From Yuletide to high tide

By on January 9, 2020

How XMAS trees found a new role on OBX.

Trees recently placed at the base of the dune by the Islander Motel in Nags Head. (Kip Tabb)

Betsy Seawell, the owner of the Islander Motel on the beachfront in Nags Head was desperate in 2009 after Nor’Ida carved away the dunes from the front of her motel and brought the sea to within three feet of her rooms.

“It was horrible,” she said.

Then she remembered a project her daughter, Dory, had been a part of a few years earlier.

“In 2001, they were in First Flight Middle School and they had a club called Friends of Jockey’s Ridge. They went on the south side, and they put Christmas trees up there to catch the sand and stop the sand from rolling over onto Soundside Road,” she said. “I was watching when they did it and I was amazed at how quick it caught sand.”

If the trees could catch sand at Jockey’s Ridge, why not at the dunes in front of her Nags Head motel?

“That Christmas 2009, [and New Year] 2010, that’s when I went around getting trees and putting them down there. I only started with a couple…It was amazing how much sand they caught,” she recalled.

This will be the tenth year that Seawell has driven around picking up trees, and she may have earned her self-described nickname, the Crazy Christmas Tree Lady.

“When we got beach nourishment [in 2011], that’s when I really started making the effort. I went to every neighborhood from Corolla all the way to Wanchese and got as many, making trips in one truck, as I can,” she said. “People threw them on the side of the road and we would just go grab them. Stuff as many as I can in the truck and then when the truck is full, come home, dump them out and go back out and get more.”

Although Seawell has placed trees at a number of locations, she is especially keen on protecting the traditional mom-and-pop motels like the Islander.

“They need to be saved and treasured,” she said. “The Sea Foam has come perilously close to falling in a couple of times.”

The Crazy Christmas Tree Lady’s project may have remained fairly low-key, but in 2012, Hurricane Sandy roared past the Outer Banks on its way to devastating New Jersey and New York.

Donny King, chef and owner of Ocean Boulevard on the Beach Road in Kitty Hawk had some ocean water in the dining area, but overall there was very little damage. It did, though, make King aware of how important the dunes were.

“After Hurricane Sandy, I saw what the dune line in front of our restaurant was able to do as far as protecting us. Our dune barely held and kept the violent wave action at bay, although a ridiculous amount of sand washed into the road and around us,” he said.

“I decided that it was time to attempt to build a stronger dune line in our area,” he added.

Although he did not know Seawell at the time, King was aware of the Jockey’s Ridge efforts and felt it could work for the Kitty Hawk beach.

“I had heard of Christmas trees collecting sand at Jockey’s Ridge and thought they might also be something that could help stabilize sand in moderate wave action,“ King said.

The hope that somehow the trees would help control the power of the waves was not realistic. But the trees did trap sand.

“The second part [moderating wave action] of that proved to be a stretch, although they were fairly effective in low-volume inundation, but their ability to trap blowing sand was readily apparent,” he said.

King’s first attempt at gathering trees exceeded all expectations.

“I was hoping to get as many as a hundred trees for the houses in front of the restaurant and for a few of our friends’ houses,” he said. “I decided to post a photo of boy scouts moving Christmas trees up dunes and ask people to deliver them to the restaurant for a gift certificate.  It was shared over 100 times within a day…Then, I received about 200 plus trees.”

He was not aware of the work Seawell was doing in Nags Head when he began gathering trees, but did have a chance to meet with her in February after his first year.

“Now, I am the main point of contact for people asking how the trees work for the dunes as well as where their used trees should go,” King said.

King has expanded his program with his Better Beaches OBX initiative that includes sand fencing and grasses that will root in sand dunes.

“One motto…with Better Beaches OBX is ‘Fence, Plant, Repeat.’  Ideally, Sand Fence is installed, Christmas Trees are added to augment, beach grass and seashore elder are planted seaward and sea oats and panic grass are planted landward,” he said.

But the Christmas trees are at the center of his efforts.

“The Christmas tree program has been effective also for introducing people to Better Beaches OBX.  It is also how we started collaborating with [Kitty Hawk Boy Scout] Troop 117 and many of our neighbors,” he said.

This year may be the biggest year yet for placing Christmas trees on the beach. Working with his connections with Chico’s Restaurants in Virginia Beach, King is planning on having more than 1.000 trees capturing sand for Outer Banks dunes.

“Betsy is taking five hundred trees,” King said. “The Hilton Garden Inn is taking one hundred trees. We at Ocean Boulevard are taking two hundred plus. We are taking two hundred plus at the Bath House Access at the Black Pelican, and we have about two hundred and sixty heading down to South Nags Head at three different residences which have big open areas around them. We are still lining up properties to take the trees, and the Boy Scouts will possibly need some from us, so yeah, we’ll take one thousand.”

“Heads will really be turning when that twenty-plus truck convoy comes down from Virginia on ‘Tree-Day,’ January 18th,” he added.


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See what people are saying:

  • Ben Weber

    Glad to see that they are not “barking” up the wrong tree! I hope others “pile” on to your success! I hope there is a “wave” of support!

    Monday, Jan 13 @ 12:42 pm