The Kayak Chronicles ©
by Darren Caffery
Paddling the Outer Banks of North Carolina
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
Wednesday May 22nd 2002
We took our previously arranged guided tour of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge with Pam Malec, the author of Guide to Sea Kayaking in North Carolina. I had met Pam a few years ago in the OBX when she worked for a local kayak outfitter. In addition to guiding us on areas of the refuge that are normally not paddled with the typical tours, Pam provided us with a ton of information not only about the Alligator River, but also about paddling the OBX in general.
Bob Smith, Ray Brower, Tom Kelly, Pam and I launched at about 9:15 am onto Milltail Creek in the refuge from the Buffalo City Road. There were a number of other tours getting ready to launch but they let us go ahead of them since there were only a few of us. The temperatures in the OBX had risen slightly into the 70ís and the sun was shining bright. We launched into the heavily forested area of the creek into the very dark brown but clear cedar water. It reminded me of the water on Cedar Creek in Toms River NJ, only darker from the many cedar and other hardwood trees lining the banks. Pam also informed us that as a result of the high levels of tannic acid in the water, many bacteria cannot survive in it so itís actually safe to drink. I didnít test it out. In the creek we took a very leisurely pace through the shaded and Cyprus tree lined refuge. In addition to seeing woodpeckers, some very large Great Blue Heron and a variety of other birds, we heard the creaking of the trees in the wind. We also heard the roaring of some huge jets because interestingly, some sort of air base was near the refuge. It didnít seem to bother the wildlife. At one point on the creek, Tom noticed a black rat snake slithering out of a hole on the tree. Although it was pretty long, after already witnessing the huge water moccasin on Monday, this snake seemed small and very unintimidating.
We kept up our slow but steady pace on the wind sheltered creek until we entered Sawyer Lake where we thought we might see some north American Alligator. We got more resistance from the wind on the lake which looked like a very large version of Forge Pond. We didnít see any alligator. We paddled back into another portion of the creek and then shortly thereafter, stopped for lunch before a small wooden bridge. We howled for wolves but it was to windy for them to hear us. After lunch we watched a man from another tour capsize under the bridge. He had jeans on and was not a happy paddler. Tom, Bob and Ray did the limbo under the bridge while Pam and I launched around it.
On our trek through the rest of the Milltail creek, we finally did get to see an Alligator head directly in front of us. We approached with great caution as not to scare it because they submerge very quickly when approached. When itís head was finally in view to all of us, we just kinda stopped, lifted our paddles from the water and absorbed the silence of our group, alone on the quiet creek on this beautiful day with this lone alligator. After a few minutes his head slowly submerged like a submarine and it was gone. A few minutes later however, itís head popped up within 10 ft of my bow and I just stopped again and watched itís two beady eyes staring me up and as it seemed to be wondering what my next move was going to be. I snapped some pictures (not the digital kind so Iíll have to wait for developing!). As the rest of the group congregated towards me, it submerged again and we went on our way.
After a few more miles on the quiet tranquil creek, we approached a small dilapidated wood shanty on the shore which looked like the site of a local moonshine operation. Not a drop left however! Shortly after passing the shack we approached a clearing ahead with an opening to wide open water and a clear blue sky. This was the end of the Milltail creek where it meets the wide open Alligator River. The river, over 5 miles across to the other shore, looked more like a bay and the winds had the chop roaring up. Since we had only experienced the peaceful creek all morning, we decided to just venture out a short distance in the river to have some fun in the chop. We paddled near the mouth of the creek in the high winds and chop and after a short while the winds died down some. We wanted to land on the bank to take some pictures but there were no sandy beaches on this shore, just a water and wind eroded coastline. We had no choice but to land on a small part of the shore filled with huge tree roots, stumps and branches sticking out of the water. I found the area somewhat treacherous as the tree limbs I was stepping when I landed kept cracking with my weight. I did finally make it to a sound spot to stretch my legs and take some pictures. We watched an osprey fly overhead to a nest atop a dead tree on a small island of land where we stopped to break. On my path back to my boat, some tree branches cracked beneath my feet. I lost my balance and attempted to use Bob Smithís body to break my fall, almost causing us both to go into the water and get cut up on some pretty sharp tree branches sticking out of the water. I was laughing at my own clumsiness but I donít think Bob thought it was so funny. Luckily, neither of us went in the water or got hurt. It was a close call however.
On the trip back, we saw the lone alligator in the same spot where he was just hours before. Ray reported seeing the back end of black bear running into the woods from the shore but none us would confirm his bear ass sighting. We told him weíd have to see it or heíd have to see the whole thing for a confirmation from us. Some other kayakers on the creek reported seeing bear cubs in the trees but we didnít see them.
We landed at our takeout slightly before 4 pm and after about 14 miles of paddling the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Pam told us of an old dirt road where we might spot some bear and Ray was still determined to find one. After riding a mile or so up the road with no sign of bears, we decided to call it a day. It was another great day of paddling the OBX.
After the paddle, we met for dinner later that evening at the Lone Cedar Cafť on the Roanoke Sound. We started to become very self-conscious as we were escorted to a small room in the back of the restaurant. Is it possible we smelled like the swamps of the Alligator River? Did I leave my putrid mud filled neoprene booties on? Whatever the case, we had a great view of the Roanoke Sound, great service and we ate a delicious dinner. When we left, other than one other couple who had just finished their dinner, the entire restaurant was empty and the staff was cleaning up the place. It was only 10 pm on the verge of Memorial Day weekend.
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