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.
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.
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.
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.
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.