Never say no to an island

By Philip Conkling | Jan 26, 2012

Islanders, no matter how competitive they may be in their fishing territories on the water, love hearing stories from other islanders. No one but another islander can fully appreciate the ways unforgiving edges of an island’s shore carve an offshore identity. Which is how we got an invitation to visit the islands of the Outer Banks of North Carolina last week.

We flew into Norfolk, Va., at the south end of Chesapeake Bay, rented a car and proceeded south, crossing North Carolina's Wright Memorial Bridge onto Bodie Island at the beginning of 15 unrelenting miles of cheek-to-jowl beach developments between Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head. It’s hard to believe that Wilbur and Orville, local patron saints here, would have dreamed of such a future when they first lifted off. We proceeded south beyond Whalebone Junction where Roanoke Island lures you toward its iconic fishing of Wanchese at the edge of Abermarle Sound, before crossing Oregon Inlet into the wind-scaped dunes of Hatteras Island and Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Here the winter beach is a shifting ribbon of brilliant white sand that stretches south for the next 60 miles with breaks for the villages of Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, to Buxton, where the beach’s dangling elbow jabs a sharp angle to the southwest. A few miles down the road near the extreme tip of Hatteras, we drive onto a ferry that will take us to famed Ocracoke Island.

In fading yellow-gray light, the ferry twists and turns around shifting shoals of sand and oyster bars to deliver us to the north end of Ocracoke, with its village still 16 miles to the south, clustered around a small protected harbor on Pamlico Sound behind the line fronting Atlantic dunes. We check in at the Crews Inn, nestled under live oaks a block from the harbor. Our host, Alton Balance, a local author, teacher and retired county commissioner, is at the stove in the kitchen with Hardy, a commercial fisherman and his wife Patty, and Karen Almspacher, who has come across from Harker’s Island, another ferry ride to the south in the “Downeast” part of the Carolina coast. Yes, North Carolina has a "Downeast," too.

Our hosts have already set a big pile of shrimp out, along with a bowl of blue crab dip, while Hardy tends to the oysters that are steaming in a large pot on the stove. We meet Susan West, a community activist from Hatteras and Barbara Garrity-Blake, another fisheries organizer from "Downeast," who led North Carolina's effort to raise bond funds to protect the state's working waterfronts, modeled on Maine's successful campaign. Others in the group first conceived of the concept of a CSF (Community Supported Fisheries), modeled on CSAs that support area farmers by signing up residents to buy a portion of the harvest to encourage local food production and help harvesters. When Garrity-Blake had no one to help her implement her brainchild, the Island Institute took the idea to Glen Libby at Port Clyde, who, with the Midcoast Fishermen's Association, turned it into Port Clyde Fresh Catch. Along with North Carolina's "Walking Fish" CFS, they became the first two community supported fisheries enterprises in the country.

Each island – Hatteras, Ocracoke and Harkers, although sharing a similar a proud cultural history of hardscrabble small boat fishing – is in a different rural county that stretches back well inland. The villages on these low barrier islands are also all unincorporated with only local government decision-making in the hands of county commissioners.

North Carolina’s islanders are, politically speaking, small and fractured and their fate is often in the hands of mainlanders who prize the tax dollars from intensive recreational development of the islands’ beaches. In order to protect their local heritage against real and present dangers, those Outer Banks islanders are curious to know whether Maine’s 4,500 islanders, scattered among 15 year-round communities that have forged an inter-island identity, might serve as a model for them.

During discussions over the course of our visit, we described how the 15-year round island communities of Maine have helped protect themselves from the worst sorts of both meddlesomeness and political indifference. We suggest that a publication called Island Journal, celebrating the art and science of island life in Maine, has become a touchstone for portraying the unique culture of Maine’s islands and the durability of island life in the face of steep odds.

Second, we describe the islanders’ focus on protecting their schools as the central community institution – the “glue” that has united Maine islanders time and again when their communities were threatened. Islanders instinctively recognize that without good schools, no young families move to islands and without young families, enviable communities die, just like the Shakers. Finally, there is an elemental respect that many people far from shore harbor for the last hunter-gatherers in American society, commercial fishermen. If islanders make common cause with difficult and cranky commercial fishermen, the resulting cultural leverage can increase the political lift.

These groups of islanders from the Outer Banks are now considering whether the strategies crafted over the past several decades by Maine islanders has relevance to their particular and peculiar circumstances. Although stubborn independence and fierce individualism are twin hallmarks of island living, in the end, islanders, threatened by natural and/or manmade forces also depend on one another to a degree that astonishes mainlanders who underestimate them. The example of Maine’s islanders, divided by geography, isolated by chance and choice, can unite and change their world.

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