The Core Sound region stretches east-northeast from Beaufort, many miles up to the Pamlico Sound. Filled with birds and boats and not much else, it’s a hauntingly beautiful landscape. Like much of the North Carolina coast, the marshes and pocosins serve as way stations for countless flocks of migratory birds as they migrate, regularly adding greatly to the year-round bird population. Fishing has always been a way of life here, but so has hunting, particularly hunting waterfowl. In earlier generations, and to a lesser extent today, men who earned a living fishing most of the year had sideline businesses hunting birds. They ate the birds they shot, sold the feathers for women’s hats, trained bird dogs, and worked as birding outfitters to visiting hunters. Consequentially, many Down Easterners became expert decoy carvers. The beautifully carved decoys started as functional pieces, but today most are produced as art for art’s sake; either way, the tradition survives.
Woodworking on a much grander scale has defined the culture of the people of Harkers Island, as it is home to generations of boat builders whose creations are as elegant as they are reliable. Keep an eye out as you drive through; you may see boats under construction in backyards and garages—not canoes or dinghies, but full-size fishing boats.
To get to Harkers Island, follow U.S. 70 east from Beaufort around the dogleg that skirts the North River. East of the town of Otway, you’ll see Harkers Island Road; go right and head south toward Straits. Straits Road will take you through the town of Straits, and then across a bridge over the Straits themselves, finally ending up on Harkers Island.
Core Sound Waterfowl Museum
The Core Sound Waterfowl Museum (1785 Island Rd., 252/728-1500, 10am-5pm Mon.-Sat., 2pm-5pm Sun., $5), which occupies a beautiful modern building on Shell Point next to the Cape Lookout National Seashore headquarters, is a community-wide labor of love. The museum is home to exhibits crafted by members of the communities it represents, depicting the Down East maritime life through decoys, nets, and other tools of the trades as well as everyday household objects, beautiful quilts, and other utilitarian folk arts.
[pullquote]This is a sophisticated modern institution, but its community roots are evident in touching details like the index-card labels, written in the careful script of elderly women, explaining what certain objects are, what they were used for, and who made them.[/pullquote]This is a sophisticated modern institution, but its community roots are evident in touching details like the index-card labels, written in the careful script of elderly women, explaining what certain objects are, what they were used for, and who made them. For instance, just as Piedmont textile workers made and treasured their loom hooks, folks down here took pride in the hooks that they made to assist in the perennial off-season work of hanging nets. Baseball uniforms on display represent an era when one town’s team might have to travel by ferry to its opponent’s field. The museum hosts Core Sound Community Nights on the second Tuesday of every month. These get-togethers are a taste of the old home days when families and long-lost friends reunite over home-cooked food to reminisce about community history and talk about their hopes and concerns for the future.
The museum’s gift shop has a nice selection of books and other items related to Down East culture. Be sure to pick up a copy of Island Born and Bred: A Collection of Harkers Island Food, Fun, Fact and Fiction by the Harkers Island United Methodist Women. This cookbook has become a regional classic for its wonderful blend of authentic family recipes and community stories. You might also be able to find a Core Sound Christmas Tree, made by Harvey and Sons in nearby Davis. This old family fishery has made a hit in recent years manufacturing small Christmas trees out of recycled crab pots. It’s a fun, playful item, but it carries significant messages about the past and future of the Core Sound region.
Core Sound Decoy Carvers Guild
Twenty years ago, over a pot of stewed clams, some decoy-carving friends Down East decided to found the Core Sound Decoy Carvers Guild (1575 Harkers Island Rd., 252/838-8818, call for hours). The guild is open to the public and gives demonstrations, competitions, and classes for grown-ups and children; the museum shop is a nice place to browse.
The Core Sound Decoy Carvers Guild also hosts the Core Sound Decoy Festival, usually held in the early winter. Several thousand people come to this annual event—more than the number of permanent residents on Harkers Island—to buy, swap, and teach the art of making decoys.
Captain’s Choice Restaurant (977 Island Rd., 252/728-7122, 10am-9pm Tues.-Thurs., 7am-9pm Fri.-Sun., closed Mon., breakfast $2- 10, lunch and dinner $6-25) is a great place to try traditional Down East chowder. Usually made of clams but sometimes with other shellfish or fish, chowder in Carteret County is a point of pride. The point is the flavor of the seafood itself, which must be extremely fresh and not hidden behind lots of milk and spices. Captain’s Choice serves chowder in the oldtime way—with dumplings.
Fish Hook Grill (980 Island Rd., 252/728-1790, 11am-9pm Mon.-Sat., 11am-3pm Sun., $6-26) is a smalltown restaurant serving big portions of seafood, burgers, and more. They’re known locally for their chowder, crab cakes, potato salad, hushpuppies, fried oysters, coleslaw, and, well, just about everything on the menu. Check to see if Miss Faye, the owner and operator, is here when you visit; if she is, stop by and say hello. She’s as friendly as the food is good.