Treasures on the Fort Fisher Basin Trail

Basin Trail

Text and Photographs By Maymie Higgins

It was an adventure postponed far too long.  For the past twenty years, my annual travel plans have consistently included at least one long weekend on Pleasure Island, a small island just east of Wilmington, North Carolina.  Three separate communities comprise the island: Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Fort Fisher.  In those years, I have kayaked to Zeke’s Island multiple times, run countless laps around Carolina Beach Lake Park, and visited the Civil War Fort Fisher Historic Museum and the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher at least six times each.  Yet, I had never hiked the Basin Trail at the Fort Fisher State Recreation area.  This past November, I made it a priority.

Fort Fisher State Recreation Area was established as a unit of the North Carolina State Park system in 1986.  Two hundred eighty seven acres were transferred from the Historic Site to the Division of Parks and Recreation.  The area is important to colonial nesting waterbirds.  There are 200 species of birds that visit the area, including the endangered Piping Plover.  Loggerhead sea turtles use the isolated beaches as nesting habitat.  The estuary tidal creeks have an abundance of flounder, spot, mullet, crab, mussels and clams.  On my hike, I saw tracks for raccoons, foxes, bobcats and deer.

Bird

Many know the area to be the home of Robert E. Harrill.  During the years of 1955 to 1972,  Mr. Harrill became known as the Fort Fisher Hermit while living in a World War II bunker that remained after the area had been used as a U.S. Army training base. Harrill largely lived off of the marsh and land, eating oysters, clams and fish and vegetables from his garden.  I had long wanted to see this bunker for myself, but I had no idea all the other treasures I would see along the way.

I began my hike with a quick visit to the park office to pick up a trail map and chat with the staff for pointers and also for the safety of letting someone know I was heading out.  Though the Basin Trail is a short 1.1 mile hike out to the Basin Overlook, it meanders through open marsh as well as a remnant maritime forest to the north, and an evergreen shrub thicket to the south.  While I was not concerned about harm by humans, November is rutting season for white-tailed deer and there are plenty of those on Pleasure Island.

Maritime forest
The beginning of the trail is the remnant maritime forest.  Any description of a habitat that is preceded with the adjective “remnant” is always thrilling.  I slowly passed through a dense, short canopy of salt tolerant live oaks and yaupon shaped by centuries of wind and sea spray.  I savored the blessing of experiencing an ecological relict that still thrives with wildlife.

Once through the forest, the trail ran parallel to a portion of the shrub thicket before entering directly into a small portion of the thicket.  It is here, not far from the marsh, that the World War II bunker remains.  I lingered and reflected on the sort of events in Mr. Harrill’s life that made him choose to live alone in such a place.  There are many accounts of him referencing his step-mother as “the tyrant in the house.” Only those of us who have experienced years of inescapable childhood abuse can fully understand the freedom and peace that being alone represents.  Solitary living is often the only way to assure such peace.  Many people pitied him, but there is no pity in a soul finding solace.  Mr. Harrill lived on his terms for seventeen years.  In that time he had many visitors who provided him with company and donations and he, in turn, provided them with stories and wisdom.  He died of suspicious causes at the age of 79; many believe he was murdered.  That is a tragic end, but on the whole, in my opinion, he had a triumphant life.

Bunker

Bunker 2

From the bunker, the trail has a long section of boardwalk alternating with sand paths crossing over marshes and through small shrub thickets.  Along the way, I observed a great variety of scat, tracks, crustaceans, birds and invertebrates but, thankfully, no rutting bucks.  The most exciting wildlife observation was the oddest snake I had ever seen, that actually turned out to be no snake at all but rather a very beautiful specimen of an Eastern Glass Lizard.

marsh

Glass lizard

The trail ends at a scenic overlook for Zeke’s Island, just across the basin.  As is often the case during autumn, there were a few windsurfers and kite surfers to admire.  I circled around and took in all the views for as long as possible. Then I remembered to check the time because I had a ferry to catch to Southport.  It was the last day of business for the season at Provision’s, the best dive in the Southeast. Provision’s serves the best crab cakes in the world.  So I threw a kiss in the air, said a little prayer that my retirement will put this place on my doorstep, whispered to the marsh breezes, “see you next fall,” and hiked out.

The hike left me rejuvenated and with a completely different perspective of Mr. Harrill’s choice to live as he did.  It is no wonder he found his way to this place permanently.  There is a tranquility in the marsh that can only be provided by the lullaby chorus of wildlife sounds and the soothing ebb and flow of the tides as they yield to the moon’s gravitational pull.

Crazy Author

 

"The Special" at Yacht Basin Provision Company.  Southport, North Carolina

“The Special” at Yacht Basin Provision Company.
Southport, North Carolina

 

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7 thoughts on “Treasures on the Fort Fisher Basin Trail

  1. Enjoyed your post. I visited there last November, as well, and I drove down to Ft. Fisher and thought about taking a look around, but time constraints …Now, thanks to you, I will plan on taking the hike. Thanks for posting.

    • Thank you, Mr. Newkirk. Pleasure Island is always a smart selection in vacation getaways for those who love wildlife. I like to drive down to Fort Fisher well after dark, and all the way to the end of the island. There is never any question that I will see wildlife. And I have never been disappointed for my efforts.

  2. Beautiful article. Thank you for the time and effort producing this timeless piece. I too am a conservatonist. Tying the conservation aspect into the Hermit story was magnificent. His time on the beach was not squandered and, he would be so proud to see the area protected and nature/life going on with the tides, as he would put it. He dearly loved Fort Fisher beach/swamp/tide pool/marshland. Thank you, again.

  3. I have been honored with some words of praise for this piece from the grandson of Robert Harrill. I have long been disturbed by the tendency to make a caricature of Mr. Harrill and have never been a fan of labels on humans such as “hermit”. My heart is singing because a member of Mr. Harrill’s family believes I honored him well in my writing. Here are the words of Donny Harrill, copied and posted from Facebook, with his permission. Donny Harrill is the son of Thorton Boge Harrill, who is the oldest of Robert Harrill’s sons.

    “Beautiful. You fulfilled a dream of mine and I didn’t do anything. I can’t thank you enough. Every word was a thrill for me. The scenes, too. Greatest of all was your education to whoever watches and reads your adventure. I too believe in living with nature. And, The Fort Fisher Hermit, Robert Harrell, would have so proud that marshes are thriving the area has been preserved. Robert was about so much more than people ever imagined. Because of the moniker ‘HERMIT’, some persons assume that the individual desires to be alone, doesn’t like interacting with people? Robert was completely unconventional and was his own unique, individual. He went to a beautiful place, literally, to find himself. He wanted to be free. Live his life on his terms. And. He did find himself. And, essentially, became an entertainer and educator, a philosopher, really. As far I Know, after he became legendary, 2 to 5 years. Tops. He was rarely alone. Robert loved the sea, the marsh, God’s creatures. He would indeed. He probably is enjoying everyone’s efforts to tell the real story. He had the idea of an Aquarium in the 50s. He wanted to educate people about the beautiful place he lived and died for. At the time of Robert Harrell’s death, at least 2 competing development company’s.. They were entrepreneur’s who definitely wanted the land which was legally owned by Robert Harrill. He was, at the time, preparing to take possession of his land. However, he was hesitant to begin the court procedures which would have given him deed to the property. He was threatened and beat up several times. Especially, a year or 2 preceding his murder. And, hand been beaten some time shortly before his murder. There is plenty of evidence that Robert Suffered much trauma during his death. The facts, physical evidence and investigation of the murder. Or, the NON-investigation. Was untrue. The family was told he had a heart attack. A lie. And. They decided, illegally, to not perform an autopsy. Any time someone is found dead, alone. There is usually an autopsy done by the coroner. If foul play is suspected, and there is overwhelming physical evidence that Robert had bruises, bleeding, proof that he was still alive, at least during the initial attack. Then. The scene of the struggle in the marsh proves that Robert was dragged through the mud and sand. Then, discarded into the bunker. Thrown in like a sack of garbage….. But. No autopsy. Barely, an investigation. My uncle did not find out these things, for sure, until about 3 to 5 years after. Uncle Edward Harrill. George Harrill, did as much as he possibly could, on his own. But, he passed before we could get the truth out. I remember well. George Harrill telling me that he believed his father was killed. Murdered. This was shortly after his finding out about the death of his father. George had been visiting his father a lot in the late sixties and early 70s.”

  4. I just found your blog and love it – I’m a new Follower! Basin Trail is just down the road from where I live yet I’ve only walked it twice. Not near enough, I tell ya. Your blog post is wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing about Basin Trail!

    • Thank you! Don’t forget to enjoy the trails at Carolina Beach State Park as well. There’s a really short trail there, with all the carnivorous plants. I will be blogging about that soon.

      • Great! I’ve been there but not for their guided hikes. It’s kind of a lonely place unless one is with another person or group. Spring is coming and I am looking forward to learning more about the area. We’ve only been hear less than 2 years. Thanks for your reply!

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