Friday, March 22, 2013

So what is up with the Tree Stumps on the Beach?

Stumps of ancient forest arise yearly on Outer Banks

By Jeff Hampton

The Virginian-Pilot

© March 19, 2013


Every winter, pounding waves ravage the sand along the beach, exposing hundreds of ancient cedar and live oak stumps on the Currituck Outer Banks coastline. It is an annual occurrence here and on other beaches.

"I've seen this all over the world," said Orrin Pilkey, a professor emeritus at Duke University and expert on coastal geology.

Resembling black teeth in the sand, the stumps dot the path of passing traffic along the beach. One of the larger stumps has been outfitted with bright red reflectors to steer travelers from damaging their vehicles - or worse.

Pilkey estimates a maritime forest existed here some 2,000 years ago but was decimated as the barrier island drifted west toward the mainland, covering the roots in salt water.

Now beach traffic rumbles between the stumps - some of them broad, some small - along a section of the 11-mile strand of sand that serves as the only road to the communities north of Corolla. During the summer, when the tourists gather by the thousands, gentler waves replenish sand, and most of the stumps vanish.

"It only takes a few days in May for the sand to cover them up," said Lt. Jason Banks of the Currituck County Sheriff's Office.

Once or twice a year during the winter, somebody slams into one, he said.

"Sometimes people hit them and don't report it," he said. "We find car parts on the beach."

Banks did not recall a serious injury.

Native Ernie Bowden, 88, remembered weaving his father's old truck between the tree remnants in his boyhood. Bowden's uncle, a commercial fisherman who worked the shoreline, tore the front end off his old truck back in the 1930s. His brother once slammed into one. He also recalled that a serviceman died just after World War II when he swerved his open-top military vehicle to miss a stump and overturned.

Resident Jay Bender, a horse tour operator, once crashed into a stump and badly damaged his father's truck.

"When you get to that section, you've got to watch out," he said. "Fog is the worst."

Bowden says he believes two storms in 1846 may have leveled the forest. About 100 years ago, area resident and historian Henry B. Ansell wrote in his memoirs of a massive storm in March 1846 and another in September that sent ocean breakers over the banks and all the way to Knotts Island, more than a mile inland. He wrote of trees being uprooted.

"For the old of this island to recall the dire, terrible and still lasting disaster of that year could bring nothing but depression," he wrote, as recorded in a document at the Currituck County Library.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Bowden dug canals within the Carova Beach neighborhood and remembers uncovering large, ancient trees lying some eight feet below the surface all pointing in the same direction.

"I have to believe that 1846 hurricane leveled all those trees," he said.

These days, a maritime forest thrives on the sound side of the banks about a mile from the ocean. For now, the beach strand has stabilized with relatively little erosion or movement.

As for the ancient stumps, they have sort of become a historical trademark along the beach and most likely will stay that way.

Currituck County Manager Dan Scanlon said he has never heard of any plans by the state or county to remove the stumps. The state owns the beach, he said.

Removing the stumps would require a permit, said Michele Walker, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management.

"Nobody has ever asked to pull them out," she said.

Jeff Hampton, 252-338-0159,