MOREHEAD CITY —
What is Carteret County’s “least expected” most scenic view? Ponder that as you travel about in Down East Carteret County. The entire region teems with “scenery that is surreally beautiful and serene,” writes Jason Frye, an author of several contemporary travel guidebooks.
The fishing villages that are barely above sea level and hug the water’s edge beyond Beaufort form a necklace of communities and is strung together by the main roads, primarily U.S. Route 70 and N.C. Highway 12.
“Down East” is actually a nautical term. Local historian Rodney Kemp tells people: “During the sailing days, the mail boat would leave from Beaufort to make its deliveries. Normally, the prevailing sou’west wind would propel the sailboat in an efficient manner. Thus, they were sailing ‘downwind to the eastern’ or Down East.”
Something else you need to know about Down East uniqueness, Kemp says, is: “The North River flows south, while the South River flows north. Perhaps it’s because when you go upriver on the North River, you are going north, and vice versa on the South River. Got it?”
Who wouldn’t want to visit and explore a place like this? One quickly gets a sense that there’s not much difference between the way things were and the way things are. The traditions of decoy carving, hunting, commercial fishing and boatbuilding and living off the land and from the water are still passed on from one generation to the next.
Sarah Bryan of the North Carolina Folklife Institute (NC Folk) in Durham, says Down East is one of the most distinctive cultural enclaves in North Carolina. Marshes and back creeks make Down East and Core Sound remote from the rest of North Carolina, and the region’s traditions are highly distinctive.”
The late storyteller Milton Styron, a commercial fisherman, once said: “I can remember the time when I could listen at somebody talk Down East and tell you what community they were from, because every community was isolated. If you wanted to see your girlfriend … It was different when you had to go in a sailboat because there weren’t any roads.” (The mailboat continued to run until 1964.)
Today in 2019, just 55 years later, the Down East region unofficially begins at the new sign that welcomes motorists to the Outer Banks National Scenic Byway on U.S. 70 East, approaching the North River bridge.
As Mr. Styron suggested, there used to be very subtle differences in dialect the deeper Down East you go on U.S. 70 East — through Bettie, Otway, Smyrna, Williston, Davis, Stacy and Masontown. Before the village of Sea Level, bear left onto N.C. 12.
The roadway inclines to cross the Monroe Gaskill Memorial Bridge, an impressive 3,000-foot long, high-rise bridge over the Thorofare Bay Channel. The panoramic view from the tip-top of the bridge is sensationally breathtaking. Welcome to the Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge. Its marsh seems to stretch out forever … as far as one can see … the largest marsh on the East Coast.
Whatever it would have cost extra back in 1995, when the bridge opened, for the N.C. Department of Transportation to have built a parking lot at the base of the bridge, a pedestrian ramp and an overlook platform might have been a worthwhile tourism investment. This is it — Carteret County’s least expected most scenic view, desolate and beautiful.
“Cedar Island is a world-class marsh,” says Dr. Stan Riggs, a coastal and marine geologist at East Carolina University in Greenville. “It goes on forever and ever. It’s pretty awesome … and among the most productive habitats in the world.” Dr. Riggs told Ann Green, a freelance contributor to North Carolina Sea Grant, that “brackish marshes are essential for maintaining many different populations of estuarine and marine fish and shellfish.”
The Monroe Gaskill Memorial Bridge replaced a bridge that was so rickety, the county school bus driver required the children to get off every day and walk across the bridge, following the bus.
Said Rodney Kemp: “Some days the Cedar Island kids never made it over to school in the community of Atlantic. They got off the bus, hid under the bridge, played all day, then got back on the bus when it made its afternoon crossing to go back to Cedar Island.”
“One thing’s for sure,” Kemp interjected, “the state picked a mighty good man to name the bridge after. Monroe Gaskill was everybody’s hero.” How so? That’s a story for another day … soon.