The recent power outage in various areas of the Outer Banks, including Hatteras Island and Ocracoke, had Bill Cochran reflect on times past. Bill, Sandy’s Uncle and a longtime outdoors sports writer for The Roanoke Times, highlights the changes he’s seen in the Outer Banks.
You can find Bill Cochran’s article “Power outage turns back clock on the Outer Banks” for The Roanoke Times by clicking here, or you can read it below. Check out other articles from The Roanoke Times by clicking here.
Bill Cochran: Power outage turns back clock on the Outer Banks
It was a reminder of the old days, fish frying on a two-burner camp stove; a Coleman lantern hissing at the darkness.
Sea breezes coming through an open window or tent flap providing the air conditioning. Insects, too. There seldom were crowds, except when the bluefish blitzed the shore.
I am talking about how I remember the Outer Banks of North Carolina 50 or so years ago, and how a recent power outage that spoiled vacations on Ocracoke and Hatteras islands turned back the clock in many ways.
The first time I visited the Outer Banks, a narrow string of barrier islands jutting off the mainland into the Atlantic, Nags Head was a village of rustic houses built on stilts. The year-round population was less than 400. To the south, toward Hatteras, was mile-after-mile of pristine beach, most of it the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
If you wanted plush accommodations, you signed in at The Carolinian Hotel, not just because it was nice, or because the chef would fry the fish you caught, but because it was the only choice of accommodations unless you wanted to stay at a mom-and-pop tourist home or a campground. There were no golden arches, or T-shirt shacks or miniature golf courses or high-rise hotels.
I remember the first fast-food place coming to Buxton, and how odd the red roof of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant looked.
In my early visits, I fished the surf with Bob Preston, the first full-time guide in the area. Bob’s ancestors settled in Fincastle, but he continued eastward, hoping the salt air would be tonic for his fickle health, which included multiple-heart attacks, cancer and the stress of fortunes made and lost.
He was a weather-beaten, gaunt, chain smoker who carried nitroglycerin tablets, and was so good at surf fishing that Sports Illustrated featured him in a four-page spread in the 60s.
Bob loved red drum and speckled trout, but detested bluefish, which he considered ruffians. But I delighted in catching them. When we got into the blues, he would sit and watch me fish.
He had a powerful imagination which he channeled into endless stories that were intriguing, and sometimes true. It could be difficult to hear them above the roar of his 4×4 Toyota, cruising mile-after-mile of beach between the sea and sea oats. You could dive unrestricted those days, but you had to take care not to get stuck with the tide rising.
The bridge over Oregon Inlet had not yet been built, which meant Bob would keep his drum bait in a slough until the last minute, then race north to catch the final ferry of the day to Nags Head.
I spent enough time with Bob to know that I wanted my own beach buggy, so in the early 60s my wife and I bought a blue and black, 4×4-Chevy Blazer. I mounted wide, smooth tires on it for travel on the sand, and built a rod rack that attached to the front bumper. It was our land yacht, and we proudly sailed the long, narrow ribbon where the sand, sea and sky come together, the one difficult to separate from the other. You didn’t have to go far to find elbow room.
My favorite spot was — and still is — Cape Point at the tip of Cape Hatteras, where you wade into the edge of the ocean and the sea comes surging at you, eroding the sand from beneath your boots. I learned that if the fish were hitting anywhere it would be at the Point. It was the place you checked first and last. The area was named “Gamefish Junction” for a reason.
When the blues blitzed or schools of copper-hued drum appeared you might see 50 fishermen side- by-side, like a picket line. It would remind you of opening day of trout season back home in the mountains.
The 15-pound blues are a memory now, but the crowds of anglers and tourists have grown, and there are restrictions on where your four-wheel vehicle can roam amid debates over who has the right-of-way, beach vehicles or birds. Fifty years ago, life was simpler.
I know, wallowing in nostalgia is the last thing someone who has seen a vacation shortened or sabotaged by a massive power outage, especially one caused by construction workers building a replacement bridge over Oregon Inlet, wants to read. Outages from hurricanes are more alluring.
It was good news for thousands Friday when the power had been restored, lights were on, air conditioners were running, meals were hot and the welcome signs were out.