The lowest of the Lower Cape Fear

So let's embark on a virtual boat ride up the river, beginning at Southport down at the mouth of the river. Those early settlers who couldn't get names right originally designated this town as the official port and later—perhaps just as capriciously as they mishandled everything else—changed their minds.

For centuries Southport has attempted to retrieve the title and to compete with Wilmington for commercial freight traffic. It's about 30 miles closer to the open sea and has a scaled-down version of the same kinds of features—miles of river frontage, a commercial presence of banks, shops, professional offices, restaurants and marinas, under the canopy of 200-year-old live oaks, with a solid stand of stately Victorian homes formerly owned by river pilots and pirates. Historic tours run through the five-block downtown district and the NC Maritime Museum is a popular attraction.

The town's most prominent feature is its Waterfront Park where visitors can stroll the pier and the boardwalk, watching all those transoceanic vessels pass by on their way to Wilmington. The State Port Authority has plans to build a huge container port and terminal on 600 acres near this charming little riverfront town, and No Port Southport is a group devoted to keeping those big boats moving on up the river. As the argument goes, dredging would be required—always a water quality issue—and the building of highways and other necessary infrastructure would be futile against the formidable forces of Wilmington, not to mention Norfolk and Charleston.

Southport hosts the annual Ibis Festival in early May, a weekend presented by the Cape Fear Audubon Society involving kayaking, a photography contest, lectures, workshops and demonstrations on forestry, basic birding, invasive species, reptiles, butterflies, carnivorous plants, wildflowers, dragonflies, turtles. and bird rescue.

Southport also shifts into festival mode for the Fourth of July, and in 1972 incorporated its festival, parade and fireworks package as theNorth Carolina Fourth of July Festival. A roadside sign went up just to make it really official.

Two ferries depart from Southport to carry passengers and vehicles across the Cape Fear. One goes to Fort Fisher the southern tip of Pleasure Island, and the other is the only possible means of transportation to Bald Head Island. The difference in the price of the ticket tells you a little bit about the difference between the two destinations. The state-run ferry to Fort Fisher charges $5 for a standard passenger vehicle. A privately-operated ferry to Bald Head Island runs upward of $15 a head and you won't be bringing your vehicle. Golf carts and bicycles are the only means of getting around in this upscale community.

Maybe the vehicle prohibition does keep Bald Head Island pristine, and maybe it would otherwise fill up with gaseous fume-belching beer delivery trucks. But somehow the beer does get in. Shops, restaurants and hotels cluster near the ferry landing, and most of the residences are second homes inhabited only briefly—but very vigorously—during the summer months.

Old Baldy is North Carolina's oldest standing lighthouse, illuminating the mouth of the Cape Fear since 1817. The Smith Island Museum of History is a replica of the 1850 lightkeeper's house that was once on these historic grounds. Fort Holmes protected the river's entrance during the Civil War.

In 1983, a development plan was implemented that provided for 2,800 acres to contain a golf course, marina, and approximately 4,800 housing units. It specified that three-quarters of Bald Head Island, mostly marches and beaches, along with Buff, Battery and Striking islands, would be deeded to the state for conservation.

One-fifth of North America's white ibis population is hatched at Battery Island, and the Audubon Society works diligently to protect and preserve shore bird habitat throughout this region.

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