(spiritual music) - Ah, the Carolina coast.
There's an old saying about this corner of the country.
You can't go home again.
Well, here and all across this region, I'm gonna give it a try.
Everyone's relationship with the outdoors has an origin story, and coming back to this coastline makes me feel connected to mine.
I've traveled a great distance to be here, but I've also traveled through time in a sense, because I spent time here as a child.
But the connection that I'm feeling isn't just to my personal history, it's to our collective history.
The history that I haven't just read about in books, but one that I can breathe in, one I can touch with my toes.
A history, if I'm quiet enough, I can feel in my bones.
(relaxing music) My name is Baratunde Thurston.
I'm a writer, activist, sometimes comedian, and I'm all about exploring the issues that shape us as Americans.
- [Young Woman] Yes!
- [Baratunde] This country is wild, and its natural landscapes are as diverse as its people.
- [Women] Hey!
- [Young Man] There it is, there it is.
- How does our relationship with the outdoors define us, as individuals and as a nation?
- [Announcer] "America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston" was made possible in part by a grant from Anne Ray Foundation, a Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropy.
This program was also made possible by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.
(suspenseful music) Welcome to a corner of the country that's kind of hard to define.
Some call it Tidewater.
Others say Chesapeake or Mid-Atlantic.
But whatever name you use, this place is defined by some powerful forces.
The wind, the tides, and something you might not expect, the past.
What's kind of cool is how a place can both trap and unlock parts of your own history, and your own story.
There are certain memories that get triggered by that physical feeling.
For me, driving south from DC with my mom on road trips, Virginia, and North Carolina, and the Outer Banks.
This is childhood stuff.
Realizing I left some memories behind here.
My love of the outdoors came from my mother.
She was a passionate member of the Sierra club, and her idea of adventure was driving me to just about every campground we could find down here.
This is a special homecoming for me, to be back out here in the country, which is what we call it.
And to come back as an adult, one, I'm thinking about my childhood, but I'm also thinking about history that far predates me.
This region is where the first European colonists arrived, and the first enslaved peoples.
So if I want to explore how the outdoors have shaped me and my country, there's no better place to do that than here, and no better place to start than in a swamp.
Wow, that is very swampy.
And not just any swamp, I'm headed to a place whose name could not be more evocative.
The Great Dismal Swamp.
175 square miles of dense forest, unique plant life, and winding waterways traversing the border between Virginia and North Carolina.
I'm meeting up with a man whose connection to this place runs even deeper than my own.
- [Eric] How you doing my brother?
- [Baratunde] I'm so good, Eric.
Good to meet you here in the swamp!
- Good to meet you as well.
- [Baratunde] This is Eric Shepherd, a local guide who hails from Northern Virginia, not far from my hometown of DC.
Turns out he first came down here for a reason I can relate to.
- That needed to find out who I was, and who my ancestors were.
And I started to trace my roots and came down to this part of Virginia, and discovered that a ancestor of mine, name's Moses Grandy, and had a slave narrative published about his life, and it changed my world from that point.
Moses Grandy was born into slavery in Camden, North Carolina.
He actually worked as a Waterman on the Dismal Swamp Canal.
So he was able to earn some money.
It allowed him to purchase his freedom.
- [Baratunde] Other enslaved people of course didn't have that opportunity.
Many fled for freedom on the underground railroad, and some had to be rescued.
- The most, I think, inspiring thing about him?
He got out and came back to get other relatives.
- [Baratunde] Yeah.
(dramatic music) - This area, the Great Dismal Swamp, was one of the largest underground railroad sites in the country.
It's recorded that approximately 50,000 enslaved people came through, or they set up and lived here in the swamp for hundreds of years.
- [Baratunde] The formerly enslaved people who built communities in the Great Dismal were known as Maroons, and right from the start, they settled into an extreme form of outdoor living.
There were bugs, bears, snakes, and sink holes, and beyond that, very little dry land to stand on, much less live on.
But the Maroons survived in this wilderness out of necessity, sometimes for generations.
How did they do it?
I'm about to meet someone who's been looking for answers.
This is historical archeologist Dan Sayers, of American University.
He spent a decade here with his students, uncovering evidence of the Maroon communities that flourished on islands of dry land, hidden deep in the swamp.
- [Baratunde] Dr Dan.
- Good to meet you.
- Good to meet you too.
He's agreed to take me to an island where the Maroons once lived, but getting there means trekking into a wilderness that doesn't look all that inviting.
I think I'm gonna need some extra gear.
- Yeah, I think you might.
- All right, let me get that.
- I was a boy scout, so I take the phrase 'be prepared' very seriously.
These hip waders?
They aren't just about my fear of bugs.
I feel like an astronaut.
They're about fear of slugs, of sharp, sticky things, of, I don't know, Panthers.
I heard there were Panthers up in here!
Let's do get this swamp.
Oh, you move fast!
Oh wow, there is all kinds of stuff in here.
(laughs quickly) - [Dan] This is good and mucky.
- Oh, this smells something.
(giggles quickly) This is tricky.
Also every branch looks like a snake.
Just, just ignore.
So what I'm picking up on, Dan, is some in impediments in this swamp.
We're talking thorns everywhere, muck on the bottoms, slippery, animals I'm sure I'm not seeing, I've definitely seen poison ivy.
I might be getting a hint at why they called it The Great Dismal.
(slow acoustic music) - Pretty soon we'll be coming up to an island, and based on our work, we have good reason to think that not only did very early Maroons and Native Americans live up this island, but also, after the canals were dug, enslaved company workers settled there.
- Just walking through this place is tough.
I can't imagine making a living in a waterlogged wilderness like this.
But for the enslaved and the Maroons who fled slavery to come here, somehow what little solid ground they could find was enough to forge a new life.
- [Dan] Check it out.
- [Baratunde] What am I looking at?
- [Dan] You see where there's no more water?
- [Baratunde] Yeah.
- Yeah, it's one of our islands.
That's the island.
- [Baratunde] Wow.
- [Dan] Yeah.
- If it's okay, I'd like to go on my own.
- You got it.
(emotional music) - Stepping onto this island where so many found freedom, I'm overwhelmed.
I feel pride.
I feel joy.
I also feel gratitude.
I think the people who found this place made it possible for me to be here.
If they weren't my exact ancestors, I still feel like I've inherited their legacy, their history.
They were survivors, resistors, defiers.
I feel like they're here with me now, in this outdoor sanctuary which feels anything but dismal.
- [Dan] Ah, so what does it make you think?
- [Baratunde] Ah, too many things.
I'm kind of picturing people living, also hiding, trying to be really quiet.
- [Dan] Absolutely.
- Also just a imagining thousands of people over a hundred years or more moving through here.
- We have to imagine, right?
So when people were actually living here, you'd have had the cabins and the huts, right?
Structures of various kinds.
- [Baratunde] Yeah.
- That's what we'd have seen across probably every one of the islands in this swamp.
It's quite a lively place.
- And we're standing on one part of it.
No one knows how many Maroon communities lived here, but Dan's working to uncover as much as he can about their stories.
- [Dan] This is a more fresh tree fall.
- A tree falls in the swamp.
Maybe it makes a noise, maybe it doesn't, but that's not my question.
What does it expose that's of interest to you?
- Well, first of all, it exposes all the soil, but also artifacts, right?
It could be pieces of ceramic, it could be nails.
90% of what people in the swamp used was probably organic, long gone.
- [Baratunde] Wow!
- So what I'm finding as an archeologist is probably just a small sliver of the whole world of things they made.
Is that a mushroom?
- That'd be a very big mushroom.
Oh wait, are you talking about this?
- No, no, no.
(loud metal tapping) - [Baratunde] That is not a mushroom.
- [Dan] No, that seems to me to be an artifact.
- Wait, are we about to have an archeology moment?
- [Dan] (laughs quickly) I think so.
- [Baratunde] What do you think?
- Oh wow.
There is no naturally occurring stone in the swamp.
- So this was put here?
- It was brought here and then left.
- [Baratunde] Dan can tell it's been disturbed by this tree fall, so even though it's original location is lost, you can learn a lot from a closer look.
- We look at the ends, and you kind of just get a sense that it's been used.
- It's a little heavy for a hammer stone probably.
But you might have it as the receiving end of a hammer.
That's quite a little fine here for a tree fall.
- Go us!
- So do I get credit or partial credit for this?
Am I in some academic database?
I mean, I was right next to you when you saw it.
- All right, all right.
Okay, I'll put you in the footnotes, alright?
- Yes, I love being in the footnote!
(relaxing music) Most people would've simply overlooked something as mundane as a rock, but Dan's deep understanding of this place has allowed me to see it from a whole new perspective.
That rock could have helped someone build a shelter or prepare food.
It could have kept them alive and living free.
And it's a rare reminder that this place was once bustling with life.
But for Eric Shepherd, we haven't been reminded enough about what happened here.
50,000 people coming through here, yet most of us have never heard of it.
- Our history has been hidden from us and not really taught.
It's not shared in the school system.
And so that's some work yet to do.
- Eric and other advocates are lobbying Congress to create the Great Dismal Swamp National Heritage Area, and that would include funds to educate the public about this very American story.
- When I was tracing my roots, I remember being at the Dismal Swamp on the North Carolina side, and you speak to the ancestors.
I'm looking for you, where are you?
I'm walking the same ground.
So this is like a spiritual journey for me.
It's a lot of unsolved business, and what I mean by that, if you have a Maroon community that's lived up here, escaping slavery?
With that history, there were no funeral concessions.
People died in their swamp.
Their bones are still there.
So some of this land, some of this area is sacred ground as far as I'm concerned.
- [Baratunde] Yeah.
- [Eric] It should be preserved.
- It's been an honor.
- It's been an honor, Baratunde.
Thank you, sir.
- An honor, but also an education.
This place shows that the outdoors isn't just a repository of our history.
It's where we can reclaim it.
And people have the power to redefine what outdoor spaces mean, just as the Maroons did here.
(suspenseful music) They found hope.
Instead of death, they found life.
Instead of captivity, they found freedom, and a lot of bugs.
They definitely also found bugs.
I mean, freedom isn't always comfortable, but certainly non-freedom, we know what that feels like.
So there's always another side.
Another way to look at something.
And the discomfort of the moment may just be an opening to a bit more freedom down the line.
I can dig that.
I never guessed that a place called the Great Dismal Swamp could be so life affirming, and so rich in human history.
Of course, this isn't the only place around here where the outdoors is tangled up with the past.
(dramatic music) About 70 miles Southeast of the swamp, along the coast of North Carolina, there are picturesque dunes carved by a steady onshore breeze, that when I was a kid made me dream of what it would be like to fly.
Turns out I'm not the only one.
And in fact, this was the region where dreams of flight first became a reality thanks to two brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, who came to these dunes over a century ago.
- I'm Billy, come on in.
Veteran pilot Billy Vaughn runs a flight school just outside of Kitty Hawk, where he and his crew bring the story of the Wright brothers to life.
Is this a plane?
- This is a replica of a 1902 Wright glider.
This is the airplane they learned to fly on.
No engine, but this is where flight really started.
- With no engine?
So who provides the power?
- Oh, that would be you, and me, and a couple of guys that are gonna help us out, out on the hill, and the wind.
So are you stoked?
- I think I am.
You saw the hesitation, I'm not gonna lie-- - I did see some hesitation.
- I'm excited in the full sense of the word.
- [Billy] Good, good.
- [Baratunde] You heard that, right?
I'm gonna fly in one of these things.
I'm hoping it gives me a window into what it's like to harness those Atlantic winds, and maybe relive a piece of aviation history.
We've achieved airplane.
(Baratunde laughing quickly) - [Baratunde] This is an aircraft so outdated, even history has forgotten it.
Unless you're an expert like Billy, then you know this glider was part of a revolution in flight.
- I'm passionate about this aircraft being the one.
Everybody makes a big deal about December 17th, 1903, because that's when the first airplane flew.
- [Baratunde] You might have heard what happened that morning.
The world's first successful motorized flight.
It was an incredible feat, but Billy says the plane he's about to put me on was even more impressive.
- This one, October 24th, 1902, is the first photograph we have of an aircraft in the air in a completely coordinated turn.
And the reason the coordinated turn was allowed to happen is that this is the first aircraft that had all three axis of control.
- [Baratunde] And what are those axis?
- Okay, so, we talk about roll control is turning, right?
Wings up, wings down, that makes it turn left and right.
- Got it, thank you.
- And pitch, which is nose up and nose down, and that's what this canard is for.
- The other axis of control is yaw.
- And that is this one, like a weather vane turns.
- [Baratunde] Yeah, okay.
- And what the right-- - I feel like we're doing yoga.
- Aircraft yoga, I like it.
- [Baratunde] Billy's enthusiasm for aviation history is infectious.
It's certainly good exercise.
And despite my anxiety about flying on a plane that seems to be made of toothpicks and cheese cloth, he's really got me excited.
What kind of weather do we need to?
- You got incredibly lucky.
We've got perfect weather today.
The winds are north, Northeast at about 15 to 20.
20 is key, so it should be great.
- [Baratunde] So the wind is really important?
And that's why the Wright's came here, was for wind, because it blows hard.
(laughs quickly) - What makes any aircraft fly is air speed, and that's simply how much air is passing over the wing.
So they came here for the strong winds so that their path across the ground was not as fast.
And you'll see that when we go out on the hill.
We'll be running along with you, but we can keep up.
- Okay, I like you being right there-- - Absolutely.
- [Baratunde] Next to me, hanging on.
- We'll have you.
Yeah, we gotcha.
- There was a little hesitation there that makes me feel like there's some kind of joke.
- I don't want to take anything away from the fact that you are gonna fly this thing.
- Let's do it.
- [Billy] Alright, let's go!
- So far on this journey, I've walked in a lot of historic footsteps.
Today, it's those of Orville and Wilbur Wright.
But these are also steps that Billy's been taking for his whole life.
- [Billy] I grew up here, yeah.
My family moved here when I was seven.
I started coming to Jockey's Ridge when I was a little kid, and I cut my teeth surfing and skating, and I got into hang gliding when I was probably 19, and I've been flying hang gliders ever since.
- [Baratunde] You went from catching waves to catching air.
- [Billy] Yeah, yeah.
It's very similar, you just can't see the air.
That's the big difference.
but it's all balance.
- [Baratunde] Balance.
It sounds tricky, but Billy's got a hundred years of aviation history to fall back on, Unlike the Wright brothers.
They must have wondered, would this wooden contraption even get off the ground, and if it did, how high would it go?
Of course, I'm asking myself the same thing.
- It's not about how high you go.
- [Baratunde] Okay.
- It's about maintaining your speed and achieving that balance in the air.
- [Baratunde] Okay.
- Your goal is to fly as far as you can, not as high as you can.
- [Baratunde] Balance.
(majestic music) There it is.
If you squint just a little, it's easy to imagine that you're back in 1902.
There is a certain feeling on these dunes that the ocean winds that lifted the Wright brothers are still at work today.
- There we go, that should be a little better.
Let's go, let's fly.
- Step over the wire and stuff.
All right, let's lift her.
Down on the glider, guys.
Down a little, there you go.
- Nice and light with your fingers.
You ready to go?
- [Baratunde] Yes, I am.
- All right, let's do it.
Three, two, one, and here we go.
There it is, there it is.
Look, there it is.
Stay relaxed, good.
Beautiful, now leave it there.
That will come in.
Slowly pull the nose up.
Nice and gently to that landing.
Beautiful, well done!
(cheering loudly) Dude, that was sick!
- Oh, thank you!
(sighing loudly) - [Redheaded Pilot] Yeah, right?
- So what'd you think?
- Man, that was one of the coolest things I've ever done.
- Well, welcome to my world.
(men laughing loudly) You're in a fairly elite club now.
I think you're about number 256 of humans who have ever flown a Wright glider.
That includes the Wright brothers.
- It's one thing to visit the sites where history was made, but to soar across these dunes in a flying machine that made its debut in 1902?
That's a way of experiencing outdoor America that's new to me.
But the ocean winds are not the only natural force here.
(emotional music) Right offshore, the ocean currents are powerful, and sometimes deadly.
It's a place where many outdoor adventures came to an end.
I love the water.
When I think of water, I think of a happy place.
A place of recreation, a place of chill.
I don't think of a graveyard, but that's what this also is.
the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
It doesn't have the typical markers of the graveyards most of us are used to.
The pathways, the headstones, the places to lay a wreath.
For these, we've gotta literally look a little deeper to find the stories of the people and the boats that didn't quite make the journey where they were headed.
It's a story that's buried beneath this tumultuous surface.
And the man I've arranged to meet today knows these waters as well as anyone.
Meet Mark Corbit, veteran scuba diver, writer, and photographer.
He'll be my guide to an underwater Rome off the coast of Cape Hatteras, where hundreds or even thousands of shipwrecks litter the ocean floor.
(dramatic music) I gotta say, it doesn't look so dangerous out here, but over the past 500 years, many explorers went down without making it to shore.
So what did they all miss?
According to Mark, a deadly natural feature right below us.
- What you've got going on here is a lot of shoals.
Part of the reason they call this the Graveyard of the Atlantic is 'cause the ships run aground on these shoals that are located up and down the Outer Banks.
Up at the top, we've got Wimble Shoals.
Down at the bottom, we've got Diamond Shoals.
Diamond Shoals is probably the most dangerous place in the Atlantic ocean.
- The whole Atlantic ocean?
- [Mark] Yeah.
- That's a big ocean.
- It sticks out about 10, 15 miles to sea.
You get fog, you get wind, you get hurricanes, you get bad northeastern storms.
So they'd be running aground in 20 feet of water, 10 miles out at sea.
So it was really a treacherous place.
- [Baratunde] Yeah.
How many ships do you estimate are buried in this graveyard?
- I think I've heard 900, but you go back to before there were newspapers?
- [Baratunde] Yeah.
- Who knows?
I mean, there's Spanish galleons out there.
There's British warships out there.
- [Baratunde] And plenty of American ships too.
(country music) - We're coming up on the wreck of the Oriental, and it's been sitting there since 1862 when it ran aground during a big fog.
- The SS Oriental served as a union troop ship during the civil war.
It was one of the largest and most advanced steam ships enlisted in the war effort, and the troops on board were part of a unique mission to help formally enslaved people build their own communities and start new lives.
What happened to the troops?
- The troops were all landed safely.
I don't believe there were any fatalities on the Oriental.
But we're coming right up on it.
- [Mark] It's right up here.
It's, uh-- - [Baratunde] Oh cool!
Sticking out the water.
I wasn't quite expecting this.
I had pictured a ghostly ruin, hidden deep beneath the waves, but here it is, a relic of the civil war out in the open.
- So this is the steam cylinder of the Oriental.
It sticks about 20 feet up from the bottom.
The wreck goes out in both directions, north and south.
- Anything I should know about in terms of safety precautions diving so close to a big piece of steel?
- Yeah, kind of give yourself a little bit of distance, and drift into it a little bit.
- Go real slow.
- [Baratunde] Well, I'm excited to get in the water.
The way Mark describes it, the ship sounds like it has its own gravitational force.
And while I normally might resist diving into a place called the Graveyard of the Atlantic, I have to admit, right now, I'm starting to feel the pull.
- You ready to go?
- I am ready to go.
I'm hot in this suit.
(laughs quickly) - Hot, let's get in the water.
- Alright, you first.
(loud splashing) (intriguing music) The tides here make me feel like I'm in an underwater twister, but that doesn't compare to how moved I feel when I see her, or what remains of her, the steamship Oriental.
It's hard to believe that fog and shoals could have spelled the end for a ship that should have meant a new beginning for so many.
But seeing this wreck up close is a reminder of the power that nature can have over us.
Mark knows that feeling as well as anyone.
- [Mark] I first started diving in 1992.
What I wanted to do was dive every shipwreck off the Outer Banks.
So I learned underwater photography, and I've been just trying to document as many as I can.
- So far, Mark has photographed almost 60 nearshore wrecks here in the Graveyard of the Atlantic, including five that he's discovered on his own.
- [Mark] But they're not gonna be here forever.
They fall apart.
They're rusting in the ocean.
They're falling down and disappearing by the day.
I've been doing it for the last 12 years, and I'm gonna keep doing it until I'm too old to do it.
(dramatic piano music) - The Oriental.
From a distance, it doesn't feel as imposing, but when you're right up on it, ah.
So there's a whole world down there of barnacles, and fish, and abandoned, sunken, grounded ships, and I got to see one of those ships really close.
That was cool.
I love the Atlantic ocean.
Thanks for the excuse to jump right in.
- Anytime, man.
- I can see why you do this.
- It's a pretty good job.
- Yeah, yeah.
Like so many of the folks I've been meeting, Mark's found something in the outdoors to be passionate about, exploring last shipwrecks and shedding light on forgotten chapters of our shared history.
It makes me wonder what else inspires people to get outside here.
But of course, I do know a thing or two about this coastline.
(upbeat music) There are so many great beaches across America, and while everyone seems to have their favorite coastline, there's no question that this one is mine.
It's called the Outer Banks, and there are a whole lot of reasons to love it.
- The Outer Banks is probably one of the most beautiful, scenic destinations on the planet.
When we first started coming here, we were like 14, and now we're 40!
- [Baratunde] It's basically the same story with me.
My mom took me here countless times as a kid.
And each time I came, I seemed to discover something new about what makes this place so special.
- The greenery, the clean oceans.
- I don't have very many worries whenever I can hear the water hitting on the sand.
Takes it all away.
- [Baratunde] What she said.
This is a place where worries are left behind, where families come together, and where memories are made.
- My mama told me I've been here, but I don't remember it.
- [Baratunde] Well, for most folks anyway.
Still talk to enough people out here, and there seems to be one thing about these beaches that no one could ever forget.
- I came because the wild horses were on the beach.
- Oh my goodness, the wild horses.
- You've got the wild horses, the dunes.
- To be able to walk along the beach and just see wild horses in nature really brings you back to the roots of this part of the country.
- It's really weird to see horses walking on the beach, 'cause they're usually on a farm with people.
- I had the same reaction when I was a kid.
I always wondered, where did these horses come from?
And as an adult, I only have more questions.
(tense western music) How do they get along with all the people here, and what does the future hold for this herd?
To find answers, I'm heading to the heart of the horse's habitat, in a coastal village called Corolla.
It's remote, and the only way to get there is by a special access road, if you can call it that.
Yes, here, with the right permissions, you can drive on the beach.
(laughs quickly) What's up?
- [Meg] Hi!
- I'm Baratunde.
- I'm Meg, nice to meet you.
- Hi, I'm Nora.
Nice to meet you.
- Quite the office you have.
- It sure is, never a bad day at the office.
- Oh, I love it.
This is Meg Puckett, manager of the Corolla herd for the past five years.
Here at her rehab center and all over the nearby beaches, Meg tends to the 100 or so horses that still roam Corolla.
She wants to ensure these horses don't literally pass into history, and that's in part because they connect her to her own history.
- I've lived in this area my whole life, and I've had horses my whole life.
And the first memory of horses that I have is seeing the wild horses down in Corolla back in the eighties, and so that kind of started my lifelong love of horses.
And it's not just the horses.
You have the history, and the history of this place, and the history of the people.
- History, horses, and the ocean.
- That's right.
- [Meg] You can't go wrong.
- [Baratunde] But as Meg knows better than anyone, a lot has gone wrong for these horses in recent years.
There are tourists who come in droves and often feed them food that can harm or even kill them.
Just as bad, inbreeding and habitat laws could drive the herd's numbers down to dangerous lows.
- This is the only place in the world that you can find these horses still in the wild.
So that's why we're working so hard to preserve them.
They're a cultural treasure.
- [Baratunde] Where are we going?
- We are going to look for a harem of horses that we are trying to finish out collecting DNA from that particular group.
There's usually about five or six in the group, and so far we've gotten DNA from two of them.
- DNA is helping Meg answer that key question that's puzzled folks for years, including me.
How did these horses get here?
Local folklore holds that they came on Spanish Galleons about five centuries ago, got shipwrecked, and then swam ashore.
Some have dismissed this as a myth, but so far DNA suggests the horses lineage does trace back to Spain in the 1500s, and their story only gets more interesting from there.
- The big part of these horses history coincides with human history, you know?
For many, many generations, the people that lived here used these horses on a daily basis.
- How so?
- They used them to travel.
They would use them to farm, They would sell them.
- [Baratunde] So horses were a major part of outdoor life here for hundreds of years, and they still are today.
- People see a horse on the dunes, or a baby nursing, or two stallions running off the dunes and through the surf.
I mean, it is, I'm getting goosebumps talking about it, you know?
I mean, it's an incredible thing.
- [Baratunde] Is that what I think it is?
- [Meg] It is.
It's horses on the beach.
- [Baratunde] Yes.
Out for a stroll.
- [Meg] Iconic.
- [Baratunde] This is like the postcard.
- This is the postcard, yep.
This is what everybody comes here to see.
(upbeat music) - They're beautiful.
I'd be happy watching them for hours, but Meg has something else in mind.
She's on a quest for DNA, and that requires using high tech dart guns.
But apparently you don't go shooting off guns on the beach with kids running around.
So we're gonna keep looking for horses that are in a better position to dart?
- Yeah, yeah.
We'll find some horses that are tucked away a little bit further away from people, just so that everybody stays safe.
- [Baratunde] I see one straight ahead.
Oh, there's a bunch!
Horse crossing the street.
- That's right.
- This is beach house central, but try telling that to the horses.
To them, it's just an extension of their habitat.
That means people and horses are competing for outdoor space, which can make Meg's job a little easier said than done.
- All right.
It's pretty simple to start with.
All you gotta do is put the dart in the gun, and hit the horse with it.
- You can follow and watch.
- Yeah, okay.
- [Meg] Yeah, keep an eye on that dart.
- [Baratunde] It doesn't sound like a job for the faint of heart, but the data they gather can reveal a lot.
Tracking diseases, and defects, and charting the horses family trees can help Meg and her team promote genetic diversity within the herd.
- [Meg] Actually, this is perfect.
We're gonna get Rocky.
Rocky's the stallion.
- [Baratunde] And recently he became a father, which means capturing his DNA could help Meg track, manage, and protect his lineage for generations.
(tense music) - Let's see.
Of course now I can't find the dart.
- What color is it?
- It's got a orange tip on it, and what we need to do is look for his track from where he was darted.
- [Baratunde] Tracking down tracks.
It's a little trickier than you might expect.
- There's his tracks.
- [Baratunde] Hoof, hoof.
There's a lot of growth for that thing to fall into.
- Did you find it?
- Yeah, I did.
For the record, I just found the dart.
- You did.
Oh man, thank you.
- Yeah, you're welcome.
Each dart brings Meg one step closer to filling in these horses story.
It can tell her more about where they came from, what challenges they're facing now, and what the future holds for them.
- All of the horses that are currently in the wild right now are gonna be the foundation of this genetic project.
So every horse, 200 years from now, hopefully if we do our jobs right, you know, people will be able to go back and look through these records, and say, well, this horse born, you know, 100 years from now can be traced directly back to Rocky.
And we know that for sure, because we have the DNA.
- Well, thanks for letting me be a part of this historic moment.
- [Meg] You did, you make history.
(Baratunde laughing quickly) - Making history sometimes requires preserving it, and in a place that's always changing, thanks to the winds, waves, and wildlife that have long shaped these shores, preserving the past is not always easy.
It's not just the wildlife around here that faces that kind of uncertainty.
I'm headed to a place where past and present seem to converge, a secluded island where an outdoor way of life has persisted for generations, but now is under threat like never before.
12 miles off mainland Virginia, in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, lies an island called Tangier, and it's only reachable by boat or plane.
And that isolation has given this place a unique character that comes through in everything, including the way people talk.
So Captain, what's something I can say to a local, they know I kind of know the lingo well.
- Well, we would say it ain't hot none today.
- It ain't hot none today.
- It ain't hot none today.
- Thank you, Captain.
- You're certainly welcome.
(emotional music) Turns out that actually means it is hot out today, which might seem a little counterintuitive at first, but in a lot of ways, so does Tangier itself.
A town of about 400 people whose old school charm seems frozen in time, but that's actually in a period of rapid change.
Is this you?
- [James] Yeah, this is the crab shanty.
This is my office.
- [Baratunde] No one understands Tangier better than James Eskridge, a lifelong resident of this island, known to friends and relatives as Ooker.
Ooker's family has lived and worked here since the civil war, and today he makes a living the same way most of them did.
Catching and selling crab.
- What I'm gonna do now is I'm gonna get a few of the soft crabs outta here, and get them into a refrigerator.
- How do you tell that they've vaulted-- - They've got that soft crab look.
- (laughs loudly) Okay.
- [James] You wanna hold one?
- I can hold a crab, and it's okay?
- Yep, it don't bite.
It can't bite, it's soft.
Oh, support the claws.
Hold your hand out.
- Hold my hand out, there we go.
So, not to be a rank capitalist, Ooker, but how much money am I holding in my hand?
- That crab right there is worth probably I would say close to $4.
- [Baratunde] Okay.
- It's seafood what keeps the ball rolling out here.
It's all about seafood.
- [Baratunde] Ever since the late 1700's, watermen have made a good living out of what this fertile bay offers.
The crabbing is so plentiful that Tangier bills itself as the soft shell crab capital of the world.
- [James] I've been doing this full time since 1976, after I graduated from high school.
Did it in the summers with my father before that.
My father was a crabber, my grandfather, great grandfather, my oldest son's a crabber, so we're trying to keep it in the family.
- [Baratunde] Yeah!
- [James] Yep.
- Crabbing, it turns out, is hard work, especially when, what's that saying again?
Ain't hardly hot, no?
(James laughs quickly) - It ain't hot none.
- Ain't hot none.
(groans loudly) So close!
(laughs quickly) - For the time you've been here, that was pretty good.
- Couple hours, I'll get it right next time.
- [James] Yeah, yeah.
- It's clear the outdoors is deeply connected to Ooker's sense of identity.
It's how he makes a living, and here, being outside is what living is all about.
(slow acoustic music) It feels like if I just stop for a second I hear birds, I hear the water, I feel a constant breeze.
- Tell me about the natural part of living here at Tangier?
- I love the work I do, the crabbing and oystering, but it's the extras that I love also, is the wildlife, the different bird species around here, and then out in the water we have dolphins and porpoise that come around, sea turtles, terrapins, sting rays, we have an occasional shark that will show up, and an occasional whale just south of the island.
It's wonderful, it's a great place.
- Sounds like a job with many benefits.
- [James] Yes, it is.
- As it happens, Ooker has more than just one job.
He also serves as the town's Mayor.
How long have you been Mayor of Tangier now?
- I'm losing count now.
It's a two year term.
Nobody runs against me, so I don't have to campaign.
I think it's a lifetime position if you want to do it.
But as long as I think I'm making a difference in helping the community, I'll do it.
When he put's it that way, it's easy to see how Ooker keeps getting re-elected, but the job itself sounds far from simple.
What's the hardest part of being mayor here?
- Hardest part is just, like, when you see parts of the island disappearing.
(emotional music) - [Baratunde] You heard him right.
Tangier is literally disappearing.
Climate change is causing the sea levels here to rise, and erosion is eating away at the shores.
Some scientists believe this whole island might need to be abandoned in as few as 25 years.
- Some folks have said, you know, why don't you just leave the island and start over, but not only financially would that be impossible with most folks, but it's like Dorothy said in 'The Wizard Of Oz', there's no place like home.
(laughs quickly) - [Baratunde] Ooker is doing his best to protect his homeland from vanishing, petitioning the government to build seawalls against Tangier's shores.
It's not a bad idea, but given this areas history, it's not a guaranteed one either.
- [James] Places can disappear if you're not protected.
I mean, there was a community north of here, the Upper Shannon, had a small schoolhouse, a general store, couple graveyards, and maybe 20 or so families lived there, and it's all underwater now.
- Can you show me something in that area?
- Yeah, we'll head up there and take a look.
Traveling across the bay, the layers of history begin to peel away, revealing a time when other islands extended across the horizon.
- This area of water here is called the flats, and this is the uppers, where a community used to be, Shannon, and another community out here, Aces.
- Out here?
- Yeah, off shore.
- I don't see anything?
- Nothing there.
And my father in law used to tell me, as a child he would walk from here to that island that's still here.
This was all connected.
This was all land when he was a child-- - That's not that long ago.
- No, so it's going away in a hurry real fast.
- Okay, that raises the stakes.
(dramatic music) Seeing that parts of this landscape have already vanished beneath these waters is haunting.
And on the remnants of this community, the absence of the people who once lived here and called it home, it's even harder.
Did you personally know people who lived up here?
- I did, I did.
There was actually an Eskridge buried up here, and his grave was going into the water.
So I dug the grave up, what was left of it, got the bones and put it in a box, sealed it in a box, got the headstone, and reburied the bones down on the main island.
I figured that's the least I could do for a family member instead of letting it go into the bay.
(emotional music) Feels like there's stories in everything around here.
- [James] Yep, yep.
- [Baratunde] In the soil, in the water.
- Yeah, yeah.
Really gives you an understanding of what can happen without protection.
- Is this what I think it is?
- Yep, there's some headstones here.
Some of the headstones here, been here a long time.
- [Baratunde] Yeah.
- Without helping, without protection, this is what can happen to the main island.
Very, very disturbing, and yeah, sad.
Chesapeake bay has provided a living for the folks here for years and years, and now it's the Chesapeake Bay that's threatening to take us away from here.
- [Baratunde] Right?
- The past has a way of showing us what the future might turn out to be, and the future doesn't look so promising for the people of Tangier and their unique culture.
The outdoors can define our ways of life.
It certainly helped define mine.
But from what I've seen in this place, it can also take them away.
(dramatic music) Seeing this coastal region through the lens of history has led me to experience the outdoors in ways I'd never imagined.
My childhood vacations here were a wonderful introduction, but they didn't reveal the whole story.
This is a place where ordinary Americans are unearthing narratives that have long been overlooked.
They're protecting magnificent creatures that have roamed here for nearly 500 years, documenting hidden artifacts, bringing the past to life for future generations, and holding on to historic traditions that are in danger of going away forever.
I came here to revisit the outdoor spaces that shaped me and my country, and while restless winds and tides do define this place, I found another force that's transformed it in turn.
It begs the question, so we shape the outdoors or does the outdoors shape us?
I think now I have a better understanding of the answer.
We think we invent things, and create things, and define ourselves by ourselves, but that's not the whole story.
We are also shaped by these waters.
We are supported by this land.
We are defined by the plants and the animals.
We think we're the sole authors of our story, but we're not.
The truth is we are co-authors with the world around us.