This place is for the birds

Story by Lois Carol Wheatley

Down East? Wouldn't that be everything between the coast and, say, I-95?

Better not let the residents of Harkers Island hear you say that. Best to avoid speaking such things right out loud to the citizens of Otway, Straits, Smyrna, Marshallberg, Williston, Davis, Stacy, Masontown, Sealevel and Atlantic.

Down East is the nesting ground for rural residents of an area bounded on the south by North River near Beaufort and, to the north, by the Cedar Island Ferry, a state-run operation that makes a two-and-a-half-hour run across the Pamlico Sound to Ocracoke Island. Between those two points Highway 70 runs most of the distance, with Highway 12 taking over at the north end.

And it is the roosting turf for thousands of ducksredhead, surf scoter, bufflehead, mergansers, scaup, ruddy, canvasback, black and wood. Also any number of other waterfowl, black skimmer, Forester's tern, glossy ibis, great egret, gull-billed tern, herring gull, laughing gull, little blue heron, snowy egret, common tern and tricolored heron.

Offshore, the Cape Lookout National Seashore parallels the coast, a narrow, 60-mile stretch of sand with the Cape Lookout Lighthouse at the southernmost tip. Its distinctive "daymark," a black-and-white diagonal diamond-shaped checkerboard, is well represented on all the lighthouse mugs, t-shirts and beach towels sold in souvenir shops at all the better-known destinations.

This national park is the most undeveloped, inaccessible and least visited of all of North Carolina's beach destinations, and includes about 29,000 acres on three islands that make up the seashore: North Core Banks, known as Portsmouth Island; South Core Banks, or Cape Lookout; and Shackleford Banks.

No signs will welcome you to Down East or, for that matter, tell you very much at all about anything else you might want to know. But it's a great place to be lost, where bridges span long stretches over sparkling waters and marshes of waving grasses, while flocks of birds cycle endlessly through cool wooded sanctuaries harboring vintage residences.

It's a tough area for men who won't stop and ask directions. Helpful soul are standing by at virtually every turn of the road, at gift shops, convenience stores, gas stations, real estate offices, boat building concerns, marinas, seafood concessions, pizza and burger joints. They'll get you where you want to go and abjectly apologize for the lousy road signs, in the most charming dialect you'll ever hear.

How they do talk

A book published in 1997, "Hoi Toide on the Outer Banks: The Story of the Ocracoke Brogue," was compiled from the very thorough research of Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes. It called this dialect High Tider and linked it to Elizabethan English, claiming that these remote island communities retained Old World speech patterns in almost complete isolation for over 250 years.

"Time" is "toime," "fish" is "feesh" and "fire" is "far." Then there are vocabulary usages found nowhere else. "Mommick" means to frustrate or bother, "yethy" describes a stale or unpleasant odor, and "nicket" is a pinch of something used in cooking.

Any stranger who doesn't understand this plain and simple terminology is known as a "dingbatter." But these kind residents are not likely to say such a thing to your face while they're straightening out your directional challenges—and apologizing yet again for the faulty directions you no doubt got from your GPS.

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