Ocracoke Island Airplane Camping

Ocracoke Island Airplane Camping

Mike Shouse was mine and Wally Van Meter's most adventuresome buddy. He was from Louisiana. Due to some experimental medicine his mother was on while she was pregnant with Mike, he never got cavities in his teeth. He liked grand adventures, such as when he was about 18 years old, he took his father's yacht and a friend on a thousand mile cruise around the Gulf of Mexico to Central America. Or some years later he piloted a hot air balloon into the middle of the Pisgah National Forest, landed among the trees and had to hike out for miles.


When I moved to Wilkes County in 1978, he was working for Lowe's Companies as a graphic designer. He was living with his long-time girlfriend in a rental house on F Street in North Wilkesboro. Soon after, in the early-1980's, Mike helped to found the Northwest Outing Club. The club grew quickly and soon had about 50 members. We had hikers, bikers and backpackers. The biggest and most hard core contingent became the white water kayakers and canoers, spurred on by R.G. Absher and Mike Jordan. The club had a wonderful newsletter, called Paddles and Paths. I became a regular contributor. Towards the end of the club's existence, about 10 years later, I became the editor.

At some point in the late 1980's, Mike got a job as the airport manager in Elizabethton and moved to northeast Tennessee. He had his pilot's license and liked to fly. He would often call me or Wally to join him on a weekend trip somewhere to split the gas cost and have some fun. In April of 1993 he called me to fly to Ocracoke Island on the North Carolina Outer Banks. The plan was to take out backpacks and camp on the shore. I said sure. The weather was predicted to be nice, so Mike filed a VFR (visual flight rules) plan. That means he would be navigating by what he could see on the ground and not using instruments like you would at night or above the clouds.

As we flew across the Piedmont, Mike magnanimously let me help fly. He gave me the stick and told me how to control the plane. I was surprised at how delicate are the controls and how easily the plane slid around in the air. The slightest bobble in the stick make the plan pitch or yaw off in the wrong direction. I got to see the tops of all the school buses in the factory yard in Thomasville.

After we passed New Bern and circumnavigated around the restricted air space at Cherry Point Marine air station, we headed over the open water of the Albemarle Sound. Our goal was to fly over the Sound to Cape Lookout National Park and follow the Core Banks Island north to Ocracoke. As soon as we got over the Sound, we hit a solid fog bank that was not in the weather report. Big problem. Suddenly we had no sight of the earth. Were we lost?

When we exited from the fog bank we were over open water. Bigger problem. Were we still over the sound, so we needed to keep going east to reach Core Banks? Or, were we over the Atlantic Ocean, so we needed to fly back west to find the island? There was no way to tell. So, Mike decided to head north, hoping to cross paths with something familiar. Eventually, we saw a buoy in the water far below. Mike flew down to the buoy and began to circle it, looking for identification information. Next problem. He could not recognize the identification markers. So, while still circling the buoy, at just above sea level, he began to fly with his knees on the controls, and at the same time looking through a navigation book to match the buoy indemnification information. One slip with his knees and we could have hit the drink and been goners.

Eventually Mike found Core Banks, which we followed north to Ocracoke. Next problem. Mike had forgotten his book with the approach plates, or maps that showed the landing details for each airport. We engaged in more circling and planning, followed by an uneventful landing at the quaint Ocracoke Airport. We secured the plane, got our backpacks out, and hiked into the small town of Ocracoke at the south end of the island.

After a nice fish lunch in a local blue plate restaurant, we headed back to the beach to set up out tents in the National Park campground. Final problem. Mike had not called ahead to see if the campground was open for the season. It was not. So, we camped there anyway. But to avoid detection and possible arrest by the rangers, we hiked back into the dunes away from the shore. Always the gourmet adventurer, Mike brought a bottle of wonderful red wine, which we enjoyed with our backpack stove suppers.

The rest of the trip was a wonderful time outdoors, camping by the shore and flying back home Sunday afternoon in bluebird weather. A great time was had by all. But I never went flying with Mike again.

Bob Laney

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Bob is the site curator and writer of Blue Ridge Outing. Since starting the Blue Ridge Outing travel blog in 2002, Bob has written, recorded and documented countless expeditions in the US and around the world.