Each month, we host “Coffee With a Ranger” on our Facebook page, where we chat live with one of your OBX national park rangers about what’s new and exciting in your OBX national parks! For our July session, we talked with Jonathan Polk about summer ranger programs at Cape Hatteras National Seashore…and how you’ll be sure to leave with your own story to tell. You can watch our conversation on our YouTube channel.
- Get to know Ranger Jonathan! (1:52)
- Popular ranger programs at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. (7:37)
- Virtual visits! (16:39)
- Why should you visit Cape Hatteras National Seashore? Ranger Jonathan explains! (25:24)
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us a little bit about what you do at Cape Hatteras National Seashore and what a typical workday or workweek looks like for you.
I am a Supervisory Park Ranger here at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, so I actually supervise the Hatteras Island district of the national Seashore. Most days, I’m down in Buxton, usually around the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. But I really oversee all the interpretation and education operations within the district here. That includes things like our ranger programs or education programs, school group visits, all kinds of things like that.
What can visitors expect when they come to summer ranger programs?
We are really excited this year to be able to get back to doing some of these in-person ranger programs that we have done historically out here.
Certainly, 2020 was a very challenging year not being able to do a lot of those programs and either redoing or coming up with new ways of going about doing those things. But this year, we have a lot of programs that we are offering throughout the entire national Seashore. We’re really excited to be able to offer them in all three districts: Bodie Island, Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Island, which is fairly new.
All of our programs are outdoors, so it is always a good idea to have water, stay hydrated, wear sunscreen and bug spray and be prepared to be outdoors for at least short periods of time in the summer heat.
We do have some programs that require pre-registration, like “Surf Fish With a Ranger,” “Soundside Explorers for Kids,” “Castnetting” and crabbing. The only program we do have a fee for is the Bodie Island Lighthouse climbs. Those tickets are sold online at www.recreation.gov. We also do full moon tours at the Bodie Island Lighthouse, and those tickets are online at www.recreation.gov as well. All of our other programs are free.
Do visitors need to pre-register for programs on Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s website or on Recreation.gov?
We are actually doing in-person registration this year. For our crabbing program, which is a new program at Bodie Island, registration will happen at the Visitor Center at the Bodie Island Lighthouse. Registration starts the Saturday prior to the programs. They’re offered on Mondays and Fridays and, starting on Saturday each week, you can start registering for that program or other ones, like “Surf Fish With a Ranger,” “Soundside Explorers for Kids” and “Castnetting.” Those are all down on Hatteras Island in the district where I am, and the registration for those happens at the Hatteras Island Visitor Center at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
Tell us a little bit more about the most popular ranger programs at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
We do have a whole host of programs in all three districts. Some of them are the same programs we offer in all districts, and then we also have different programs that are more district specific. I will say we try to focus on a really diverse amount of programs for folks, so that there really is something for everyone, whether it be activities or natural resources or cultural resources. We really try to focus on all of those in some capacity.
There are some programs that happen in all three districts, like our Lighthouse talks that feature all three of our lighthouses: the Bodie Island Lighthouse, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse.
We also have a program titled “Shaping These Barrier Islands” which, if you read the description, it talks about wars, winds, hurricanes and things like that that have all shaped these barrier islands. And anytime you go to that program, it’s not going to be the same program twice. Every single park ranger who gets that program has a different topic and different stories they tell. So you could go to that program three or four different times, and it’s going to be something new and different every single time. Those are happening in all three of our districts throughout the seashore.
Some of our new programs that we’re trying out this season and we’re really excited are the Bodie Island programs, including the “Crabbing With a Ranger” program. That’s a lot of fun and there’s some nice water access there near the lighthouse where we take folks crabbing. It is a pre-registration required program so folks do need to make sure they sign up for that. That one’s offered on Mondays and Fridays at 9 a.m. at the Bodie Island Lighthouse every week.
We are doing a regular program down at the Weather Bureau Station, all the way down in Hatteras Village. That’s a really neat building for folks to go and check out and it is open daily as a visitor center. On Wednesdays, a ranger will actually give folks a tour through the Weather Station and talk about some of the history down there. There’s no registration required for that one, so folks can come on out and just show up for that one.
We also are doing a new “Buxton Woods Nature Walk” on the Buxton Woods Nature Trail, which is right next to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. That is another one that folks are able to just show up for. We do that one on Friday mornings at 8 a.m. to try to beat the heat. It’s an easy hike along the Buxton Woods Nature Trail, only three quarters of a mile. The ranger will do a guided walk there and talk about all the different types of things that we see through the less explored area of the Seashore, like the maritime forest we have.
One more new program we’ve got down on Ocracoke Island is our “Explore the Shore Program.” It’s a guided walk out to the beach with a park ranger exploring all kinds of different plants and wildlife and everything that calls the island home. It’s a really neat way to experience the Seashore down there on Ocracoke Island. That one happens on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. There’s no registration required for that one, either.
We have the “Surf Fish With a Ranger” and “Castnetting,” those have been longtime programs, as well as our “Morning Bird Walk” and our “Dark Skies Over Hatteras” programs. But especially fishing and castnetting, those activities are very rooted here in the Outer Banks. There’s a lot of history there with those activities, and we give folks the opportunity to come out and just try their hand at it — we provide all the equipment and everything. That’s what has drawn so many people out here to the Outer Banks, and that’s why we still continue to offer some of those programs we’ve been doing for so long.
Do you get to lead any of the programs these days, or are you helping the seasonal rangers coordinate and lead the programs?
In my role now, I unfortunately don’t have the opportunity to give as many programs as I want to. I have been here for several years now and have led all of them at some point, but I do miss that. In some cases, I still go out there and give a program, even just a “pop-up” program from time to time. I oversee a lot of our seasonal staff that we have here right now that are leading those programs.
As far as favorite programs go, it’s hard to pick just one. But if I did have to pick one, the “Fish With a Ranger” program has been going for four years, and I’ve done it many times. Fishing is really one of the big things that brought me out to the Outer Banks when I was a kid, and I grew up doing it out here. Being able to get a chance to share that activity with folks and seeing the enjoyment of just being out on the beach, getting a line in the water and having that time to really immerse in the resource here is always a lot of fun to experience.
If people can’t visit the Seashore or they’re just not here when certain programs are going on, what type of virtual opportunities are you all planning for this summer?
On our website, we try to have a lot of information about all the different resources that the Seashore here has to offer. There’s always new stuff to explore on the website to learn more about Cape Hatteras and the resources that we are here to protect and share with folks.
We do have a strong presence on social media — Facebook, Instagram — we try to be on that very regularly. We are hoping to offer some virtual opportunities later this summer, maybe with regards to our sea turtle program with nest excavations and things like that. I don’t have all the details yet for those because a lot of that’s dependent on the turtles themselves and when the nests start hatching, but we know we’re kind of right in the middle of sea turtle nesting season right now, so certainly be following along on our website and our social media accounts, and we’ll be posting more details as they comes along.
We also have a couple of new options as well. There’s the new webcam up at the top of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, where folks can see a live feed from the top of the Lighthouse anytime they like, which is really neat. We also have a new virtual tour of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, that is available on our park website. Even though the Lighthouse itself is not open for climbing right now, anyone from anywhere can do a virtual tour or a virtual climb of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
We have our new mobile app, so we are still regularly working on that, but it’s very easy to navigate, and we’ve been trying to share it with everybody all season long since we got that earlier this year. It’s a really neat tool to have.
What do you enjoy most about your work with the National Park Service?
My work with the National Park Service started when I did an internship with the National Park Service in Great Smoky Mountains National Park right out of college, and I really enjoyed working for the agency there, with what the agency was trying to do with protecting some of these special places and resources.
I eventually made my way back East. I’m originally from the eastern North Carolina area, and the Outer Banks have always been very close to home for me. I always knew that this was one of my favorite places in the world out here on Hatteras Island and in the Outer Banks. It just happened where I was able to get the opportunity to come back out with the National Park Service at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
And I’ve worked here since 2010 in different capacities. It never gets old. One of the things I enjoy most about my line of work is just being able to get to spend every single day in this national Seashore, in this coastal setting here in eastern North Carolina.
I get the opportunity, being in the interpretation division, to interact with visitors from all over the country and all over the world and share my passion about this park and its resources with them. I love having those conversations all the time. Even the days I’m in the office a lot, I always try to find time to go out, walk around the lighthouse, talk to folks and answer whatever questions they have.
The Seashore has so much to offer. The diverse amount of resources that we have keeps things interesting all the time. There’s always something for somebody, no matter what your interests are here with the parks. Just being able to share that with folks is what makes it so special and makes it fun to come to work every single day.
What would you say to people who may be considering visiting the Outer Banks and have never been here before. Why should they visit and what is the experience like here?
As far as the parks here on the Outer Banks, these are some of the best beaches in the entire world. There’s plenty of ways to access the beach, whether it be walking out there or whether you might be driving your off-road vehicle on the beach.
There are so many opportunities throughout the Seashore. You can visit a lighthouse, either climbing the Bodie Island Lighthouse or walking the grounds of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse or of the Ocracoke Lighthouse.
There are some of the less-traveled trails that are in the park, like our Buxton Woods Trail or the Open Ponds Trail here in the Seashore that go through some of the diverse maritime forests that we have on these barrier islands as well.
There are boating options — we’ve got the Atlantic Ocean and we’ve got the Pamlico Sound. So if you’re looking to go swimming or kayaking or fishing or boating or any of those things, the recreational opportunities are endless out here. If you’ve got kids, and the ocean is maybe not the safest to be swimming in because of high rip current risks, you can always go just to the other side of the island to go to the Sound — there are calmer waters, shallower waters.
One of my favorite ways to enjoy the park is getting out and getting on the water. I love being on the water, especially kayaking — that’s a big thing I’ve been in to, and being able to share that with with my kids too and getting them the same opportunities that I had growing up coming out here, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why we’re protecting these resources so that we can enjoy them not just now but so that folks can enjoy them for the first time for generations to come.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell visitors about?
There is one other new program we started just recently: passenger ferry programs on the ferry that runs from Hatteras Island to Ocracoke Island. We’re partnering with the North Carolina State Department of Transportation and we’ve got a ranger going on that ferry in the mornings on the 9:30 a.m. ferry, and they’re doing interpretive talks on the way to Ocracoke Island.
We are also opening the base of the Ocracoke Lighthouse and we are giving folks the opportunity to come out and at see inside the lighthouse. We are hoping to have a schedule for that in the next couple days. That’s really fun and absolutely worth it if you ever get the chance to do it. It’s really neat to see.