But the automobile ferry remains, carrying its cargo of travelers back and forth across the swirling waters. The 20-minute run, which is free, operates every half hour during daylight. When there is a strong wind blowing and whitecaps splash over the deck, the crossing is an adventure in itself. Actually, the ferry is a sturdy craft, manned by an equally sturdy crew, and rarely does it miss a crossing because of bad weather. There have been times, however, when its passengers wished it had.
On the other side of the inlet, on a barren, wind-swept beach, is the PEA ISLAND WILDLIFE REFUGE. Years ago its field headquarters was one of 25 Coast Guard stations which manned the Outer Banks. Today most of the stations have been abandoned for radar and advanced electronic devices, and the Pea Island Refuge is a wintering ground for more than 50,000 waterfowl, including some 12,000 snow geese.
Natives of the area tell an interesting story about the snow geese. Each year, on the 11th of November, they come to Pea Island, flying in by the thousands in great white clouds. Here they remain, protected from hunters, predators, freezing temperatures and starvation until the 5th of January. Then, together as they arrived, they lift off the waters and return to the north. According to legend, they never vary the dates. Nobody has ever figured out why.
Most of the activity—and there is plenty of it—on Hatteras Island begins 40 miles south of Oregon Inlet at the cape. The drive from the ferry is long and lonely, and the road is often washed over by high tides. The main village along the way is RODANTHE, 12 miles south of the inlet. Here there is a hotel, a motel and a gas station.
Approaching the cape by car, a candy-striped tower may be seen rising above the seemingly endless sand dunes. This is HATTERAS LIGHT, the tallest brick lighthouse in America. For generations it has warned mariners of DIAMOND SHOALS, the "graveyard of the Atlantic," where so many metal wrecks lie buried in the quicksands that compasses are deflected by as much as 8°.
There are four main settlements surrounding Hatteras Light. Two of the villages, AVON and BUXTON, have a combined population of 1,000; FRISCO, to the south of the cape, has 100 inhabitants; on the very tip of the island, the largest village, HATTERAS, has a population of 700.
All of the towns have overnight accommodations; and motels, unknown to the lower Banks five years ago, are now scattered all around Hatteras Light. At Buxton, CAPE HATTERAS COURT has 20 two-bedroom, kitchen-equipped cottages right on the beach, which rent for as little as $50 a week for a group of four. This is a favorite gathering place for fishermen. Besides a new public dock, the Cape Hatteras Court marina rents charter boats (sound fishing, $20; inlet fishing, $35 a half day) and has both skiff-rental and guide service for inshore fishing.
Within a 15-minute drive of Hatteras Light there are three exceptional kinds of sport—surf fishing, waterfowl shooting and deep-sea angling. Of these, the one that draws the most people this time of year is surf fishing, which, at Hatteras, means channel bass.
When the runs are on, when great 40-and 50-pound red drum roll in with the surf, everybody fishes at Hatteras. Men, women and children stand knee-deep in swirling water, casting pieces of salt mullet into churning sloughs formed by sand bars offshore.