Southern Heroes

Karen Amspacher: The Maritime Defender

The North Carolina native advocates for the culture of the Down East region

Illustration: Barry Falls

Storms have marked Karen Amspacher’s family for more than a century. In 1899, hurricanes hounded her great-grandfather William Henry Guthrie off North Carolina’s Shackleford Banks. He floated his tiny home from the old Diamond City fishing village near Cape Lookout across Back Sound to nearby Harkers Island. There, today, his great-granddaughter acts as one of the most stalwart defenders of maritime culture in the state’s Down East region, a marshy peninsula of eastern Carteret County. Amspacher, who will soon turn sixty-five, has served as executive director of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center on Harkers since 1992. She travels widely as an advocate for working waterfronts and the often tumultuous nexus between natives and newcomers along the North Carolina coast. And while her song is often one of lament—she has seen the last fish house on the island close, and recalls the passing of the last person born “to the Banks,” as she puts it—it also carries a refrain of hope. “When I was growing up,” she says, “folks from Down East were looked down on. We talked funny and acted funny and made a living doing weird stuff like fishing and making boats. But there’s been a complete turnaround. Now there’s pride and a feeling that not everyone has the privilege of being from Down East. That’s as reassuring as saving any shrimp trawler or decoy collection.”


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