A Different Kind of Commute

Getting to work for many people is a chore. We all know the common complaints—so many crazy drivers and too much traffic.

Some of the great things about my job at the N.C. Coastal Federation are the trips I make for “work.” I have no complaints.

Take for example my Wednesday commute to a meeting at Ocracoke to discuss water-quality issues. Sure, I had to get an early start. I met federation board member Randy Mason at 6:15 a.m. at my house in Ocean, and then we drove the hour and 15 minutes to Cedar Island in eastern Carteret County.

The sun was just coming up over northern Core Banks as we drove N.C. 12 through the marshes. A brilliant red sky framed the distant islands, Core Sound and the marshes of the Cedar Island Wildlife Refuge.

As we drove onto Cedar Island, we turned right and went to the end of the road. There the refuge provides a boat ramp. We launched my 22-foot Jones Brothers Bateau, a flat bottom skiff that can skirt over shoals that are common to our coast.

We pushed the boat off its trailer and then headed out for the 25-miles to Ocracoke.

This area of our coast is about as remote as any place in the state, or for that matter, the eastern United States.  It also supports one of the most healthy and productive fisheries in the world. Core and Pamlico sounds are extremely shallow behind Core Banks. It is one vast bed of sea grass covered shoals extending for miles out from the backside of the narrow barrier island that runs from Drum Inlet north to Portsmouth Village and Ocracoke Inlet.

All along these shoals are many dozens of pound nets. These nets literally corral fish into a trap, where they swim around and stay alive until they can be culled and sorted. There is virtually no bycatch with pound nets, either the fish are kept to be sold or released alive.

The pound nets in these areas typically mark the water that is still possible to navigate. There’s a small opening in the nets near the traps that provide space for boats to pass, and as you move down the sound you go from net to net, using these openings much like channel markers. Stray to far away from the nets, and the depth of the water quickly evaporates.

Near the backside of Portsmouth Village near Ocracoke Inlet the water gets even shallower. In fact, the reason the village was essentially abandoned over a century ago was because shifting shoals made it nearly impossible for boats to come to the docks there.  Residents decided to move over to the Ocracoke Island side of the inlet.

There are a few small, poorly marked sloughs through which you can squeeze your boat at low tide as you go north to the inlet. Finding this slightly deeper water is always a challenge because the shoals are constantly shifting. This recent morning the tide was high and it was still flooding in very strongly. Just after we passed by the village we starting bumping over big swells and breaking waves surged in through the inlet. We found another slough between the shoals that had enough deep water to calm the waves and ran the final three miles to Ocracoke into the very placid waters of Silver Lake.

Silver Lake is the harbor for Ocracoke. The densely populated village surrounds the harbor, and as a result the lake is polluted.  We tied up at the watermen’s museum, and then spent about three hours meeting with local people and officials about strategies to clean up the harbor. There is plenty of work to do and quite a few more commutes to Ocracoke that are likely to occur.

Then, it was time to get back to Cedar Island. The tide was dropping, and so we quickly departed to take advantage of what depth of water remained. I wanted to get passed Portsmouth Village before it got really shallow.

This time the ocean swells were gone, flattened by the out-going tide. We made it through the shoals with just inches to spare under the boat’s keel. Then we hit a huge traffic jam as we headed south behind Core Banks.

It was a huge jam of cormorants. Thousands and thousand of these large black birds were flying south, and settling to rest on the water. They flocked together right on the spot we needed to head. As we push through the flock, they took hasty and panic flight in their cumbersome, very awkward manner. You could almost feel the splashes churned up by their rapidly beating wings hitting the water. The fleeing birds blacked out the sky surrounding us.

Once we got by the cormorants, it was just an uneventful but spectacular trip south down the sound to Cedar Island. With the boat loaded on the trailer, we arrived back home in Ocean around 5 p.m.—normal quitting time for office workers.

Thus was another day of work here at the N.C. Coastal Federation. It is simply wonderful that such commutes help to inspire our work to protect and restore the water quality and habitats of our coast.

About the Author

Todd Miller

Todd founded the North Carolina Coastal Federation in 1982. A native of Carteret County, he was selected in 2013 as a distinguished alumni of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he received his undergraduate and masters degrees. Todd also received The Old North State Award in 2007, the National Wetlands Community Leader Award in 2012 and the Peter Benchley Ocean Awards' Hero of Seas Award in 2015. He is a founding board member of Restore America Estuaries, a member of the Board of Visitors for the UNC Institute for the Environment and chairman of the Policy Committee for the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary Partnership. As executive director, Todd formulates the federation’s goals and policy positions, serves as the federation’s spokesperson and provides staff and operations oversight.