Here are some facts that may not be well known about these sandbars, and the word “sandbar” is used purposely because although our notorious bumper stickers say, “I’m on Island Time,” the Outer Banks are actually not islands. The northern Outer Banks, north of Oregon Inlet, are in fact a continuous spit of land extending all the way to Virginia Beach. As a matter of fact, at one time there was a dirt road connecting Carova with Sandbridge, Virginia.
Even Hatteras Island, although surrounded by water, is not considered a true island because there is nothing actually anchoring it to the seabed. It is, as are all barrier islands, a sandbar that happens to be higher than the current level of the ocean.
Taken as a whole, the Outer Banks are farther from the coastline than any other barrier island in the world. Hatteras Island measures between 20 to 40 miles from the North Carolina mainland. So far away that when the early explorer, Giovanni da Verrazzano, first laid eyes on Pamlico Sound, he thought it was the Pacific Ocean.
Evidence of just how temporary a barrier island can be is seen in the innumerable inlets that have formed over the years. On the northern Outer Banks, at least two inlets have formed and then closed in the past 250 years–Currituck Inlet south of Knotts Island in Carova and Caffey’s Inlet at what is now the Sanderling in Duck.
In shoreline areas that have not been stabilized or are extraordinarily active, inlets are still forming. Look no further than the New New Inlet on Pea Island that came into existence after Hurricane Irene in 2011. The name New New Inlet came about because it’s just south of New Inlet which closed 100 or so years ago.
“Inlet” may not be the best term for these passages to the sea. Outlet is probably a better name since they are almost always formed by the waters of the sound seeking an outlet to the ocean. Occasionally, although it’s rare, the Atlantic Ocean washes over the shoreline and creates a new inlet.
Although giant sandbars would seem to connote a fairly sterile soil, the western shore of the Outer Banks sustains a remarkably diverse and vibrant maritime forest. Anchored by Jockey’s Ridge in the south and extending to Penny’s Hill in Carova, massive sand dunes protect the sound side from the worst of the ocean’s effects. At one time, the forests were so densely wooded that from the mid 19th to the early 20th centuries, one of the largest industries on the Outer Banks was lumbering. Initially live oak and cedar were cut. When those gave out, dogwood was harvested. As it turned out, dogwood was the perfect wood for bobbins used in the sewing mills of North Carolina. Evidence of how densely wooded the sound side shoreline was can still be seen in the forests of Nags Head Woods and Kitty Hawk Woods.