I wasn't a normal kid. While my boyhood friends put together model cars and played with Hot Wheels, I collected seashells and studied mollusks. Oh, I built tree houses and splashed in the creek like other country boys, but something about those seashells captured my young imagination. Today, I spend most of my beach time taking pictures, but I still delight in sifting through the flotsam and jetsam of the tide line searching for treasures.
Several different marine communities occur in North Carolina—marshes, mud flats, sounds, the surfside beach, and others. Each environment features a unique assemblage of seashore life and each offers a different experience for the beach explorer. My favorite natural community is the tidal sand flat and the best place in North Carolina to explore the flats is on Shackleford Banks in Cape Lookout National Seashore. Rachel Carson wrote in her classic book The Edge of the Sea that "Within the shelter of Cape Lookout there are shoals reaching upward to the surface, emerging briefly into sun and air for the interval of low tide..the streaming tidal currents carve little ripple marks that remain after the tide goes out, looking like a miniature model of the sea's waves."
In 1540, Hernando De Soto and his men marched through North Carolina in search of gold and conquest. De Soto never achieved his goal, but every time I take an evening stroll on a Shackleford Banks sand flat, I find his elusive target. The warm hue of the sun reflects with golden sparkles off the tiny pockets of water and everywhere I look I see seashells and animal tracks and all kinds of invertebrate critters burrowed in the sand or scurrying on top. Experiencing this might not be the glory that De Soto sought, but the reward for me is just as fulfilling. Carson wrote, "In the recurrent rhythms of tides and surf and in the varied life of the tide lines there is an obvious attraction of movement and change and beauty. There is also, I am convinced, a deeper fascination born of inner meaning and sacrifice."
That's all the conquest I need.