Outer Banks offer lighthouses, horses, history

Imagining myself as the Wright Brothers on their historic flights, I lay across the wings of a metal model of their plane at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, on the sand dunes of North Carolina's Outer Banks during my vacation.

After 50 to 100 unsuccessful attempts over time, on Dec. 17, 1903, Orville stayed in the air for 12 seconds and flew 120 feet. Then Wilbur flew 59 seconds and 852 feet - the first-ever manned, powered aircraft flights.

This national memorial four miles south of Kitty Hawk has markers in the field to show the distances of their first four flights and a tall monument that offers a bird's-eye view of the area.

Inspired by others working on flying machines, the two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, who for years had dreamed of flying and studied birds in flight, found this sparsely populated, windy spot just right for their experiments, said Park Ranger Tom White in the visitors center beside replicas of their glider and airplane. He added their father taught them to believe in themselves, and their mother taught them to not be afraid of experimenting.

Outer Banks

The Outer Banks is a thin, occasionally broken strand of sandy land along the coast of North Carolina.

Surrounded by water and populated with small towns and islands such as Kill Devil Hills, Nag's Head, Corolla, Manteo, Duck, Currituck and Ocracoke, it is known for its beaches, fishing, wild horses and lighthouses.

Horses tame and wild

With the sun shining and clouds billowing overhead, friends and I rode horses single file through a green maritime forest of live oaks and loblolly pines across a few ponds and out onto the beach at Cape Hatteras National Seashore with our guides from Equine Adventures. Seashells crunched under the horses' hooves as we rode in the swirls of water where the waves washed ashore.

The next day in Currituck, I was nearly run down by a wild horse. I was engrossed in taking photos, when I heard a gallop and whinny and felt someone grab me by the waist and pull me back.

We had been riding in an open-air truck for several miles along the beach, stopping frequently to take photos of "harems," as Kim from Bob's Wild Horse Tours called the groups of sleek, feral horses in shades of brown. She had told us to stay at least 50 feet away.

I was taken by surprise as this horse raced right past me from a grassy knoll to the beach.

Kim said the 105 wild horses living in this isolated area are genetically pure Spanish mustangs, descendants of horses that arrived on shore in the 16th century after Spanish ships ran aground and the captains released the horses to lighten their loads. They live on the salt marsh grasses and paw the sand for fresh water.

Pulling out fish and sailors

Driving south from our Kill Devil Hills vacation rental house on the beach where we collected shells, waded in the water, watched the pelicans run in the sand and listened to the waves through our open windows at night, we stopped at the new, 1,000-foot green Jeanette's Pier which replaced the old one destroyed during Hurricane Isabel in 2003. We watched bottleneck dolphins cavorting in the water and many people fishing. The visitors center offers nature and fishing classes for families.

Farther south, we stopped at the 1874 Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station, the largest and most complete in the U.S. and home to the lifeboat used in the famous Mirlo rescue of 1918 at the height of World War I. The British tanker, the Mirlo, was hit by a German U-boat torpedo and caught fire, explained James, the costumed keeper.

The American rescuers encountered a heavy sea and a fire that was so hot it seared the hair on their arms. They found an opening and reached the overturned British lifeboat, where six Brits were hiding underneath, bobbing up just long enough for a breath.

"The Brits were plucked out of their worst nightmare covered with oil and blisters," James said, adding the Americans managed to save 41 of 52 Mirlo crewmen.

Two lighthouses

Next, we stopped at the black and white striped 1870 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the world's tallest brick lighthouse at 208 feet, still a working lighthouse and a National Historic Landmark. After climbing 248 circular stairs - the equivalent of 12 floors, we looked out over the ocean, marshland and woods. The area is called the "graveyard of the Atlantic" because of the treacherous waters and shifting sandbars that caused over 2,000 shipwrecks since 1526, including the USS Monitor during the Civil War.

That evening we met up with Ernie Foster, captain of the Albatross Fleet, North Carolina's oldest recreational charter fishing company, for a sunset ride in Pamlico Sound where we enjoyed seeing large homes along the water, fishing boats, dolphins, egrets and pelicans on a lovely evening.

Heading north the next day, we checked into a beachfront hotel in Corolla and then headed off to climb the 214 stairs of the picturesque red brick 1875 Currituck Beach Lighthouse for a windy but panoramic view from this working light.

We toured the adjacent bright yellow hunting lodge complete with Tiffany glass and built originally for a wealthy industrialist on Currituck Sound after the Civil War. His family stayed for weeks at a time with a contingent of servants to hunt ducks, a popular activity since the sky was then thick with the birds. The lodge later became the Whalehead Club.

Also nearby, the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education offers free kayaking, hiking, fishing and admission for all ages as well as a museum and video of the history.

While the summer months are the peak season, any time between Easter and Halloween is good to enjoy the beaches, horses, boats, fishing, history and good seafood at the Outer Banks.

Go to www.outerbanks.org for information on lodging, camping, dining, activities, attractions and special events.

Pamela O'Meara can be reached at pomeara@lillienews.com or at (651) 748-7818.

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