The Kayak Chronicles ©

by Darren Caffery


Paddling the Outer Banks of North Carolina

Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge

May 28, 2004

The fourth paddling trip of our weeklong stay in the Outer Banks  was out to Lake Mattamuskeet.  The Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, established in December 1934, includes about 50,000 acres of marshes, woods, and water. The dominant feature is Lake Mattamuskeet, which is 18 miles long, seven miles wide, and a swanís neck deep.

Located on the east coast, halfway between Maine and Florida, Lake Mattamuskeet is surely one of the most beautiful natural resources in North Carolina.  The lake is located near the center of Hyde County, on the mainland just west of North Carolinaís Outer Banks.  Lake Mattamuskeet makes up most of Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. The recorded history of the lake dates back to July 11, 1585, when sixty English explorers from Sir Walter Raleighís Roanoke Island expedition visited the lake.


The U. S. Government purchased the lake property in October of 1934 to create a migratory bird refuge. Since then, the US Department of Interior has expanded the mission of the refuge to include all types of wildlife. More than 800 species of wildlife and birds are found on the refuge during part or all of each year. The refuge is administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

In the winter months, thousands of Tundra Swans, Canada and Snow Geese, pintails, black ducks, and mallards are seen on the lake, as well as less numerous species of waterfowl. Osprey nest in low Cypress trees near the waterís edge, and it is not unusual to see a Bald Eagle circling overhead or resting in a tree a safe distance from human traffic. Of the 800 species mentioned above, there are more than 200 species of birds around Lake Mattamuskeet for part or all of each year.


Our planned kayak trip to the lake would require an hour car ride from our house in Nags Head.  Of our 9 OBX adventurers, only Tom Kelly and I had enough energy to keep up with the intended paddling schedule.  The rest of the paddlers opted to be 'slackers' and planned to lounge around the house and soak in the hot tub all day.  After Tom and I loaded all the gear we needed for our day trip, we headed west on Highway 64 towards the lake.

As we drove away from the Outer Banks, the road became more remote, and the areas less populated.  It was a nice drive through many natural areas and a few very small towns.  When we finally reached the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, we could see what looked like a lighthouse peering over the trees in the park.  We soon realized it was an old observation tower.  We parked and stopped in the rangers station to get some maps and talk to the ranger about anything important we should be aware of before we start our paddle.   The ranger was very friendly and was enthusiastic about having us paddle the area. He informed us that the water level in the lake was very low in some areas because the lack of rain earlier in the season but that we would still be able to paddle through most areas of the vast lake. After telling us the best launch area, we took the rangerís advice and headed over to the Lake.  He reminded us to visit again, and to tell friends about this beautiful natural resource in North Carolina.  He was thrilled to hear I was planning to detail our trip report in my weekly outdoor newspaper column, called the Kayak Chronicles.


The weather was a bit cloudy with the sun making an occasional appearance.  Air temperatures were in the low 70ís and there was a slight breeze but nothing to make paddling difficult.  At the launch site, the vast lake looked more like a bay as we could barely see the opposite shore which was 5.5 miles across the water.  The lake was calm and flat.   After launching into the lake we paddled a  northeasterly course up along the southern shore of the Lake and observed many waterfowl in the tall grasses which lined the quiet lake.  Other than two other fisherman in small motorboats, there were no other signs of human life on this expansive and tranquil lake.  We did hit some very shallow areas where the bottom of our kayaks scraped the bottom but we quickly moved to areas which were deeper.


We paddled slowly and just absorbed the peaceful beauty that the lake provided.  We observed small fish and some rather large turtles in the water.  As we peered at the shoreline we looked for deer and fox however none made an appearance.  The skies became a bit more ominous and the winds picked up a bit which in turn, churned the water in the lake a bit.  With the wind blowing from behind us, our kayaks glided with ease in the chop with each passing mile.  After paddling about 5 miles we decided we should turn around because if we didnít, each mile further we went would be an extra mile back against the wind.  We took a short break in a small cove and had something to eat and drink before heading back to our takeout.  On the return trip, we picked up our pace somewhat against a constant 5-10 mph wind.  We worked hard to get back and didnít stop paddling as the skies grew darker.  The winds picked up even more which made our muscles burn as we worked even harder to get to our destination.  It was a grueling workout against the wind for the last 5 miles back to our takeout.  After paddling more than 10 miles total,  we finally reached our landing.  After we landed, we talked to a local fisherman about our kayak club and the beautiful lake as he loaded his boat.  After we packed up our kayaks and gear and got off the small dirt ramp,  he launched his small craft into the peaceful lake. Luckily, we didnít get any rain or thunderstorms and although our trip was cut short by the threat, it was a nice way to spend the day paddling.

After hearing of our adventures and the strenuous return trip, our other paddlers who opted to relax for the day, were glad they stayed at the rental house, soaking in the hot tub! Slackers!


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