“I hope we don’t get shot,” I thought aloud as our boots crackled through cherry-tangerine foliage deep in the forest behind Jesse Hines' house. We had planned on a rendezvous in the water at Avalon Pier, but after the table-flat Atlantic meekly greeted us on an autumn afternoon, our agenda transformed into something equally representative of the Outer Banks—just in a different vein of outdoor recreation. Jesse Hines, my host, who stands about 5' 9" with blue eyes, a square jaw, and a glue-on grin, and his wife, Whitney, suggested we take a jaunt through the woods. After clacking a canoe through water-moccasin mangled canals, guessing at the history of a ramshackle barn along the trail, and yanking our waders through the hungry Carolina mud, we continued to sift across the remains of a crispy day on the East Coast. But Hines' mention of hunters in the vicinity had us a bit unnerved.
A pissed-off guy in the woods with a gun – that’s the last thing I expected to encounter on a surf trip to the Outer Banks.
“I’d be more worried if I hadn’t worn my bright-red hat,” Whitney gloated with a smile as our feet carried us deeper into the wood. “Mickey, you and Jesse blend right in; you should cough or something so you sound more human.”
Two coughs and five crunchy paces through the Maritime Forest later, a boy with a rifle stared down at us from his perch. The hunter’s disgusted look said it all: It was deer season and we had interfered with his carefully executed preparations.
“I didn’t know it started so early,” Whitney pleaded. “How often do you come out here so I’ll know when it's safer to walk?”
"We come every day – mos’ all day, 'cep Sunday, cuz ya can't hunt on Sunday," the boy replied, despondent. Peeved that our clumsy tramplings had dashed his hopes of spotting a buck, he added, "There's another guy settin' up in a stand a little farther up the path, so I'd be careful. He might be pissed."
A pissed-off guy in the woods with a gun – that’s the last thing I expected to encounter on a surf trip to the Outer Banks. But when you're spending time with Jesse Hines, it's not an uncommon sight, but nevertheless one I had to wrap my head around to appreciate.
"All day, every day," I marveled as Jesse cleared a thorn-spattered vine from our path. "Sitting on a bucket in a tree with a gun—that's commitment."
"I guess that's what they think of us," chimed in Mickey McCarthy, a cheerful character long reputed as one of the Outer Banks' most prolific photographers. A pant's rustle later, McCarthy summoned his best mock-hunter voice, which rang guttural and sarcastic, "Look at them! They just sit on surfboards in the water all day long…don't they get cold out there? What a waste of time." His impression faded and a more sincere voice returned. "I guess surfing is our hunting."
Mickey's a squat fellow, eager for adventure and enthused with a childlike alacrity about the run of swell that licked the Barrier Islands this fall. Hines purports that McCarthy has documented every bump of note for the last 30 years. "He's kind of a legend around here," Hines said with a smile.
The four of us crept our way back home as the salt-spiked air chilled with the dropping sun. We soon found ourselves seated in Billy Diggs' living room, sharing a home-cooked meal of steak, sweet potatoes, and apple pie. These gatherings occur quite frequently as Diggs serves as the steward of Hines' community. After the local pastor offered a pre-meal prayer, the majority of influential characters in the Outer Banks surf scene (including Noah Snyder, Lynn Shell, and a host of groms) swapped stories and opinions about the essence of Outer Banks surfing. Consensus seemed omnipresent in this intimate but influential surf community, and as the surf family clanked plates, praised the "World-Famous Diggs Steak," and relived quintessential island moments, I began to suspect that no shortage of legend drips from the Outer Banks. Its essence bears a striking resemblance to our ramble through the woods: It's natural. It's Southern. And it's also a bit dangerous. Here's what I mean:
In the beginning there was forest. North Carolina once enjoyed a more expansive presence until melting glaciers caused a drastic rise in sea level. The melting ice clawed through the land and scraped troughs on the Eastern Seaboard of the state, which left a brackish valley known as "The Sound" to the west and shaved nearly 70 miles of land from the eastern side of the coast. As a result, a 120-mile sliver of surviving dunes and wetlands pokes its nose up proudly as an imminent tombstone from the "Graveyard of the Atlantic."