Estuaries. “It goes on forever and ever. It is a unique type of platform marsh. It is pretty awesome.”
Riggs says that brackish marshes like Cedar Island “are among the most productive habitats in the world.”
“Wind- and storm-tide flooding carry nutrients into the marsh and sweep dead plant material out into the estuaries and adjacent ocean-shelf waters,” wrote Riggs in Exploring North Carolina’s Natural Areas, edited by Dick Frankenberg. “This organic detritus forms the basis for many food chains for marine organisms. Brackish marshes are essential for maintaining many different populations of estuarine and marine fish and shellfish.”
Before touring the refuge, manager Don Temple points out the stretch called “John Day’s Ditch” that runs through the marsh. On this day, a lone man is fishing in a ditch as a kingfisher flies over.
Legend says that John Day dug the ditch to protect his cows from crossing into another landowner’s property, says Temple.
“The ditching changes the hydrology of the marsh,” says Temple. “The road’s ditches introduce changes in the marsh and vegetation near the ditch.”
To see the refuge, Temple gives a driving tour in a Ford Expedition along an open patch of low grass. A thick forest of red cedar, pines and underbrush line the side of the path that is mowed only a couple of times each year.
“This area is a low wetland with a stream going through it,” says Temple.
Farther back, live oaks drape the bumpy road. Wild huckleberry and blueberry bushes and a deer stand fill in the landscape.
“If we were on a barrier island, it would be called a ‘maritime forest,’ ” says Temple.
The path stretches 2.5 miles to a tidal creek. There, mosquitoes create an almost black coat on the side of the car in the fall and summer. The emerald green creek is covered with black needlerush and other flora.
Temple says the best time to visit is in December or January when the mosquitoes are not buzzing as much.
Diverse Animals, Birds
A variety of wildlife calls the refuge home, including black bear, deer, otter and marsh rabbits, says Temple. More than 270 species of birds, including marsh wrens, seaside sparrows, northern harriers and ospreys, have been observed on the refuge.
One of the most unusual birds is the black rail. “Black rails are a secretive bird and meander through the marsh floor,” says Temple. “I have been here for 14 years and have never seen one. You only see them if they are flushed out by a fire or predator. During floods, the rails get up on higher vegetation.”
To see the rest of the marsh, turn on Lola Road, where there is a thicket of longleaf pines.
“Longleaf pines are being considered by the Nature Conservancy to be globally threatened,” says Temple. “There used to be 10 million acres of longleaf pine in the Southern Coastal Plain. Now there is only a small percent. Longleaf pines need fire to regenerate.”
The wildlife refuge has a prescribed burn program that promotes new growth and plant diversity.
“We burn parts of the refuge almost every year,” says Temple. “We average burning 3,000 to 5,000 acres of marsh and upland a year. Many of our plants are fire dependent.”
During fall and winter, thousands of migratory waterfowl use Core Sound and other estuarine waters.
“The best way to see this part of the refuge is by boat or kayak,” says Temple. “In some years, this creek will get 4,000 to 5,000 redhead ducks in January or February.”
At the end of Lola Road, the refuge stretches to Core Sound, where there are two boat docks.
Head back down Lola Road, and you notice an old Navy radar station used during the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960s.
Farther down, large cedars shade the island’s oldest church — the white-framed Pilgrim Rest Free Will Baptist Church, where they hold the Day family reunion each year.
“My son, Robert Day, always sings ‘Oysters in Heaven’ and gets a standing ovation,” says Jean Day. “There is always a rush for the seafood platters. Those men and women on Cedar Island are some of the best cooks in the world.”
Turn onto N.C. 12 to get to the main part of the Cedar Island community that brings memories of a slower, kinder time when folks got together more often. The area is unincorporated and has no gas stations.
One of the community’s favorite gathering spots is Jerry Gaskill’s “Little House,” a tiny cream-colored wooden building next to his main home.
“We love it here,” says Gaskill. “Every weekend, we have lunch here with a lot of family. Last night, I made flounder stew for 14 people.”
The retreat, which has a kitchen, eating area and grill, is decorated with Down East memorabilia, including a banner: “Save the Commercial Fishermen,” an oyster tong, and a collection of decoys from the Hog Island Hunting Club that is now used by the Young Men’s Christian Association.
“These decoys were used for goose hunting during the late ’30s and ’40s,” says Gaskill. “Both my father and brother worked at the hunting club.”
Outside, you can swing in a hammock, sit at a picnic table, or walk to the edge of the rocky shoreline on Cedar Island Bay.
Because of shoreline erosion, Gaskill says that water now covers an old sweet potato field and the site of an elementary school.
The front yard also reflects Gaskill’s Down East heritage. A pelican adorns his mailbox. Both a North Carolina flag and American flag flap in the sea breeze. Two tombstones enscribed with “Gaskill” stand near the fence.
Gaskill says that his son found the tombstones while flounder fishing on nearby Hog Island across the bay from Cedar Island.
“I tell people that I don’t have to buy a footstone,” he says with a chuckle.
After leaving Gaskill’s retreat, you pass several empty buildings and the Cedar Island United Methodist Church.
Before reaching the ferry building, visitors and natives often stop at the Driftwood Motel and Restaurant for clam chowder or other Down East seafood. The restaurant is decorated nautical style with mounted fish, surfer art and a ship’s steering wheel on the wall.
At the ferry harbor, huge rock walls surround the docks that jut into Pamlico Sound. On the right is an extensive sandy beach and Cedar Island Stables, where you can rent a horse to ride. While riding, you might catch a glimpse of the island’s wild horses that are small in size and descended from the Shackleford Banks horses.
“We are trying to rebuild the wild herd,” says Hancock, who manages the horses. “During the January roundup, we adopted five mares from Shackleford Banks.”
Local legend has it that Cedar Island, instead of Roanoke Island, has a connection to the famed Lost Colony.
The island’s early settlers were fishing and whaling folks as well as farmers. From the Civil War until 1918, when the selling of many waterfowl became illegal, ducks and geese were hunted and sold. After that, duck and goose hunting became a recreational activity.
Because of the remoteness of the island, Cedar Island lagged behind in mail service, modern communications and paved roads.
The first post office was established in 1905 at Lola. There was no paved road until 1952. Telephone service wasn’t begun until 1959.
“When I was a young boy in the 1950s, my grandfather delivered the mail in horse and cart,” says Gaskill.
Because of the island’s small population, now around 300, everybody knew everybody, according to Gaskill. “We played ball in the middle of the dirt road,” he says. “If a car came along, they would stop for us. People got along better then. They had gardens, sold fish and were self-contained.”
Many of Gaskill’s contemporaries left the island after graduation.
“When I finished high school, I went to work on a dredge boat,” says Styron. “I came back because I wanted to be home. I began fishing because there was nothing else to do.”
In the 1960s, many changes came to the island. In 1963, the ferry terminal was built at the end of Cedar Island. In 1964, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service began acquiring acres for the wildlife refuge.
In that same year, ferry service to Ocracoke began and put the tiny community on the map.
While on an unspoiled tract of prairie in Iowa, Day met some sightseers who had been on the ferry. “Imagine our surprise when we discovered that they had recently come down the North Carolina Outer Banks and crossed over from Ocracoke to Cedar Island on the ferry and were very enthusiastic about the fisher-folk charm of Cedar Island,” writes Jean Day in Cedar Island Fisher Folk. “When we lived there in the ’50s, it was the jumping off place or the end of the road.”
With the arrival of the ferry, more newcomers began moving to the island.
“A lot of people move here, stay awhile and then leave because they are unhappy,” says Ellen Goodwin, manager of the Cedar Island Ferry. “Whatever you want, it takes an hour or so to get to.”
But the natives always come back.
“I have lived at a lot of different places,” says Day, who now lives in Newport. “But Cedar Island is the only place I come back to. It just gets in your blood.”
For more information on the Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge, call 252/926-4021 or visit the Web: http://refuges.fws.gov. For information about the N.C. Department of Transportation Ferry System visit: www.ncferry.org or call 800-BY-FERRY.
This article was published in the Early Summer 2003 issue of Coastwatch.
For contact information and reprint requests, visit ncseagrant.ncsu.edu/coastwatch/contact/.