We find adventure in Wilmington NC

On Sunday, we made the drive from Virginia Beach, VA to Wilmington, NC. It’s a 4 1/2 hour drive according to Googlemaps, but we stop a bit more frequently than it does. We were settled in our new house by the end of the day. It’s the most playful place we’ve ever stayed. The space that might be a dining room has a bar and pool table. The sun room is an art studio. The bedrooms are colorful and full of seaside decor. There’s even a swimming pool in the back yard. It’s not very big, but it’s very nice, with chairs, table with umbrella, and a little pool house. The property backs on an undeveloped overgrown forested area, and lots of birds sing in the trees. A bluebird is nesting in the box in the yard, and I think the eggs are about to hatch. I’m looking forward to seeing baby birds.

We spent a day settling in, shopping so that Jonathan will have the kitchen the way he likes it. I made a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies and Jonathan made his wonderful multi-seed rye/wheat crackers, enough to last for the month. Thus grounded, we had to see a beach, settling on Wrightsville Beach, nearby and popular, for a late afternoon stroll.

Our first lesson in living here arrived in Wrightsville. All parking is limited and expensive here. Where there is a moderate amount of free parking in the neighborhoods of Virginia Beach, and beach access at the end of every street, beaches in this area do not want visitors. Lots of the shoreline is accessible only to land owners, and parking is metered and closely monitored, $5/hour or $25/day. If that isn’t discouraging, there’s a “convenience fee” added to your parking payment, so in fact it costs more than the hourly/daily rates. We figure we’ll spend between $100-$200 on beach parking in a month. Who knew? On the bright side, the phone app lets you add time from a distance if you decide you need one more hour. Wrightsville Beach was lovely. We spent our time at the far southern end of the beach, strolling and beachcombing and watching the nesting skimmers, and least terns. My favorite image was the skimmer lying on its nest like an exhausted dog, neck stretched out–a mom, perhaps, trying to catch a break.

[I WAS WRONG ABOUT PARKING IN THE WILMINGTON AREA! Though most beaches had parking fees, Wrightsville turned out to be the most expensive and most thoroughly policed. Even Wrightsville lets people park at no cost before 9 am and after 6 pm. Other beaches cost less per hour and per day, and we found a number of places that provided free parking. My first experience with beach parking was a shock, but we probably spent barely $30 on parking the entire month. Added: June 2022]

Skimmers, Wrightsville Beach NC

Next up among our activities is birdwatching, and though it is nice enough in our yard, we looked for a place nearby where there might be more or different birds. On the map we saw Eagle Island, a large tract that is being turned into a park, though there isn’t infrastructure at present. The website materials we read indicated that part of the area is controlled by the Corps of Engineers, but it’s a large area, so we set off. The only actual developed area is the battleship North Carolina monument, so we started there. There’s a park around the site where the battleship is moored, and we strolled a bit, then decided to try the other end of the road that runs around the southern tip of Eagle Island.

In general, we like to drive to the end of a road and see what’s there. Our rule is if there isn’t a sign that says Keep Out, we continue onward. We are respectful of contractors and policemen who roll their window down and say “What are you doing here?” Recently, a contractor believed we should have known to stay out because there were orange cones on either side of the road. They weren’t IN the road, mind you, but on the side. To us, this said, “Don’t pull over in the places with the orange cones.” It did not say Keep Out, and the gate was open. We were courteous and turned back, but if you don’t want visitors, close your gate.

Where the Cape Fear & Brunswick Rivers meet. From Eagle Island

We applied the same technique to Eagle Island, driving down a reasonable road until it turned to a reasonable dirt road. We passed through an open gate past a sign that said in large letters, No Hunting. We kept going. I was surprised that there weren’t gates or keep out signs from the Corps of Engineers, but happy to be able to get down to the far south end and look out over the confluence of the Cape Fear and Brunswick Rivers. It was lovely, sunny and warm at the end of the day. We didn’t see as many birds as we’d hoped, but on the last leg of our loop around the toe of the island we saw a purple martin perched on the roadside. It was beautiful, and the light was just right to show off its dark purple feathers.

Purple martin, allaboutbirds.org

For a moment our day was a complete success.

We completed a circuit of the area and turned back down the access road past two construction trailers to find the gate had been closed and padlocked. We were shut into this huge site. What I haven’t mentioned is that while we were looking out at the river and the birds, the interior of Eagle Island at its south end is being mauled by the Corps of Engineers. Huge trucks were parked beside the road as we drove in, though none were at work. Piles of earth are being moved around all over the place. Later I read that this locality has been used to deposit material dredged from Wilmington Harbor “for decades.”

There we were looking at the gate–no way to go around the ends in a sedan. Each of us had nightmares whirling in our heads: miles of walking to find help, staying overnight in the car until some workman showed up the next morning, calling 911. We sat in shock as stomach-churning thoughts whirled in our heads.

We are not without resourcefulness, though, and returned to the construction trailers to look for emergency numbers or contact information, or anything that might help us out of our predicament. Sure enough, there were names of two supervisors with cell phone numbers. I called the first one and got no answer and left a message. I tried the second number and got a voice. I asked if it was Darryl, the name on the posted sheet, and got a reluctant yes. Then I explained our situation.

Darryl believes there is a Do Not Enter sign posted on the gate, and he was very unsympathetic to our plight. I explained that we’d been birdwatching and saw the No Hunting sign, but not the other. I subsequently did see that below the No Hunting sign is a heavily mud-spattered yellow sign that says “no unauthorized persons,” and “hard hat required.” Such small letters, and so muddy…..

When he finished letting me know that you can’t just come in and drive around, he said, “8038,” and I said “What’s that, a phone number?” It was the gate code! The padlock was a dial lock, not a key lock, so we were able to turn the dials and escape. I thanked Darryl and went to open the gate. Jonathan was on the phone, and it turned out that the other supervisor had called back. After he was finished with his admonitions, Jonathan hung up, drove through the gate and we were back on the road to civilization after a mere ten minutes or so. We do like to drive to the end of the road and see what’s there, and the view and the bird were great. Would they have been worth spending the night in the car?

Sometimes I think, “We have got to stop doing this,” but then there’s another road, or another trail, and I forget my resolution. Today’s exploration definitely had a happy ending, and maybe we won’t do anything like this again.


Published by winifredcreamer

I am a retired archaeologist and I like to travel, especially to places where you can walk along the shore or watch birds. My husband Jonathan and I travel for more than half the year every year, seeing all the places that we haven't gotten to yet.

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