Written By: Lori Wilson | Photographed By: Arthur Green
There’s a place I like to go that I don’t really want to share with you. It feels far enough away from my day-to-day qualms but just close enough that I can access it whenever I please. Like most of the Cape Fear area, it reminds me of the color cerulean and smells like sea foam, but unlike my life, it’s vastness and constant changing doesn’t frighten me.
As my 2017 resolution, I’ve vowed to be less selfish, so even though it hurts a little, I’m going to give you directions to my outdoor haven in hope it will provide others with good memories in the new year that approaches.
Directions to a happy place (the best way to get there):
Drive toward Fort Fisher. (You must take Dow Road instead of cutting through Carolina Beach, because you can legally drive 65 miles per hour and it makes you feel like you’re getting away from something.)
Listen to your favorite tunes. (Hint: local band Onward, Soldiers has a new album, Daydreamer, that bodes particularly well with this drive.)
Pass the disc golf course and then turn right after the gas station that sells pizza and hot dogs.
Pass the rocks and oceanfront, and keep going until a sign prompts you to turn left into the Fort Fisher Recreational Park.
Stop your car.
Head east of the parking lot, walk over the miniature wooden bridge, and find the brown post that says basin trail.
The trail invites you into Zeke’s Island Reserve, which is managed by state park divisions through a federal-state partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s certainly meant to have visitors, having been chosen for inclusion in the N.C. National Estuarine Research Reserve “due to its unique hydrology and its importance as an estuary,” according to an information station at the end of the trail. Most tourists and locals alike usually feel satisfied to just view the live oak trees at the nearby Civil War historic site or enjoy an afternoon by the sea. But just next to the public restrooms and grilling stations, there’s more to be seen.
The end of Basin Trail is the end of the island. This, among all the nature and wildlife and sunshine, is my favorite component. Sometimes it just feels good to know you’ve completed something, that you’ve reached a conclusion.
At the start, you’ll encounter a cleaning station for your pup (yes, dogs are welcome!) and a large sign that summarizes the area: “Welcome to Basin Trail, a single-route sandy trail with several boardwalks and footbridges. This easy, 1.1-mile trail winds through ruminant maritime forests and dense thickets, over dry ridges, past drainages and ponds, and around bare mud flats and marshes.”
More writing is included about the path, but I recommend stopping your reading after this welcome so you can figure out the route for yourself. Several markers exist throughout, so your beginner-level hike isn’t completely guideless. (In fact, if you’d rather be completely surprised, skip to the last paragraph of this article.) The first brown marker, which you’ve already passed at this point, includes additional markers for the wwii Bunker .8 mi and observation deck 1.1 mi. The latter is your destination goal.
Above your head, trees reach for one another until they touch, making a path that is gently canopied—a scene most Southerners can recognize, one that makes me feel protected. At the forefront of the trail where the branches are most plentiful, you might spot small birds that resemble finches who I suppose are attracted to the shade.
Outside of this canopy awaits an open lot of sand. I never remember until I get here, but I’ve always thought this could be most ideal plot of picnicking land. From here you can see the building that houses the Fort Fisher Aquarium. Prepare yourself for wildlife sightings on the other side of the pedestrian beach. The closer you come to the water, the more birds you’ll see. On my most recent visit, I spotted an egret who enjoyed a casual lunch in the marsh.
The trail comes to a fork, at which you can choose to keep going or take a right at the structure dubbed Hermit’s Bunker, the concrete fortification built here during World War II, that’s better known for housing the town’s favorite hermit Robert Herrill during the 1960s and early 1970s. While I always look forward to seeing the observation deck, the bunker tunes me in with history, forcing me to reflect a bit before I keep going.
Past the bunker, you’ll go across two boardwalks above the marshes and through salt ponds. Along this segment, rare plants such as the dune blue-curls, yucca, and pennywort exist. Though, for a fall or winter stroll, the wetland-adjacent dahoon hollies attract me each time with red berries that feed the birds.
When you make it to the very end, the observation deck provides a sitting area where you may find a kayaker or two. The deck is meant for spotting wildlife, but even if there is no activity to be seen, the basin water is plenty enough for me. To return, you’ll follow the footprints you just created, giving you a chance to remember your favorite scenes and to think about what you missed before. Much like the New Year, this provides a chance to remember but to also try again, to see the same trail or the same life in a new way.