March 22, 2008

Rob Alderman, the general of the Hatteras Island Fishing Militia Web site, stood on Cape Point this bright March morning.  The sunshine reflected off his shaved head, as he looked out over the crowd that had assembled.

“Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?” he asked.

The plan was to gather vehicles and people at the Point, the most famous fishing spot on the East Coast, for a celebration of beach access.

About 600 vehicles and some 1,500 people showed up for the event.

A couple hundred of those vehicles were arranged on the wide beach of Cape Point to write a message in the sand and send it to the world.


The people who came to the beach say that they need help because a lawsuit by environmental groups threatens to close not only Cape Point to off-road vehicles but also Bodie Island spit, parts of South Beach, and the north and south points of Ocracoke.

The Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, have asked U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle to close Cape Point and other popular areas of the seashore to off-road-vehicles until the National Park Service addresses its lack of a plan for regulating ORVs on the beach.

The groups claim that the Park Service’s interim plan, designed to manage ORV use on the beaches until a long-term plan is devised by a negotiated rulemaking process along with an environmental impact statement, does not go far enough to protect nesting shorebirds, including the threatened piping plovers and others, such as black skimmers, American oystercatchers, and least terns.

The lawsuit was filed Oct. 18 and the groups went back to court on Feb. 20 to ask Boyle to ban ORVs from these areas until the lawsuit is settled.  A hearing in the request for a temporary injunction against beach driving is scheduled for April 4 at 2 p.m. in U.S. District Court in Raleigh.

The celebrants today came from Hatteras and Ocracoke islands and from states up and down the East Coast.

They started arriving at the Point shortly after sunrise.

By 9 a.m., there was a steady stream of vehicles – large and small pickup trucks, SUVs, Jeeps, and even one gold Rolls Royce, fitted for four-wheel-drive by Joe Falk of Little Joe’s Auto in Chesapeake.

A small army of several dozen volunteers greeted the arriving crowd by the fish cleaning tables at the ramps to the Point.

They directed the vehicles to Ramp 43.  Just before Ramp 43, a volunteer handed out raffle-type tickets that were numbered so the organizers could count the cars.  For the two or so miles out the Point, volunteers were stationed along the beach, directing the parade of vehicles and communicating with each other by cell phone and two-way radios.

One of them was Gary Cowan, who drove for four hours last night from Louisburg, N.C., to help out with the rally.

“We’re asking people to be on their Sunday best,” he told us as we slowed down at his station.  Keep the beer in the cooler, he asked.  No signs or displays other than the
American Flag.  Don’t block access.  Don’t litter and obey all the other rules.

Closer to the Point, there were more volunteers directing traffic into various lines.  One volunteer parked orderly lines of vehicles along the north facing beach.  Another directed cars into a second line.

These were the vehicles that would be choreographed into the spelling of the PLEASE HELP US message.

Scott Taylor of Buxton was the master of this dance of vehicles, directing them here and there, parking them straight or sideways or at angles.

Taylor was modest about how he got the job arranging the vehicles.

“I’m a sign guy, and I can spell,” he said.

An artist by profession, Taylor owns Scotty Signs in Buxton.

His “sign” on the beach spelled out a message 100 feet high and about 500 feet long.

His only practice was a drawing he did with Magic Markers.

We became the point on one of three exclamation points after the PLEASE HELP US.

We got out of our vehicle to join the giant beach party underway as the hundreds of folks mingled on the beach.  Islanders greeted neighbors they hadn’t seen in months.  Regular visitors greeted old friends who are also regular visitors.  And islanders introduced themselves to visitors.03.22.2008-RallyOnTheBeach/index.html

There were babies being carried on the shoulders of their dads and youngsters of all ages running around everywhere.  It seemed as if there were almost as many dogs as there were humans on the beach.  The dogs came in all shapes, and sizes, and breeds from tiny Chihuahuas to big Labs and Golden Retrievers.

Most vehicles sported American flags, big ones and small ones, and there were some HI flags, and even one Hawaiian flag.

While the ever-growing group waited for the still steady stream of vehicles to be arranged on the beach, they mingled, walking around to meet each other and seek out old friends and make new ones. People stood on roofs of vehicles and on the beds of pickup trucks to get a better view of the gathering on the beach.

All of them came to make a statement, they said.  They are islanders and business people who fear that a ban on ORVs at Cape Point and other popular beaches will forever alter the culture and economy of Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.

No longer, they say, will they be able to drive out to the Point if the judge grants a temporary injunction.  They go there now, as they have for generations, to fish or to surf, windsurf or kiteboard.  Many like to walk the beach and collect shells. Others like to gather for weekend cook-outs.

On many weekends and especially on holidays, the Point and Hatteras Inlet and the South Point of Ocracoke are just large, outdoor community centers where neighbors gather.

The visitors who came today are the people who visit Hatteras regularly and have for years.  They come for the same reasons as the islanders do, but especially for fishing.

Mark Sawyer of Chesapeake and Clarence Pannuty of Severna Park, Md., were getting acquainted and comparing notes.  They both heard about the celebration and decided to come on down.

“It’s a tradition,” Pannuty said.  “People come from all over the world to fish here.”

Sawyer said he has been coming to Hatteras to fish and surf since 1975, brought here by his father who has been fishing at Cape Point since the 1950s.

Sawyer said he thought the environmental groups that would like to close the Point are “people with good intentions.”

“But,” he said, “the consequences of their intentions will ruin it for tens of thousands of others.  They’re people with good intentions but no experience here.  There’s not a person out here who doesn’t respect marine life and wildlife.  These are people who take care of the beach.”

Joan and Carl Berg realized their long-time dream of moving to Hatteras Island just a little more than a year ago.  They sold their home and their land in Johnstown, Pa., and bought a house in Frisco.  Joan works for Studio 12 and Carl, who was a steelworker, is employed by the Dare County Water Department.

“We cut our income by $100,000,” to make this move,” Carl said, adding that he is worried about what closing the beaches will do to the island’s tourist-based economy.  “If they don’t sell any water, I won’t have a job.”

It couldn’t have been a better day for the celebration with temperatures in the 60s and light southwest winds.

The weather was indeed an improvement from the first celebration of beach access on March 8, when the winds gusted at least to 50 and storm clouds brought intermittent downpours.  About 200 people, though, braved the weather to come out, even though it was much too stormy to spell the PLEASE HELP US message in the sand and have it photographed from above.

Today, though, the flying weather was good.  At the appointed hour, pilot Brian Beckham took off from Billy Mitchell Airport in Frisco in the Cessna Skyhawk, belonging to Burrus Flying Service.  Freelance photographer Don Bowers rode along to document the event in pictures.

As it got closer to 10 o’clock, the organizers started moving folks into a big group on the south shore of the Point.  All eyes were to the sky, and then there it was – the little Cessna.

As the pilot guided the plane through a half dozen or so passes over the gathering, everyone shouted, clapped, and waved their hands, their hats, and their flags.

From ground level on the beach, the scene seemed to just a haphazard jumble of  vehicles, but from above, the message from Hatteras Island to the world was quite clear – PLEASE HELP US!!!

When the plane was gone, all started moving back to their vehicles and  leaving the Point in an orderly and leisurely line.

It happened exactly as Rob Alderman planned it.

Even though his first attempt to put his message in the sand was blown away by bad weather, he didn’t let that stop him.

Before the first group left the windy beach that day, he vowed that there would be another try today.

He has spearheaded and organized these “celebrations” of access, as he has called them, and persuaded lots of folks to help him out.

Alderman is a hyperactive, 33-year-old dynamo who created and “The Outer Banks Angler” fishing show for cable television.

It’s apparent that if he feels passionately about something, he can make things happen.

And preserving ORV access on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands is something he feels passionately about.  If the beaches are closed to vehicles, he thinks that the islands will lose a part of their culture and heritage and the economy of both islands will be devastated.

Alderman is determined to spread the word.  In addition to today’s celebration, he has organized an informational meeting for island residents and businesspeople and anyone else who wants to attend at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 27, at the Fessenden Center in Buxton.

Some on the island were opposed to a huge gathering of ORVs at Cape Point.  They thought that the groups that want to limit or eliminate beach driving would seize the opportunity to publicize a photo of hundreds of vehicles at the Point.

Alderman acknowledges that they may do that.  But he was determined that the celebration would happen and that it would be orderly and that all who showed up would behave themselves and respect the beach.

He got a permit for the gathering from the National Park Service, and at times in the past few days, he admitted was nervous but that he knew he could do it.

In a media release, he said:

“The gathering you see here is a representation of the different types of users who utilize all the different ORV areas along Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. This is not what Cape Point or any other area looks like on any day of the week at any time of the year. This rally represents only a fraction of the public that will lose all of Hatteras and Ocracoke islands' premier ORV access and also is indicative of only a small portion of the economic damage that will be inflicted if these beaches are closed.
“The people who came out here today are fishermen, surfers, windsurfers, kiteboarders, and many others who just enjoy the solitude of these areas for walking, swimming, beachcombing, picnicking, and gathering with family and friends.”

When the celebration ended, the gregarious Aldermen spent several hours going around and talking to people who had stayed out on the beach – to thank them and to ask their help.

Yesterday, a frantic day of preparation, Alderman said he wasn’t going to let his critics deter him.

“I was born to do this,” he said.


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