The Kayak Chronicles

by Darren Caffery

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Paddling the Outer Banks of North Carolina

Whipping Creek: 

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Thursday May 22, 2003

The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1984.  It consists of over 150,000 acres lying on the mainland portions of Dare and Hyde Counties, just 30 minutes from the beachs of Nags Head in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  The refuge is bordered on the west by the Alligator River and the Intracoastal Waterway; on the north by Albemarle Sound; on the east by Croatan and Pamlico Sounds; and on the south by Long Shoal River and many acres of corporate farmland.

 

The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is the northernmost home of the American Alligator and also one of the  last remaining strongholds for black bear on the Eastern Seaboard.  A diverse population of wildlife also includes concentrations of ducks, geese, and swans in addition to wading birds, shorebirds, American woodcock, raptors, white-tailed deer, raccoons, rabbits, quail, river otters, red wolves, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and neotropical migrants

On Thursday May  22, 2003, we awoke to another day of partial clouds with air temperatures in the mid 60's.  With the forecast calling for rain later that evening, we started on our 40 mile drive to meet our local paddling buddy Dan at the junction of US 64 and 94 near Columbia, NC. After meeting Dan and following him another 20 miles through woods, a small town, acres of wheatfields and farmlands and a dead bear along the highway, we arrived at our launch site at Grapevine Landing on the open waters of the Alligator River.

 

There was a light breeze blowing from the west and the usually choppy waters of this wide open stretch of the Alligator River were very tame. We launched at about 9 am into Grapevine Bay and followed a south easterly course for about 3.6 miles across the open water of the Alligator River. Although this portion of the river was pretty desolate, two power boats passed us as we crossed.  We arrived at the mouth of Whipping Creek in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge after about an hour of paddling across a most unusually tame Alligator River.
 
The creek was very scenic and as it got narrower from the main river, the forest created a protected canopy of overhanging greenery above us.  I immediately saw a pileated woodpecker. A few times we heard rustling in the woods as we paddled but weren't able to see what kind of wildlife was trying to avoid us.
 
After paddling about 1.75 miles in the creek we approached a fallen tree which required a portage.  We all made the portage successfully with some slight variations in method and continued for another mile or so until the creek opened up into a most beautiful tree lined lake.  Here we were in the middle of the wilderness of the wildlife refuge, and less than an hour from the beaches of Nags Head.
 
Virtually windless conditions again made the dark cedar water of the lake look like a huge mirror reflecting the large puffy cumulous clouds overhead.  Ahh..the brilliant perfection that only Mother Nature can create! As we entered the lake, we all seemed to take off in our own directions. Some explored the perimeters of the lake's shoreline, while others stopped and had lunch.  Dan and I paddled briskly through the center to the other side while we chatted and absorbed the pristine beauty of this wonderful wilderness.

 

When we reached the other side of the lake, I stopped to explore an area of Great Blue Heron nests while Dan continued paddling into the entrance of another smaller creek.  Some heron were flying about and croaking in their nests while others were perched on the tops of the trees. As I paddled around a bit along the shoreline, I was startled by a very loud splash from the muddy shore and then I saw the primitive looking reptile's head gliding effortlessly along for a few yards before submerging. We came to see alligator, and THAT we did.  In my excitement, I started paddling to the creek where Dan was to tell him what I had just seen.  As I neared him in my kayak, he had his hand out, pointing in front of his boat and gliding very slowly. There was a 7 foot alligator gliding atop the water and not far from Dan's kayak.  It was definitely the largest alligator I had ever seen while paddling and my excitement quickly turned to caution. As I took my paddle out of the water and drifted towards Dan's kayak, the alligator made a churning dive under the water, creating quite a turbulence with its swift dive and as its large body and tail swung out and then submerged. The thought of this large gator somewhere underneath my kayak consumed me for the next few minutes. I quickly radioed to Patrick on my VHF radio and told him about what we just seen.  He gathered up the others from the opposite side of the lake and within a few minutes we were all together and hoping to catch another glimpse of the primitive reptiles.

It didn't take long. Another one surfaced nearby and Chuck was able to take some good pictures of it. We spent the next hour paddling along the perimeter of the lake as alligators surfaced and submerged in different areas.  At one point, as Chuck and Joyce were observing a rather large water snake, another water snake dropped from a tree, making a startling splash. The area was just thriving with reptiles!

We slowly made our way back to Whipping Creek from the lake. At about 2 pm we entered the creek and started our paddle back out to the Alligator River.  On our paddle back we again made the portage over the fallen tree.  Dan, Chuck and Joyce picked up their speed a bit and darted ahead, while Tom, Patrick and I took our time, enjoying every mile of the quiet creek.  As we neared the last mile before the open waters of the Alligator River, Tom put his index finger to his lips and made a sign for us to be quiet.
 
"Darren, get the camera ready" he said quietly as he drifted past a very narrow area of creek with all of his attention to the side of the creek.  As I passed, there was an alligator, about 5 ft long, on the muddy shore peering at my kayak as I slowly, and very cautiously passed by.  Since the creek was very narrow, the gator was literally only 6 feet away from my boat.  I had visions of this thing lunging forward towards me and our beautiful day turning ugly real fast.  Stinkin' thinkin!  I snapped a few shots and continued on my way.  As Patrick followed behind me, the gator seemed to have enough of us humans.  He shot forward into the water and disappeared after Patrick passed by.  As exciting as it was to see so close, it was also a bit unnerving.  I was just glad to get a picture that I could enjoy a bit more later from the safety of land.
 
We made our way back out to the Alligator River and had another tame open water crossing to our takeout at Grapevine Landing. We landed at about 4 pm after almost 17 miles of paddling and observing lots of wildlife! Later that evening, our group capped off a spectacular day of paddling and wildlife exploration with dinner and drinks at the Jolly Roger in Kitty Hawk.

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