I woke up Tuesday morning feeling a little restless. Not a bad restless, but an “I need an adventure” restless. So, after a morning of mucking (that’ll be a post for another day), I packed up the truck and headed east towards the coast. I wanted to take my Harley and camper, but the weather forecast of high winds and rain, as well as head congestion from seasonal allergies, persuaded me otherwise.
I had been to Pleasure Island several times in the past, but it was always to lounge on the beach. The island includes the towns of Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Fort Fisher, so there is no lack of sandy real estate on which to relax. The inclement weather, however, provided the perfect opportunity to explore the cultural and historic sites the area has to offer. I bypassed all the cute little beachside motels lining Hwy 421 to try my luck for a cabin at the Fort Fisher Air Force Recreation Area. Typically, the campsites and cabins book up months in advance, but the dreary weather boosted my confidence that I might get lucky. Sure enough, there was a single one-bedroom cabin (more like an apartment) available for two nights! Nestled between the Atlantic Ocean on one side, and the Cape Fear River on the other, this site is just steps away from a lazy day on the beach or a full day of fishing from a pier or boat. My cabin served as the perfect base camp for exploring Fort Fisher Historic Site, the NC Aquarium, and the Wilmington area.
First stop on my quest for knowledge was Historic Fort Fisher. There are “Civil War Trails” signs marking significant historical sites, so it was fairly easy to retrace the timeline of the demise of the Confederate supply line. Having been to Command and General Staff College while in the Army, I am fairly well-read regarding the Civil War, including its politics and tactics from both the Confederate and Union sides. It’s one thing to read about history, but to walk the battlegrounds and read first-person accounts of what life was like for the full spectrum of populations affected by war, is another. It was sobering to learn that the fort was constructed primarily through conscription of Lumbee Native Americans and enslaved people. The site was well-marked with information about how the fort was used during the Civil War as well as how it served as an advanced anti-aircraft artillery training and firing site during World War II.
Battery Buchanan, an outpost of Fort Fisher, sits at the end of Pleasure Island and at the southern end of Hwy 421. After reading the historic marker, I spied a small path leading from the highway terminus parking lot to the Cape Fear River side of the island. I followed the trail to where it ended on a sandy dune. At the end of the trail stood a mailbox, erected onto a sand dune in the middle of nowhere. I had heard of Memory Mailboxes before, but I had never actually encountered one in real life. I pulled open the door to the mailbox and discovered a few mementos and a notebook. It was pretty cool to read through the comments and add my own. What a fun little find!
Back on the Civil War Trail, the follow-up to the battle at Fort Fisher brought me to the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, NC (about 15 miles north of Fort Fisher). After defeating the Confederates and closing the blockade-running site at Fort Fisher, the Union Army again defeated the Confederates, this time at the Battle of Forks Road. The skirmish occurred at the present-day site of the Cameron Art Museum, where a stunning monument to the gallantry of the U.S. Colored Troops was recently erected. Click HERE for a fascinating 24-minute documentary describing the battle and the making of the monument Boundless. Though fairly small, the museum was packed with beautiful, and thought-provoking, art. Definitely worth a stop if you’re in the area.
After the museum, I made my way back to Pleasure Island for more sight-seeing. In addition to all the Civil War historical sites, Fort Fisher is home to one of four NC Aquariums. The building and surrounding grounds were chock full of information about local sea life, including loggerhead sea turtles that nest on nearby beaches. Another species common in eastern NC, alligators, are also represented at the aquarium. Luna, a 17-year-old albino alligator, really sticks out against the swampy backdrop of her enclosure. According to one of the aquarium guides, Luna’s albino condition makes it hard for her to survive in the wild, since she is unable to camouflage herself from predators and is susceptible to sun burning of her eyes and skin. Overall, the aquarium was a treat and a great way to spend a very windy, overcast day at the beach.
All-in-all, I really enjoyed visiting Pleasure Island from a non-beach focused perspective. I’ll definitely be back!