There wasn’t much to suggest a trail that led to the message in the bottle that Steve Jarvis found Jan. 6 in the Kitty Hawk Woods Reserve at the edge of Currituck Sound.
Jarvis is the northern sites stewardship assistant with the North Carolina Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve, a program of the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management, a division of the Department of Environmental Quality. The reserve includes 10 sites along the state’s coast established for long-term research, education and stewardship.
The previous two days had been windy and rainy and Jarvis was walking the soundside trail, making sure there wasn’t any deadfall blocking it. He noticed what looked like it could be an unauthorized trail heading to the sound, and the retired game warden in him emerged.
“I noticed that a trail that I hadn’t noticed before and the game warden came out in me,” he said. “Anytime I see any new trail, I go look to see what’s going on down there.”
The trail, indistinct and probably not visible in the summer, looked like it may have been a dirt road at one time, but Jarvis felt it was important to make sure no one was using it.
“I was like, I’ll just walk this out and make sure somebody’s not doing something they shouldn’t be doing down here,” he said.
“I got probably within about 75 yards from the sound, and I found a scum line from a storm with a bunch of stuff washed up. And I happened to look over and I saw it. Wow, that’s a bottle with a message in it,” he recalled.
His first thought was to not open the bottle and see what kind of reaction it would get.
“Just kind of have it as a conversation piece, because I knew it would make people nuts to find a bottle with a message in it and not actually not open it,” he said.
But after conversations with his supervisor, Northern Sites Manager Eric Alnes, and with his best friend and his best friend’s wife, he changed his mind.
What he found inside was not a call for help from a stranded mariner on a deserted island. This was simply a message from a family who was curious about where the bottle might end up.
“It was kind of tough to read but I could make it out,” he said. “‘We’re a family from South Dakota on vacation in Corolla. We have six kids and we just want to know who finds this and when and where.’ They left the email address, and it was dated July 19, 2016.”
By the time Jarvis discovered the message, the Pszanka family had pretty much forgotten they had even thrown a bottle into Currituck Sound. When Mickie Pszanka told her son, Jaxson, that the bottle had been found, he was confused at first.
“I was eating dinner, and she (Jaxson’s mother) said, ‘Someone found our message in a bottle,’ and I had no clue what she was talking about, because it was such a long time ago,” Jaxson Pszanka said. “I was very surprised once I started to remember it, that someone actually found it.”
While at the time there were six children in the Pszanka family, the parents have since adopted two more and moved to Colorado. The idea of throwing a message in a bottle into Currituck Sound did not meet with universal family approval.
“One (of the children) said, ‘Mom, why do you think that’s such a good idea for us to be throwing things into the into the sound?’ And I said, ‘I guess I didn’t think about it at the time.’ The other ones thought it was really cool,” she said.
The idea was sparked by a bottle the family had found the year before.
“It was on the beach in Corolla. It was a family that was vacationing, and it didn’t go far. They were in Duck. So, we contacted them, and that’s what gave us the idea,” Mickie Pszanka said.
The bottle that Jarvis found had traveled, perhaps not as long a distance as a bottle floating on ocean currents, but the Pszankas message had managed to dodge innumerable islands in northern Currituck Sound, islets and sandbars to make the roughly 25-mile journey from Corolla to Kitty Hawk.
It’s not clear what forces drove the bottle to Kitty Hawk Woods. The most likely suspect was a hurricane. Hurricane Matthew came ashore in October 2016, and then there was Hurricane Michael in 2018 and Dorian in 2019, and there were innumerable nor’easters since the bottle was tossed.
Whatever drove the bottle to shore, when it was found, the memories returned when the email arrived.
“We didn’t hear anything for all these years,” Mickie Pszanka said. “We forgot about it. I didn’t think I’d ever hear anything of it.”