Field Guide: Portsmouth Island

TRAVELS WITH CC
Taking the fam to Portsmouth Island

story and photographs by CC Parker

Monday, Jan. 2, 2017, 9:59 a.m.: I sit at my desk, eyes fixed on the Recreation.gov website, waiting for the moment the National Park Service will open its portal for 2017 registrations. My goal: To book cabins at Portsmouth Island on the Outer Banks for Memorial Day weekend, five months away. I’m ready this year. I’ve got an account on Recreation.gov and a friend’s recommendations for the “best” cabins. I won’t make the same mistake I did in 2016, when I’d moved too slowly. The cabins had sold out within minutes.

The clock strikes 10 a.m., and I’m ready: A quick login, and I nab No. 20, my first choice. I reboot to book the neighboring cabin. No. 19 is already booked? Try for Cabin 18: Score.

The National Park Service cabins on Portsmouth Island have been a favorite destination of families, fishing groups, and campers for years. Reachable only by boat from a spot about an hour’s drive from Morehead City, I know this place will offer a perfect retreat for my family. I can just see it: swimming by day, board games by night, great feasts of fish caught that day in the surf. With a family about to scatter for the summer including teenagers nearing college age,  I need Memorial Day to provide us with a fun time together.

So, cabins secured, I’ve got another urgent task to complete: reserving car spots on the ferry.  I immediately dial the Morris Marina ferry service (number provided on the Recreation.gov site).  After quite a few rings, a woman answers. I’d like to book two SUV spots for Saturday, May 26, I tell her, cheerily. Big pause. Why are people calling so early this year, she wants to know? She has to go the grocery store. Why don’t I call back later? “We have plenty of space,” she says, and hangs up.

So I do.

I call back the next day, waiting until noon this time. Kari, the owner, and the same lady from the day before, takes my reservation and gives me deposit instructions (no credit cards, please). She has clearly forgiven me for the early call the previous day.  In fact, she’s quite chatty this time, suggesting I bring my own cleaning supplies. “The folks from Raleigh usually comment that the cabins need to be cleaned,” she says, “and bring a new shower curtain, too.”

Sales pitch

Now, Portsmouth Island is a bucket-list item for me, but I still have to convince my family.

When the subject of the Memorial Day holiday arises, I blithely tell the children we’ve rented a place at the beach with our friends Susan and Graham Johnson and all are welcome to bring friends. My eldest, wisely noticing my I’m-not-budging tone, nods in acceptance. My daughter gives a whoop of excitement, asking if we’ve rented a place at Figure 8, as we have in the past. Not quite. Our youngest asks if he can fish. My husband, God bless him, asks why I never “run these things by him beforehand.” An excursion like this one sounds like “a lot of work for a short amount of time.”

In need of encouragement – and because my husband is often right – I call my friends Muzzy and Katherine, who had been there before. Both send pictures from their Portsmouth trips – stunning sunsets, smiling faces. It will be OK.

And because the best offense is a good defense (or is it the other way around?), and because I know the secret to an ideal family vacation is to anticipate everyone’s hearts’ desires, I get to work. Good food: homemade brownies, Doritos, happy hour apps, Pop-Tarts, steaks and fixings. Cards. Eno hammocks. Adult beverages (lots). Bonfire supplies, fishing supplies (worms). The works.

Then I poll my friends, many of whom go to Portsmouth annually. A large group from Raleigh has just returned from a visit, and these women are incredibly helpful, providing guidance from what’s needed to clean the cabin (no small matter there), to bonfires on the beach (the park rangers leave at 4 p.m.), to avoiding marauding raccoons and other critters. One friend offers her leftover charcoal and electric skillet. Electric skillet? That’s when I learn that these cabins have no pots, no pans – no plates, for that matter. My two-page packing list just got longer.

Oh, and another thing. You definitely need to keep all of your food in plastic Tupperware containers. This is a unanimous comment. No one elaborates, and I am too apprehensive to ask. 

Of course I consult with my new bestie Kari at the Marina again, and she adds to my growing list: not only a new shower curtain, but I should also bring floor rugs, a tablecloth, oh … and LOTS of insect spray and bug zappers. Bug zappers?

Having fully realized the scope of this expedition, I wonder how I am going to transport all of it down in one SUV with eight people. Another call to Kari to obtain a third ferry spot. No luck. All boats, all weekend, are totally sold out. In fact, she says, be sure to arrive at least an hour ahead to get your place in line. You don’t want to miss the boat!

Island time

We arrive 45 minutes before the ferry, both cars packed to the gills. In addition to what’s crammed inside, we’ve got rooftop cargo carriers that barely shut and tailgate racks stacked high with firewood, beach chairs, and Yetis. Ready to stake our place in line, we zoom in to the lot to find … not a single other car. Not a soul in the marina office. No ferry at the dock.

We are now, we realize, living on island time.

Eventually, the 12:30 ferry leaves the dock at 1:30, leaving lots of time for our youngest son to panhandle and score various and sundry items at the marina. We lunch at “Don’s Grill” while we wait, which has a spectacular view of the sound. 

Then Captain Rick Martin (Kari’s husband) singlehandedly loads an impossible number of cars and people onto his tiny ferry. Standing at the front with a finger held up in the air, he directs each car one by one. Right, then quick left, then slight right again … it’s so tight that you must close your side mirrors to fit. You can’t see where you are going as you back up toward the boat and water.  Once loaded, you can’t open your door. My husband is cool as a cucumber, but I feel claustrophobic and try not to think about it. I wish I’d found space for the pool noodles in case the ferry sinks.

To distract myself, I study the array of camper trucks onboard. Some are custom, some are converted, but they’re all very macho fishing-sleeping-partying machines complete with multi-rod holders, built-in coolers, and flags of various designs. It turns out driving on the beach is permitted at Portsmouth, and these surf fishermen take full use of this option, moving to where the fish are. It sounds like great fun as long are you aren’t sunbathing – my daughter is scared that she’ll be run over.

Also onboard our ferry are lots of walk-on passengers, mostly families who are camping on Portsmouth. These folks park at the marina and transport their camping gear via beach wagons. The park employees on the island then help transport these folks to their various campsites. This crowd is quite different from the camper crew. They wear Tevas. One family (no joke) has on matching “Kale” T-shirts. They are outfitted with binoculars, nets, and buckets, fully prepared to enjoy and immerse themselves in the local ecosystem and wildlife. At one point, I see the Kale family standing next to a camper owner with a T-shirt that says “Plovers taste like chicken.” Plovers are one of the protected birds on the island. No one seems to notice.

Which brings up the dichotomy and the wonderful gift of these state parks. Everyone recreates differently. For some, it’s camping, leaving no trace behind, with glorious billowing tents and compact grills, living off the land. For others, the camper-
pirates, it’s gas-guzzling and beer drinking. The park staff somehow accommodates it all.

Spectacular stay

The ferry ride is 45 minutes, the unloading seamless. The island is absolutely beautiful. The sound and the ocean and the marshland are all spectacular. We check in with the Ranger, a friendly woman about my age in a NPS uniform including a Kevlar vest, gun, and Taser. She gives us a quick tutorial, tells us to let the air out of our tires a bit, gives us keys to one of the cabins (our No. 20 cabin keys are lost, so she tells us just to go on in) and we are off.

The stay is great fun and funny. The male teens create their own Eno hammock village – inadvertently in a “No Camping Zone.” Both mornings, the boys are awakened at dawn by a kind and patient ranger asking them to relocate. I think she understands that those boys can’t comfortably fit in a cabin with the rest of the group. It’s good that the ranger doesn’t punish them, because they get punishment enough being eaten alive by voracious mosquitos. (One boy had to be dosed with Benadryl on the ride back to counteract the reaction.)

The little boys announce they are “going to catch dinner” and fish all day long, finding better luck at the ferry launch. Unfortunately their fish aren’t big enough to eat, but lots of fun to catch and toss. The girls sunbathe and frolic – keeping a watchful eye on the pirate campers speeding down the beach. This surf-fishing crowd makes the most of their time there, whether the fish are biting or not. When the fishing day ends, you see a virtual parade of campers make their way toward a predetermined gathering somewhere north on the island. Flags flying.

The teen boys spend their days driving on the gorgeous beaches around the island. And we parents … we fall more into the “pirate” category than the “kale,” so we drive on the beach as well, racing with a few other cars, and looking at people in their bikinis and being entertained by the vigilant folks who monitor the plover nests. We are very friendly, waving to the other pirate campers, secretly hoping one of them will invite us to their mysterious post-fishing party, but no one does.

So we make our own party! First night, we use the communal grill to prepare burgers with Memorial Day-themed paper plates, etc. After dinner, we sit on the beach for the most incredible star display. The second night we enjoy a prolonged happy hour with various chips and dips … even the teen boys appear for this repast. Dinner is a shrimp boil with avocado and heart-of-palm salad, and key lime pie.

After dark, my husband makes a bonfire on the beach, and everyone gathers around and sings along with the tunes from a portable speaker. Susan breaks out her retractable s’mores sticks with Hershey bars, marshmallows, and graham crackers. 

And there it is – the magic moment: the group sitting around the campfire, all ages singing American Pie. I thank God for this moment. THIS is worth all the effort.

Memorial Day, we are up with the sun to load the car, leave no bonfire trace behind, and hop the 9:30 ferry home. I know my husband is ready when I find he filled his tires the night before. We somehow pack all our belongings and ourselves back into the cars. My last view of the Johnsons, before we are loaded onto the ferry, is Susan wedged between her son and husband on the center console, her head protruding from the sunroof. It’s the only way to fit in the car!

The only thing left to do is visit Kari to pay the balance of the ferry bill – we’ve discovered our youngest charged a few more Laffy Taffys to the bill than we knew. One last head count, a dose of Benadryl to the suffering, and we are headed home. Memorial Day bucket list family bonding mission accomplished! 

If you go

The cabins are in the Long Point Cabin Camp located on the North Core Bank within Cape Lookout National Seashore. Morris Marina is in Atlantic, N.C. More info here: portsmouthislandfishing.com

Don’t call Kari on Jan. 2. But I would call her Jan. 3 after noon, and if you’re taking a big group, go on and reserve one additional SUV spot. You’ll be glad to have it for overflow.

You have to bring your own firewood. Bring a piece or two of kindling as well.

Advice from a camper pirate: “If they aren’t wearing a gun, they have no authority.”

Advice from a Kale camper: “Bonfires can only be below the low tide line, but the ranger leaves at 4 p.m.”

Advice from me: There is not enough 409 in North Carolina to clean those cottages, and once the lights go out for the evening, do NOT shine your camera flashlight to the kitchen area. You will not like what you see. 

Make your bug spray available to everyone and stay doused!