Thanks to Claude and Melissa Pope, Bald Head Island residents welcome each full moon with a fabulous beach party for everyone.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Mark Steelman
The sun sank in the west moments ago, but the crowd on the beach peers to the east, straining to be the first to set sight on the rising moon. The air carries a bagpiper’s soulful notes, while a crackling bonfire offers warmth and gentle light. People hold up their phones, checking to see what time the moon is supposed to rise. “It should be any moment,” they whisper.
A faint glimmer of orange light appears on the horizon, so striking and strange that most believe it to be the sun reflecting off the shrimp boats. But, no, it is the moon. “The moon is rising!” someone yells.
Everyone howls, without reservation or hesitation. It is primal and just plain fun.
On Bald Head Island, the sun setting and the moon rising is cause for celebration. For the past six years Claude and Melissa Pope have hosted a monthly Howl at the Moon event, or, as the locals call it, the Howl party, at Access 39 of the East Beach of Bald Head Island.
On this island a person can have the rare experience of standing in one spot and seeing the sun set and the moon rise. There is no doubt that this is magical, though magical events seem to be commonplace on Bald Head Island. In a place that doesn’t allow cars, where visitors are constantly tripping over nature, where access is by ferry and where the year-round population is less than 200, the remoteness of Bald Head Island can feel enchanted. But for those living on the island in a dark winter, it can also feel a little lonely, which is why everyone looks forward to the Howl.
The event is a casual affair, and at its core it is the opportunity for residents and tourists to come together. As one Bald Head resident says, “It is the ultimate Cheers, where everyone really does know your name … and your kids … and your activities….”
On Howl nights people march onto the beach bearing plates and hauling chairs. As they come closer, Claude or Melissa yell their name with delight, welcoming them. A large potluck, anchored by a warm soup from the Popes’ Maritime Market, always forms on tables propped on the beach. Folks gather around two bar tables, laughing and drinking wine and martinis from Thermoses.
Each month’s Howl at the Moon is sponsored by a different business. Sometimes the sponsors attend, sometimes they don’t, but they contribute something to the event, like the Irish coffee offered by Always Ready Cart Care at the January event.
As the sun sets, Peter McArthur begins playing bagpipes somewhere over the dunes and regally marches his way onto the beach, where he keeps his inspired performance going well into the dark. McArthur has been an integral part of every Howl at the Moon event for two years, coming all the way from his home in Fayetteville. The Popes had the idea for bagpipes after a vacation at the Inn at Spanish Bay Resort, where a bagpiper plays the sun down every night.
“We thought, well, we gotta do that!” Claude says.
That is pretty much the way the Popes live nowadays: We gotta do that! Joy for life and for the island emanates from these two.
Former Raleigh residents, Claude and Melissa began vacationing on Bald Head Island in 1988, when their children were 5, 3 and 1. In 1990 they came with their extended family, and it was that trip that solidified their love for the place. Today, the kids are 33, 31 and 29. One runs the Island Retreat Spa, one runs the Bald Head Blues brand, and one is a JAG officer in the Coast Guard.
The Pope family timed their beach visits when the sun was setting and the moon was rising, and they started their howling events as a family. “This was part of our experience, coming out here with our beach chairs, having a big fire and waiting for the moon to rise,” Claude says. “Sometimes it wouldn’t rise until 10, 11 at night, but we were out here having a good time.”
In 2001 the Popes sold their dream home in Raleigh to buy a place on Bald Head, and they began to summer on the island. Claude sold his business (GetItQuick.com) in 2007 and needed a new project. In 2010 he and Melissa began looking at businesses on Bald Head Island and bought Maritime Market in January 2011. As Claude jokes, he couldn’t find a job after selling his business, so he bought himself one.
“The market is the essence of what this island is,” he says. “Everybody comes to the market. Every experience on the island comes back to the experience of food. The market is our opportunity to facilitate and build memories for everyone.”
The first month they became year-round residents, and three weeks after they bought the market, the Popes decided to host a Howl.
“I wrote people: I know this sounds crazy, but we’re going out to East Beach tonight. Our chef is bringing a big pot of chili, bring your beer or wine, and we’re going to go howl at the moon,” Claude says. “Forty-two people showed up. And that was in January!”
When the population on Bald Head Island surges by the thousands in the summer months, Howl at the Moon is a fabulous party held on a wide-open, picturesque beach and hundreds of people have been known to congregate. But it is the winter months when The Howl seems to be most significant.
“This is the place to be,” one Bald Head Island resident says. “This is my chance to see my friends who live here on the island. This is where I know we will always be, it’s a guarantee.”
Claude says this is important. “For us, it means being able to pull everybody together to enjoy an aspect of this island that everyone agrees on,” he says. “There’s enough differences of opinion on the direction of the island or the environment or the politics … but here’s an event that pulls everybody together that reminds us of why we love Bald Head. It’s about family, it’s about friends, it’s about quiet nights and sharing good cheer and being blessed and pinching ourselves that we actually get to live here.”
Howl at the Moon is exceedingly successful because of Claude and Melissa and their welcoming, engaging personalities. And they intend to keep doing this for quite some time. Howl at the Moon is a place where everyone, young and old, tourist and resident, four-legged friend and human, can howl at the top of their lungs, shouting a Bald Head Island welcome to the large and beautiful moon.
Want to go?
Howl at the Moon Beach Parties
Sponsored by Maritime Market, 8 Maritime Way, Bald Head Island
Howl at the Moon spring dates are March 12, April 11, May 10 and June 9; other dates are listed on the Maritime Market website. The events are free and all are welcome, though participants are asked to their own beverages and an appetizer to share.