The Kayak Chronicles ©

by Darren Caffery


Paddling the Outer Banks of North Carolina:

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge - Milltail Creek to Alligator River

Friday May 23, 2008


On our fifth and last day of paddling in the OBX of North Carolina we headed over to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and launched into the Milltail Creek at the end of Buffalo City Road.  Even though I have paddled this area many times, this is an area I always enjoy bringing new people to, and an area that I never get tired of paddling.

Our group of OBX explorers launched at about 10 am under a sunny sky and temperatures in the 70’s. Winds were light and were not going to interfere with our plan to paddle out the Milltail Creek and into the Alligator River.  The 4 mile meandering paddle through the creek out to the larger Alligator River was, as usual, very quiet and peaceful.  We didn’t see any alligators this year but we did see a few snakes, some turtles and a great blue heron. We paddled a very relaxing pace through the creek, soaking up all the natural beauty of the area. After paddling a little more than 3.5 miles we approached the old “moonshine shack” which looked more dilapidated than ever before. After snapping some pictures, we continued on the creek until it opened to the wide open water of the vast Alligator River.  The point in which the quiet creek opens to this wide area of open water is very scenic.  It seems like just miles of open water with undeveloped wilderness on both sides.  When we finally reached the Alligator River at about 11:30 am, there was still very little wind, so we paddled out into it. Upon entering the river, we were very vigilant of partially submerged tree stumps that could cause us to capsize. Once on the river, we took a northerly course up the coastline.


On trips in previous years, we have seen the river’s waters raging wildly. Because of it’s vast openness, it doesn’t take very strong winds to create very large waves and fetch.  Windy conditions, along with the remoteness of the area and the topography of the shoreline can make the Alligator River a treacherous place to paddle.  The coastline of this part of the Alligator River is characterized by a thick cover of trees which appear to have been battered by very strong winds and periods of high, rough water and severe storms.

There is literally no visible shore upon which to land, only a very dense myriad of live and dead trees, partial tree limbs and extremely thick brush and mud.  The shoreline of the river is virtually a continuous “strainer” of wilderness.  Because this wilderness topography continues for miles, many paddlers report the shoreline of the Alligator River to be rather boring.  On this beautiful day, however, I found it a fascinating place to explore.


After paddling about 1.5 miles up the river and reaching a small point in the shoreline, we could see the Highway 64 Bridge.  Interestingly, the bridge was the only visible evidence of any civilization in this area of the river, and it was about another 2.5 miles in the distance. We threw out the idea of paddling out to it, but it was going to take too long. At that point, we decided to just start paddling back and find a place to have lunch.


Some of the others had called in on the VHF to report they were heading back into the creek.  Since there was no place to land nearby, Tom and I decided to just pull our kayaks onto an area of some large tree roots. I ate my lunch in my kayak while it was stabilized on some partially submerged roots.  Although it really wasn’t that safe to get out of the kayak, Tom wedged his kayak into the strainer of trees to stabilize it and then got out of his kayak onto some downed tree limbs to stretch his legs.  He ate lunch standing up, balanced on the tree limbs.  Although I prefer to eat lunch on white sandy beaches, when it’s lunch time and there’s nowhere else to land, you make the best of the environment. It worked out fine.  After lunch and rehydrating, I got on my VHF to tell the others we were headed back to the entrance to the creek.  On our return to the Milltail Creek, the winds picked up a little and we were able to surf some small waves back to the entrance to the creek. The ride back on the waves was one of those peaceful Zen paddling moments where you are just in the flow of nature and everything feels like it is the way it is supposed to be. The warmth of the sun in my face, the mild breeze, and the gentle surfing glide of my kayak upon Mother Nature’s rolling waves was the highlight of the afternoon.  This was my Tao of Paddling moment on the Alligator River.


Upon entering the creek, I realized that this was the last trip in our week long adventure of paddling in the OBX.  On the quiet paddle back down the creek, Tom paddled ahead of me and I dropped my paddling pace to paddle alone for the remaining 4 miles. The silence of the creek intensified it’s natural beauty in a way I find difficult to put into words. In the solitude of paddling back and with each stroke of my paddle, I reflected upon what a great week it was. It was an awesome week of paddling in the company of a good-spirited and adventurous group of fellow paddlers.


At a little before 3 pm, and after paddling 11.6 miles, I was the last to arrive at the takeout. Although the landing at Milltail Creek in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge capped off a relatively rigorous week of paddling, I felt recharged and rejuvenated.  The week of OBX paddling and exploring was a potent elixir for the soul.
On the drive out to the main highway, I spotted three juvenile river otter, playfully gliding, one behind the other, in the tannic waters of the narrow channel that runs along Buffalo City Rd.


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