Wineka column: Glenn Eagle devotes part of his summers to Cape Lookout and its shells

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 13, 2014

GRANITE QUARRY — If you stand close enough to Glenn Eagle, you can hear the ocean.
The Granite Quarry retiree has spent parts of recent summers volunteering at the Camp Lookout Lighthouse near Beaufort. In simplest terms, Eagle has become hooked on diamonds — the iconic black-and-white diamonds of the lighthouse and the diamonds (shells) he finds on the Cape Lookout National Seashore.
By day, Eagle has given tours of the museum or looked after the visitors center’s gift shop. When the tourists are gone, he relishes the time to explore, take in sunrises and sunsets and search for shells in the fertile hunting grounds along the ocean.
“I think it’s the best volunteer position I’ve ever found,” Eagle says from his home in Granite Quarry.
Go through the rooms in Eagle’s house, and you’ll find displays of seashells in every corner. There’s a cart of shells on the back porch, a shell display as pretty as flowers in the dining room, glass jars full of shells on the kitchen table and a living room with many shells on exhibit behind cabinet glass.
If you visit Eagle, you’re likely to go home with a shell or two. He has given them away to his grandchildren, nieces, nephews, friends and people in his Bible class.
“Everybody loves shells, or seems to,” he says.
Eagle has shared many of his Outer Banks summer experiences with cousin Larry Brown and their friend David Linker. For three years in a row, 2011-2013, Eagle and Brown spent the month of July as tour guides at the lighthouse museum, which is on the bottom floor of the keeper’s quarters.
They actually lived on the second floor of 1873 keeper’s quarters next to the lighthouse. (Linker subbed in for Brown for a couple of weeks last year.)
Eagle also has spent two stints at Portsmouth Village, on the opposite (northern) end of the 56-mile island. In fact, that’s where his Cape Lookout story begins.
In 2010, after spending a week’s vacation with his daughter and her family at Topsail Island, Eagle remained on the coast and set about visiting lighthouses in North Carolina, including Bald Head, Oak Island and Cape Lookout.
At Cape Lookout, he walked the long distance from the lighthouse to the point and collected two bags of shells along the way.
But Eagle wasn’t done: Cape Hatteras, Bodie and Currituck came next. As he became more enamored with the lighthouses, Eagle decided to make some inquiries about volunteering for the National Park Service.
The volunteer coordinator immediately offered him a 16-day job of meeting visitors, talking to campers and fishermen and mowing around Portsmouth, a historic “lightering,” fishing and life-saving station village which saw its last residents leave in 1972.
It’s on the other side of the Ocracoke Inlet from Ocracoke.
The rangers left Eagle with three cans of bug spray for mosquitoes.
“Is this enough?” Eagle asked.
“For one day,” one of the men said.
Staying by himself in the old fishing village, Eagle learned a lot about mosquitoes and elected himself mayor by a 1-0 vote. He had a John Deere Gator to get around.
Visitors came across to his village by ferry from Ocracoke, and he stayed in a summer kitchen — a small building with two chairs, a gas refrigerator and gas stove.
“It was good to have people,” Eagle says. When visitors were scarce, Eagle struck up conversations with fishermen and campers, just for the social contact at least.
He also started collecting shells in earnest. His hunting on the northern end led him to finding 88 Scotch bonnets — the state seashell and one of his favorites.
It was unusual for Eagle to be allowed to man the village by himself — usually the Park Service requires two people — but he performed well and, more importantly, “that got me on the list for Cape Lookout.”
By the next summer, Eagle and Brown — this time, it had to be two people — were signed on to spend the month of July in the keeper’s quarters at Cape Lookout Lighthouse.
Their schedule as guides was five days on, two days (Monday and Tuesday) off.
“He (Larry) would talk about the history, and I would tell stories,” Eagle says. “I have fun with my stories, and the people you’d meet were just unbelievable.”
The men liked being busy during the day, and July is a high traffic month with an average of 300 visitors a day.
Eagle and Brown regularly had opportunities to climb the 206 steps to the top of the 163-foot-tall lighthouse, built in 1859. Their chances often came at lunch, to spell the rangers.
In the mornings, Brown also was the first person to climb the lighthouse and open the windows. It afforded him about a half-hour of solitude before people started arriving.
Eagle likes to spend his mornings walking on the seashore or taking the Gator to the point of Cape Lookout. Once he found 200 noteworthy shells in a 20-foot section of beach. “I couldn’t get them all,” he says.
Sometimes Eagle wades into the water to find shells with his feet. The secret often is seeing or finding a tab of a shell sticking out of the sand, he says.
“I love to tell people how to find them,” he adds.
Brown would find shell treasures, too, and often the men just kept interesting shells in the Gator to give away, or they left plenty on the museum porch for people to take with them.
Upstairs in the keeper’s quarters, the men had a view of the sound side from their bedrooms and the lighthouse/ocean side from the kitchen.
On his summer trips, Eagle says he eats a lot of chicken and noodles, Hamburger Helper, cereal, bacon and eggs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and other luncheon foods.
On their days off, the men would take the ferry to Harkers Island, where they kept their car. They would do laundry, shop for groceries, have a meal out and visit other places on the coast.
They followed the same summer routine in July for three straight years. Eagle went back to Portsmouth Village for another lonely stint in 2012, but he had to leave early because his mother was sick.
Eagle was constantly asking what else was available, and last year, after his July gig at the lighthouse museum was up, he worked an additional five weeks at the Cape Lookout visitors center, manning the gift shop.
During that period he stayed in a solar-powered house at an old village about two miles away, traveling back and forth by Gator. It’s where he will probably stay again when he works a six-week period at the visitors center this year.
Because a new volunteer coordinator wants to return to a schedule of having the same people stay in the keeper’s quarters every other year, Eagle and Brown’s streak of three straight Julys will end this year.
They probably will return in 2015.
“When I work for the keeper’s house, I work hard,” Eagle says. “When I play, I play hard.”
Eagle, 67, graduated from East Rowan High and was a teacher and administrator in Rowan-Salisbury Schools for 31 years. He has always liked lighthouses, and it seemed to translate quickly into his fondness for shells.
When he’s not at Cape Lookout, Eagle is wrapped up in his grandsons, Jake and Ian, and going to most of their ball games, even though they live in Wake Forest. But that’s what grandfathers can do, especially in retirement.
Back home, Eagle also likes to meet Brown and Linker once a month for lunch. His future travel ambitions include trips to see lighthouses in New England and those along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts, including a stop at Sanibel, Fla., known for its shells.
But something keeps telling Eagle he can’t beat Cape Lookout. He has countless pictures of sunsets, shells and fishing around the lighthouse.
When he thinks or talks of Cape Lookout, it’s usually about the simplest things: the breeze at the top of the lighthouse, looking for shells after a storm, fishing for drum, keeping track of deer and raccoons and seeing a school of dolphins swim by.
It’s peace, Eagle says.
“It’s a unique place,” he adds. “There’s nothing like being there and exploring it.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or