We arrived at our arranged meeting point promptly before 3 at the Walgreens parking lot in Kill Devil Hills, a sprawling seaside town in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. A tall young man, barefoot and dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, greeted us with a smile and introduced himself as Brett, our tour guide from Coastal Kayak Tours.
Brett would be taking our family of four to kayak in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, an area of over 152,000 acres of protected and preserved wetland habitat that is home to black bears, red wolves, snakes, birds, and American alligators. He advised our group to use the facilities and buy any water at Walgreens before we headed out in the 12-passenger van to the refuge. It would be around a 35 minute drive over two bridges and an island, to reach the refuge and once there we would only have access to a Porta Potty.
Grinning ear to ear as he told us to climb inside the van, I could tell that Brett was going to be an excellent guide. Originally from Ohio, this was Brett’s first summer spent working as an adventure tour guide in the Outer Banks with Coastal Kayak Tours. The Alligator River Tour was one of his favorites and the weather was perfect for a late fall day. Bright blue sky, no wind and temperatures in the 80s. We couldn’t have asked for a more picture perfect day.
As we headed east towards Roanoke Island, Brett told us a bit about the history of the area as well as the wildlife refuge. Unbeknownst to me, the first group of English settlers arrived on Roanoke Island in 1587, three decades before the Pilgrims arrived in Jamestown, VA and Plymouth, MA. The mysterious, unexplained disappearance of these settlers gave the name “The Lost Colony” to this area which later became called Manteo. I was amazed to have never known this important historical fact.
As we continued east along Highway 64 past Manteo and onto the mainland, the windows were rolled down and the music on. I watched the beautiful landscape out the passenger seat of the van, the place I always prefer to sit so I can get the scoop on my surroundings from the driver.
Nestled by the Alligator River in the west and the Intracoastal Waterway in east of North Carolina, lies the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was established in 1984 to protect the unique wetland habitat that runs roughly 28 miles from north-south and 15 miles from east-west along North Carolina’s Coastal Plain. There are many diverse types of habitats in the refuge however the most dominant habitat is known as “pocosin”, a name given by the Algonquin Indians meaning “swamp on a hill”.
In addition to pocosin habitats, there are also pine and cypress-gum forests, fresh and brackish water marches, swamps, bogs, rivers and lakes as well as farmland. The refuge is home to the densest population of black bears in the eastern United States and also has the world’s only population of red wolves. If we were lucky, perhaps we would see some wildlife.
We arrived at a long gravel road that brought us to the entrance of the refuge. A few bumpy minutes later, we pulled alongside one of the many creeks in the refuge and unloaded the kayaks. We had both single and double kayaks, and all in all our group of nine were on six. I had my son with me and my husband brought my daughter. I figured I’d sit up front so I could take lots of pictures and let my son do the arm work when I needed a break (silly me, I forgot he is only 12 yet he already towers over me in height).
Slowly, we drifted into the dark murky waters of the creek and paddled out to a larger, open waters of Mill Tail Creek which feeds into the Alligator River. All I could hear was the splashing as our paddles hit the water and the cry of the birds.
As we paddled out, I was surprised how dark the water was. Brett told us that bald cypress loom overhead, feeding the narrow creeks with tannins giving the water its mysterious black color. He also pointed out the troublesome Alligator weed, an invasive species that is chocking access to many of the creeks and waterways throughout the park. The Alligator weed has been a real nightmare, making it difficult to maintain the kayak routes throughout the park. It also threatens the very ecosystem of this unique place.
It was the perfect afternoon for a paddle. Our van was the only vehicle in the parking lot so we had the entire place to ourselves to explore. There was a gentle warm breeze keeping us pleasantly cool despite the bright, hot sunlight. The birds were singing off in the distance and occasionally we heard a distant rustle of leaves coming from deep within the forest. We paddled for about an hour in hope of seeing one of the refuge’s alligators. But it was not meant to be. It was hard to imagine that 7-10 foot long alligators were lurking somewhere beneath the dark cool waters.
After our attempt to find alligators, we headed to the most magical part of the refuge. The large, mysterious labyrinth of narrow creeks and lakes winding through the refuge. It was eerily beautiful inside, and the water was like looking down at a giant mirror. The sun cast reflections of the trees across the still, serene water. It was a magical place.
Inside the seamless never-ending natural channel, it was very narrow and immensely beautiful. As we gently paddled trying to avoid stumps and trees, I could hear the birds sing yet I couldn’t see any. We paddled all the way to Sawyer Lake, an interior lake that is accessible only by boat. The lake used to be a popular logging place thus was named Sawyer Lake after the loggers. Brett was hoping perhaps we would see an alligator in this area but alas the alligator was no where to be found.
Brett told us that the refuge is home to the only red wolf population in the world. Red wolves were reintroduced in the refuge in late 1980s and now there are about 50 of them here. They are closely monitored and part of a larger Red Wolf Recovery Program. It was once believed that they were extnitic off the planet so their reintroduction and survival is a major success story.
The refuge also boasts the densest population of black bears in the East Coast of the United States. Per a 2005 study, the estimated population is between 180 and 293, with a density on good habitat of three bears per square mile. (The normal population on good habitat is one bear per square mile).
Brett said the best time and place to see a black bear at the refuge was at dusk in one of the six farmer’s fields within the refuge. We had returned to the van just before the sun set, packed up our kayaks and were off in search of bears. I couldn’t help but repeat the lines to one of my favorite childhood books “We’re goin’ on a bear hunt, we’re goin’ to catch a big one, and I’m not scared”.
As the sun began to set behind the tall, dark trees of the forest we crept ahead slowly with our van lights off along the gravel road in search of a bear. Every time we saw a big dark shadow, we slowed down and waited hoping it was a bear. After thirty minutes of creeping around, we regretfully did not find a bear. But at least we had an amazing adventure that day and best of all, we visited the refuge before the weather turned bad. Our next few days in the Outer Banks would be windy and cold. Not an ideal forecast for a kayaking adventure. Who knows, perhaps the bears could sense the weather was going to change and were all hiding, protected deep inside the woods.
If you go:
We hired Coastal Kayak Tours, rated by National Geographic as America’s top 100 Best Adventures. They were fantastic.
The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge was established to:
- Protect and preserve unique wetland habitat types and associated wildlife species.
- Provide habitat and protection for endangered species such as red wolves, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and American alligators.
- Provide habitat for black bears.
- Provide habitat and management for waterfowl and other migratory birds.
- Provide for a wide variety of native wildlife species through diverse wildlife management techniques and strategies.
- Provide wildlife-dependent public opportunities including hunting; fishing; wildlife interpretation; observation; photography; and environmental education.
For more information on the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge, click here.