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By Peter Vankevich
Ocracoke has its eerie side.
The island is dark at night, even in these modern times. Historically, people were buried throughout the village in various family plots. Stories abound of spectral presences.
Add the winds, the haunting call of a Great Horned Owl, the many gnarly live oaks and one’s own imagination and it becomes easier to suspend some belief in the natural and veer to the supernatural.
You can add me to those who have a story to tell, not on Ocracoke but neighboring Portsmouth Island village, and it goes back to 1989.
Being an avid birder, which was one of the reasons for my passion for Ocracoke, I helped start the island’s Christmas Bird Count which has run at the end of December every year since 1981 in sun, wind, rain and snow.
In 1988, we added Portsmouth Island as an official count area. Back then I didn’t know much about its village and fascinating history. I did know that the last residents, Elma Dixon and Marian Gray Babb, left after Henry Pigott died in 1971 and I immediately loved the stark, quiet beauty of the village.
The first couple of years of the bird count, we stayed overnight in the house that the Park Service uses. A group of about 12 of us would spread out in small groups to cover the beach, dunes and a vast salt flat that has since covered over with vegetation.’
It was the second year, and I was assigned to the village with another person. Near the Methodist Church, I saw a man riding an old-fashioned bike. He was tall, lanky with thick, black, oily hair and large mouth and ears, kind of like Goober Pyle from the Andy Griffith Show. Notably, his clothes looked like they were from an old Sears & Roebuck catalog.
He noticed us as he rode by and breaking into a big smile waved. Although we continued for four hours or so, I never saw him again. Being unfamiliar with the village, I didn’t think much of the encounter.
But later in the afternoon when we boarded the boat to head back to Ocracoke, I mentioned to Rudy Austin, our boat captain with Portsmouth Island Boat Tours, that there was someone in the village riding a bike.
Rudy gave me a serious look and said, “There is no one in that village.”
Not sure what to make of it, I shrugged and let it go.
Over the years, I’ve thought about this incident. Back then, no one was staying in any of the houses. In the early 1990s, the National Park Service, which owns Portsmouth, allowed people to lease some of the houses. So, seeing someone there at that time of the year would have been more likely.
But in 1989, it would indeed have been highly unlikely that anyone other than us birders would be in the village, as Rudy said.
What struck me about the person I saw was that he and his bicycle certainly looked like they were from an earlier age. The hair style and the clothes made me think circa 1950s.
There is a chance that my recollection is fanciful, and that I really did not see anyone, but I don’t think I was hallucinating.
I’ve long lost contact with the person helping me with the bird count, and there would have been no reason for her to recall that relatively unremarkable occurrence.
Is it possible someone may have ventured into the village on a bike? Or was it truly someone from an earlier time?
Many have noted the spiritual nature of Portsmouth Village. Its remoteness and solitude make it a special place.
Dave Frum, the now retired long-time caretaker, took exception to Portsmouth’s description as a ghost town.
“Ghost town implies that the village is dead, which it is not,” he said. “It’s vibrant. I feel the spirit of the village’s past like no other place.”
So, what do I make of this 30-year-old remembrance? No, I don’t believe in ghosts and this, for me, is by no means, an obsession.
It is a fun recollection to bring up when talking about the ghosts here.
And, as the cliché goes, this is my story and I’m sticking to it.