A Visit to Portsmouth Island

Time-travel at its finest. 

by John Soltes

Visiting Portsmouth Island seems like a silly idea for summer vacationers. If Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks is one's final destination, why spend a full day inspecting the lost remnants of yet another island? Doesn't Ocracoke's history and charm offer enough satisfaction?

Yes, Ocracoke is worth the hype. But a visit to Portsmouth Island, located southwest of Ocracoke, is a time-traveling experience that is unparalleled along the Outer Banks. Stepping on these deserted shores and hearing stories of how older residents braved countless hurricanes is a unique delight for anyone interested in maritime history.

Many visitors access the island by hopping aboard a boat operated by Rudy Austin. Sitting on cushioned seats with the blazing sun producing droplets of sweat on the forehead, the boat pulls out of Silver Lake, quite comfortable next to the gargantuan-in-comparison ferries heading for Cedar Island and Swan Quarter. In the waters between Ocracoke and Portsmouth, the boat navigates shallow sand bars that seem to form and dissipate on moment's notice. The ride is high speed but short, taking all but 15-20 minutes to traverse from the living world to a mummified one.

A Visit to Portsmouth Island

Depending on the time of year, volunteer rangers with the National Park Service may bring visitors around the village of Portsmouth. The history of this island can be evidenced almost immediately after stepping foot on its banks. Although many original buildings still stand, the last residents moved out a number of years ago. Because of its protection as an important historical and archaeological site (the island is part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore), the village is well-preserved, although still at the mercy of the elements. Hurricanes that used to pound upon the occupied houses of Portsmouth village still hit the island hard, often causing damage.

Daytrippers will be able to inspect a schoolhouse, personal residences with their chipped white paint, a Methodist church and the pièce de résistance, a red-trimmed life-saving station with a jaw-dropping, 360-degree lookout from its cupola. The volunteer rangers offer useful information on Portsmouth's history, letting visitors know a variety of stories about the residents, their culture and the overall importance of the island. If one hasn't heard of the term "lightering," the process of helping ships move cargo from one vessel to another, prepare to become an expert by day's end.

Walking through the village can be eerie. Except for the rangers and the fellow boat passengers, there's no one around to welcome outsiders. It's almost as if someone hit pause on a DVD player. Structurally most buildings are accounted for, but the life of the island has moved on. Visiting Portsmouth is that rare museum experience: the ability to walk among historical buildings as they once stood decades before.

A Visit to Portsmouth Island

Because of the seclusion of the island, there can be some interesting wildlife along its sandy beaches and thick foliage. Raccoons can be seen during the day while fiddler crabs swarm in constantly moving streams of claws and legs. If visiting during the summer months, there will also be mosquitoes — lots of them. The bloodsuckers likely take advantage of the standing water and general lack of chemical predation. Strong repellent is as useful on Portsmouth as a bottle of water.

After an hour visit to the village, most travelers head along a well-maintained path to a faraway, picturesque beach. To get there, one must trek through a unique habitat featuring flats of water, soft sand and high grass. Going barefoot is highly recommended as the quicksand-like bottom can wreak havoc on flip-flops. Birdwatching is plentiful along this murky stretch from the village to the beach.

Once reaching the sandy shores, visitors have an opportunity to find exotic-looking shells along a mostly untouched beach. Unbroken sand dollars and skate egg cases are easy finds plus a host of other colorful shells. One must be mindful of the clock when shelling or swimming. Austin's boat picks the group up at a designated hour, and walking around Portsmouth's treasures can take a lot of time. Missing the boat may mean occupying an unoccupied island for a night.

A Visit to Portsmouth Island
Photos by John Soltes

During any visit to Portsmouth, there can be a moment of revelation at every turn. Walking through a deserted village or ambling along an untouched beach gives an instant example of what the Outer Banks used to be like before the hordes of tourists started brew-thruing their way from Kitty Hawk to Hatteras. Ocracoke offers a simpler way of life compared to the tourist jaunts, while Portsmouth offers perhaps the simplest way of life.

Even though Ocracoke's mini skyline is within view, Portsmouth feels a world away, as if one had found an unnamed Caribbean island. Ghosts of pirate ships long gone feel like they're just over a sand dune. The power of the mighty ocean feels simultaneously peaceful and frightening. Portsmouth Island allows inspection into the true history of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. On the boat ride back to civilization, past a pelican sanctuary where the birds waddle and fly in enjoyable serenity, the memories of those buildings, those sand dollars, those history lessons will linger for a long time.



For more information on Portsmouth Island: http://www.nps.gov/calo/planyourvisit/visit-portsmouth.htm

  Thanks to John for contributing another great story to the Current. Last year, he wrote about discovering Ocracoke and staying on the island for the first time. Read it here.