We're going to the beach, but don't pack the fishing rod and lounge chair. On this trip we're going to explore the ecologically rich and hauntingly beautiful maritime forests along our barrier islands.
Let's go ahead and get the negatives out of the way. Yes, snakes and mosquitoes and ticks (oh my!) are as much a part of the maritime forest ecosystem as vendors selling "Rolex" watches are to the New York City street scene. But if you exercise the same judgment you would on any nature walk, you'll be fine. (I caution against buying any of those watches, too.)
While no one knows just how much of the Outer Banks was originally forested, the present acreage is certainly far less than it was prior to human impact. At first, the only man-made disturbance to coastal forests was from Native Americans, who likely cut trees for firewood and used the forest canopy for shelter. After settlers arrived, the impact increased exponentially. Live oak, a major component of maritime forests, was a particularly sought after tree species, being used in the manufacture of sailing vessels. Settlers cleared the forests for small farming tracts, and often allowed their livestock to range freely. In the first half of the twentieth century, the islands became playgrounds for wealthy sportsman, with several impressive hunting lodges constructed, particularly along the northern islands. Yet for all the disturbances over the centuries, the islands pretty much retained their original wild character until the advent of modern tourism, which forever changed the landscape.
Fortunately, pockets of maritime forests still occur along the entire chain of North Carolina's barrier islands, from Currituck Banks in the north, to Bald Head Island in the south. Maritime forests generally occur in locations that are somewhat protected from the harsh winds and salt spray; therefore, you're more likely to find them on the widest portions of the islands, and on the sound side, away from the constant winds. While a maritime forest, by definition, is simply a natural forest that occurs on a barrier island, certain features distinguish them from, say, a stand of planted loblolly or slash pine. As Michele Droszcz, northern sites manager for the North Carolina Coastal Reserves Program states, "The maritime forest is not just a bunch of individual trees that have grown up over the years, but [it] is a system...That's something that cannot be recreated once the maritime forest is split in half with a road or cut down [for] development."
Droszcz points out that in a typical maritime forest, the more salt-tolerant trees and shrubs such as red cedar, live oak, and wax myrtle, grow first and create a protective buffer from the harsh salt sprays, which then allows species with less salt tolerance to establish themselves. Loblolly pine is a dominant tree species within the forest interior and under the pine's canopy grows a variety of sub-canopy trees and shrubs, as well as vines and herbaceous plants.
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In addition to plants, a mature maritime forest is home to a diversity of animal species. Among the many species are raccoon, fox, otter, muskrat, squirrel, snakes (including rattlesnakes and cottonmouths), turtles, frogs and lizards. And any coastal birder will tell you that a maritime forest is a great place to look through binoculars. Marcia Lyons, Resource Management Specialist with Cape Hatteras National Seashore, describes maritime forests as "protectors" for the wildlife. Animals from all over the islands can take cover under the canopy during storms.
Both Droszcz and Lyons are quick to point out the misconceptions that most visitors to the barrier islands have. As Droszcz states, "They come for the beach and that's pretty much all they expect. They really don't realize that we have these big forests out here. People are shocked and awed and pretty excited to find that they can escape the beach for a little while and go back into the woods." Lyons adds, "I've taken people back [in the maritime forest] who've said 'Oh my, I had no idea this kind of habitat was on the Outer Banks.' "
Let's check out one of the most significant natural areas along the eastern seaboard-a Nature Conservancy site called Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve. You drive into the preserve by passing through an older residential development in a forest of loblolly pines. Nothing special about that. But wait, isn't that a hickory tree over there? What's that doing here? And over there is a flowering dogwood tree. This forest is starting to look more like it belongs in an Appalachian cove than it does on a barrier island. What's going on here?
An interesting feature of maritime forests is that, while they are similar in many regards, each one has unique features that distinguish them biologically and geologically, as well as aesthetically. Here, at Nags Head Woods, you're seeing perhaps the most unique forest of all. Much of the woods here (and nearby Kitty Hawk Woods) is a deciduous maritime forest, characterized by hardwood tree species that typically don't occur on barrier islands, such as southern red oak, American holly, American beech, flowering dogwood, red maple, and sweet pignut hickory. Throw in a variety of shrubs, vines, ferns and wildflowers such as pink lady's slipper orchid and pennywort, and you have a natural community that seems out of place at the beach. Droszcz sums up the feeling most people have. "When you go back into Kitty Hawk Woods, you feel like...you're in the mountains."
I'm reminded of a nature photography tour I led to the Outer Banks a few years ago. I had chosen Nags Head Woods as one of the sites to photograph, but I was a little uneasy about bringing people here. After all, they had signed up for a photography trip to the beach. How would they react when I took them to a site that's more reminiscent of the mountains? As it turned out, my fears were unwarranted. Most of the photographers loved their time spent in the forest, and some said it was the highlight of the trip.
After crossing over a hill and rounding a curve, you come to the preserve visitor center. Here you can ask questions, pick up literature and a trail guide, and purchase a T-shirt. A network of trails lace through Nags Head Woods, ranging from short and easy leg stretchers, to long hikes over hilly terrain. Some of the trails in Nags Head Woods undulate over ancient sand dunes, making you feel like you're hiking in the mountains. To really get a feel for the place, hike Sweetgum Swamp Trail and then take Blueberry Ridge Trail, which spurs off from it.
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At the beginning of the hike, you cross a footbridge over the pond adjacent to the visitor center. You didn't expect to find a freshwater pond in these woods, did you? This is just one of dozens of similar ponds within the forest, and it's a big reason for the incredible species diversity. You'll pass several interdunal ponds on this hike, and at each one, you need to stay quiet and pay attention. You might see a yellowbelly slider basking on a log or a great blue heron stalking the shallows. Or perhaps you'll glimpse a white-tailed deer taking a drink.
After finishing the hike, take a different route out of the woods. Continue along the sand road a short distance to a T intersection and then turn right. Now you're driving a curvy, hilly sand road through a scenic forest dotted with interdunal ponds. There, over to the left, an old cemetery betrays the outward appearance of these woods as a wilderness untrammeled by man. Indeed, in the early part of the twentieth century, a visitor to these woods would encounter a school, churches, small farms, and a number of settlements. It's the same with maritime forests up and down the coast-all exhibiting evidence of prior habitation or other human impact. Parts of the woods you're in now are still in private ownership, so don't explore much beyond your car.
At the end of the road, you come to a fence and a sign for Run Hill State Natural Area. Now you can get out of the car to explore and take photos. After huffing and puffing up the steep sand dune, your reward is a sight few people in the world have seen: a giant sand dune eating a forest. (Stephen King has no monopoly on strange.) You can see that Run Hill borders the northern section of Nags Head Woods, and with Jockey's Ridge bounding the woods to the south, Pamlico Sound (with Roanoke Island buffering the winds) to the west, and a wide expanse of dune and shrub thicket (now mostly developed) to the east, you can start to understand how Nags Head Woods has been able to evolve into the unique forest it is today. The sand dune you're standing atop serves as a buffer from the harsh salt-laden winds, effectively protecting the interior of the forest.
But what about this forest consumption? While prevailing winds along the coast come from the southwest in summer, the northeast winds that blow in winter are generally stronger. Winter storms (called nor'easters by the locals) generate a tremendous amount of sand movement. Sand blows into the forest and literally swallows the trees whole. So, while Run Hill protects the interior of the woods from the damaging winds, the outer fringes of the forest fall victim to the sand.
I brought my photography group to the summit of Run Hill. As we awaited the sunset over Pamlico Sound, we slipped off our shoes and played in the sand. A rope hanging from the high limb of a tree (mostly swallowed by the dune) proved irresistible. We swung and dropped into the soft sand like kids in a swimming hole, each of us trying to swing higher than the previous person before letting go of the rope. Afterward, we photographed the stunning view as the sun sank below the horizon.
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What a magical place, these island woods! I understand perfectly how Marcia Lyons felt when she said the maritime forest "eases the eyes and eases the soul." Next time you go to the beach, see what one can do for you.
Following are some of the finest and most accessible maritime forests in North Carolina. Sites are listed in order of occurrence from north to south.
Located at the extreme northern end of NC 12 in Corolla is Currituck Banks National Estuarine Research Reserve, featuring a handicapped-accessible boardwalk and a winding hiking trail leading through a forest of loblolly pine and live oak.
Kitty Hawk Woods
Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve is located in the village of Kitty Hawk on US 158. The forest features a number of hiking trails, as well as two boat access areas.
Nags Head Woods
The visitor center for Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve is located by turning west onto Ocean Acres Drive off US 158 at mile marker 9.5. The preserve is generally open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and on Saturdays during the summer.
Of the 3,000 acres of maritime forest in Buxton Woods, about one third is part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, one third is part of the North Carolina Coastal Reserves Program, and the remainder in private ownership. A 0.75-mile self-guiding nature trail winds through the national seashore portion, beginning directly opposite the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse entrance.
Some of the state's most beautiful live oak trees grow in the maritime forest of Shackelford Banks, part of Cape Lookout National Seashore. The island is accessible only by boat, with charter service available from Harkers Island and Beaufort.
Theodore Roosevelt State Natural Area
Most of the nearly 300 acres of this undeveloped maritime forest on Emerald Isle are closed to the public, but a couple of excellent nature trails lead through a small portion. Both trails begin from the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.
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Small pockets of maritime forest occur on this undeveloped island, all of which is protected as part of Hammocks Beach State Park. The island is accessible only by boat, with the park providing regular ferry service.