This month’s story “written in the sand” takes us back to the 1990s, when a small but budding Conservancy united Island homeowners and began to make significant strides in its conservation efforts. Behind many of these successes, often silently, was Kit Adcock, an early Islander, Board President, and the driving force in the formation of our sister organization, the Smith Island Land Trust. When we chatted with Adcock, she recounted afternoons spent island-hopping, fish fries with Conservancy interns, and living life by nature’s rhythms.
In 1989, the Adcocks were committed to finding a home that suited their love for the water. On the suggestion of a friend, the family made a trip to Bald Head Island, one of only two North Carolina towns they had yet to explore. “We got an opportunity to come down to Bald Head rather serendipitously,” Kit Adcock recalls. From there, it was love at first visit. “[We] absolutely fell in love with it.” Adcock first noted the tranquility and the safety, but, most of all, the maritime forest, which was unlike anything she had ever seen on the North Carolina coast.
To their joy, the Adcocks also found out that they were fully surrounded by water. They loved that Bald Head Island was on a cape – the Cape Fear. “We didn’t realize when we began that the weather would allow you to go to the beach all the time,” she notes of the Island’s four beaches: East Beach, South Beach, West Beach, and the creek-facing beach.
Within weeks, the Adcocks purchased a home on the Island. While they saw this home as a safe space to spend vacations with their children, it quickly became much more. “We ended up going every other weekend and every holiday. The kids and I spent our summers on Bald Head, which is not something we ever expected, at all.” The first three of those summers, the Adcocks had company all but three nights. “Somebody would leave in the morning, they would help us get the house cleaned up, and our next set of guests would arrive.” Everyone who visited the Adcocks on the Island loved it, and all would come again, and again. “Although it was our second home, it became where our hearts were,” she reminisces.
The Adcocks quickly learned the names of the flora and the fauna, paying much more attention to the nature around them – something that they had not done on the mainland. Adcock, a collector of “funky” clocks, suddenly noticed herself not dictating her life by the time of them. Now, “it was by the rhythms of everything on the Island. Whether it was the daily tides, the lunar schedule, the seasonal schedule… We looked forward to every season, and tide, and every day. Because every day was new, and different, and we learned something every day, as a family.”
In 1991, the Adcocks were walking on an empty beach when they came across signage about sea turtle nests. In exploring, they found two sea turtle hatchlings exhausted in footprints in the sand. Unsure how to help the turtles, the Adcocks enlisted the help of Lindsey, the sole officer patrolling the Island at the time, who always waved to the Adcocks at the end of his daily walks down their street. Lindsey connected them with the Conservancy, whose Naturalist – a position held by UNCW graduate students – met the family on the beach to explain the Sea Turtle Protection Program. “That was our inauguration,” Adcock laughs.
On July 4th, a picnic was held on the Island by the Conservancy. While the number of homeowners in the 1990s was still small, Adcock remembered how rarely she saw other families, often believing that they were the only full-time residents. One of few clues she had as to who were her neighbors was the Post Office, which, at the time, only operated for several hours each day, bringing all of the Islanders to the same place for a short time. The picnic re-united those same families and introduced them to an afternoon of community, celebration, and a connection to the Conservancy.
The Adcocks developed a lasting relationship with the Conservancy from there, especially the summer interns. Each Friday, without fail, the family held a fish fry. The fry primarily consisted of Flounder, which Adcock notes was “prolific” at the time. At the beginning of the summer, though, they ensured to save their fish for a special fry, in which they would host the Conservancy’s six summer interns, all students from UNCW. “My kids loved the interns,” she adds. Her children would ride their bikes to visit the interns at Captain Charlie’s #1, then serving as the dorm, storage, and a classroom for Turtle Walks. “That’s where it all began.”
Noticing how much time her children spent following the interns each week, Adcock approached Becky Pardee, Executive Director of the Conservancy, at the original Conservancy building, a storage room in an old fire-station by the current Village Creek Access. She suggested a way for the interns to make extra money by offering camp a couple of nights each week, thus creating the education arm of the Conservancy. “These kids that were there all summer, hanging out with these cool college kids… It was big for them.”
Adcock began to devote her time volunteering for the Conservancy, taking on the children’s activities for the Annual Picnic, and overseeing them for over fifteen years. Her children and their friends tagged along, and together they worked to provide Island children with a new activity every year. “Our involvement with the Conservancy became sort of lifestyle. We were wedded to it from the get-go.”
In 1999, Adcock was approached by a woman with whom she played croquet, Ruth Lindsey, who had nominated Adcock for a position on the Conservancy’s Board of Directors. “I was just thrilled!” Adcock was elected as Vice President soon after. During her term, she worked with Conservancy founder, Thad Wester, to expand the education department, hiring the first education intern and graduate student to coordinate Conservancy Camp and new educational programs.
After serving as Vice President for a year, Adcock was appointed Board President, where she worked with the two full-time Conservancy staff to monitor the effects of the Wilmington Harbor Project on sea turtles using our river channels during the winter months. Following an end to the Conservancy’s close relationship with UNCW, Adcock and her colleagues recruited summer interns on a newly-accessible internet, which brought together a diverse group of students from outside North Carolina for the first time. No organization was immune from the effects of the 9/11 crisis, the Conservancy included. With Turtle Central Gift Shop’s sales plateauing and the needs of the Conservancy continuing to grow, Adcock’s team created the first Annual Fund to support the Conservancy’s operations, furthering the involvement of Members, volunteers, and community in the Conservancy’s mission, to today.
As well as striving to improve the Conservancy’s executive and education arms, Adcock, most passionately, fought to protect the Island’s ecosystems and ensure their preservation. These efforts included introducing immunocontraception for the White-tailed deer, beginning studies on the Island’s salt marsh ecosystem and, most notably, spearheading the ‘Save The Point’ campaign.
She recalls a single-lane golf cart road that extended from the marina to East Beach; a tunnel of trees the exact size and shape as a golf cart, with a small patch of light peaking through at what is now the Conservancy campus. This was the sole route for navigating the island, but for visitors, it was a scenic route nonetheless.
At the end there was East Beach. Here, only a few houses stood in the distance, seen from a single parking lot equipped with two bathrooms, a Coke machine, and a gazebo. Islanders could access The Point, the southernmost tip of the Island, from this spot or Captain Charlie’s. The Adcocks would venture down to The Point any chance that they could get. “We loved going at low tide and we would go island-hopping, and we found the coolest critters there.”
In 1996, a developer proposed a commercial plan to build a housing development on East Beach, primarily The Point. “They unveiled their initial plans and everyone was horrified because this would just change the nature of the Island.” Adcock met with Bob Timmons, who was in-the-works of creating a classroom for the new Barrier Island Study Center. “I really respected him immensely, and he agreed that we should try to do what we could to save The Point.”
Timmons and Adcock gathered a group of people who they knew were protective of the forest, The Point, and the nature – “old-timers,” as Adcock calls them. The group gathered in a room to discuss a course-of-action, an event that Adcock cites as the beginning of our sister organization, the Smith Island Land Trust (SILT). SILT soon reached an agreement with the developer, who said they would sell them the land. “We had to raise a million dollars in six months,” she pauses before adding, proudly, “and we did.”
As the Conservancy was in the midst of fundraising for the construction of the Barrier Island Study Center, Adcock sought out other organizations who could aid SILT in collecting their funds. Camila Herlevich, the founding Director of the NC Coastal Land Trust, offered her fundraising personnel and connections with fellow land trusts to support SILT. Adcock’s husband was enlisted as a lawyer to secure the original charter and the non-profit certification in “record time.” To her surprise, the state of North Carolina joined soon after to purchase the remaining land, solidifying the first SILT property. In her term as Board President, Adcock then worked with the Conservancy to merge the organizations. “So, that was the Smith Island Land Trust!”
When asked how she has seen the Conservancy grow since, she notes the contributions that the Conservancy has made to the sea turtle conservation field. “Back in the early days, they actually took photographs of the turtles. That was how they identified them.” In the 1990s, many aspects of sea turtle ecology, behavior, and migration were still a mystery, but Adcock tells of how the Conservancy’s research made strides towards finding answers, including the effects of temperature on the sex of the turtle and the impacts of beach re-nourishment.
Soon after their “inauguration,” Adcock had discovered that the Conservancy offered nest adoptions. With each adoption, adoptive parents received an adoption certificate and, at the end of the season, a certificate with their nest’s statistics. Adcock, who was skilled in calligraphy, began crafting these certificates. As Adcock browsed through the statistics on each one, it began to raise questions about the success rate of sea turtle nests. She also recalls an afternoon boil, in which Adcock and Pardee raced to save hatchlings from the summer heat, carrying them in buckets as close to the water’s edge as they could. Adcock noticed, glancing down at these turtles, that there were three distinctly different colorations to them, which prompted the question of whether or not female sea turtles mated with multiple males each nesting season.
As a whole, Adcock says that the Conservancy was “the heart of the Island,” adding “when anybody bought property on the Island, it was like ‘Oh, this is where you need to be involved.’ It was really the social nexus of the Island.” As more visitors made their way across the water, the Conservancy’s events grew tenfold, with bigger and better Annual Picnics, Silent Auctions and Raffles, Annual Funds, and Turtle Central Gift Shop sales. In turn, the Conservancy’s roster rapidly expanded, from the six interns Adcock had once fed at her home to sixteen summer interns, annually.
“The Conservancy has matured under the leadership of Suzanne Dorsey and, now, Chris Shank, as well as the opening of the Barrier Island Study Center,” Adcock shares. With the new ability to collaborate with other organizations, scientists, Scout groups, schools, and more, Adcock says that the Conservancy had everything it needed when opening the Center. “It’s like that saying, ‘If you build it, they will come,” she explains. “It’s definitely made a name for itself.”
We leave Adcock with a final question about what makes Bald Head Island special for her and her family. “One night, the tide was going out and there was a puddle,” she takes the both of us back. “The sand in it was more granule, a bit bigger than normal sand, and I laid down in it and was able to make shell-angels.” For her, it’s also the sunsets over the river in the winter (something you would not expect to see on the East Coast), seeing the Milky Way and Hale-Bopp, and those natural rhythms her family lived by in life on the Island.
Those rhythms included the Gannets and shorebirds migrating off-shore in the winter. It was the emergence of inchworms in April, then Cannonball jellyfish in May. It was the tidal pools and sandbars they explored in June. Sea turtles scattered onto the beaches in July. As summer ended, there came the millions of dragonflies migrating over the Island in August, the Beauty-berry blooming into September. It was dolphins frolicking along West Beach in October. She can still smell the Elaeagnus everywhere in November. Adcock is firm in her belief that, “just using all of your senses, you know what time of year it is. You don’t need a calendar, or a clock. You can tell if the surf is rough by the sound, or the time by the ferry’s horn blowing on-the-hour.”
“Those are the things we loved about Bald Head Island,” Adcock smiles once more, as if experiencing the magic of it all again for the very first time.